It was a tense autumn day. We were playing cricket with a tennis ball at an abandoned industrial area, when the crackle of a transistor caught our attention. Delighted to see us, Shafi was brandishing a sleek radio, which set a new standard for Kashmiri rebels. I fantasized that someday I would get that radio too, which for me, at that moment, appeared to be the world’s most hyper-sophisticated gadget. Like Shafi, I would charm the juniors: “Roger that!”
Shafi, 19, a school dropout, looked frustrated with the set, whose many black buttons and weird printed instructions were simply too much for him. Then we noticed something protruding from the back of Shafi’s jacket, and we swarmed around him like honeybees. As he was fiddling with his radio, I just managed to brush my hand over the gun. It didn’t matter that the gun was inside his light-blue jacket or that I could just make out its rough outline: I still had touched the famous gun, the AK-47.
Popularly known as Kalashnikov, AK-47 was the dream of every Kashmiri boy and the nightmare of every Indian soldier. The gun fired. It killed. It announced the dawn of a new age in Kashmir. What Kalashnikov did in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Liberia, India dreaded it would do here. Muslim-dominated Kashmir was annexed by India in 1947 after signing a controversial accession pact with its Hindu ruler, with the promise of a plebiscite and greater autonomy. War soon erupted between India and Pakistan and both countries wound up occupying a part of Kashmir. India never carried out the promised plebiscite, and autonomy was slowly eroded as India aimed to gain absolute control of what it now saw as an Indian state or province.
It was not the lethality of the AK that India feared, for it had a million-strong army to counter it. It was the psychological change that the assault rifle unleashed everywhere it went. AK stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova, and 47 denotes 1947, the year of its adoption by the Soviet military. The assault rifle made its entry in Kashmir in 1988, almost 40 years after its invention in nearby Russia, and shortly after the federal government rigged the provincial elections of 1987 to pave the way for its favorite pro-India party to form the government. A huge crackdown on political opponents was initiated, and thousands of young men were sent to jails and torture centers. Dozens of civilians were killed when the government forces used live ammunition against people demonstrating against a hike in the domestic power tariff. No one hoped for justice from the police or judiciary, as both were tightly controlled by New Delhi. The younger generation of Kashmiris felt utterly helpless and dejected, but the gun became their straw of hope.
As soon as the arrested youths were released, they decided to answer bullets with bullets. Winding through the mighty Himalayan range and crossing the Line of Control—the de facto border dividing Indian and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir—these youths traveled to Pakistani Kashmir to acquire AK-47s. They underwent short arms-training capsules at the militant camps, and then they came back to Kashmir, to change it forever.
On July 31, 1988, the rebels exploded a bomb at the telegraph office in the capital city of Srinagar, announcing the start of an armed rebellion against Indian rule. Two months later, on Sept. 18, AK-47-armed rebels attacked the residence of Deputy Inspector General of Police A. M. Watali in Srinagar. The botched operation left one rebel dead, and the security forces were shocked to recover a new AK-47. The government scrambled its police officers, intelligence agents, and security experts to uncover the mystery of where the gun came from and what it meant. But it was already too late.
AK-47-wielding rebels became bolder. They kidnapped the daughter of the federal home minister; in exchange for her return, their jailed leaders were released. People cheered the daring act. The mere thought of their own men taking on the mighty India was too exciting an idea, at a time when the superpower USSR was defeated by the rag-tag militias of Afghanistan, and everybody kept saying, “Why not India?” Pakistan helped the rebels with more weapons and training. There was also talk of jobless Afghan Mujahideen turning toward their next holy mission—liberating Muslim Kashmir from Hindu India.
Rumors spread in Kashmir about the presence of the AK-47 in the hands of such men. Those who saw the gun mesmerized others with their tales, and those who listened could only imagine how such good fortune might feel. In downtown Srinagar, the gun was shown to the public in an unexpected way. “Actually during one anti-India demonstration, people were charged and they wanted to burn the branch of a federal bank at Bohrikadal, but some of our boys stopped them,” Wajahat Qureshi, an ex-rebel, told me at the Srinagar office of his political organization. “At first people thought that these youth in pherans”—long cloaks worn in winter—“were ordinary people, but during the scuffle to stop them, our boys were forced to show the Kalashnikovs hidden under their pherans.” People were surprised at the sight of the gun and some cried in excitement. They started raising pro-freedom slogans and the entire atmosphere became highly emotional. People hoisted rebels on their shoulders. Before this incident, the only gun people had ever seen was the one in the hands of their so-called “oppressors.” Now they felt that their own boys could tame the dragon, too.
Shafi was the first in our area to get the gun when the cycle of violence reached our part of Kashmir. He was among the thousands of youths (experts estimate that in 1991 alone, 10,000 got arms training in Pakistani Kashmir and came back with at least one AK-47 each). Crossing the border to Pakistani Kashmir was never an easy task. One had to pass through dense temperate jungles, climb over 10,000-feet cliffs, escape snow avalanches, cross gushing mountain streams, traverse mined areas, and evade Indian snipers. Thousands died on that journey, and others survived with only horrifying tales to tell.
Shafi had a narrow escape too, but his was a story of sheer luck. While on the return trip with a group, the frail Shafi fell ill. Fearful of the approaching army, the group had to make a tough decision. They couldn’t carry him, so they relieved him of his weapons and went ahead. After a night’s sleep, Shafi felt better, but he was soon caught by an army patrol in the open meadow. The unarmed Shafi claimed to be the advance party for a group of shepherds, who were expected in the meadow the very next day. The army decided to wait for a day, before deciding on what to do with Shafi. Luckily, some shepherds arrived on the precise day, and Shafi waved, winked, and told them about his situation in his native language in front of the non-Kashmiri-speaking Indian troops. The dramatic hugs between the men convinced the soldiers of Shafi’s innocence, and they let him go.
Hundreds of others weren’t so lucky. Many were killed after questioning—some without questioning. Some were tortured to death, and some were tortured after their death. Soldiers displayed body parts of their prized catches at various locations. Sometimes they hung the bodies on the border posts to deter enthusiastic young men from crossing the border. It never helped.
Nothing could deter the youths. Unbelievable tales of miracles performed by AK-47 reached us from Afghanistan, Vietnam, and African countries. Images of Palestinians waving AK-47s were a testament to its power.
Like my peers, I loved the gun, and the star status of the militants captured my imagination, too. The gun would soon be within my reach, I was convinced, and I often cursed my luck for depriving me of various chances to hold the AK-47. Whenever rebels came to our village, I was busy feeding chickens and missed the excitement of the gun. On a day that some rebels actually let villagers touch and hold their guns, I was watching Mickey Mouse cartoons on TV. Once, one of my friends got a chance to hold the gun, and for a whole day he boasted about it. It was hard to suppress my jealousy. He was younger than me, weaker, and even shorter. He didn’t even know the full form of AK, which I had memorized for a long time, yet he was the chosen one.
As my luck was taking me nowhere, I concentrated on AK accessories. Gunfights between rebels and Indian troopers would often leave a trail of fine shiny cartridges and twisted bullets. It was a thrill to visit these sites, where the trigger was pulled and where the target had stood. I could easily find cartridges, but not bullets. The bad news was that the bullets were rumored to be poisonous, but the good news was that the casings were said to command the impressive price of $20 per kilo. Washing my hands rigorously with soap became my habit, in case the rumor of poison was true. I didn’t try to sell even a single cartridge, as I knew it would have landed me in trouble. The military was always looking for any clue that might indicate a connection with the rebels.
Empty cartridges were everywhere, but I wanted a new bullet. But even owning a bullet was becoming a herculean task. One day I realized that the color of a faded brass bullet casing, which I had collected from the compound of a high school, was somewhat similar to the wooden shade of a chewed pencil. Bingo—I got an idea. I peeled a pencil of its paint and cut it to the size of a bullet. The wood color matched the bullet color. With a sharpener I carefully made a pointed end of the pencil just like the front of a real bullet and inserted it into the cartridge from its open end. My copy was complete, and I was now the owner of an “almost” bullet.
Now the trick was to carefully show it to my friends. I did that by keeping a distance between them and the bullet, and they were suitably impressed. For almost six months I was the proud owner of this almost bullet until one day a cruel friend of mine detected the pencil trick. I still hate him.
As the gunfights became more frequent and school hours rare, children were confined to their homes for longer stretches. We found solace in games, which 90 percent of the time were inspired from the violence raging around us.
We made wooden replicas of Kalashnikovs and played the usual military-rebel games. Once I made a replica of an AK-47 so detailed that my horrified father threw it into a chicken pen. “You will get us arrested,” he scolded me. Almost every month and sometimes every week, there was a crackdown in our locality. The soldiers would hoard the men to some open compound and then search our houses. Depending on the mood of the soldiers sometimes even a flashlight could provide a reason for suspicion and for taking somebody’s father or brother away.
We also created our own mini-bullets during these long holidays by emptying the nib of a ballpoint pen and meticulously loading it with phosphorous harvested from matchstick heads. Then we loosely attached the nib to the tip of a thin steel wire and lit a matchstick underneath; the ignition of phosphorous would send the nib a few feet into the air like a missile. Once I packed too much phosphorous into the nib, which exploded with a bang. Years later, I realized how foolish I was to have risked my eyes.
Before the advent of the gun we used to love to copy famous movie stars, imitating their voices and reciting their dialogues. Now the times had changed. We mimicked firing guns and exploding bombs. After our prayers, we would discuss different sounds of guns. Everybody would chip in with his expertise: that the sound of AK-47 is different from an SLR (Self Loading Rifle) or a Pika gun, for example. Anyone who broke the news of new type of weapon was held in high respect. One of my close friends, a notorious liar, even claimed to have seen a missile at the hospital ground. He said it looked like a lotus stem, a famous Kashmiri vegetable.
The mimicry game was soon going full throttle. By clicking our tongues or banging two objects, we would try to imitate gunshots and explain which gunshot the sound resembled. Then somebody discovered that clapping in a particular way produced a really good result. It was simple: You have to stretch your palms very tight, so that they make a convex curve, palms thrust outward and stretched fingers inwards. Then, you clap hard in such a way that only the two palms strike each other but not the fingers. One day while walking along a desolate road I continued to clap hard without realizing that an old man was walking behind me. At the mosque, the old man had complained to my father about how he had run for cover after assuming my clapping sound to be gunfire; that evening my dad scolded me for scaring the old man. I was sorry for the old man, but I was more proud of my skill.
But the competition here too was steep. Bored with the clapping thing, some of my friends discovered a banging-fist technique: On your left fist place some paper, so that it covers the round hole made by the index finger and the thumb. Then strike it hard with the palm of your right hand, and that peculiar sound resonates in the air. The impact also tears away the paper. We experimented with leaves, polythene and many different types of paper. The eureka moment came when we produced the Kalashnikov sound by using carbon paper—an achievement that we celebrated with rapid gunfire that consumed most of our carbon-paper stock. Some of us even pinpointed which brand of carbon paper was best and the difference in the sound quality of used and unused carbon paper. Every day we would end up with black hands and black mouths. In the age of martyrs and sacrifices, this was our part, and it was worth it to hear the sound.
As we continued to experiment and dream, the situation in Kashmir had taken a deadlier form. AK-47 had infuriated India, and the government reacted like an enraged elephant, trampling everything that came in its way. Bunkers, camps, and watchtowers sprang up everywhere as more troops were deployed to crush the rebellion. Their mission was to control every exit and every entry point of every village, town, and city. If the lake was big, they brought in the Navy, and if the jungle was inaccessible, they called for choppers. Rebels, troopers, relatives of rebels, friends, civilians, kids, women, old men; nobody was spared. Arrest and torture by troopers became common.
AK-47 had dared to challenge the INSAS rifle of the Indian army. Now carbines, AK-56s, SLRs, machine guns, rockets, and mortar rounds had come to the aid of the INSAS, while the rebels responded by getting their hands on pika, sniper, machine guns, and IEDs. But numbers were against them, in a battle being fought between 500,000 to 700,000 organized troopers and 10,000 to 20,000 ragtag militants. AK-47s, which had inspired the Kashmiris to rise up against India, now seemed dwarfed by the might of the world’s third-largest army. But giving up was not an option. So, the bloodshed continued.
Despite the entry of so many new guns, the importance of AK-47 never diminished. It was everywhere, and with every passing day I used to learn something new about this magical rifle: its variants, its rotating bolt, its handle, its cork mechanism—and how Indians tried to copy it. Kalashnikov mania engulfed peaceful protests, too. Slogans like We Want Freedom, Down With India and Indian Constitution Is Unacceptable were accompanied by one peculiar cry. “Sarhad Paar jayenge, Kalashankof laayenge, Bharat ko Bhagayenge.” “We will cross the border, we will bring a Kalashnikov, we will make India flee.” Overlooking its lethal potential, some teenage rebels treated it as a valuable toy. One such rebel decorated his well-oiled brand-new AK-47 with small fluorescent stickers (hearts and stars were his favorite), and he almost got his group killed when his glowing gun revealed their position during an evening gunfight with the army. The young rebel soon became the joke of the town.
Stories about the AK-47 continued to surface from all over the valley. My journalistic career ensured that I would have to report on how many men were killed by this gun. Sometimes I had to write how many guns were captured after the killing. I had to suppress my feelings to remain unbiased. After killing most of the rebels, the 500,000 troopers working under federal immunity hunted the remaining few hundred rebels, day in and day out. I quietly let go of my dream of the gun, as I didn’t want to become collateral damage.
Recently, New Delhi revealed that they have recovered 30,752 AK rifles of 47, 56, and 74 variants from rebels during the last 20 years of insurgency in Kashmir. The number of bullets recovered exceeded 4 million. “The arms and ammunition recovered in Kashmir since 1990 can suffice for two divisions of the Army,” a senior Indian Army officer told the media. The death toll according to the Home Department was unbelievably low at 43,746, but civil rights groups claim the number as high as 100,000. So many guns and yet I had remained an untouchable, I thought to myself.
New Delhi was triumphant in that the Indian army defeated the “menace of AK-47” in Kashmir. But they couldn’t undo the psychological change that the gun had inspired. Two decades back Kashmiris were generally reputed to be the weakest-hearted people in the subcontinent: During festivals, we used to make a beeline to the house of those one or two gifted persons in every village who had the courage to kill a chicken, in order to get our own birds slaughtered for the feast. But, those same Kashmiris, when pushed hard, had fought back with the AK-47, and India was forced to use its entire might to subdue our puny race, and is still struggling.
In 2011, I left war-torn Kashmir to pursue a new life in New York where the AK-47 was the last thing on my mind. I was enjoying my first experience of living in a democracy, even as I had trouble adjusting to the guarantee that one can make it back home in the evening, alive.
But as they say, you can never run from your past, it always catches you. During a holiday, I along with my friends had a chance to visit the Poconos, and there I ended up visiting the Sunset Firing Range, where I fervently started to look for that trademark banana-shaped magazine, after I spotted the name “AK-47” on their brochure. And there it was, at the third booth, the dark-colored AK-47 of my dreams. This time it was certainly within my reach, but I tried to stay calm.
When my bulky instructor asked me which gun I wished to fire, the answer was obvious. It had to be the AK-47. My pulse started racing and I could hear my heart pounding, as he brought the gun down from the wall. The instructor started explaining the mechanics of the gun, but I was lost in faraway Kashmir. I remembered the guns in my village, every single gunman, huge processions of gunmen, guns shooting at the army, the sound of guns, rebels loading guns, and the exact moment when I first saw an AK-47 being fired. A rebel while declaring a shutdown fired in the air, and I stood mesmerized watching him keenly from my classroom window.
For $12, I would fire seven rounds. After a lengthy sermon, the instructor finally gave me the AK. The cold touch of that metal and the warm finish of that wood were exactly what I had dreamed about for 20 years. I wanted to kiss it, like millions of those Kashmiris who in 1990 perceived the gun as a holy relic. I wanted to raise it in the air, I wanted to pose with it in various angles. I wanted to cherish every second of this magical moment. I was laughing inside, but couldn’t show my feelings for fear of making my instructor suspicious. I took a deep breath, adjusted my annoying ear plugs, straightened my back, and aimed the gun at the target—a block of wood hanging by a rope 20 yards away. “Look along the straightness of the barrel so that A-like bump at one end of barrel fits in a V-like bump on the other end and you can make out W,” said the instructor. “And then slowly pull the trigger.” Millions of questions were racing in my mind. What will happen when I press the trigger? How would the gun react?
I sighed, and my index finger slowly moved toward the trigger and there it was—the boom. Everything went so fast that for a moment I felt strange. I raised my head with a wide grin. The recoil action felt by my shoulder was minimal, opposite to the claims of my liar friend, who once frightened me with the assertion that the recoil action could break the shoulder joint of any weak person. At that moment I wished I could hug the gun and soak up the moment. I wanted to show off: Fellow Kashmiris, I have entered the other half! By this time my instructor was starting to feel uneasy with my abnormal behavior. He asked me to focus, as I had missed the target by yards. Who cares, I thought.
The second shot was a bit closer, but again I missed the target. The joy was increasing and the experience was addictive. On my third shot, I fired right into the target; I could see the chips of wood flying into the air as the bullet pierced the block. The sense of power was amazing and I was drunk on it. And it was just my third shot! Now I know one of the reasons why AK-47 is the most popular assault rifle in the world. You master the art within minutes. I blasted the target left and right. I wanted to bang my fist into the air.
As I reluctantly handed back the gun to my queasy instructor, I wished my friends were there. I wanted to show off, but to whom? I wanted to jump in air, but who will understand? My friends at Poconos too fired the AK-47, but for them it was just another gun. They didn’t understand what it meant for me and I didn’t even try to explain.
As we walked out, suddenly I thought, what now? What if I had fired the gun in Kashmir, what would have been my next move then? I felt a chill run down my spine as I imagined 500,000 troopers staring at me. I remembered in 1992 when 22-year-old Kashmiri rebel Abdul Rashid Parray was arrested by the Indian army, and they devised a plan to teach him a lesson, so that he would never again pull that trigger. They tied the tortured and half-conscious Parray and stretched his fingers. The next thing Parray remembered was screaming at the top of his lungs as the soldiers started cutting his fingers with a hacksaw blade. He thought his eyes would come out and his lungs would burst as the blade proceeded from severing the skin to slicing off the flesh to cutting the bone of his index and middle finger. He still lives to tell of the pain. On another occasion the troopers arrested a person, tied his wrists with a metal wire, and hanged him by the ceiling of a torture chamber. In the morning, they collected his body from the floor. His hands were still hanging from the wire.
In contrast, I don’t live with the uncertainty that somebody will tell the troopers that I picked up a gun, and no sniper is on my lookout either. I lived the history in Kashmir and I enjoyed the experience here. Today the freedom movement in Kashmir has largely moved on from firing guns to throwing stones to holding nonviolent protests, but a part of me is still stuck in that era of great change. I had to fill that vacuum and I am happy I caught the bus even if it was late. That night I dreamed, with open eyes, of running wild in the golden yellow rice fields of my village, screaming in joy, “I did it.” My friends cheered me on, and then everybody shouted in unison, “We want freedom.”
In the evening I called my home, but I didn’t tell them of my achievement. They would have definitely been angry with me. But yes, I told my friends repeatedly that I have fired the AK-47.
Haroon Shah is a freelance journalist working in Kashmir.