Kashmir's lone protester takes on Indian rule
On the last day of every month since 2014, Samiullah Ramzan has sealed his mouth with adhesive tape inscribed with the words "I protest", slung a bag across his shoulders and headed to Lal Chowk, the city centre of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.
The 29-year-old auto-rickshaw driver from Chattabal in downtown Srinagar has been protesting against Indian rule over Kashmir in the hopes of much bigger protests and rebellions to follow.
"The tape on my mouth symbolises that no one is allowed to speak the truth in Kashmir," he says. Each time he embarks on his solo protest, the police detain him.
'He does not speak'
He stands in front of shops, outside eateries, mingles with the crowds in bus stands, and displays posters demanding the release of political prisoners, justice for rape victims of Kunan-Poshpora, the whereabouts of disappeared persons and "complete freedom" for Kashmir.
Read more: Kashmir and the festering legacy of partition
The police, who seem to be baffled by his unique protest, have detained him 12 times in the past seven months.
|What kind of democracy is India which gets intimidated by the silent and peaceful protest of an auto-rickshaw driver?
"What kind of democracy is India which gets intimidated by the silent and peaceful protest of an auto-rickshaw driver? This shows how insecure India is," Samiullah says.
Although the police dismiss him as a nuisance and a headache, they are in a fix.
"He does not speak, he does not use violence and he gives us no reason to beat him. We are encountering something like him for the first time," a police official told The New Arab.
Ramzan holds no grudges against the police, whom he describes as "brothers who are caught in circumstances they can't control".
|Samiullah Ramzan during a protest in Srinagar [TNA]
"The Indian state is cunning, they are using one Kashmiri against another," he says.
"Besides, I am prepared for anything. Pursuit of justice and freedom demands sacrifices and I consider myself lucky that I am fighting for azadi [freedom]", he adds.
Pressure has been building on him to abandon his mission. Friends have started calling him crazy and often tell him that Kashmir will never be "free".
"But I tell them that azadi will come and even if it doesn’t we still have to struggle for it."
Fed up with nagging by friends and family, Ramzan lives alone. In October last year, he bought an auto-rickshaw.
"I don't want to be a jogi or a beggar. I respect my job… I earn for 29 days a month and protest on the last," he says.
Violence against women
Ramzan, who has an undergraduate degree in computer applications, hails from an affluent family of mutton dealers from downtown Srinagar. He was running his own garment shop in Lakshmi Nagar, New Delhi.
The rape and murder of a nursing student in December 2012 transformed him and he returned home.
Overwhelmed by outrage over the crime, which brought India worldwide infamy as one of the most insecure places for women, Ramzan had joined the protests in the Indian capital.
"I wept for Nirbhaya [the name given to the victim by the Times of India]," he says.
However, Ramzan says that a larger reality dawned upon him during those turbulent days in New Delhi.
|I learned that the violence of the state is meant only for Kashmiris
"I learned that the violence of the state is meant only for Kashmiris. During protests over Nirbhaya's rape, people burned cars and damaged properties - but the police didn't do anything. Had such protests occurred in Kashmir, the police and CRPF would have killed hundreds of us," he says.
The mood in Delhi at that time was such that Ramzan felt emboldened to attempt what was fraught with risk.
He wrote "Asiya and Neelofar too were raped" on placards and distributed them among shopkeepers.
Neelofar Jan, 21, and her sister-in-law Asiya Jan, 17, were allegedly raped and then killed by Indian troops on 29 May 2009 in the Southern district of valley, Shopian. This double rape and murder led to a one-month mass uprising in Kashmir against India in 2009.
Ramzan was harassed until he fled New Delhi and came home.
"They made my life a hell. I realised they had double standards, one set for their own people and another for Kashmiris," he says.
"At that moment I told myself that peaceful resistance to injustice is the only dignified way to live."
The power of non-violence
Ramzan's inspirations include Jaleel Andrabi, the human rights lawyer and political activist of the non-violent Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), who was killed by the army in March 1996, and author Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning author of The God Of Small Things.
Roy is one of many Indian writers who are vocal about the gross human rights violations carried out by the Indian state in Kashmir.
"I want to tell India that Jaleel Sahib's mission has not ended. You can kill hundreds of Jaleels but not their mission. There will be hundreds of Jaleels to fight for justice," he says.
Last time he was detained, he was carrying a bag filled with Roy's writings - which he says give him strength and "prick my conscience all the time".
"If an Indian national can fight for our cause, why can't we do that? It is a shame that puppets like PDP and NC are helping India consolidate its rule. They should learn something from Arundhati," he says.
Many people have offered to join him, but he wants to do it alone.
"I know there are people who want to distract me. But I won't let them succeed. Before I die I want to see an independent Kashmir. I am only a foot soldier of the movement… I urge all to start decolonising their minds and demand dignity. Begin from your own individual lives and azadi will come.
"I want to enforce moral collapse on the Indian state. They detain me and beat other peaceful protesters, that shows how morally hollow the state is," he adds, as he seals his mouth with tape and leaves for another protest.
Nayeem Rather is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. He has previously reported on human rights, politics, the environment, and art and culture.