Growing up in the shadow of the Kalashnikov in Kashmir

A Kashmiri soldier with a Kalashnikov Tens of thousands of troops are deployed in Indian-administered Kashmir and many are armed with Kalashnikov rifles

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The automatic assault rifle designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, who died on Monday, is one of the world's most familiar and widely used weapons. In Indian-administered Kashmir, which has seen an armed insurgency against Indian rule since 1989, the gun can be seen everywhere. Here, BBC Monitoring's Suhail Akram, who is from Kashmir, remembers how it was growing up in the shadow of the Kalashnikov.

The news of Mikhail Kalashnikov's death provoked a strange, unnerving feeling in me.

I grew up in Kashmir. And have lost count of the number of Kalashnikovs I have seen in the 25 years of my life I spent there.

Like most children growing up in troubled areas who end up getting acquainted with army camouflage and bullets early in their lives, I grew up with a fascination of this rifle - and, in equal measure, a fear of it.

During the evening huddle after playing hop-scotch with girls from the neighbourhood, my male friends and I - boys aged between eight and 12 - discussed guns.

Those were fun-filled conversations. We thought of ourselves growing up as big men with big guns. We talked in whispers, lest our parents heard us talking about what was taboo.

Kashmir had seen lots of its young men crossing the Line of Control [the de facto border that divides Kashmir between the south Asian neighbours] into Pakistan-administered Kashmir to get training in arms and return to fight "Indian rule".

'Fascination'

My mother and father were scared to see us growing up, as most parents would be, in such political chaos, where acquiring a Kalashnikov was not really difficult.

The security forces in Kashmir carried other types of guns, too. But for me, the Kalashnikov held the most fascination.

They were the most visible on the street. The troops of the paramilitary Rashtriya Rifles, who carried out the dreaded anti-militancy operations, almost always carried these rifles. They also, almost always, had long moustaches and wore black bandannas which made them look threatening.

In our typical Kashmiri accent, we called the rifle not Kalashnikov but Kalashunkof.

As the years passed, Kashmir saw its worst violence in the mid-1990s. An encounter or crossfire took place almost every day.

My friends and I would poke each other, even place bets, over whether the gun being fired was a Kalashnikov or a light machine-gun (LMG).

Kalashnikovs buzzed with squeaky tabs, like shrill, frightening lines running tangentially above your head. Light machine-guns rolled like thuds, as if filled with packaged air.

In Kashmir, the Kalashnikov was used by both soldiers and rebels. Thousands of innocents were killed.

In those days, ammunition was plentiful; Kalashnikov was the culture; it was romance and it was the constitution. But there were those odd moments when the menacing rifle got toyed with.

I was 12. A noisy street cricket match had finished only moments before. Boys, so many of them, were quarrelling about the toss and which team would bat first in the next match.

With each team trying to bully the other, a young man suddenly pulled out a rusty Kalashnikov from underneath his long cloak.

For a moment, there was a stunned silence. Soon, the whole match was played without shouts. It was more like a silent mourning. Nobody clapped even when a four or a six was hit.

My day of reckoning with Mikhail Kalashnikov's creation came early.

For the first time that day, I realised the extraordinary and scary power that rifle had.

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