Majid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist and contributor to Asia Sentinel. When the territory was suddenly annexed by India, we asked for a view from inside the siege. For nearly three weeks he was unable to communicate with the outside world when India cut off all contact. Here is his report.
On August 5, the Jammu and Kashmir territory was suddenly unilaterally stripped of its statehood and reduced to a Union territory without seeking the consent of its people or the state legislature. It was the first day of a siege that cost me the ability to communicate with the outside world as a journalist. A strict indefinite curfew was enforced overnight.
What occurred since August 5 is unending monotony punctuated by pugnacious, sometimes confused police attempting to keep a leash on 100,000 sq km of territory peopled by 12.5 million residents, 67 percent of them Muslim, that heretofore has been claimed by both Pakistan and India, although India has retained control. I live in what has rightfully been called a Himalayan paradise – except for the politics – that has been the subject of dispute since Partition in 1947.
All the phone lines are snapped. Not a single mobile phone or a landline phone has worked until now. Mobile Internet, including broadband internet, also shut. People are unable to communicate with each other, disconnected from the outside world.
The national highway closer to our home in Srinagar city outskirts, otherwise buzzing with around-the-clock traffic, was suddenly quiet. The city turned into a ghost town populated by additional troops, its roads blocked by innumerable barricades and coils of concertina wire. In other places, traffic jams have assumed astounding proportions as the flow of business in or out came to a stop, triggered not by the blockade but by heavy rains that caused a massive landslide on the main highway.
Early next morning, on August 6, the doorbell rings. It’s the milkman’s son. I will deliver milk again when they lift the curfew, or allow us to move around, he says before quickly heading off on his cycle. He’s not sure if he’ll be allowed to return on the same route. The municipality worker who collects trash bins every day hasn’t turned up. The daily newspaper is also not delivered.
The next day, the newspaper is delivered, but it’s only a couple of pages. Its inner pages are full of columns about wedding invitations cancelled due to the ‘prevailing situation’ in the valley.
The mobile phones have been rendered useless, turned into clocks. At the end of every curfewed day, people speculate when the government authorities will lift the ban at least on landline phones so that they can make calls and enquire about the welfare of their near and dear ones. There are no clear answers.
Nothing is certain in the siege and curfew, nothing is certain except the siege and curfew. The news channels say “uneasy calm” prevails in the valley at the end of every other day. But there’s no calm, only an enforced silence.
On news channels, there’s instant jubilation after the removal of article 370, which accords Jammu and Kashmir special status, and division of the state into union territory. Firecrackers burst on the streets in New Delhi and elsewhere. There’s proud waving of Indian flags.
The constitutional deceit and subversion are celebrated as some sort of victory for the nation. It’s supposed to be some kind of a ‘historic day’ as well. The spokespersons of the government even proclaim on news channels that the people of the valley are also celebrating and happy with the revocation.
The news anchors repeat what the government spokespersons say instead of questioning the unprecedented lockdown. On the air, the news anchors, veteran ‘analysts’ and some award-winning senior ‘journalists’ sound more like government spokespersons than independent members of the press. They make it clear on whose side they’re on.
They speak on our behalf, too, without seeking our opinion, even as more than 10 million people are locked up and continue to suffer under curfew. “Total integration,” “Kashmir integrated,” “Modi-fied Kashmir,” “Modi’s Naya Kashmir” – these are some of the headlines and hashtags screaming in bold letters on the news channels.
The people of Kashmir can’t go online to express their views. After every other day of the curfew, the government releases smartly edited videos showing vehicles plying roads, some shops opened in other places.
The National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of India, Ajit Doval, is shown going around the besieged town, talking, laughing and eating with locals on some roadside, apparently to portray normalcy in time of curfews, restrictions, and a total, state-enforced communication blockade. The idea is to show the siege as “normalcy”.
One day I leave home, hoping to cross a main road to a meet a friend who lives on the other side. One yearns for outside human contact, a normal conversation under siege. The road is littered with broken brick fragments and blockades. A while ago, a group of boys had pelted stones at the Central Reserve Police and police forces blocking the road. As I attempt to cross the road, I can see a couple of people are prevented from moving ahead.
The agitated personnel shout at them, threateningly waving their batons and attempting to charge at them. One of them is let go by a couple of reserve police after he pleads repeatedly that he’s to buy some emergency medicine from a nearby medical shop. I return home, thinking that I’ll to make another attempt to cross the road later in the day.
Next day, I go out briefly to attempt to get cash from a nearby ATM. There’s a signboard attached to the door of the ATM: “No Cash.” The ATM guard says the cash was available but was exhausted in a few hours after it was thronged by too many people.
A couple of afternoons later, my father’s friend, a retired professor of history, visits our home. He was able to make it after using inner roads, bypassing the barricades and troops stationed on the main road. He says people are shocked and disappointed and angry after the BJP government removed article 370 and divided the state into union territories.
It’s the great betrayal, he adds in a dejected tone, and it will have far-reaching consequences. The sudden passage of the bill introduced secretly by the ruling government in the parliament and the subsequent imposition of curfew has also affected his peace of mind.
“I’m unable to even focus and write something on this issue these days,” he says. “This has never happened to me in the past,” he adds. “I just spend the day feeling restless and anxious at home, moving from one room to another.”
Another relative who visited briefly after a few days managed to somehow get a curfew pass from a local police officer he knew. “I’ve become a telephone booth guy,” the exhausted officer had told him as desperate people visited his station in large numbers to make urgent phone calls to their relatives and students outside the valley as only his phone was working in their area.
He says the additional reserve personnel suddenly stationed in their area are clueless about the place they were suddenly brought in to contain protests. “Is this Ladakh?” he says one of the personnel asked him near a street closer to their home in the Hazratbal area of the city. It is not. Ladakh is a separate province that has also been subsumed into India.
My five-year-old daughter gets bored after a few days of being confined to home under curfew. After exhausting all TV cartoon channels, she asks when she’ll be able to go to school again or visit her cousins. “Baba, when will schools open? Why can’t we go anywhere?” she asked one morning. Soon, I would say, trying to sound hopeful.
The sudden imposition of the curfew has trapped my mother-in-law in our home. She has been praying and hoping that her husband, my father-in-law, who’s a stroke patient and bedridden since last year, has enough medication at their home in another district to survive the indefinite curfew. For the first time in her life, she hasn’t been able to even talk to him for more than 10 days now.
The total communication blockade meant that we couldn’t even greet them on phone on the day of Eid. She often returns to her prayer mat, endlessly praying with moist eyes. She doesn’t even know if the rest of her family is okay. With every passing day, her anxiety and restlessness grow despite our assurances that everything will be fine. It’s unbearable to see her like that – in pain, day after day, unable to communicate with her own family members.
We can do nothing except hope that the siege ends soon. Fortunately, the authorities can’t put any restrictions or curfew people’s hopes. Hope survives – and outlives – the siege.