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No Internet, Schools Or Functional Businesses: Is This The New ‘Normal’ For Kashmir?

An abandoned Shikara in Dal Lake

Silence In The Valley

It has been more than 100 days since the Government of India, under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, abrogated a highly debated Article 370, which sought to bring the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in India, under the full-fledged rule of the central government. The August proclamation was further solidified with the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh into Union Territories, by the end of October.

Life in the valley has since been brought to a complete standstill. The authorities have imposed a total restriction on freedom of speech, assembly and movement, and severance of communication; by imposing a complete ban on the internet and partial ban on telecommunication services, in a region already under strict vigil by the army.

Tahseen Ameen, (name changed) who did his Bachelor’s of Technology at Pala’s St Joseph’s College, is from the Anantnag district of Kashmir. The evening before the August 5 proclamation, saw an unprecedented movement of army personnel, in large convoys, through the valley. Authorities had soon assured a concerned public that this had been a movement that needed no cause for worry.

But this was not the case, as Tahseen explains:
“Army raids are frequent in most parts of our towns, and there have been first-hand accounts of men in uniforms barging into homes, at any time of the day, to investigate. Most of the people here are well within the confines of their homes by 7 in the evening and live under the fear of the gun.”

Empty streets under vigil by the military apparatus

Businesses were severely hit in the Kashmir region which is today, the most militarised zone in the world. Tahseen adds, “The local traders run their business on loans. The curfews have stopped people from assembling out in the streets, and spending is done only on bare essentials as there is no money in the system to circulate.”

Owners still have to pay interest on these loans to the bank, even if the business is stagnant. Many have filed for bankruptcy and shut down their shops permanently.

The situation has also impacted the farming populace of the land. Jammu and Kashmir produce 19 lakh metric tonnes of apples each year, which accounts for almost 80 per cent of the total produce in the country today. “It is the apple season in Kashmir right now. With most of the fruit mandis closed, the farmers in some localities were forced to feed their produce to cattle,” remarked a vendor.

With markets closed, every other related business was also hit. Families are finding it extremely difficult to manage their daily household expenses, with a dwindling wallet. Men with day jobs have been forced to labour in the fields to feed their families.

A farmer reaping the first fruits of his harvest.

There seemed to be a brief respite to the three continuous months of deadlock. The railways had resumed their services halfway through November. Schools and some local shops followed suit, and the people were relieved that things were finally getting back to normal. But their hopes were crushed when the Centre stated in the Rajya Sabha, that the situation had returned to normalcy in the Union Territory. This angered the general public, and miscreants set fire to shops, and provocative posters sprung up around towns, as a mark of agitation and protest. The newfound normalcy had only been short-lived and the schools and markets have now closed, and roads remain empty.

The Situation In The Education Sector Is Particularly Alarming

Students have stayed put at homes, for three months on end, and at a huge academic loss. Colleges and schools have been shut and remain so, since the abrogation, though the centre reiterates otherwise.

Even at those schools that have reopened and are functional, the students who’ve turned up are limited to a few dozens. An air of fear still looms in the minds of parents, who aren’t willing to take the risk of sending their kids away from the safety of their homes. Schools have begun delivering assignments from door to door, to keep the students involved and in pace with the curriculum amidst the crisis.

Without access to the internet, teachers now distribute study materials on USB drives, for students to study, via phones and computers. Several makeshift schools and study centres have opened up in homes, party halls, and the outdoors, where teachers, and the educated youth have volunteered to teach for free.

Kashmiri schools re-open, but classrooms remain empty © BBC Network

“The kids grow up in fear today, exposed to men in arms and uniform at such an early age. They’re deprived of their basic right to education, which had been one among the several reasons used by the government justifying the lockdown. Internet is down. The press has been silenced. The only insight into the situation here is provided by foreign media,” Ameen says.

Article 370

Article 370, that granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, had allowed the leadership to make its own laws, in every portfolio, except finance, foreign affairs, defence, and communications. Residents lived under different laws from the rest of India, particularly in areas such as ownership of property and citizenship.

Article 35 A was introduced in 1954, which gave the local assembly in Kashmir the right to define its permanent residents and prevent outsiders from settling, buying land, taking up government jobs, or attaining an educational scholarship. It also forbade land ownership to women who married a person from outside the state.

Interestingly, the same provisions within Article 370 were used to decree itself null and void. According to the Article, it could ‘cease to exist’ through a Presidential order, in consultation with the Constitutional Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir. But the very Assembly had already been dismissed and Kashmir had been well under President’s rule at the time of the abrogation. The powers of the State Assembly had, thus, moved on to the Parliament of India, which in actuality, was the Central government, in power at the time.

Even if some Kashmiris have no qualms with the scrapping of the Article, the manner in which it was executed, is what leaves them dejected. Tahseen had been an enthusiastic advocate of technology, and open-sourcing, while at college here in Kerala. He has always been amused by the cheerful harmony among the people in the state. Back home, his land has been torn apart by years of misgovernance by plagued policies.

“ I feel like an outsider in my own land when there is a soldier posted at my doorstep. Our leaders are placed under house arrest. The people are worried, their voices falling on deaf ears. This had never been the idea of an India that guarantees its citizen’s rights essential for their well being within the state.”

Fall has arrived in Kashmir over the week, with up to 2 feet of snow carpeting the land in white. Residents have slowly settled into their homes, after collecting wood for the burning of coal, to push through the ‘Chillai Kalan’ or chill winter, extending up to January. The hearth burns inside every Kashmiri home, though the winter blows harsh on the outside. Its men and women aren’t alien to the venting out of their sorrows. They have only chosen not to do so. The ice may melt once the sun shines back on the beaten surface, but until then, there is silence in the valley.

(All images in this article are subject to copyright by their respective owners)

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