Once famed places of entertainment and hospitality have now turned into living memories of the pain and agony suffered by people at the hands of security forces over the last three decades of turmoil, writes Suhail Ahmad.

Kashmir has witnessed many changes in the last nearly three decades. These changes have also been manifested in some of the well-known landmarks of Srinagar city. I have seen it happening with a cinema hall (Khayam) turning into a hospital (Khyber), but it was not an overnight change. The transition reflected the waxing and waning of the armed movement waged by militant groups and the accompanying political upheaval. The locality where Khyber hospital is located is still known by the name of the theatre- Khayam- which the impressive building housed. I don’t remember much of its heydays as a cinema hall popular with the film buffs of the city. Residing one block away, all I could remember as a child are the strange noises coming from the lane adjacent to the cinema. Apparently, some drunkards would create commotion after watching the late night show. What I vividly remember is that once it was closed down in the days of militant domination, the compound of the same Khayam cinema used to serve as a place where the military personnel would assemble the men during crackdowns.

Just as the identification parades would be underway, anxious women would peer into the Khayam compound from the attics of neighboring houses. They would invoke God to save their men from the clutches of the ‘mukhbir’, the masked informer who would usually sit in a car and identify the “militants” or their “sympathizers” among the men paraded before him. As a child, I was not quite conscious of the fear and danger surrounding those identification parades. Unmindful of the eerie silence in the air, kids would play cricket or indoor games while the elders would be gripped in panic.

Those days, the premises of Khayam cinema would also serve as a place where funeral prayers of militants, killed in gunfights with troops, were offered. Anti-India and Islamic slogans rent the air as the bodies of militants were carried into the compound. The anger was palpable from the faces of people and the pro-mujahideen sentiment was unmistakable. The cinema days of Khayam looked a distant past as the structure was in the thick of action. Then there was a lull quite reflective of the waning influence of militants before Khayam was reopened as ‘Khyber Medical Institute’ in 2000 by its owners, the Tramboos, who run one of Valley’s biggest business groups Khyber Industries with stakes in diverse fields from cement manufacturing to dairy products and hotels.

It was reportedly Late Dr. Ghulam Rasool Tramboo’s idea to convert one of his major business ventures- Khayam Cinema- into a charitable hospital. Opening of Khyber hospital may symbolically be seen as an era of healing after all those days of bloodshed in 1990s.

Just as some places reflect the change in times, some places also represent the impasse or status quo in political situation. Some blocks away from Khyber hospital is Ikhwan Hotel which houses a CRPF battalion. Like many other hotels in Srinagar city, Ikhwan was occupied by the troops as New Delhi increased the military presence and “area domination” in Kashmir to wipe out the militancy after its initial ascendency.

Over the years, even as the militant numbers have dwindled, there has been no reduction in the number of troops stationed in the valley. However, some hotel and other private building owners have managed to reclaim their property after pursuing the vacation of troops. Others seem happy with the rent paid by CRPF and have not been forceful enough to seek vacation of troops.

Ikhwan Hotel was also used as a detention and interrogation centre. I remember the black bruises one of my neighbours had received at the hands of troops while being interrogated inside Ikhwan. I also remember how people would assemble outside its gates to seek the release of the arrested men. It was once vacated by the troops apparently to be replaced by another battalion, but as soon as the people heard about the troops leaving Ikhwan hotel, they barged into it, smashing everything that came their way. I remember hearing the rumours about people finding torture rooms with blood marks on their walls inside the hotel. It was not long before the hotel had its new occupants in the form of a CRPF battalion despite strong resistance from the local residents against its military occupation.

On May 30, 2006, a young man, Inayatullah Bhat was shot dead by CRPF men of 46 battalion stationed at Ikhwan Hotel.  It was a clear case of cold-blooded murder. Inayat’s house is located just opposite the hotel and he was taking a stroll outside late evening when he became the victim of some trigger-happy troopers. He was fond of music and would also help his father run a bakery shop, adjacent to their house, with his younger brother. Inayat’s killing had triggered strong protests in the locality. Residents demanded that the camp be shifted from Ikhwan hotel. Eleven years have passed, the CRPF camp at Ikhwan Hotel remains a daily reminder about its violent past.

 

The author can be reached at suhaillife@gmail.com.

 

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