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Diary of a Kashmir correspondent: When Jammu and Kashmir’s geography became history

Security personnel stand guard at a roadblock in Srinagar’s Maisuma locality late on August 4, 2019.

Security personnel stand guard at a roadblock in Srinagar’s Maisuma locality late on August 4, 2019.   | Photo Credit: AFP

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The Hindu’s Srinagar correspondent recounts the four days when Kashmir was blacked out.

Peerzada Ashiq's last dispatch from Srinagar came late on August 4, reporting the house arrest of former Chief Ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti and other leaders. Soon after, Kashmir was put under lockdown. He could not send any dispatches since then for lack of connectivity. With some ease in restrictions, The Hindu’s Srinagar Correspondent could recount the gruelling days as Jammu and Kashmir’s geography became history — when there was no means to know about the situation in J&K, or outside.

August 5: ‘Are we citizens or slaves now?’

Residents cross a street during restrictions in Srinagar on August 5, 2019.

Residents cross a street during restrictions in Srinagar on August 5, 2019.   | Photo Credit: REUTERS

 

The previous night, in fact, the whole of August 4 was gruelling for one and all in the Kashmir Valley. Fast changing news cycle — enhancing security grid, panic buying by locals and hyper political activity — kept all the reporters on their toes.

In between filing the dispatches, refuelling my car was the top priority. I managed after waiting in a long queue. Besides, a journalist friend also shared his stock with me.

Now, spending one hour with my expecting wife and two-year-old son became necessary. The first duty was to station my wife close to a hospital well stocked with baby food. It’s not easy to keep emergency services going in volatile Kashmir; a fact taught by the uncertain and volatile times of the past three decades. Rumours by now were turning fast into well-founded fears about what was impending: a change to over 4,000 years of history and geography of Jammu and Kashmir.

 

As the sun was setting behind the mighty Pir Panjal range and visible from the Dal lake, the anxiety of the impending dark night was never this frightful, not even in the 1990s. A sense of foreboding had engulfed the Valley. The dimension of the change to J&K was unknown though.

The reports of the leaders of the regional parties, like Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, being rounded up in the midnight raids was the last news alert I managed to send across to my office around 12.20 a.m. Another alert: “Let’s avoid using the word ‘curfew’ but ‘restrictions’” was not delivered because of the phased withdrawal of all means of communication lines in Kashmir, including the Internet, by 12.30 a.m.

Not many slept in Kashmir. People kept calling friends and loved ones, till the lines dropped completely into a dead silence. Many conversations, like mine with my wife, were cut short. We failed to bid the usual goodnight to each other.

The mobile phones turned into torches and cameras now. All cable channels turned into black screens. There was no means to know about the situation in J&K or outside. There was no means to entertainment too — no music, no movies, and no online rhymes for my son to have his lunch and dinner quietly.

It was unusually hot on Monday morning. The morning bread was available in the colony. However, breakfast was hard to gulp down. There was anxiety to know what has actually happened to J&K. The streets were the only means of communication left now. I stepped out and was spotted by a neighbour, a mechanic, who halted me with a loud proclamation: “Dafah 370 phutrovukh (Article 370 has been broken).”

He had heard it on his old-fashioned transistor.

 

There was need to double-check what sounded a fake news on the face of it. I reached a three-way street leading to the main road at Srinagar’s Hawal area, where I reside in the old city. A group of four people were sharing bits and pieces of information they gathered since the morning from different sources, including direct-to-home services.

The news, one neighbour said, brought more shame than shock to people in Kashmir, which has witnessed several decades of struggle for more rights to protect its distinct identity, geographical as well as political. “Are we citizens or slaves now,” one neighbour enquired.

August 6: Memories of 1953, and the 1990s

A group of boys sit in front of closed shops during restrictions in Srinagar on August 6, 2019.

A group of boys sit in front of closed shops during restrictions in Srinagar on August 6, 2019.   | Photo Credit: REUTERS

 

It was unusually silent on Tuesday. The milkmen failed to deliver their daily supply. The colony suddenly saw young and old forming circles for a group discussion. While the older ones recalled the episode of 1953, when popular Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah was arrested in August, and its aftermath. The younger ones recalled the 1990s. It seems August 5 has become third major rupture in J&K’s politics, which is for sure going to redefine its politics, people and times for ever.

On the main road, security forces stood like a wall to disallow any movement, except emergencies such as expectant mothers, cancer patients and funeral ceremonies of relatives. It was not an easy duty for the security personnel, who complained that “no lunch was served on Monday by the authorities”. A CRPF jawan said they faced stones in ones and twos. “We hope it ends soon,” said a jawan from Andhra Pradesh.

 

A group of youth tried to encircle five gun-toting security men on Tuesday evening in Hawal’s Firdous Cinema, which closed in 1990 never to screen any movie ever again. The incident took place when the security men were withdrawing around sunset after the day’s gruelling duty. It was reinforcements rushed to the spot that saved the men on duty. A few youth suffered pellet injuries in this exchange.

Local mosques also started to arrange special prayers, Nimazi Taubah (prayers for forgiveness).

“Allah has put us in the most difficult situation. Prayers are needed like never before,” said one.

August 7: ‘It is unprecedented betrayal’

Migrant workers wait to buy bus tickets to leave the region during curfew in Srinagar on August 7, 2019.

Migrant workers wait to buy bus tickets to leave the region during curfew in Srinagar on August 7, 2019.   | Photo Credit: AP

 

The authorities allowed beaming of NDTV on the cable and other entertainment channels. Music is back.

There is a sudden exodus of around 2,000 migrants from our mohalla. Hawal is known to host these skilled and unskilled labourers for three decades now, with separate buildings for them. “Some youth came and asked us to leave. They said ‘you may claim the building ownership now’,” said Naresh, a labourer. He was carrying bedding and stove on his head.

 

As details of the amendment to Article 370 and the Union Territory status was getting clear, mosque discussions were getting more agitated.

“Are we slaves that we deserve no Statehood? A civilisation with 5,000 years of history without geography and history now,” Bashir-ud-Din, a colony elder, blurted out in disgust, showing a local daily that continues to be in circulation but mainly carrying reports filed by agencies than staff reporters.

Outside the mosque, the youngsters are more agitated than the older folk. “It is an unprecedented betrayal. It needs an unprecedented response too,” said a young engineering graduate.

August 8: Silent streets, agitated homes

Women walk at a deserted Lal Chowk in Srinagar on August 8, 2019.

Women walk at a deserted Lal Chowk in Srinagar on August 8, 2019.   | Photo Credit: AP

 

The attitude of the security forces has changed by now.

Locals riding bikes were allowed to fetch essentials from shops functioning from the houses.

Early morning and late evening are preferred times to escape any stone battles in the old city.

Vegetables no more come from across the Jawahar Tunnel but from the backwaters of the Dal lake, which covers many parts of the old city, making eatables available for now. But with autumn setting next month, it will dry up too. However, cereals are going off the breakfast table. ATMs in our area are either inaccessible due to security arrangements or running dry. “No cash vans are coming to the old city,” said Basheer Ahmad, an ATM guard of J&K Bank in Hawal.

Meals are getting simpler. Mutton, a staple diet for locals, is no more available.

The debates on the scrapping of special status are getting more and more animated within families, but streets are silent.

 

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 10:46:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/diary-of-a-kashmir-correspondent-when-jammu-and-kashmirs-geography-became-history/article28969895.ece

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