I landed at Srinagar’s defence airport on October 5, or Day 60 – exactly two months after the central government cut off phone services, internet and credit card networks.
Unwittingly, and breaking the slow tension that had descended, our flight attendant announced that we could now use our mobile phones. Without pause, my fellow passengers laughed. Some, finding solace in the irony of it all, others, understandably bitter.
And Kashmir has plenty to be bitter about.
For over two months, shops have been shuttered down and city life has largely come to a standstill. Only recently did morning markets that are now operational between 6 am to 9 am, for “emergencies”, as the locals say. Indian officials allege that this is because of potential threats from militants after the reading down of Article 370.
However, local Kashmiris say that for many, this is a form of non-violent protest against the unconstitutional revocation, as well as against the ongoing communication blackout.
Postpaid services were finally restored in the Valley 70 days later, on Monday, October 14, 2019.
“Hartal shuru hone se ab tak, main apne friends ko nahi mila. Sirf Uzma idhar, paas wali ghar me rehti hain, toh kabhi kabhi Uzma ko dekhti hoon. (Ever since the communication blackout, I haven’t been able to meet any of my school friends. Uzma lives nearby, so sometimes I see her.)”
Registered schools in the Valley have recently been forced to reopen, but parents are too scared to send their children to school. Unable to communicate, unaware of who will be on the bus, whether teachers will even show up, and, also terrified that their children may get caught in a stand-off between protestors and the army; parents cannot even think about sending their children outside, forget school. As a result, children have been out of school for over two months now.
“Jamia Masjid August 5 se bandh hai. Eid pe bhi nahin khulvaya. Kya pata, shaayad Modiji namaz hi padhna bandh kar denge..? (The Jamia Masjid has been shut since August 5. They didn’t even allow it to be open on Eid. Who knows, maybe PM Modi will now even stop us from reading namaz.)”
At some places, Kashmiri self-expression has been modified, if not censored. Several shutters were covered in graffiti that had either been sprayed over, blacked out or changed into something more favourable to India.
In once case, “Go back India” has been changed to “Good India/Good Indian”
Since August 5, an additional 38,000 security forces have been sent to Kashmir, with at least one army official stationed every 30-40 metres.
Ironically, the added security only makes you feel more unsafe.
The troops, as local Kashmiris and journalists say, had been told that they were being deployed to administer elections in the Valley.
Thus, many were unaware of what was actually going on.
Most Kashmiris understand that members of the armed forces are merely doing their job; that they too work for their bread and butter. However, Kashmiris say they loathe the derogatory manner in which they are spoken to.
Over an afternoon cup of noon chai and delicious cookies, I spoke to Zubeidaji, whose words made me think:
“Ek nazar se nahi dekhte hain. Jaise humare [Musalman] mein se bhi achhe aur bure hote hai, waise fauj mein bhi. Hartal jab hua tha, main doodh lene bahar gayi thi. Kyunki kya pata phir kab doodh mile is mahaul mein? Us samay ek fauji ne mujhe achanak se pakad ke side mein kheench liya. Patthar aaya tha, mere sar se bhi bada. Agar wo nahi hota us din to kya pata mere sar ke kitne tukde hote,” she said.
“(You shouldn’t look at anything singularly. Just like there are good and bad Muslims, there are good and bad army officials too. When the communication blackout happened, I had stepped out to buy some milk. Who knows when I’d get milk again, given the uncertainty of the current environment? Suddenly, an army officer pulled me aside. A stone hurtled past me. It was bigger than my head. If he wasn’t there on that day, who knows how many pieces my head would have been smashed into).”
Soura and Anchar are two particularly volatile regions in Srinagar, where protests, demonstrations and stand-offs between ‘stone throwers’ and army officials have been quite frequent.
I wanted to see what was really happening, and in order to be less conspicuous my driver packed me into his brother-in-law’s rickshaw.
Shortly into our drive, an army official stopped the rickshaw.
He had apparently seen me using my phone and thought I was taking videos of the desolate street, the angry graffiti and the paramilitarisation.
I had not taken any videos, but had taken a few photos.
He called his senior standing near by, who begun to question me.
“Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here?”
I answered honestly, and to the best of my ability. I also offered to show him the pictures of the Dal Lake and the Hazratbal Dargah, more typically touristy spots that I had captured along with other photos.
He cut me off and told me, point blank, to stop taking any pictures. Then, he turned to my driver.
“Agar isne koi shor machaaya na, toh main tumhe maarke laal kar doonga (If she makes any noise, I will beat you.)”
Silently, my driver drove on. He was used to being spoken to like this.
“You know, the central government keeps saying that Pakistan pays these 13-year-old kids to protest. Do you really think Rs 500 is worth facing a gun with only a stone in hand?” said Razia, a local Kashmiri journalist.
Just a few days before my visit, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan had visited the United Nations General Assembly where he highlighted the plight of Kashmiris and the possible repercussions when the central government finally lifts the curfew in Kashmir.
To locals, it’s perfectly clear that Khan is taking advantage of a bad situation and turning it in his favour. Others feel that at the very least, in this moment, Pakistan is a sympathetic party. It is drawing the world’s attention to what is happening in Kashmir, while the Indian government continues to insist that things are “normal”.
“Humare bacche ki majboori socho, agar 13 saal ka ladka bandookh ke samne patthar leta hai (Imagine the desperation of our children, if a 13-year-old boy is willing to face a gun with a stone.)”, says Faridaji, a mother of two, reinforcing Razia’s sentiment.
As reported by the Telegraph, and based on a report by the National Federation of Indian Women, over 13,000 boys, some as young as nine, have been arrested since August 5.
“Main apne aap ko Indian maanti hoon. Kyun nahi? Main 40 saal ki hoon. Chaalis saal se India ne mujhe khilaya hai, aur ab main boloon ki Pakistan jaoongi? Yeh beimaani hai. Aur humara mazhab beimaani nahin sikhata. Lekin, jo government ne kiya hai, 370 ke saath? Yeh bahut galat kiya hai. Bahut hi galat. India aur Pakistan ne Kashmir ko football jaise banaya hai. Humare Jannat ko jail kar diya gaya hai.”
“(I consider myself Indian. Why not? I’m 40-years-old. For 40 years, India has fed me. And now, should I suddenly decide to go to Pakistan? That’s unfaithful. And my religion doesn’t teach me to be disloyal. But what the government has done with Article 370 wasn’t right at all. It just wasn’t right. India and Pakistan treat Kashmir like a football. They’ve turned our heaven into a jail).”
Kashmir is truly Amir Khusrao’s ‘Firdaus’.
Mriganka Lulla is a product manager at Cred, Bangalore. She can be reached out on Twitter at mriganka_3
All images provided by the author.