Rights

Kashmir – They Call It Peace

From before the reading down of Article 370 to September 4, a blow-by-blow personal account of how the situation in Kashmir unfolded.

I decided to spend an entire summer in Kashmir after 11 years this year. I couldn’t have chosen a more momentous year. The last few weeks have been among the hardest I’ve ever faced but I’d still rather be caged in there with my loved ones than outside without them, worrying myself to death.

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I don’t have any official figures for the number of tourists who visited Kashmir this year but the place was buzzing. Tourists, both domestic and foreign, outnumbered locals as there was barely any space to walk on the Boulevard Road bordering the Dal Lake.

Every hour or so, a bus filled with whooping tourists would pass by. Huge crowds could be seen outside the famous Krishna Dhaba – the go to place for vegetarians in Srinagar – at any point during the day. Barring reports of the occasional encounter somewhere in South Kashmir, the situation seemed almost peaceful.

Also read: What the Last Month Has Looked Like for the Media in Kashmir

Then came the deployment of 38,000 additional central forces in the state. Rumours about the abrogation of Article 35A, which had been doing the rounds since before the general elections, gained credence. Speculation was rife that the government was waiting for the Amarnath Yatra to end before making the big announcement.

But then came the first real shock. The Yatra, the normal conduct of which has been a priority and a matter of pride for the authorities, was suspended. The reason cited was a terror threat to the pilgrims. Yatris and then other tourists were told to leave the state immediately.

Policemen started visiting hotels and houseboats to ensure that everyone had left, as shikarawallahs, who make most of their earnings during the summer looked on helplessly. Foreign governments began issuing advisories against travelling to Kashmir.

It will take years to undo the damage that has been done to the tourism industry here and the people whose livelihoods depend on it.

No local I spoke to had bought the ‘terror threat to yatris’ narrative, especially since Gulmarg, which has nothing to do with the Yatra, was vacated and J&K police personnel in some parts of the state were made to deposit their weapons in police stations. 

Instead, people started talking about a possible delimitation of seats in the state or an all-out war between India and Pakistan. A rumour about separatist leader Yasin Malik’s death in jail spread on social media but was soon busted. The more cynical ones wondered if the state would be trifurcated, but perhaps even they themselves didn’t entertain the idea seriously.

Images of all kinds of notices were now being circulated on WhatsApp – airlines waiving cancellation and rescheduling charges for all flights to and from Srinagar, a government advisory for airlines to be prepared for operating extra flights, a notice asking outstation students of NIT Srinagar to vacate their hostels and head home. Panicked people had started stocking up on essential supplies.

By the morning of August 3, petrol pumps and ATMs were running dry. Early in the morning on August 4, students from NIT were evacuated in state-owned buses, even as a senior government official kept tweeting that no notice for evacuation had been issued. Legend has it that this gentleman has been tweeting non-stop, congratulating Kashmiris, who can’t access the internet, on the completion of infrastructure projects.

By the evening of August 4, it was common knowledge that all communication networks were going to be suspended and curfew imposed soon. Doctors had been told to get curfew passes and their leaves had been cancelled. A list of satellite phone numbers issued to select high ranking govt officials was leaked on WhatsApp. Friends outside the Valley who had flights scheduled over the next few days began to wonder if and how they’d make it home for Eid.

Meanwhile, lies and false assurances kept flowing from the state administration.

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Security forces had already been deployed at every corner, and on every street in the more sensitive areas. By midnight, mobile networks were down, Section 144 had been imposed (prohibiting assembly of more than three people) and prominent politicians placed under house arrest.

Indian security forces personnel stand guard next to concertina wire laid across a road during restrictions after the government scrapped special status for Kashmir, in Srinagar, August 7, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

It was pretty clear that something was going to go down in parliament after a cabinet meeting the next morning. The presence of armed men on every road was nevertheless terrifying, especially because right-wing Twitter was celebrating in anticipation of a ‘final solution’ for the Kashmir problem.

Friends wished each other luck and made their goodbyes, hoping and praying that these wouldn’t be the final ones. Soon after, broadband services were suspended.

Needless to say, sleep didn’t come easy that night.

Despite having imagined and discussed the worst possible scenarios, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come the next day. Not only was Article 35A removed and Article 370 made meaningless, the state was broken into two union territories and a mockery was made of the Indian constitution.

My first reaction was that of disbelief, followed by a glimmer of hope. Surely the opposition in the Rajya Sabha wouldn’t let it happen. The optimism didn’t last long as one after another, almost every party declared its support for the bill. Tears trickled down my cheeks as I saw the biggest betrayal of my life play out in front of my eyes.

Also read: #RightSideUp: One Kashmir, Two Narratives; Modi’s ‘Vann Ki Baat’

The next two days were a blur. I had been staying with some relatives in uptown Srinagar, less than 10 km away from my home in Shehr-e-khas/downtown. Yet I couldn’t even entertain the thought of going home. There was absolutely no credible news about the area. All we got were horrifying rumours. Five people killed in Soura, three somewhere else.

People who tried to enter that part of the city were being beaten up. As restrictions on movement were eased uptown, it became possible for me to go walkabout. Vehicles were still being stopped at multiple points and allowed or disallowed to pass based on the whims of the people in charge. People allowed to travel were stopped on their way back only a few hours later. All shops including pharmacies I saw were shut.

A few boys were swimming in Dal Lake. A few men were fishing. A few others were sitting, helplessness and frustration writ large on their faces. Old carrom boards had been taken out of attics and closets, dusted off and placed on footpaths outside shops. Free of traffic, lanes had become cricket pitches for kids as well as adults. CRPF jawans stood silently spectating the action. Going home was still not possible as downtown continued to remain under strict curbs.

The highlight of this period was a story about a Kashmiri Sikh lady. A reporter of the most nationalistic ​propaganda​ news channel had told her to praise the prime minister. She, in response, tossed the microphone and shouted the reporter off.

There had been a few clashes between forces and civilians but no major protests – something which no one had anticipated. A few days later, I met a man whose friends had been detained by central forces. They were beaten up and asked questions to the effect of ‘itni shanti kyun hai?’

They didn’t have to wait too long for an answer as after Friday namaz on August 9, hundreds gathered outside a mosque near Soura and started a peaceful protest march. Thousands more joined in as the gathering moved along, when out of the blue, the police started firing in the air and dispersed the protesters. Eyewitnesses swore that there was no violence from the crowd. The firing was completely unprovoked.

This was the same protest the coverage of which earned BBC its anti-India credentials.

Also read: Kashmir Under Siege: One Month of Silence

On Arafah, the day before Eid, few shops were open. People were buying plain biscuits and other simple baked goods – not for guests but for their personal consumption. No one was in any real mood to celebrate and Qurbani was out of question, but statements from the administration assuring us that Eid namaz would be allowed came as a relief.

The next morning, August 12, the day of Eid, we found the nearest mosque locked. All the other mosques nearby had held prayers much earlier in the morning so I ended up missing namaz as well. I later came to know that in parts of downtown and some other areas, you could go to the mosque if it was on the same side of the road as your house, and accessible via inner lanes and by-lanes. No one was allowed to step out on the main roads. 

Eid Mubarak.

Over the next two days, I ran into a few people who had visited Shehr-e-khas. They advised me to try going home late in the evening after security forces were removed from the roads. After ten agonising days, I finally managed to reach home at 9:30 pm on Thursday, August 15. My mother’s eyes welled up with tears of relief while my father shouted at me for having put myself at risk by travelling home.

The very next day, I got a taste of pepper gas for the first time in my life. Happy Independence Day.

Learning from their past mistakes, this Friday, the police had parked five vehicles outside the mosque where the protest march had started the previous week. When peaceful protests were disallowed during the day, scores of angry protesters came out at sundown. Shutters and poles were being banged till late into the night, a phenomenon which reminded the elders of the 1990s. The police sprung into action the next day, arresting boys and young men from all over the city.

Thousands have been arrested till now and taken to undisclosed locations. Every day, a crowd gathers outside Rajbagh police station, demanding to know the whereabouts of their children.

Every day, they return home without any answers.

Relatives of those arrested at Central Jail, Srinagar. Photo: Mudasir Ahmad

As for the central forces I came across, I could make out two distinct groups among them – the ones posted in camps and bunkers who had already been staying in Kashmir and those who had been flown in recently and were manning the roads. The former were almost always polite and seemed to understand the need for being a little accommodative. A few among the latter would hurl abuses at civilians for absolutely no reason.

Also read: Fired at For Assembling After Prayers: How Srinagar Spent Its Eid

A CRPF jawan was spotted shooting a video of a shop that had just been opened for a desperate customer. The shopkeeper immediately pulled down his shutter, not wanting footage of his shop to be used as proof of normalcy.

Shopkeepers in Raj Bagh and Batamaloo were warned by policemen to keep their shops shut from 6 pm to 10 am. The idea here was to corner them into keeping their shops open during the day so that pictures of normalcy can be fed to the world. Some shopkeepers who opened their shops were threatened by civilians. One was reported to have been shot dead by militants.

Kashmiri men sit in front of the closed shops painted with graffiti during restrictions, in Srinagar. August 20, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

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The coverage of Kashmir in the national media came as no surprise. We have learnt not to expect anything resembling journalism from Indian news channels. For those with a DTH connection, NDTV 24×7 and NDTV India were the only news channels being watched. Even on these two channels, people noticed abrupt ad breaks and cutting short of debates whenever a panellist said something which the state might’ve taken exception to.

The absence of local reporter Nazir Masoodi for a few days led to speculation that NDTV had finally given in to governmental pressure. Arun Jaitley’s death and P. Chidambaram’s arrest, however, put an end to the speculation as coverage of Kashmir was completely suspended.

Three Khans currently part of the state administration are being seen as the Centre’s chief enforcers and hence the main villains at the local level. Stories about the complicity of a few Muslims in the 1947 Jammu massacre of their coreligionists were being shared. No one acknowledged the possibility of something similar occurring in Kashmir, but the fear and horror on everyone’s faces said it all.

On the other hand, two former IAS officers are receiving widespread praise – Shah Faesal for his BBC interview and Kerala’s Kannan Gopinathan for resigning from service in protest over the denial of fundamental rights to Kashmiris.

The sole source of satisfaction for the people seems to be the arrest and detention of ‘mainstream’ political leaders – former CMs Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti at Hari Niwas and Chashm-e-shahi respectively, and the rest at Centaur Hotel, surviving on dal roti.

Someone points out that these politicians would in any case prefer incarceration over the prospect of facing their voters and everyone nods in agreement. Every mention of the Abdullahs is accompanied by a curse for Sheikh Abdullah – the man held responsible for the original accession.

Their predicament, however, has also added to the fear and anxiety, as people see little hope for ordinary dissenting civilians when even those who’ve always advocated the cause of India haven’t been spared. It is for this very reason that I couldn’t dare post anything on Facebook.

More anxiety stems from statements of politicians like Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar and Bhojpuri songs about ‘bringing home fair Kashmiri brides‘.

While people across India might dismiss these expressions as crass but harmless nonsense, sexual violence has been an inseparable part of the Indian story in the region. The presence of armed uniformed men might make people in the rest of India feel secure, but it brings discomfort to women walking on the streets in Kashmir. Every child knows about the mass rapes in Kunan-Poshpora. Such incidents might not take place anymore, but stories of wedding parties being massacred and brides gangraped in the 1990s are etched in the collective memory of the Kashmiri nation.

Yet another source of fear is the National Register of Citizens (NRC). People who are aware of the developments in Assam seem to be certain that a similar fate awaits them whenever the NRC is updated in Kashmir. I heard some people nervously joking about returning to Central Asia where their paternal ancestors had migrated from centuries ago.

The only supporter of the striking down of Article 370 I came across was a 17-year-old medical aspirant. He was happy that the 50% reservation for women in medical colleges in the state would be done away with and he would have a better chance of getting a medical seat.

People in general are concerned about cultural imperialism and changes in demography. Some feel that these problems would be limited to Jammu since they don’t expect the security situation to improve for outsiders to be willing to settle down in Kashmir. An increase in the number of local militants is being seen as a certainty. The arrival of Taliban fighters from Afghanistan a very real possibility.

People are also worried about the destruction of the state’s institutions and loss of local control over its economy. These fears are not unfounded as Tourism Development Corporations of other states are lining up to buy land in the state.

A boy jumps into the Dal Lake, days before the August 5 decision was announced. Photo: Reuters

These developments would certainly come at the cost of our own JKTDC. Privatisation of electricity distribution, which would result in higher electricity tariffs, is another cause for concern, especially for the poor who depend on old water boilers to get through the harsh winters.

The whole situation can be best summed up by something a CRPF jawan told my grandfather. “Sab kuch theek chal raha tha yahan. Neta log ne bekaar mei bigaad diya.

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As of Wednesday (September 4), restrictions on movement have been reimposed as a teenager injured in a clash earlier in August passed away on Tuesday. Mobile networks are still down in the entire region, except a few areas in 2 districts. Landlines were first restored in some pockets of Srinagar on August 16-17 and disconnected again on August 19.

At present, services in most parts of Srinagar and Ganderbal have been restored but remain unreliable. There’s no way to verify the administration’s claim that all landlines are working. In any case, people are hesitant to discuss the developments over the phone for fear of being under surveillance and having their phones disconnected.

Calling stations have been set up in police stations for civilians to contact their relatives outside Kashmir but the number of such stations is nowhere near enough. Moreover, a considerable number of Kashmiris work and study overseas. Their families can’t make international calls from these stations. A couple in my neighbourhood got to hear their son’s voice two weeks after he had left for Russia when a stranger knocked on their door with a voice note on his phone that he had received from their son’s friend in Delhi.

Several others are still waiting to hear from their children. Private landline connections, which are extremely rare, are being used by entire neighbourhoods to communicate with their loved ones. Cue for the elders to share stories about similar situations in the 1990s.

Schools in Kashmir remain shut and are expected to open only after mobile networks are restored. No parent is willing to let his kids out of sight in these times of uncertainty, all the more so because there would be no way to communicate in case of any emergency. There’s no shortage of basic food items, although it’s hard to find shops that are open. Till last week, there was a shortage of medical supplies required for routine tests at the maternity hospital in Soura. 

A man injured by a pellet gun lies in a Kashmir hospital. Credit: Reuters

A man injured by a pellet gun lies in a Kashmir hospital. Credit: Reuters

Muharram processions, which are usually restricted to the interior areas of the city away from any major roads, have been completely banned this year. Some people in a Shia-dominated area called Zadibal were beaten up by the police earlier in the week when they tried to gather to protest the move.

All over Srinagar, men and even young boys are being randomly detained by the police. There are almost no ground reports in local newspapers about other parts of Kashmir. There have been several pellet injuries and at least one death that can be directly attributed to government forces. Multiple news outlets are reporting two more deaths caused due to inhalation of tear gas. Other reports suggest vandalisation of private property and brutal torture of civilians in the more remote parts of the valley. I did see a few vehicles that had been damaged by security forces in Srinagar itself.

We might never know the actual cost to human life as deaths due to lack of emergency medical care won’t be accounted for. Moreover, the psychological impact of severe restrictions on a population already battling mental health issues thanks to 30 years of conflict can’t be overstated.

Also read: Ground Report: Kashmir’s Blackout Is Triggering a New Wave of Mental Health Issues

While Indian ministers, officials and mediapersons are lying to the entire world, trying their best to paint a picture of ‘peace and normalcy’ in Kashmir, their Pakistani counterparts are telling a story which, although slightly exaggerated, is much closer to the truth.

Their motives might be rooted in their own selfish strategic and political interests but they are at least providing a voice to Kashmiris who have been silenced and are unable to speak for themselves. So in case anyone is wondering why some Kashmiris hold so much love for Pakistan, there’s your answer.

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It would take a lot of courage for any local to make a case for Indian democracy which, even prior to this month, was unpalatable to a section of the Kashmiri populace; a section that has always perceived Indian authorities as being anti-Kashmiri and anti-Muslim; a section that considers Indian Muslims naive for their faith in India’s democracy and its institutions.

This section of people will grow and these beliefs will be strengthened as almost all political parties, which claim to be struggling against the anti-democratic and anti-federal practices of the BJP, came together in parliament to reduce the only Muslim-majority state in India to a centrally-ruled territory. M.A. Jinnah was proven right and everyone else was proven wrong.

There is an immense amount of anger and anxiety among the people. I hate to think what would happen when the fear subsides and the anger finally bursts forth.

In 1948, the Muslim majority state of J&K acceded to a nation that had given to itself a liberal constitution promising equal rights and opportunities to all its citizens, irrespective of religion.

In 2019, it has been disintegrated and forcibly ‘integrated’ into a majoritarian state that is being ruled by a regime with no respect for civil rights or constitutional norms. It is a government that has been very open about its intentions to convert India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ where minorities will be treated as second-class citizens.

This is now a nation which celebrates as the rights of over seven million people are snatched away while they are held in an open-air prison.

The near absence of protests by Indian ‘liberals’ came as a rude shock to me personally. But as a non-Kashmiri friend of mine remarked, when it comes to Kashmir, even liberals turn a blind eye.

The author is an independent Kashmiri writer who has been living in Delhi since 2008 and has chosen to stay anonymous as Kashmiris within and outside the country are being targeted by authorities even over Facebook posts.