Note: This is the first of a two-part essay written by Mir Umar. Hailing from the Kashmir Valley, he is currently a student of English at Delhi University. This was written by him during the second month of the Kashmir lock down. Umar was visiting home during August last year and witnessed the situation post the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35(A) first hand.
Two months and counting, a siege continues to remain in place in Kashmir. Uncertainty looms in the air. Shops shut, traffic off the roads, markets closed and people refraining to come outside. The major city, Srinagar, has been turned desolate where only paramilitary troops and silence roam. Barbed wires have been put on roads to block people’s movement. It feels like they have been placed on our chests.
Communication has been partially restored. Landlines and postpaid networks have resumed functioning. It’s after two months that we can hear our loved ones’ voices. Up to two months, the phone’s busy signals felt like uneven heartbeats of people. Internet services, however, are still suspended.
Forces march the streets day and night. The mysterious barks of dogs are rare signals of their presence in a town. Soldiers keep vigil on the people. Amongst all this, the sufferings of people are indiscernible. Unending. These days are adding to our history of pain. We don’t know how long it will last.
It was August 5, when the latest phase of uprising began in the valley. Before this date, a series of interlinked things had happened. People who were on the pilgrimage of Amarnath Yatra in the beautiful landscape of Pahalgam were told to move out of the valley. Some of the pilgrims had completed their spiritual journey but some had not. Even those who couldn’t make it, had travelled from remote places of India and returned disappointed.
The government released an official order saying that the condition is not suitable for the pilgrimage and they should soon move out of the valley. It was a warning from the government. The order said that pilgrimage had a terror threat. People who had gone with wishes of their loved ones, became suspicious and they started moving out of the valley. At the end, their wishes remained unfulfilled.
The chaos among people was spreading like fire in a forest. The government continuously released official orders also for tourists to leave the valley. The suspicion about “something is going to happen” grew hard. Tourists also followed the same. They booked their tickets, got into buses and left. Returned. Gulmarg’s terrains and parks missed its guests. Dal lake was propelled to face a gloomy situation as if a wrath had invaded the valley.
Within no time, tourists left the valley. Tensions among the people grew deeper and longer. Their suspicion about a ‘war’ was somehow correct. People hurriedly got their cars’ stomach full of fuel in case a medical emergency occurred. People reserved food supplies and took stock of essential items. Petrol pumps were thronged by people. There was total chaos on roads. But nobody knew what was going to happen. Eid was close. But there was no waiting for it. A full gloom hovered over the valley.
Tourists, labourers, students from outside states, employees and a famous Indian cricketer were forced to leave the valley. The government’s official orders came as a blow for them. The Indian state was preparing for a mysterious move behind the walls. Additional troops were flown in the valley. They were then deployed in different parts of the valley and in the heart of Srinagar. The soldiers too didn’t know about the situation. Just an order and they were ready. That’s how a mighty state works. It was a state of emergency.
The plot was building up. The mystery deepened with the days. There was no news that could reveal this mystery. It was hidden. The events that had taken place from the last few days had vanished the calm of people. They were becoming furious. The future at that time felt bleak. The only question on people’s tongue was, “What is going to happen?”
People had become scared by the rumours that they heard from the streets or passers-by. Mostly, women murmured about the news of war in the valley. The way the situation and events had turned, it did feel one. The way helicopters whined and roamed the skies day and night felt like an aura of war. Nothing else.
It was August 4, evening. I went to the market with my friend. Evenings usually are solace in the valley. A cold breeze was blowing gently. Bats were strolling the sky as I could spot a number of them. But the calm had long been dead. It was chaos on the streets. The cars were running so fast as if someone was kicking them off the roads.
Their headlights were dizzy and it felt irritating. I could see no soldiers on the streets. A number of people in groups were coming back from their work. While walking, they turned to each other talking about something that had to do with the situation.
After my friend got his job done, we returned. On our way back, I saw some vendors standing near shop fronts. They were holding colourful balloons of blue, white and orange on a bamboo stick. They made no calls to passers-by as if they were deluged in their passion of selling. I thought they too were occupied with feeling distressed. The balloons hung tenderly under the light dark sky. But, who would have thought those colours would be fading soon.
The evening went as quickly as it came. I was at home. People were returning to their homes from the mosque after evening prayers. I could see their sullen faces with no prints of hope in their eyes. My mother had just finished praying when I heard her praying for the well being of all the people, especially for us in the family.
My father too was back after his evening prayers. I went into the hall and sat there for a few minutes. I could hear whispers of people coming from the windows, discussing the situation. Everyone was curious to know about what was going to happen with their lives.
Dinner was ready. My mom called me several times. I was busy with my mobile phone. The news on social media had added fuel to the fire. I went to the kitchen to have dinner. While we had an uneasy dinner, my mom repeatedly said that everything will be fine. But I knew it was not going to be what she said, “Fine.”
“Have faith in God. He has the best plans for all of us,” she said.
Before going to bed, my father got a call from his colleague cum friend belonging to Kashmir’s Verinag spring. The beautiful enchanting river Jhelum originates from the foothills of this place. The only memory I have of it is the clean ultramarine water in a large bowl like well and a monument tombed over it. I visited the place when I was in school. Its memory still develops under the facades of my imagination.
My father’s friend who usually asks about my well being, told him that troops had been stationed near the bus stand of Verinag, and soon, curfew will be imposed post midnight. “Maybe all over Kashmir,” he added.
This news was a proof check of people’s fear about the situation. They talked briefly and told each other to take care of their loved ones. It was also a fear that the mobile networks too would be down by the next day.
After this disturbing news, we went to sleep. I was awake till midnight, thinking about the events that had taken place the past few days. There were so many questions which had no answers. Outside, an eerie silence had wrapped the streets.
From long distances, the barking of dogs could be heard. The black dotted moon was hiding behind the poplars. The breeze had stopped for a while. When the clock struck twelve, I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
August 5, morning. I was lying in my bed. The deadly silence was still there. I had just woken up from my sleep. I instantly checked my mobile phone and found that symbols of networks had vanished. Prophecies about ‘something is going to happen’ had come true. My mother had woken up early and was preparing meals in the kitchen.
I got up from my bed and looked outside my window. I could see a different sensation in the atmosphere or I just thought that way. The baker’s shop nearby was full of people for the morning bread, lavasa. With a dilemma in my head, I went directly to the kitchen. My mom was delighted to see me waking up early. The expression on her face implied that she had something to say.
“Curfew chukh logomut” (curfew has been imposed), she said.
“Who told you?” I inquired curiously.
She told me that a neighbour who holds tuition classes was on his way to a student’s house when he was sent back by soldiers and told that curfew had been imposed in the town. When he got back home, he broke the news to his mother and my mom heard it while working in the kitchen. This was not new.
Usually in the Valley, people hear such news and pass them on. Now, a strict curfew had been imposed throughout the valley and communication was snapped.
In curiosity, after listening to the news of the curfew, I switched on the television to get a glimpse of what was happening. I tuned to one English news channel where Kashmir was being discussed, and words like ‘curfew’ and ‘restrictions’ were italicised under a red band.
The visuals showed the streets of Srinagar where troops were being deployed and concertina wires were put up on the streets to block people’s movement. The soldiers were running hurriedly, strolling on their husky, heightened, long, leather boots. Rifle butts were slinging from their shoulders. Now, it was clear that something unusual, something deliberate was going to happen.
Hearing the reporter’s high pitched voice, my father woke up and came straight to my room. My mom and little brother were there too. There we were; standing silent, curious to know what was going to happen to our lives. It was a pathetic situation. A grave concern too, as they call it.
We learnt from news channels that a parliament session was going to take place where a new bill about Jammu and Kashmir was going to be passed. The media too, was curious to know as to what were the plans of the Indian government. There were no clues in particular.
By that time, Kashmir’s mainstream leadership, which included two former CMs of Jammu and Kashmir had been either arrested or put under house arrest. Separatists too must have been arrested, at least that’s what people thought. But, it didn’t matter much.
They had been under detention or arrested repeatedly over the years. But it was for the first time that Kashmiri mainstream leadership had been locked in their houses without a known reason. This was a new thing for the people in general and leaders in particular.
Parliament was scheduled to hear the bill on ‘reservation’ (that’s what the media reported), by 11 am. Till then, chaos intensified. Both in the minds of people and equally on the streets. I felt a sudden rush of adrenaline.
“Such a curfew and a communication clamp down was for a reservation bill.”
“No, not really,” I protested with myself and began to wait for the session of Parliament.
When the headlines sided down the screen, I took the remote and raised the volume of the TV set. This was an indication to my family that the news had started and they should turn up. This trick worked, as it always does.
In a moment, my father, mom and little brother, who had become more curious and anxious amongst all of us, were there. This exact anxiety adds to our psyche later, as we grow up.
The news anchor addressed, “With no waste of time, we’ll straightaway go to the Parliament session.” And then switched directly to Rajya Sabha. The screen first divided into two images and then one, wholly the Rajya Sabha.
Then began the tempest that drowned all of us!
I was born in Kashmir of the 1990s. It was the time when the insurgency broke. The freedom movement was also on the rise. It was one of the deadliest eras that passed through the history of Kashmir. In the 1990s, people saw the worst according to written accounts and oral narratives, that we still get to hear.
My parents often spoke of their time and life in the conflict. Their experiences had enough for a child like me to understand the shift of conflict and oppressive state’s tyranny. They share stories of their life’s moments in a crackdown, in a siege or directly in a gun battle.
Often, my mother narrates incidents to us. Stories of intensified conflict. They are interesting because of the mystery and vivid descriptions involved in them. Mostly, she narrates incidents of crackdowns where the army, upon a specific input given by an informer, lay siege to a village or town to search for hiding militants.
It quite looks like the game of hide and seek. But it isn’t. It’s guerrilla warfare where real guns and bombs are used. The sounds are real, not that of computer games. The deaths too are real, not that of movies. War, it is.
My mother usually speaks about those incidents in an aggrandizing manner. Her expressions keep changing with her words. I notice every time, her eyes widening, the fear of the past still making her uncomfortable. When she is narrating an incident, I often ask her, “Was I born that time Mumma?”
“Yes,” she says, “But you were a little infant.” And the stories continue.
Everyone in Kashmir remembers the 1990s. My father, uncles, maternal uncles and everyone else. Listening to the personal accounts not only gives me goosebumps but also a sense of how bad things were in Kashmir at that time.
Some say that our generation is lucky enough because we are living in a modern era; modern democracy. “You didn’t face what we did,” they say.
But, did things ever change in Kashmir? Was there lasting peace? It’s always been fragile, in terms of our lives and in terms of peace.
Nobody had thought that history was ready to take a turn in Kashmir. As events had displayed, it was understood that the mighty state was conspiring against the sentiments of the people. history was ready to change. People were baffled. Our state was ready for an assault.
As the debate in Parliament started amid the chorus of opposition leaders, Home Minister Amit Shah stood up and read the papers and informed that Article 370 has been scrapped from Jammu and Kashmir. The article gave the state, which is disputed, a special status in the Indian Constitution and allowed it to make their own laws and granted some special property rights.
According to the ruling BJP government, it should have been scrapped long ago but successive governments failed to do it. They celebrated this as their victory.
The ruckus continued in the parliament when leaders from the opposition stood up and raised slogans about the same. Two parliamentarians from Jammu and Kashmir were removed from Parliament when they tried to protest.
The headline got strength in a red-coloured background which said, “Article 370 no more.” While watching all of this, our faces turned sullen – expressionless. My father was silent and angry which he didn’t reflect but I sensed it. He went back to his room. My mother who was standing by the door had only vehement words for them. I was blank at that moment. My little brother too, was shocked.
Outside, the sun was shining brightly in an open blue sky. The streets were deserted. The plot got revealed after all, which had kept the valley on a standstill. Article 370 was removed. It was a betrayal of modern democracy!
The latest phase of uprising and in the state’s narrative of “unrest,” got fuel. But this had something new in store for us. A new experience of living in a conflict zone.
Curfew and restrictions were imposed in all parts of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. I was experiencing this intense situation for the first time in my life. Earlier, I had witnessed different phases of uprisings but this time it was much different. It was like the gloom of conflict had once again revisited the valley and selected its props.
A siege was put in place (and still is) in Kashmir. It had overpowered everything. Soldiers marched the streets in their long boots, thudding on dust. Armoured vehicles roamed through the ghost city of Srinagar. There was no life on the roads. Communication was blocked entirely. Soldiers covering half of their faces moved in numbers. Their guns and bamboo sticks marked their presence and sign of horror. It was complete desolation.
Life in the siege was frustrating. Terrible. We were hostages in our own homes. I was not allowed to go out by my parents – which I did anyway. They feared for my life. So, as always, I kept myself engaged with books.
I read about my homeland, Kashmir, through Agha Shahid Ali’s charismatic poetry and imagined the streets of Bombay in Midnight’s Children. I found Agha Shahid Ali’s verse relevant when he says, “They make desolation and call it peace.”
I kept thinking that whatever had happened in the past, writers and poets were preserving their history through their work. They had preserved their pain, longing and suffering. From Palestine’s Mahmoud Darwish to Kashmir’s Agha Shahid Ali, words unify our pain.
Days passed after the ‘surgery’ that put Kashmir on the ‘ventilator.’ But no news came from anywhere. Newspapers were not published due to information blackout. Indian media channels disappointed again with their biased reporting. It further made people furious. It was accepted by reporters working with Indian news channels in Kashmir, that they were tantalised and taunted by people while doing their work.
There was not even news about the deaths. How cruel!
But this is the reality, a hard reality that we await the news of deaths. People from my town only gathered on shop fronts to discuss the situation. Streets were parliaments of the people. Yet, we had no news of our loved ones.
In order to know about the happenings, my father in the evenings, switched on the radio to listen to the news. He would tune to VOA’s (Voice of America) Urdu service. Then eagerly, he would listen to Yousuf Jameel’s much awaited afferent voice.
When there would be no noise coming in, he would take radio near to his ears or move it to and fro, so that he could get a better signal. Most often, I also listened to his reports which were like dispatches from Kashmir. His reports were meant to be trusted because it spoke about the real happenings in the valley.
In one such report, he said that there was a protest march taken out in Srinagar’s Soura area in which a huge number of people participated. The BBC also reported it. But, the Indian media denied this report saying that there was no such march that took place.
Eid was near. Since my childhood, the arrival of the festival marked its own festivity among people. This time, it wasn’t that kind of joy. Because people had been deprived of their right to life. There was hopelessness. A void had been created. A wound left to bleed.
You can read the second part of this essay here.