Growing up in Kashmir, there was one incident that moved Ahmer Javed deeply. He did not remember exactly when it happened—he recalled that he was really young and his older brother was in high school. There was a curfew at the time. During the permitted time period, his brother went out to buy milk. There were two military bunkers—now abandoned—near where they lived. His brother was stopped by members of the armed forces and asked where he was going. He told them he wanted to get milk, but they started questioning him further. “Tu hi chillata hai na, ‘azadi, azadi’”—You’re the one who keeps yelling “freedom, freedom,” right. He told the soldiers that they were mistaken—“I’ve never been out, I’m not about that life,” Javed said his brother told them. But the security personnel started beating him up. Javed’s family tried to intervene and a cousin of theirs stood in front of his brother, but he was attacked as well. Eventually, the family managed to stop the assault.
Javed was at home in the bathroom when his family got to know what was happening. “I came out, and I heard my mother cry,” he told me. “She was in the lobby; she sat down and she was crying … she was like, ‘They’re going to kill him.’ My legs were quivering. I went back to the washroom and I locked myself in. I couldn’t see that.” He only stepped out of the bathroom once he learnt that his brother was safe. He did not blame the armed forces in the area. “It’s just the kind of conditions they’ve been put in,” he said. “They don’t want that life, they’re just following orders. I know who’s controlling them.” Yet, the incident has stayed with him.
In early July this year, Javed, now a 24-year-old rapper, released his debut album, Little Kid, Big Dreams, in collaboration with Sajeel Kapoor, a Delhi-based producer who goes by the moniker Sez On The Beat, via the independent hip-hop label Azadi Records. The album is an eight-song hip-hop record about Javed’s experiences growing up in Srinagar and navigating the volatile political past and present of the region. We met, incidentally, on 5 August, just a few hours after the central government announced that it had scrapped the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
Javed was visibly upset at the developments. He said he had spoken to his family the previous night, before communications were cut off, a curfew was enforced and mainstream political leaders in the state were detained and subsequently arrested. Javed was in Delhi to work on a music video for a track from the album, and was originally supposed to fly back home, to Rajbagh in Srinagar, a couple of days after we met. But his plans were rendered uncertain. In the week before the government announced its decision, Kashmir had witnessed heavy deployment of paramilitary forces and an evacuation of tourists and pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra. “My father was telling how it’s just like it was in the ’90s,” Javed said, referring to the period of peak militancy in Kashmir in the early 1990s. “In fact, it’s way worse.”
Broad-shouldered with a beard and a crisp haircut, Javed was dressed in a blue buttoned-down shirt, khaki pants and sneakers. He kept his backpack on the chair next to him. He often looked away, gazing into the distance. He had not eaten all day, and he glanced at his phone every now and then to see if there were any updates. The previous night, he had played a gig with the rapper and fellow Azadi Records artist Prabh Deep. Javed said he did not really want to perform, but felt that he needed to use the platform to speak his mind, choosing to address the crowd about the developments in Kashmir. He spoke about the communication lockdown and how Kashmiris outside the state had no information on what was going on. He emphasised that people in Delhi cheer the developments in Kashmir, whereas the situation is different on the ground, and there is an actual cost to this that affects the people in Kashmir.