Teachers and students of Evergreen Public School in Tahab village in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district had no reason to celebrate Teachers’ Day. They did not have a reason to turn up either. The ‘civil curfew’ in the region has entered its second month. After the 5 August announcement of abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, along with the bifurcation of the state into two union territories, the people of Kashmir have voluntarily shut their businesses in protest. The schools and colleges, too, remain closed. Internet shutdown by the government remains in place, while all telephone exchanges are now operational.
Communication lockdown is fuelling speculation and rumours which are making people anxious. Taufeeq (name changed to protect identity), 26, of Tahab village informed The Quint that five people died in police firing in downtown Srinagar on the evening of 4 September. This reporter replied that no such incident occurred since she was present in the area at that time. A look of disbelief dawned on his face. When he saw the time-stamped videos and photographs of iconic and identifiable sites of downtown Srinagar on the reporter’s device, Taufeeq admitted that he was, perhaps, misinformed.
Tahab is a big village in Pulwama where around 1,600 families live, including five Kashmiri Pandit households. Omar (name changed), 56, was proud to share that the village has always treated the Pandits as their own. “It’s a lie that the Pandits were chased away from Kashmir by Muslims.” He pointed towards the Shiv temple –presently under renovation – opposite Evergreen Public School. Upon being asked about the situation in the village and the district at large, an agitated Omar replied, “Why are you asking about the situation? Have you brought any good news from Delhi?”
Raees (name changed), 25, told that the civil curfew will go on till Kashmiris get azaadi. When asked what that meant for him, he replied that it was a question of separate identity: free from India and Pakistan. “Burhan Wani was so highly educated, why did he have to pick up a gun? For azaadi.” This reporter did not get to discuss Wani’s educational credentials as Raees moved to a J&K police constable at a nearby post to use the latter’s working mobile phone to make a call to his loved ones.
In the town of Pulwama, men – young and old – could be seen sitting outside shut and half-shut shops. Whenever a customer came, the shutters were lifted to carry out the transaction. It is important to note that at many places in the Valley, A4 sized pamphlets can be found pasted on walls warning the shopkeepers against opening their shops. The same pamphlets also warn the J&K police personnel to “sit quietly” in their homes lest they face violent consequences. Two different pamphlets purportedly issued by Lashkar–e–Taiba (hand-written and carrying a reference number) and Hizbul Mujahideen (printed and stamped) have been found by The Quint.
Mudassir (name changed), 24, runs a small shop out of a wood-and-tin shed. He signalled this reporter to come to his shed, away from the others. “I’m not scared of anybody but the awaam. Once the awaam loses its mind, it gets scary. How can I open my shop when nobody else is operating openly? I have to be discreet, too. I don’t want to be singled out.” He said he wished to talk more but would wait for the mobile connectivity to restore.
Along the Srinagar-Shopian route, many such shopkeepers are keeping their shutters down owing to peer pressure and threats from militants. Fear is feasting on speculation. The cab driver Masood, 45, was reluctant to make a day trip from Srinagar to Shopian. He had heard of fierce stone-pelting in the towns of Kakapora, Pulwama, and Shopian. He agreed to undertake the journey only on the condition that he would under no circumstances be forced to start for Srinagar after it got dark. He also refused to enter the village of Memender upon reaching district Shopian. Adil, a Tata Sumo driver in Shopian town, agreed to help.
People of Memender, a village infamous for the frequency and intensity of stone-pelting incidents, were reluctant to express their emotions initially. However, a bunch of youngsters began to talk eventually. An elderly man, who refused to share his name, said in broken English, “We’ll talk to you only after you restore freedom of speech and expression.”
A young man invited the reporter to a house to share the plight of his cousin. “Umar Naikoo, my minor cousin, has been picked up by the forces and sent to Bihar-Orissa,” he said. He further shared that Omar was also picked up in 2016 for stone-pelting. When asked to share a DOB proof, one of Umar’s four sisters produced a certificate from ‘Office of the Principal of Maktabia Islamia High School, Shopian, Kashmir 192303’ stating (in hand) that his date of birth is 16 March 2005.
“We want azaadi. Even if everyone in Memender dies and only this boy is alive, he will also demand azaadi,” an elderly man pointed towards a toddler in the Naikoo household.
Memender’s shopkeepers did not want their open shops to be photographed. From a first-storey shop a heavy-set man threatened, “Delete the photo right now.” Back in Shopian, there was no sign of any police, CRPF or army deployment, apart from a bunch of 6-7 CRPF personnel guarding the “big iron bridge” at the outskirts of the town.
Back in Srinagar, rumours about “bad situation” and unsafe roads in “South Kashmir” continue.
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