On the afternoon of August 24 in Srinagar, we watched a household glued to their television, anxious to see if the government would allow a delegation of 12 MPs to visit their besieged city.
A belligerent news anchor amplified the government’s charge of the MPs “furthering Pakistan’s agenda,” and “disrupting normalcy”. As news followed of the government forcing the MPs to head back to Delhi, the faces in the room visibly fell.
Among them, a lecturer retorted, “Yes, there is normalcy in Kashmir. The way there is normalcy in a graveyard.”
Troops manning haunted neighbourhoods, streets and bridges, rows of shops and businesses shuttered in protest and fear, schools with no children, empty colleges with paramilitary at their gates, crippling restrictions on movement, along with the suspension of transport, postal, courier, mobile connectivity, internet services and most landlines marked the ‘normalcy’ of our week-long visit to Kashmir.
Our trip to the Valley, a personal visit, had been planned long ago. Then, early in August, came the momentous developments of the government sending additional troops to what is now the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, imposing a lockdown, reading down Articles 370 and 35A, and breaking up and downgrading J&K into Union Territories. Friends and relatives discouraged us from going ahead with our trip. But we felt that at a time like this, when a veritable iron curtain had been drawn over the Valley, it was even more important to reach out to people there, especially since one of us comes from a Kashmiri Pandit family of mainland India.
Through our time there, interactions with people were infused with pain, anger and mistrust. The terms we heard most often were “betrayal” and “feeling suffocated”. We witnessed resilience and dark humour trying to cope with basic insecurity. We also saw a lot of fear: most of the 50-odd people we met sought anonymity while voicing their anguish.
“There is no peace in our hearts, or in our minds. We are deeply perturbed about what the future will bring,” a visibly tormented apple farmer of a village in south Kashmir told us. “I urge the people of India to please understand our pain. We too yearn for peace.” His vacant-eyed, four-year-old daughter sat through our hour-long conversation, without speaking a word.
An action showcased to the country as “bold” and “decisive” has reflected in the lives of people here as a very real absence of human outreach, state accountability, and credible information about the state’s actions and its future strategy. “All our leaders have been put under house arrest, or sent to prisons. Where should a people go? To whom should we voice our pain?” a young woman in downtown Srinagar asked one of us.
“We have just been abandoned to grope in the dark,” another said.
Mass detentions of thousands, including of children (as outlets like BBC, The New York Times and The Quint have reported), and a dread of who authorities will seize next heighten people’s sense of being bereft. Multiple local journalists narrated stories of receiving threats from authorities or censorship, and of their newsrooms in mainland India, which prevented them reporting what they were seeing – a potent reality obscured by officials handing out data on the number of curfew passes issued.
The sense of injustice over the government’s far-reaching decisions is aggravated by the feeling of being silenced with the gun, as well as bitterness about the government’s timing. In the peak season, tourists were evacuated, causing related local incomes to collapse. Bakeries have lakhs of rupees of debt and unsold wares, prepared in anticipation of Eid festivities.
Weddings, at the height of the region’s wedding season are being cancelled or downsized, with the region’s famed waazas (master chefs) and their workers rendered idle in the very months of the year when they earn the most. In Shopian district, a leading pear and apple-growing area of the country, we saw silent market yards and orchards of fruit-laden trees. A region that should have buzzed with activity was bleeding crores of rupees every day.
As with demonetisation, there will likely be no accounting of the economic losses borne by millions.
Many voiced a sense of betrayal not just by the Centre, but also the people. In downtown Srinagar, a gathering asked one of us, “It has been 20 days. Why are so many Indians silent? Are they okay with these lies?” A man piped in, “Even the Supreme Court does not care.” A manager in his sixties told us sadly, “Throughout my life, I had been pro-India, and would argue with my friends for its democracy. No longer…” Several wondered where India’s democracy was headed.
The severe practical and emotional impacts of the complete communication lockdown on an entire population are also going unacknowledged, both by the government, and most of us. Imagine losing all contact with a loved one, as you worry to death for them. Or try getting through a week without using any phone and internet. This is what millions are enduring in J&K for a month now, with no relief in sight.
A young man gave us hundred rupees, requesting us to deposit it in his bank account so that his brother could submit the fee for an exam.
“There is a fear psychosis and dread over how to get through each day like this. Everything is shut and there is nothing to do but wait,” another man said.
“The government has disconnected us from the world,” said a mother who hadn’t spoken to her daughter and grandchild in three weeks. “Kitna lonely banaake rakh diya hai humein. (How lonely they have rendered us.)”
An aged lawyer told us his beloved cousin had passed away and he could be informed about it only four days later. In many homes, we saw televisions tuned to one of two Urdu channels, which have been running tickers through the day of messages from children and loved ones based outside Kashmir. “We are fine. Please do not worry about us. May God keep you safe,” was the most common sentiment.
Strikingly, not once did questions of the future evoke a sense of joy or hope, not even from the young. A youth in a village in Shopian district worried that the government’s actions would sideline the common person, and birth “a bumper crop of militants” with renewed strife and bloodshed. A poetry-loving teacher in the town said, “People like us will live in silence, never speaking out for fear of who might be listening, and what repercussions might follow from militants or security forces.” An elderly Kashmiri Pandit schoolteacher in Srinagar rued, “There is no clear policy on Kashmir. There has never been one. We Kashmiris will continue to suffer.”
In all the conversations we had, appeals to notions of dignity, respect and autonomy reminded us that Kashmiris still think of Indians as fellow human beings, even in the current absence of reciprocity. People who raged at us about the offensive portrayal of Kashmir on Indian TV news channels, and the government’s zulm (‘injustice’), made it a point to invite us to share a cup of tea. Many, on discovering one of us is Kashmiri, turned the famed hospitality a notch higher. Almost everyone we met shook our hands warmly when we bid goodbye, or embraced us with love.
We even witnessed occasional moments of empathy towards the forces. “Look at their strained faces,” a man in Srinagar said. “We are in a jail, and so are they.”
We left the Valley feeling distressed about the state of the institutions that make our democracy. And about how readily, most of us now box the people of J&K and their tormented history, into a muscular narrative, set by the government, and Indian television news. Our return reminded us that our view remains unpopular.
The government still defends its every action as beneficial, seeing no value in dialogue or difference. The communications lockdown, we are still told, nurtures normalcy. The presence of a million troops in the Valley, one for every seven people, is necessary counter-terrorism. TV channels belt out the narrative of a triumphant nation. Above all, many Indians accept this picture without questions, if not loud approval.
In all this, we seem to not care that in ‘integrating’ a people via an armed siege, in silencing their voices and dismissing their pain, we are also abrogating our own humanity.
Aniket Aga is an academic. Chitrangada Choudhury is a journalist and researcher.