Lava beneath the Kashmir surface – a report from ground zero
Srinagar: Shutdowns are not new in Kashmir but this time the shutdown is self-imposed, not in response to any call given by separatist or mainstream parties. Before scrapping Art. 370, Government evacuated Amaranth pilgrims and tourists. Pre-empting possible reaction from Kashmiri politicians, administration detained almost all of them. The hysterical situation and cluelessness positioned people in long queues—they began hoarding essential supplies. Rumors were all time high—Yasin Malik has been killed—Shabir Shah died in custody—War is going to start—there would be mass operation against Kashmiris and so on.
Public administration was equally clueless about the situation. Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar Shahid Iqbal Choudhary in a tweet termed NIT Srinagar’s (National Institute of Technology) notice about suspension of classes, “miscommunication” while students of the institute were already evacuating their hostel rooms.
With suspicion growing thicker and queues longer, government finally pulled the plug off mobile network in the night of 5th August, cutting off Kashmir from the rest of the world. Kashmir University (KU) was the only institution in the valley that had not suspended classes, owing to lack of concrete information or government order. Its hostels were open as well and I was putting up in one of the boys hostels. Unable to call home, I tried messaging all the numbers and could deliver a message to a Jio number which was breathing its last—assuring my family of my well-being. A small number of students were able to make last emergency calls to their families. Hostels of the Central University of Kashmir were evacuated a day earlier and CRPF was deployed there.
With the network gone, as I switched to KU wifi—which was still working—Kashmiri digital world was submerged in silence! As the day (5th August) dawned in, the companies of central forces started to appear, announcements had already been made in the dead of the night warning people not to step out of their homes.
India has axed its feet
Union Home Minister Amit Shah finally ended the suspicion by introducing Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, dividing J&K into two Union territories. Students were still on the KU campus, and students living off campus had gathered, demanding transportation to their respective places. As the news of the removal of Article 370 came out, grief-stricken students sat numbly with tears in their eyes. Huge protest erupted on the campus, and students shouted anti-India and pro-Kashmir slogans. Fiery speeches were made near the convocation complex and students came down heavily on the BJP government. One of the students said, “India has axed it’s feet by robbing us of our special status, it (Art 370) was the link between Kashmir and India, and BJP has delinked Kashmir from India.” Another student vowed to fight tooth and nail.
KU administration after getting a nod from Governor S.P Malik began to evacuate students in SRTC and University buses. Vice chancellor of the varsity had to take permission from the Governor after the concerned SSP refused to ensure safety of the evacuee students, citing helplessness (this is what the proctor-wing of the university told students who were waiting for buses). My turn came next day. We were bundled into a bus routed to North Kashmir. All the roads were blocked, ours was the only civil bus running on road, Army and CRPF personnel were stationed everywhere, only one unarmed policeman was with each group of central forces – policemen in Kashmir are still armed with lathis, pellet and pepper guns only.
I was dropped on Putkhah stop of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway, 11 kilometers away from my home – equally distanced from main town Baramulla – where I began to walk towards my village. On my way home, people deprived of information, curiously approached me, and threw many questions regarding the condition in areas I had passed by.
Even far away places are protesting
How is current unrest different? People have taken a firm stand against the removal of Art. 370 and statehood. For the first time the shutdown has persisted without direction and leadership. All the three regions (Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh) have highly resented the move. Uri, border town of North Kashmir's Baramulla district, observes complete shutdown. Naveed Bukhtiyar, a resident of Uri, says, “It is for the first time that complete shutdown is being observed in Uri … people used to go to army camps and take part in 15th August celebrations but this year they completely boycotted it.”
Other far-flung areas, that were never impacted by shutdowns in the past, remain shut today. Those who were associated with pro-Indian parties and who ran campaigns to entice voters during elections feel equally betrayed. Separatist and mainstream leadership have found a common cause and the Central government has given them same treatment. Farooq Abdullah, the former CM of J&K, has been declared detrimental for public safety and thrown in jail.
The current unrest marks the longest clampdown of the cellular network in Kashmir. Both affluent and poor feel dejected and want rollback of the order. From the fear of demographic changes, to possible dearth in govt. jobs, to influx of aliens…people carry the burden of endless fears.
A catchphrase nowadays common in Kashmir is “now or never.” People closely follow reactions of world leaders, especially Pakistan, towards the current Kashmir situation, and what world leaders say about J&K remains core subject of every assembly in villages and towns. People mostly rely on Voice of America and religiously listen to it for that thousands of new radio sets have found way into different homes, some even complain prices of radio sets have gone high. Towards the reportage of mainstream Indian media, people look with disdain. They feel media peddles lies by portraying normalcy in Kashmir and by playing fake videos to mislead masses.
Now or never!
In one of the assemblies, I overheard an elderly man saying, “Wise is Indian government, they scrapped the Article in peak apple season…they know people will be forced to come out to sell their fruit.” Abdul Ahad who is associated with the fruit business promptly responded saying, “let our fruit rot on trees, we are ready to sacrifice it… everyone should be ready… it is now or never.” Others affirmatively nodded to what Abdul Ahad said. The National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd (NAFED) have allegedly snatched the keys of the Fruit Mandi to show that the market is open, but fruit growers are reluctant to sell their crop.
After a lapse of 50 years, UN held a closed-door meeting on Kashmir. Foreign media has intensively covered Kashmir and protests have been witnessed in many parts of the world and some Indian states as well. No more are people in the mood of buying what they call “archaic phrases of development, democracy, and declarations” they have switched their allegiance to war, it seems. It can kill them but bring an end to the miseries of the next generation, people say.
Delivering a message is no more a click away. Now it requires wheels, driver, insurance and guts. In the peak marriage season, a lot of marriages have been cancelled or overly simplified. Much longed for hubbub in Kashmiri marriages is replaced by mournful silence. Traumatized players (womenfolk) of Tumbaknaer (the traditional musical instrument of Kashmir) have replaced Roff (Kashmiri Folk Songs) with Azaadi slogans. Some marriage ceremonies are awaiting grooms who are languishing in custody.
In the absence of the mobile network, families seldom allow their wards to venture out. In case of emergency, as Hasnain Khawaja, a resident of Srinagar says, “my family gives me a deadline … they get worried if I am not back before the given time and start looking for me all around.”
The communication blockade is more problematic than the severe cardiac problem of patient admitted in the cardiology ward of SKIMS Srinagar, says a Baramulla family. According to them, they had to daily travel 60 kilometers to enquire about the health of the patient who was admitted for open-heart surgery and whose surgery dates were changed several times. About the availability of medicines, they say, “We couldn’t find the surgical equipment (costing Rs. 1.5 lakh) for a few days... we hardly managed to get them from the private residence of a medical practitioner.” Suffocating pepper smoke used against the protestors of Anchar Soura, keeps attendants at Soura medical institute indoors.
The Anchar residents fearing Army raids have dug the roads to keep their vehicles from entering the locality, their youth keep vigil of the locality during nights. Pellet victims of Anchar are not referred to hospitals, fearing arrest by the police.
Government has created a firewall to stop information outflow, journalists are not allowed to cover the ground situation, and sometimes they are beaten and imprisoned. Apples that are the backbone of Kashmir's economy are rotting in orchards. Transporters are worst hit. “Bank loan is bothering me, more than the daily family needs,” says a driver from Ganderbal area.