Quiet and on the edge
27 September 2019
A first-time visitor’s observations of present-day Kashmir.
“Welcome to Paradise on Earth”, read an LCD display put up by Jammu & Kashmir Tourism at the arrival lounge of the Srinagar Airport. As people milled around – unusually quietly and hastily – collecting their check-in baggage, they spoke in whispers on finally being able to meet their families after weeks, but refrained from talking about the lockdown that had kept them away from their loved ones in the first place.
This was my first trip to the valley – one that I had long awaited. I grew up on tales about Kashmir’s stunning beauty and sweet apples, from my parents who had chosen the valley as their honeymoon destination and countless others. In my adolescence, Bollywood films like Roja and Mission Kashmir doled out romanticised pictures of a valley caught in conflict – pictures that were disrupted when I studied towards and began working as a journalist. In due course, I made Kashmiri friends who spoke of their home as ‘occupied territory’; who spoke of historical injustices, and human-rights violations like mass killings, sexual violence, torture and illegal detentions.
Over the past few years, my experiences while reporting on the Maoist conflict in India only deepened my interest in seeing and understanding the conflict in the valley for myself. After the Indian government imposed a clampdown in Kashmir this August, I ached to go—to see the theatre of conflict for myself, but also to inquire after friends who live in Srinagar. Finally, I was able to team up with a senior journalist to travel to Kashmir as his photographer.
“We have lived under Indian occupation for decades,” a Kashmiri friend who lives in Mumbai told me days before my visit. “But this time, it’s different… They’ve designed barricades and checkpoints in a way that makes it extremely difficult to get around. So although your destination may be only 500 metres away, and although you might be able to see it, barricades in place would require you to take several detours – perhaps travel 5 km, and still not reach.”
Yet, while boarding the flight to Srinagar in the first week of September, I was confident of getting around despite the obstacles, and the deserted streets I had seen in recent media reports. I merely had to reach the house of one of the two university professors I knew closely, or so I thought. But nothing had prepared me for the silence that hung heavy over Srinagar’s streets despite the heavy presence of military boots. Nothing had prepared me for their piercing gazes from the checkpoints that seemed to relentlessly question who I was and what business I had there. The checkpoints and gazes became more insistent around downtown Srinagar – where the university professors lived – and I realised, to my dismay, how entire neighbourhoods had been cordoned off and turned into open-air prisons.
Following weeks of military lockdown and media blackout in the immediate aftermath of the 5 August decision to take away the special status of Jammu & Kashmir, the Indian government has repeatedly claimed that normalcy had returned to the state. Large sections of the national and local media in India have beamed visuals from Kashmir, of open bazaars filled with eager buyers, and claimed it as proof that Kashmir was back to normal after decades of violence following the outbreak of militancy in the 1990s.
On the ground in Srinagar, my impressions on the first evening suggested things were indeed returning to normal, if not normal. People were out and about on the streets: walking, talking, sitting in open spaces. Roadside vendors and stray shops with their shutters half-open sold fruits, vegetables, groceries and warm clothing for the upcoming winter, to young and old, men and women. The sun was setting over the Dal Lake, its clear waters reflecting the twilight and the scores of people sitting, standing or walking along its banks. But as darkness fell, this picture of normalcy ruptured. It then lay suspended till the next evening – the ensuing twilight hour, when the city and its people decided to drape on the robe of normalcy again. Outside of these twilight enactments of normalcy, I witnessed fear, rage, boredom and uncertainty looming large over the lives of a people, continuing to live under military lockdown.
“For the first 20 days or so, despite the much publicised [by the government] relaxation in curfew, nobody ventured out unless they really needed to,” Asgar Beg, a businessman I met through a local contact told me.“My father, who retired from Jammu & Kashmir police with 250 splinter injuries [sustained in a blast], suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is extremely important for PTSD patients to see their doctor regularly, it’s their lifeline of sorts. But I was only able to take him to the doctor after 27 days because moving around, even with valid reasons, was a hassle,” he said.
Subsequently, I visited the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) and the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital in Srinagar, two of the city’s best government-run hospitals. Their premises were deserted, and the few patients I met said they had made their way to the hospital enduring several rounds of questioning from security personnel along the way. When I visited, the primary-health centres were still shut, as were private hospitals and health clinics. There have been reports of patients suffering acutely for want of chemotherapy, dialysis, and other essential medical procedures.
Asgar Beg lives in Nowhatta, part of downtown Srinagar, which has been the hub of anti-India protests over the past few decades. Here the barricades were manned by paramilitary personnel in full riot gear, armed with automatic rifles, standing only five metres apart in some areas. Across downtown neighbourhoods, roads were mostly deserted even in the evenings, while placards atop military barricades declared, “Everyone is a suspect. Please prove your identity.”
A fire broke out in the Natipora locality of downtown Srinagar on 30 August. “Mobile phone services were suspended, as was the fire helpline. So our only option was to travel personally to the fire station,” said Javed Mattoo, a witness to the fire who lives in the locality. Although the fire station was only four kilometres away along the main road, on his way, Javed’s friend was stopped at six barricades, and questioned at each stop for at least ten minutes. “By the time he reached the fire station, everything was burnt to ashes,” Mattoo said.
A local journalist from downtown Srinagar, who requested anonymity fearing reprisals, said there had been at least 18 incidents of fire in Srinagar alone since the blockade. “In most cases, there was nothing left to save,” he rued. The blockade, he said, was inflicting a body blow to the well-being of ordinary Kashmiris. “My mother’s brother was very sick when the blockade was imposed. Phone lines were suspended, so we tried visiting him, but were turned back by security personnel every time, despite my having a curfew pass and explaining the situation to them. Finally, when we managed to reach my uncle’s house six days later, we found he had died two days ago!”
“Cut off in every way, we do not know what is happening beyond our neighbourhood – we don’t know who is living or dead,” he said.
“Blockades are very much part of a psychological operation,” said a high-ranking officer of the Jammu & Kashmir police who works in Srinagar, requesting anonymity. “Look at the road barricades, for instance. They block off one side of the road, and make vehicles plying in both directions drive in one lane. This creates a false sense of heavy traffic flow, conveying normalcy. It also causes traffic snarls often, thus leading to the harassment of the average Kashmiri,” said the Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who has served in different parts of the state for the last 20 years.
Important places of worship – like Hazratbal, Khanqah and Idgah – remained out of bounds for citizens, who were only allowed to offer prayers in their respective neighbourhood mosques, also heavily guarded. Several Kashmiris said the ban on prayers at such important religious centres was a violation of their right to practise the religion of their choice. “Why did they ban even religious processions during the month of Muharram this year?” wondered Muzammil, a student in downtown Srinagar who studies in Delhi. He said although he was ‘pro-India’, the restriction on religious activities since the lockdown made him wonder if he still lived in a democracy.
Azadi and endurance
Natipora, Javed Mattoo’s neighbourhood in downtown Srinagar, erupted in protest the day after I first met him. We were scheduled to travel together that day, to see how things were in Pulwama, where his family owns two apple orchards. Public transport was completely shut down. A handful of private cab operators still functioning in Srinagar had doubled or trebled their rates citing risks. Even among them, most were afraid to travel to restive towns like Shopian, Sopore and Pulwama.
I tried to reach Javed, calling him repeatedly on his landline from the hotel telephone. Although the Indian government said landlines had been restored in the valley, calls to them went through very rarely, said hotel executives. I worried for seven hours, until Javed arrived, on the edge.
“There was a massive protest in my locality this morning… Around 2000-3000 people came out on the street and started pelting stones at the soldiers [in the barricades]. They responded with pellets, forcing people to retreat till they came out again and hurled stones. This went on for hours till the police fired tear gas and what we call ‘pepper spray’– for the way it stings the eyes and nose. I saw the protestors had retreated into the interiors of the neighbourhood, and the soldiers had removed barricades to move in reinforcements into the interiors, to corner the protestors. I managed to start my car and zoom past them somehow during this brief interval,” he said in a burst.
“Almost 150 people must have been injured today by pellets,” he went on, adding few would likely be able to see doctors due to prevailing restrictions and fears of arrest. Residents of the Dal Gate area spoke of another big protest around a week ago when over 200 people sustained pellet injuries. The caretaker of the local mosque had used the public-address system to request doctors to treat the injured people who had taken refuge in the mosque, they said. “A few doctors from SKIMS who heard the announcement took a boat across the Anchar Lake and treated the injured. But a day later, the forces detained the caretaker of the mosque,” they said.
I heard similar stories of protests – or rage, fear, injuries and detainment while travelling through restive neighbourhoods like Soura, Nowhatta, Khaniar, Bohri Kadal, Razia Kadal, Lal Bazaar, Idgah and Safa Kadal under the cover of the night, when security forces retreat from the streets to their quarters. Most people had no idea about protests in other areas, as each neighbourhood had been barricaded along its perimeters, and phone lines, internet and newspaper supply remained suspended.
Yet, in neighbourhood after neighbourhood, there was a sense of rage, and loss. If nothing else was visible, the walls – with spray-painted slogans like “Indian dogs go back” and “We want azadi” – voiced this rage. Slogans such as these had been hurriedly blackened over in the days following the lockdown, possibly by government forces. But this had done little to arrest people’s rage against India, and neighbourhoods erupted in protests every now and then.
Conversations with protestors and residents of neighbourhoods where protests have taken place suggested a pattern to how the security establishment was responding to stone pelting following the lockdown. When the forces nabbed first-time stone pelters, they let them off with a ‘warning’, but not before extracting from them the details of 15 family members, including their Aadhar numbers and addresses, locals told me. First-time offenders were let off only after signing a declaration saying if they were caught stone pelting again, all 15 of their relatives would be arrested, according to locals who spoke with me.
“They’re only interested in putting our children behind bars, in taking away our identity and culture. But we will not permit this,” said residents of Lal Bazaar, echoing what many others had said elsewhere. “We’re mostly keeping quiet now because we have no other option,” said an old man who has witnessed several phases of militancy since the 1990s. “But we’re also keeping quiet because we want to out-tire them,” he said, referring to the civil curfew in place in the city.
Although Section 144 – of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) – that bars the assembly of more than four people in an area was relaxed in parts of Srinagar, and schools and government offices had been ordered to function normally, traders, shopkeepers, doctors, travel agents, teachers, students and government servants stayed away from their workplaces, enforcing a civil curfew across the town.
When night descended, men from several downtown neighbourhoods took to the streets to enforce the leaderless civil curfew. They put up their own barricades, sometimes digging trenches on roads along the periphery of their neighbourhood, and stood vigil to thwart a possible raid by security forces at night. They observed blackouts – turning off street lights and sometimes smashing headlights of vehicles that refused to switch off their lights while travelling through their neighbourhoods in the dark.
In separate conversations, they all said that the security forces would not dare enter their neighbourhoods in the light of day. The IPS officer quoted earlier couldn’t agree more. “Even a senior officer with a 500-strong team would think several times before venturing into these neighbourhoods before the lockdown,” he said. “Post lockdown, the anger has only increased.”
Acting normal, getting by
“Curfew is relaxed from six to nine in the mornings and the evenings, from the military as well as the civil side,” said Shabbir, an autorickshaw driver, as we had tea on the banks of the Dal Lake at twilight, witnessing what the government and much of the Indian media calls ‘normalcy’.
A street vendor overhearing us joined the conversation. “The forces start their announcements regarding restrictions by around 6.30 – 7.00 am, and begin moving into the city, manning the barricades on its streets. It is during those early hours, before 9 am, that I manage to buy fruits to sell from the mandi,” he said.
I found that some shops selling groceries, medicines and other essential items opened their shutters halfway during the morning relaxation hours, when business was conducted briskly and quietly. In the evenings, street vendors selling vegetables, fruits, clothes and blankets plied their trade. They engaged customers, sometimes with singsong calls, but few bought anything, while many examined what wason offer listlessly.
“I bring out my auto only in the evening, around 6.00 – 6.30 pm when the forces begin moving back to their base,” continued Shabbir. “I ply passengers till 9 pm, after which I return home because you never know what might happen in the night.”
“The people you see around are mostly just desperate to see other faces and be out in the open,” said Irfan Ahmed, a radio producer and poet, as we sat by the garden in Rajbagh. “They run errands, buy things, meet relatives, or walk the streets aimlessly. You will hardly see a smile on their faces,” he said. He spoke of his longing for close friends, and the lack of spaces where they could meet and talk freely, without being watched over by security personnel.
“I started venturing out on the streets last week because I was tired of looking at the same faces, and same walls; I was tired of being bored,” said Irfan. “Out here, it’s at least nice to see other people, to witness life going on, to feel as if everything is normal, if only for a while.”
The radio station he works for stopped airing all locally produced programmes on 5 August. “All radio jockeys were taken off air, as also infotainment programmes and updates about weather, traffic, promotional offers etc. We were asked to play music on loop, mostly Punjabi and Bollywood fare,” he said.
In any case, hardly anyone seemed to be listening to music in the parts of Srinagar I travelled in over five days. Few were watching TV either, if only because local channels like Gulistan TV were carrying text messages about the well-being of Kashmiris who were travelling or living outside the valley: “I have reached Jammu safely. Will reach home on Tuesday, Inshallah,” Junaid Irshad conveyed to his parents through Gulistan TV’s ticker; “I have reached Pulwama safely,” Raees Bhat told his brother; “We are fine in Chennai,” Buru Khan told his relatives in Baramulla.
How were people getting by without access to basic provisions, I asked Irfan. “This city lives by intuition,” he said, adding that when people noticed incessant helicopter sorties throughout the night around ten days prior to 5 August, they knew something was amiss although the Indian government maintained there was no major change in the offing.
“Kashmiris normally stock up essential supplies to see them through four harsh winter months by mid-August or so. On noticing endless helicopter sorties by July end, we advanced our plans, and most families managed to stock up what they needed,” he said, adding, “Kashmiris have a strong sense of community, so whenever a family falls short of provisions, neighbours help them through.”
Valley of no answers
I witnessed a glimpse of the strong sense of community among Kashmiris in the Badambagh locality of Srinagar, at a communal gathering-cum-meal at the house of one of the residents. Those present in the gathering told me they took turns to host such communal meals every day during the month of Muharram. Enjoying a meal of pounded meatballs and sheikh kababs, they recalled delicious meals from the past few days, alongside enquiries about the well-being of so-and-so.
In the dark about how long the restrictions would continue, they spoke of losses facing them in the apple harvesting season that begins around mid-September. “The main market for Kashmir’s produce is in Srinagar, but only a handful of trucks are plying between the city and other parts of the valley. That, too, only in the nights, when security personnel are off the streets. If things continue like this, all our produce will rot,” said Ahmed Bhat, who owns an orchard in Shopian.
In the absence of transport and communication facilities, regular buyers couldn’t reach or procure apples from producers they had traded with for years. Sensing the disquiet, the Indian government announced that the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED) would buy apples from farmers this year. But it means little as the agency has no infrastructure or presence on the ground to implement this mandate. “Given how apples are a crucial part of the economy in Kashmir, the lockdown will likely lead to a sustained economic crisis,” rued Bhat, while the others agreed.
Discussions led to questions: how long would the restrictions continue? When would phone connections be restored, or the internet? What would happen once they were restored? Will the ranks of local militants soar, like it happened during similar but far less intense lockdowns of 2008, 2010 and 2016? There were no real answers at the gathering, or elsewhere.
Not even the IPS officer who oversees the psychological operation had answers. “Who knows what might happen. Even the top officials have no clue if and when phone and internet services might be restored. Things have been unusually quiet in the valley, which is used to seeing four-five encounters between security forces and militants every day. Yet this sense of calm is deceiving for what it conceals… nobody knows for sure,” he said.
~Aritra Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and researcher. His interests lie in politics, culture, caste and conflict, and he can be reached at @b_aritra on Instagram and Twitter.