Srinagar: It has been 30 days now since the Indian government brought life to a standstill in Kashmir. Last month, internet and telephone services went down and mobile networks crashed. On orders from the Centre, the police prohibited public movement on roads as paramilitary forces started moving into the entire region – seizing colleges, public offices, manning check posts, streets and traffic junctions. They were everywhere. It looked like a military coup but was actually worse. The entire population was placed under a severe and unprecedented lockdown.
The communication blackout has been in place for a month in Kashmir now. The precise reason for it is still unknown. As with the fallout from demonetisation – when the government switched goalposts and trotted out one disparate reason after another – the Centre, in this case as well, has been evasive. No credible answers have been offered.
Sometimes the shutdown – sweeping and unprecedented in nature – is intended to stem ‘terrorism’. On other occasions, it is supposed to thwart rumours. State officials say it is because of the gag – which has been denounced by UN experts as a form of ‘collective punishment’ – that there are no dead protesters. Tear gas and other forms of crowd control are known to have taken the lives of at least three people in Srinagar. However, the administration conceded on Wednesday that a man who was injured by pellets had since died.
Should it be considered India’s genius or a failing that it took a blanket gag on mobile telephones, a complete ban on the internet combined with greater military deployment and harsh civil restrictions on seven million people to ensure that lives aren’t lost? If this is the state of affairs, then the debate shouldn’t be about the communication embargo but the political mood in the state, which has turned so febrile that it requires nothing short of a complete suspension of democratic norms to be contained.
At what point does every act of conversation between people become subversive? Those affected by the gag are certainly not militants, whose numbers hardly cross 200. In fact, the army’s capacity to trace them by following their digital footprints has taken the body blow.
Demonstrators in Kashmir don’t mobilise themselves using social media. There was virtually no social media presence in Kashmir in 2008 when millions turned out for the first mass civil uprising after the insurgency had sputtered. Instead of keeping rumours at bay, the gag has turned wild speculation in Kashmir more endemic than ever, because all potential channels of verification have been shut down.
Public protests in Kashmir have been floundering not due to the communications shutdown but because of conflict weariness. It is hardly surprising to find the lack of sufficient capacity – like in 2016 – for sustained civil agitation among people who routinely turn up in large numbers at militant funerals.
For the first few days after the gag was imposed, Kashmir receded into an information cul de sac, out of which no news emerged and within which no exchange occurred. It was during these days that the utter fear of being voiceless dawned upon me. I had to grapple with the horror of having to take my father – whose heart ailment had pushed him to the brink of death – to hospital when no ambulance could be called; when driving on the streets was fraught with risks and when it took longer than necessary to reach our destination because all the main roads had been barricaded.
I also had to face another excruciating challenge: how to inform family members who weren’t at home at the time of the crisis and would barely know where we had gone or what had happened. At the hospital, my mind wandered timorously between anxiety about my family leaving the house in a futile effort to find us – thereby endangering their own safety – and the fear of confronting any grim possibilities related to my father.
I tried hard to not imagine. I was seized by cold fear – a fright not conveyable through the spoken word. It was only by sheer luck that my father survived the attack and, with the help of some fellow visitors at the hospital that, I succeeded in getting word to my fear-stricken family.
As of now, there is no way to reach the fire service should an emergency take place; no way to call an ambulance. If anyone ventures out of their house, their whereabouts would be unknown until they return of their own accord. We have not been able to connect with friends, relatives or anyone in the extended family. The so-called relaxations are so infinitesimal, that they hardly offer any meaningful reprieve. The landline phones of only two of my relatives – out of several – are currently operational.
In barely a month, Kashmir has turned into a dreary and lonesome place, haunted by a militarised presence and an uncertain future.
Paramilitary soldiers are now deployed at the level of neighbourhoods, manning all entry and exit points. Their sand-bag redoubts, from which automatic rifles poke, have resurfaced and proliferated. Highways are often barred for civilian traffic to make way for endless convoys of military vehicles while skies hum relentlessly with the noise of helicopters, reconnaissance drones and combat aircraft.
It is almost as if reality has leapt straight out of the pages of Orwell’s 1984 and seeped into our routine life. The militarisation is as punitive as it is pervasive. The newspapers, reduced to a few pages, publish no editorials; column-upon-column is filled mostly with government hand-outs.
I feel dismayed at the abject condition of Greater Kashmir – once a heavyweight across J&K’s newspaper firmament. Its op-ed section has become a parody, producing nothing of value and strictly avoiding any political commentary. Its bold cartoonists have abandoned the paper while the columnists silently withdrew. Such is the effect of India’s undeclared emergency in Kashmir.
The military seizure of Kashmir is also agonisingly massive, bringing home the realisation of Kashmiris’ abject vulnerability at the hands of the regime – whose ability to exercise abusive power is unchecked – and their lack of reciprocal capacity to resist.
Will this disparity, as it has previously done, create space for more turmoil in Kashmir? After all, political violence is a natural outcome of a power imbalance when the weaker side struggles to maximise and then guard its capacity to bargain. India has set the fresh precedent of dishonouring serious political commitments and foisting irreversible changes through the might of power. This opens up new vistas and broadens both the scope and nature of the response that Kashmiris can contemplate.
In the longer run, it means that the Indian state’s grip in Kashmir will fully depend on how meek and defenceless Kashmiris appear before its military prowess and how long Delhi is willing to spare resources to further militarise the region, violate human rights, suspend civil liberties and suppress Kashmiris politically to uphold its control.
Kashmiris are resisting the revocation not because they want to be treated preferentially – but because Article 370 preserved the status quo and did not fully estrange them from the arrangements of power that prevailed during the time of the partition when their ability to negotiate their political future was strong – something that Delhi precisely seeks to undermine by precipitating a demographic change in Kashmir.
Even in this gloom, I have witnessed people seek some consolation. They are appreciative of the notion that intermediaries in this conflict – the mainstream political parties who dutifully did Delhi’s bidding, suppressed the plebiscitary ambitions of Kashmiris and posed as the final arbiters of the dispute – have been politically decimated.
The discussion on the streets, over dinner tables, inside coffee houses and at playgrounds echoes this common refrain: the battle is now directly between India and the Kashmiris.
Kashmiris are also cheerful, and recognise that there has been tremendous international solidarity in their favour. The illustrative coverage in the New York Times, scathing editorials of the Guardian, Bloomberg, Economist, Lancet International and immersive reporting by BBC World and Al Jazeera has reinforced the idea that Delhi’s blackout strategy in Kashmir has backfired and caused unprecedented global opprobrium against India.
In fact, it is for the first time that influential Western opposition leaders, Congressmen and parliamentarians have spoken in support of the Kashmiris. While many nations may have proactively avoided commenting on Kashmir given their immediate strategic interests, the intellectual elite in the West and international opinion has come out with a stinging condemnation of India’s smash-and-grab move over Kashmir.
I don’t know when the communication gag on Kashmir will be lifted, but when it is, Kashmiris will find a global audience, ready with a fresh frame of mind – unencumbered by the Islamophobic dog-whistles of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘terrorism’ – to listen to what they have to say.
Shakir Mir is a Srinagar based journalist.