This Time Last year: A Reporter’s Kashmir Diary
A reporter from Kashmir valley recollects the events that unfolded before and after the revocation of the special status of Kashmir on August 5 last year.
It has been a year now since New Delhi did away with the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two federally controlled territories --Jammu, Kashmir-- and Ladakh on August 5, 2019.
A few days before this radical move, there was a heightened sense of uncertainty among the people and a general feeling that New Delhi had something up its sleeve.
The government's sudden decision to call off the annual Amarnath pilgrimage halfway through and the circulation of a flurry of orders on the social media asking different government departments to stockpile rations for two months unleashed a paranoia of fear and uncertainty in Kashmir. Legions of additional armed forces moving into the Valley only amplified the anxiety and fear among the people.
On August 4, 2019, many leaders from across the political spectrum met at the Gupkar residence of Dr Farooq Abdullah, former Chief Minister and Lok Sabha member. They vowed to fight against any move aimed at changing the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir.
Residential students of various colleges and universities were asked to vacate their hostels. They frantically scrambled to reach their native places. The management of the National Institute of Technology ( NIT), Srinagar arranged special buses for outstation students which ferried them to Jammu, from where they took different trains to their destinations. The rail service in Srinagar had been suspended. The last train to pull out of the railway station in Kashmir was on August 2.
Srinagar's business nerve-centre Lal Chowk turned into a maelstrom of crowds, auto-rickshaws and buses with people resorting to panic buying of essentials.
The gas filling stations across the Valley witnessed long queues of vehicles waiting to fill up their tanks. The principal hospitals in Srinagar shut their elective theatres. A large number of patients had been discharged without treatment.
There was growing apprehension that authorities might cut the communication lines. Thousands of parents whose children were studying outside the Valley became panicky. They made calls--both voice and video-- to them and conveyed their fears and concerns. A middle-aged couple told me about crying themselves to sleep that night after they spoke to their son studying medicine in Bangladesh.
At around a quarter to 12 noon, the phones suddenly stopped ringing in the Valley and internet vanished. All modes of modern communication ceased to be in Kashmir.
The next day, August 5, 2019, the balloon went up when Home Minister Amit Shah informed parliament that the government was revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and reorganizing the state. Many pro-India political leaders including three erstwhile Chief Ministers, separatist leaders and young boys had been detained.
Stringent restrictions were imposed on the movement of people and security forces dotted the thoroughfares and streets of Kashmir. As the worst fears of people about the abrogation of article 370 came true, they did not quite know how to react.
In the evenings, knots of people gathered in the alleyways and discussed the practical upshot of the move. Most of them felt that the government would bring about demographic changes following the example of Israel. Also, there were people who strongly felt Pakistan would go to war over the issue.
As the communication blockade continued, the Governor's administration set up telephone facilities at a few places, mostly at police stations and District Magistrate (DM) offices, for the general public. At least 88 lakh mobile phones had been blocked in Kashmir.
Every day people would throng to such government facilities to make brief phone calls to their friends and relatives. However, it was out of bounds to talk about the current situation in the Valley. All the phones that were working at such places were being consistently monitored by the security agencies. "My phone was blocked and put on the blacklist as soon as a person talked about a stone-pelting incident in his neighbourhood", a senior government officer confided in me.
The government had made a few thousand phone numbers of government officials functional and categorised them as "whitelisted numbers". A person speaking on a mobile phone at a market place would stand out and attract the attention of passers-by.
Many young men used some application on their smartphones which enabled them to connect to one other within a radius of a few meters, without network.
The police stations and DM offices were packed with people who were frantic with worry about the safety of their relatives and friends living outside the Valley. In rural areas, amidst a total lockdown, people travelled long distances merely to make a phone call.
While the business fraternity suffered colossal losses due to the protracted internet shutdown, it also cost the valley-based journalists dearly. Many journalists, particularly those working from different districts, lost their jobs as they could hardly send their stories across to their media outlets.
In Srinagar, the government created a small media centre with between five and seven computers for more than two hundred journalists. The student community suffered the most as they had to struggle hard to apply online for different competitive examinations and scholarships.
On October 14, 2019, when post-paid mobile phones sprang back to life after a good 72 days, both local residents and security forces posted in the Valley were literally exultant with joy. A friend from Srinagar's Rambagh area told me that a CRPF man from West Bengal, who was deployed on his street, hugged him as his phone suddenly rang.
As the internet continued to remain off-limits, people often travelled to Jammu to use the internet.
In the month of December, I saw carloads of students, businessmen and scholars embarking on a nearly 300 km long arduous journey to Jammu just to use the internet.
On January 25, 2020, the government, after nearly six months, restored restricted data services (2G) with a blanket ban on social media. To circumvent the ban, people resorted to the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Bands of young men were seen in the streets and alleyways of Srinagar sharing the magic application on their phones. As the government blocked one such App, they would come up with another, finally spurring the police to take action against the violators.
In March 2020, social media sites were made accessible. However, the internet speed continued to remain low.
The ongoing lockdown aimed at checking the spread of COVID -19 has only amplified the miseries of the people. The double whammy is taking its toll on the mental health of the local populace. Psychiatrists in the Valley say there has been a significant increase in the number of patients suffering from anxiety and depression since last August.
The people feel betrayed and humiliated. The antipathy for New Delhi and the sense of alienation runs deeper this time around. The arbitrary move of August 5 has led Jammu and Kashmir into a political cul-de-sac.