Kashmir Ground Report 1: None knows till when Kashmir Valley will be quiet
Twenty days after the abrogation of Article 370, the Kashmir Valley hasn’t returned to normalcy. Life has come to a standstill amid heavy deployment of security forces and restrictions.
“India deceived us. People here say we won’t stop fighting even if they drop an atom bomb. Everything has changed. Why were we not consulted? Will we or others take decisions regarding our lives?”
Jahangir was unstoppable: “Now what? Even Ghulam Nabi Azad was asked to go back from the airport. He was pro-India. India will get to know later what it has done.”
The first person I talked to after landing in Srinagar was Jahangir. I was going to Dal Lake in his cab. After a few minutes I asked him about the situation in Kashmir and then he went on speaking.
The bustle at the airport made it difficult to fathom that the situation is tense in Kashmir. But the security forces stationed at every 400-500 metres in the city, markets that were shut down and the few vehicles being spotted on the roads made it clear that either Srinagar was quiet or had been gagged.
This was the 19th day of the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35 A, which drew its strength from the former. Barricades had been removed from some parts of the city, but in others I saw not just barricades but barbed wire. The trijunction going towards Rambagh Nallah was one such example. The way to Dal lake was straight from here, but CRPF jawans asked us to take a winding route. New barricades had been erected in view of the fact that this was a Friday.
Jahangir had changed the route twice even before this. He requested the CRPF jawans to let him go, but they refused to budge. However, they did remove the barbed wire fencing to allow a police vehicle to pass.
Jahangir turned the car to the left and muttered something in the local language. He later explained it to me. It was a cuss word. He added, “You won’t let us move in our Kashmir. They have opened the roads for these CRPF ‘outsiders’. They are screaming 370. You remove 380, 390… whatever. But ask us at least. Hear what we want to say.”
Jahangir’s tone had changed and his volume was high once again. “Sir, Kashmiris from outside are leaving their jobs and returning to ensure that their families are all right. I dropped a girl to her home yesterday. She worked in Saudi Arabia. As she could not reach her family members over phone for two weeks, she quit her job and returned.”
Such stories abound here. All means of communication have snapped. None can contact anyone else. It all depends on whether the person one wants to meet is present at the expected place at the correct time. Rumours have stepped in to fill the void. The air is abuzz with speculation. Ten different claims about the same incident and a dozen facts and figures about it doing the rounds suggest that Kashmiris are oblivious of what is happening in the Valley.
I could not meet the person I was supposed to meet at the appointed hour and place. It was 8 am. After waiting for an acquaintance in a hotel for two hours, I stepped out into the streets.
The Sarovar Plaza hotel is the hub of journalists coming from Delhi. It has been turned into a media facilitation centre. Government officials are at work at two of the four computers available here. The other two computers, with internet, are the only available communication link between Kashmir and the rest of the world.
However, after some posters surfaced in the city, the area around it has been placed under curfew. A security person deployed near Dal lake said, “These people were planning a protest in front of the UN office. So, we have sealed the place.” A while later, I got to know that some people broke a barricade a little distance away.
The other hub of journalists in Srinagar is the Press Club, but one generally finds Kashmiri journalists here. In the four hours I spent here, I was the only “outsider” journalist present. A Kashmiri journalist told me, on being asked, “See, ‘Indian’ journalists just sit at Sarovar Plaza and tell the world everything is “normal”. They are wary of this place, as it has a ‘different’ narrative. They don’t feel comfortable here, as we understand the ground narrative of Kashmir.”
Like local residents, journalists can also merely speculate. Journalists are seeking out “correct” news from one another. Speculation was rife among journalists that “something big” could happen after the Friday prayers. Photographers and video journalists left for different places in small groups to get something “exclusive”. They all returned dejected that nothing “big” happened.
One photographer wondered, “For how long will we click pictures of the shutdown and lockdown? Since the 5th of this month, this is the situation. Things will change when curfew is removed and communication lines restored.”
Everyone awaits this. I asked Junaid Ahmad, one among four ageing people sitting at a road junction, about the situation. “The landmine has burst and the stone has been tossed up in the air. Who knows when and where it will fall?” he said. He pointed to the man sitting next to him: “Ask him. He always supported India. Maybe he can tell you what will happen.” The person referred to was slightly agitated by the question but regained his composure and said, “Yes, I did support India. I still believe that if we get an assurance from there, most Kashmiris will choose India over Pakistan. But India did not even ask us this time. We do not even exist for them. I am worried about the young generation. Even those who were moderate till recently want to fight it out now. Kashmir is quiet only till it is quiet. One doesn’t know till when.”
Journalist Najeeb Mubarki of Kashmir Mirror says, “Anything can be a trigger here. Any small incident can spark off a big protest. But the next two years will determine what happens to Kashmir. The matter is settling down. Let us see whether people here are able to sync with the decision or the situation worsens. But it’s clear nothing will be easy.” He adds, “One meaning of the way the Modi government acted is that India had accepted its defeat. It has accepted its policy did not work till now. The strategy till now failed. Now it has abandoned all extant policies and tried a new move.”
Kashmiri journalists find the recent decision of the Centre bewildering. “Even if we think from India’s point of view, we can’t understand why they took this decision. Article 370 had become diluted and toothless. After this decision, pro-India politicians in Kashmir are at a loss of words.”
That India has broken their trust is the dominant theme in Kashmiris’ conversations these days. Security at Lal Chowk was increased just before the Friday prayers. Barbed fencing appeared at many places. CRPF jawans are stationed, sometimes alert and at other times enervated.
A boy was adamant that he would take his vehicle to the other side of the barbed wire. As a policeman engaged him in an argument, another boy removed the barbed wire. The sudden sound of traffic rattled the CRPF men and an old passerby was administered two lathi blows.
Suddenly, a CRPF jawan who seemed disinterested till now jumped towards me and asked in a firm voice: “Why are you clicking photographs?” I said I was a journalist but he thought journalists never click photographs from mobile phones. He asked me to show my camera. On seeing my identity card, he said, as if to “forgive” me, “You were engaged in a conversation earlier too. So, I believe you.”
I asked him what about his assessment of Kashmir. “It is okay now and under control. I am here for 12 days now. I don’t understand politics. I know only one language. But who knows till when these people will be quiet,” he said.