32 Days Since Kashmir Clampdown: Our Past Taught Us How to Survive

Over 30 days since Kashmir lost its ‘special’ status, there seems to be no sign of normalcy, writes Jehangir Ali.

4 min read
Kashmiri boys ride a bicycle carrying a carrom board in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. Image used for representational purposes.

A police pick-up van rumbled into our town in central Kashmir, and Curfew appeared in the form of a monotonous voice from a public address system on its rooftop, threatening ‘strict legal action’ against ‘offenders’.

It was 5 August 2019, and Kashmir had braced itself for ‘doomsday’.

The previous night, mobile phones, landlines and internet, including broadband, were downed in a ‘surgical strike’ by the Centre. As Home Minister Amit Shah stood in the Rajya Sabha and tabled the J&K Reorganization Bill, Kashmir was converted into a ‘beautiful prison’.

An eerie silence prevailed over our hill town.

The dragon of a security clampdown had already spread its wings. On a 200-meter long road outside home, I counted more than three dozen paramilitary troopers from faraway places of the country, who were trying to mingle with a few local policemen.

An Unusually Quiet Eid

I can’t go to work today or tomorrow, they tell me. I can’t go to the market. I can’t visit my relatives. I have been put under house-arrest but they call it ‘normalcy’. I have become a stranger in my own homeland.

Eid-ul-Azha was a few days away and we weren’t able to buy the sacrificial animal. Mother, who usually set in motion the process of buying sacrificial animal every year, didn’t want her children to be ‘sacrificed’ at the altar of ‘national interest’.

Skipping the ritual had become a new ritual in Kashmir this Eid. After all, how was one supposed to, in times of curfew, arrange for a butcher to slaughter the animal? How was the meat going to get distributed? And what about the animal hides?

“Let’s skip the ritual,” I had agreed.

On the day of Eid, my car was stopped barely 50 meters from home.

“Sir, will you mind if you don’t offer Eid prayers today? Offer them tomorrow, okay?” a young CRPF officer had told me politely, as if Eid prayers were some kind of prescription for a common cold that could be delayed by a day.

A Silence So Deafening

Eid came and went without much trouble. ‘Most peaceful Eid’, some TV anchors pointed out. Independence Day too passed without the ‘terror attacks’ the same TV anchors had warned of.  A month has now passed, but normalcy is nowhere in sight.

The security forces with automatic rifles and pellet guns and teargas propellers, are still on the roads. They come in the morning and in the evening, and watch the world around them suffer.

In the absence of any major ‘law and order disturbance’, even they are feeling restless. They don’t know when the day will come when they won’t be asked to return to these haunted streets and roads.

They had come to deal with angry mobs armed with stones and petrol bombs. Instead, they faced the silence of a graveyard.

In our town, the only playground that doubly served as a park for morning walkers has been turned into a makeshift barrack. Playing cricket in times of curfew is perhaps a ‘seditious’ act.

On the fourth day of Eid, I left home early morning to resume work. Town after town, village after village, market after market — the eerie silence of the roads populated by security forces, spoke loudly about the anger in Kashmir that no protests or stone-pelting could have conveyed.

Occasionally, even now, one finds anguished people – patients and their caregivers mostly, waving at passing cars for a lift. They depend on the mercy of commuters to reach their destinations. They are the worst victims of the shutdown.

A Journalist’s Dilemma

Over 30 days have passed but the situation in Kashmir is still fragile. Local markets that remained perpetually shut in the first week of the crisis, now open briefly in the morning, in some places. Private transport now plies with more frequency, but offering a lift to a stranger under these circumstances is a scary prospective.

For journalists it is impossible to imagine working without mobiles and internet. It is like asking a physician to administer an injection to a patient without using a syringe.

In the initial days of the communication blockade, journalists in Kashmir became the ‘story’.

Then, as days turned into weeks, we would gather at the Kashmir Press Club, a rundown building in the heart of Srinagar, or at the Media Centre set up by the government at a private hotel, to exchange bits of firsthand information about the situation in our respective areas.

As students of journalism, we were often taught to include the ‘official version’ in our stories. But our phones have turned into voice recorders, or at best cameras. With PCOs coming back to life in Kashmir, one must wait in agony outside the booth for their turn, dial some official, and it could very well be that their phone isn’t working. Thus, many efforts to make calls go in vain. You go to their offices only to find them absent.

We Kashmiris Will Weather this ‘Storm’ Too

Even today, after a month of curbs, filing a story is a difficult task, and can potentially land you in trouble. Some journalists have been reportedly asked by authorities to vacate their official accommodation.

At this time of grave uncertainty, Kashmiri editors are taking refuge in ‘self-censorship’. No story is worth your life, after all!

But Kashmir has reacted maturely to this tragic episode.

Last month when I was walking down the deserted Residency Road in Lal Chowk, a solitary civilian walking towards me, sent shivers down my spine. Our eyes met and spoke — of our mutual fears — when we crossed each other.

History often reminds us of the time when there were no roads in certain areas, and Kashmir remained cut off from the world for months during the winter months.

The killer cold taught our ancestors the art of survival despite the odds. The past three decades of political turmoil have only added to our armory of skills and innovation. We will weather this storm too.

(Jehangir Ali is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @gaamuk. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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