A Kashmiri Journalist on Life Under Clampdown

Aamir Ali Bhat says in the past seven months, the Centre's dilution of Article 370 has had a telling effect on the lives of thousands of people.

Everything in life was going smoothly before the nightmare returned.

It was on August 4, 2019. The night was awfully dark. I just had dinner with my family and was planning to send some story ideas to my editors. My cell phone was repeatedly beeping and some notifications on the screen grabbed my attention.

Rumours about the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, a possible war between Indian and Pakistan and an indefinite crackdown from next day in Kashmir were running rampant. Rumours that were lacking in specifics had already created confusion and panic in the Valley, after the government had asked tourists, non-locals and Hindu pilgrims to the Kedarnath shrine to leave. People had stocked up on essentials – food, grocery, medicines and fuel. They withdrew cash from bank accounts.

It was going to be a long and dreadful night for us. My friends, colleagues and relatives were repeatedly sending me messages, asking, “What are they going to do with us?” Sinister thoughts were crossing everyone’s mind. A decision that would change Kashmir forever was afoot, but no official was ready to clear up the confusion.

In the next hour, all forms of internet services, mobile calling and landline connections were shut down. We were disconnected from each other and the rest of the world. A silenced prevailed over the whole valley. It was the silence before the storm.

Next day, we woke up to a curfew or we can call it a military siege, stricter and more threatening than what we had witnessed in Kashmir before. Streets, lanes and bylanes that connect one area with the other were sealed with barbed wires. Everywhere, only gun-toting paramilitary troops with orders to foil any kind of resistance were present on the roads.

I was watching television and at around 10:30 am, news channels reported that home minister Amit Shah had presented a Bill in the upper house of parliament to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy.

I was born when the armed insurgency in Kashmir had been ignited against New Delhi’s rule. I grow up with encounters, curfews, protests, crackdowns and allegations of massacres, killings, torture, rape, detentions and shooting. This time, I got a sense from the news that it was going to be a very long crackdown.

Union home minister Amit Shah delivers his speech in the Rajya Sabha on August 5. Photo: Twitter

Homes turned into prisons

I have been working as an independent journalist for more than two years. Like other young Kashmiris, New Delhi’s crackdown brought all my plans to a standstill. Our homes were turned into prisons as soldiers were not allowing anyone to move outside.

Two days after restrictions were placed, I went outside to observe the situation. When I reached the main road, I was chased by soldiers who swore at me. They behaved in an uncouth manner and didn’t even let me tell them that I am a journalist.

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I was left without any work, like hundreds of thousands of other young Kashmiris whose careers were in peril and who were looking for new opportunities. My plans were falling apart before me and I felt distressed at home. It was difficult to concentrate on anything, as rumours about killings, detention of youth and protests were circling. Every night, I kept tossing and turning in bed, thinking about the future of my people. I wanted to amplify their voices, as their human rights were being brazenly violated. But I was helpless.

A month after the communication blockade was imposed, landline telephones – an almost obsolete form of communication – was restored. Because of the regular internet blockade in 2018, the deadliest year in a decade in Kashmir, I had taken a BSNL broadband connection. When news about the restoration of landline telephones spread, in a short time, distraught and frightened neighbours poured out to my home, just to make a phone call to their loved ones who were studying or employed outside the Valley. A young girl, who had applied for a job before the clampdown was imposed, came to my house in a hurry. She made two phone calls and dropped the phone in disappointment. She had lost the opportunity as the interview call had never reached her, thanks to communication blockade.

The decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy was taken in the peak tourist and marriage season. Some families cancelled marriage ceremonies while others toned down the celebration. In South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, I met a groom who had planned a big marriage party. He had drawn up a long list of relatives, friends and neighbours whom he wanted to invite. As the clampdown continued, he decided to tone down the celebration and invited only close relatives. “When your own people are in grief, your conscience does not allow you to celebrate,” the groom told me. He had to renege on agreements he had with the waza (a Kashmiri Chef), decorator, gyawun woel (a singer), videographer, among others.

Plans to report on the situation

Around 40 days after the lockdown, I spoke to a photojournalist friend with the idea to report on the situation in South Kashmir and then travel to Jammu, which is around 210 kilometres away from my hometown. Here, broadband internet was working and we could file stories.

In South Kashmir districts people told us horrific tales of torture, detention and loss. Most people looked frightened and refused to talk to us. It was as if an invisible tape bound their mouth or there was a gun to their heads, asking them to accept the decision that had changed their lives drastically and had been made without counting their opinion.

Kashmiri journalists protest against the internet shutdown in Srinagar in November. Photo: PTI/S. Irfan

During my career, I have mostly covered South Kashmir, where hundreds of people were killed during the last few years of anti-militancy operations and violent protests. I had never met a local who was reluctant to talk to the media. In fact, they were always vocal. The one phrase that was often repeated to us while interviewing people was, “Kasheer Karikh Khatim (Kashmir has been destroyed).”

When my photojournalist friend and I reached Jammu, the paramilitary forces had removed barriers and concertina wires to allow the movement of traffic. Shops had also been opened. We stayed at the semi-finished house of my friend. Locals informed us that access to the Internet was only available at a cybercafé located 12 kilometres away.

When I went to the cybercafé, it was jam-packed with students, job hunters and many others. Mobile internet had not been restored in Jammu also. I had to wait in queue for an hour for my turn and I accessed the Internet the first time in 50 days. I found most of the stories that we had collected had already been published by news outlets. We stayed in Jammu for around 20 days and managed to do a couple of stories.

One afternoon, we went to a nearby hotel to have lunch. A Kashmiri man, probably in his 40s and wearing a salwar kameez, was sitting at the table before us. He looked distressed and tired and started to converse with us. He had come to Jammu all the way from Shopian, a hotbed of militancy in South Kashmir, to meet his elder brother, who was incarcerated in the Kot Bhalwal Jail in Jammu. The brother had been picked up by the police from his home two days after the dilution of Article 370.

As he wasn’t able to make any contact with his brother, two days ago, he had left his home early morning under clampdown. He had passed through scores of barricades and security checkpoints. He walked by foot, hitchhiked up to Anantnag, around 35 kilometres from Shopian, where he boarded a cab to Jammu.

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While speaking to us, the man was almost in tears. He was running out of money and wanted to leave Jammu as soon as possible. “Before leaving home, I collected some cash from family members and took a cheque with me,” the man told me. “I thought I would withdraw it in Jammu as the banks were still closed in Shopian.”

When he went to the bank to withdraw money, the cheque got bounced because of an incorrect signature. He couldn’t even contact his family. Before leaving the hotel, the man turned toward us and said, “Assi Kya Korukh (What has been done to us?).”

Lost opportunities

When I returned home, I began feeling frustrated again. In Jammu, I came to know that I had been shortlisted for the ‘Young Journalist Award 2019’ run by Thomson Foundation in collaboration with the Foreign Press Association. I was waiting for news on who would be the three finalists, as they would be flown to London to attend the Gala Award Ceremony.

I gave access to my email to a friend who was working in Delhi in a private firm. He was checking my email everyday day. I wasn’t one of the three finalists, but I was given an opportunity to sign up for a free online course offered by the Thomson Foundation. I was unable to utilise that opportunity as the Internet was still disconnected in Kashmir.

To work around the restrictions, I had begun to dictate story ideas to my friend in Delhi, who sending emails to editors on my behalf.

Although the administration had opened the Media Facilitation Centre in Srinagar, the lone internet access point for journalists in Kashmir, it was cumbersome. People from other district were expected to travel to Srinagar and back every day to file stories. With restrictions on movement still in place, this was next to impossible. If I were to go to the facilitation Centre, I would have had to travel 150 kilometres each day and spent around Rs 500, just to send an email.

Journalists use the internet as they work inside a government-run media centre in Srinagar January 10, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

In December last year, internet access was given to journalists in our area at the district administration’s office. I felt happy and rushed to access the Internet. However, I was astonished when I was asked to get approval from a ‘concerned official’. I was required to present an authorisation letter from the news outlet. He further said that my reports will be checked by a government official before I send them to my editors. When I asked him why, he said they couldn’t allow “anti-government and conflict-related reports” to be published. He also said that I had to give my email and password to a government official, who will send emails on my behalf. I decided not to use the Internet under these conditions.

In the months preceding August 5, 2019, I was regularly writing reports from Kashmir. During the last six months, I only managed to file four reports. The Internet blockade in Kashmir has already surpassed 200 days. On January 25, a painfully slow speed mobile internet was restored with access limited to just government-approved whitelisted websites. It was mere eyewash, just to show the outside world that ‘normalcy’ has returned to Kashmir.

Also Read: 2019 is the Year that Changed Kashmir to the Detriment of India

The ongoing situation in Kashmir and the continuing Internet blockade has left me wondering if I should remain as a journalist or seek another profession. Scores of my colleagues have already left journalism and took up other professions to earn their livelihood. They cannot be called ‘failures’ or their careers be judged unsuccessful. We, Kashmiris, have been pushed to the brink, where limited options are available for survival.

Apart from stifling journalism, the prolonged internet ban has severely damaged businesses and has left Kashmiri students in distress. And still, we do not know when the restrictions will be lifted.

Can you imagine living in today’s digital world without the Internet, under a prolonged military siege? Have you ever witnessed raids in the dark of the night and widespread detentions? Have you ever stayed in your own home as a prisoner for months?

We, Kashmiris, have lived that life, not once, but many times.