The Valley Without a Curfew Pass: Kashmir Since August 5
On the first Saturday of September, as our flight landed at the Srinagar airport, the airline staff announced, 'You may now use your mobile phones.' Some of the Kashmiris on board, including myself, broke into a dry, humourless laugh. Who would have thought that more than a whole month without any communication with the people back home, a month spent traumatised and troubled, laughter would be my first reaction? I disconcertingly accepted that airlines did not have any announcements streamlined for places under siege and no way to tell people that they had now entered a space made entirely of uncomfortable, enforced silence.
Later in the evening, as I travelled onwards from the airport, I glimpsed a solitary vegetable seller on the footpath in Sonwar. I heaved a sigh of relief, as it soothed my mind to know that people had some stuff available, at some hours of the day, in some places at least. Srinagar looked desolate and devoid of life but still looked capable of survival. There was no public transport around, only a few private cars were on the road and some people could be seen walking. The presence of armed forces, however, was ubiquitous. I was told that the past two days had been livelier, with relatively fewer restrictions and embargo by the forces on people's movement. Over the following few days, I also learned that in the morning between 6-9 am, some shops opened in select locations within the city and this is when people bought groceries.
But my first, true experience of learning about life in Kashmir over the weeks that followed the August 5 decision by India to remove Article 370 and declare Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh as Union Territories came from my first experience in learning about death in Kashmir.
My cousin, whose husband's uncle passed away in August narrated an ordeal to me. For hours, the uncle's lifeless body had been left unattended as family members went out to inform relatives of the demise. But there were only so many places they could walk to. The last rites, though a little delayed, happened with few people. My cousin's parents did not make it to the funeral, simply because they did not know about the death. Something that was a phone call away has been converted into kilometres, interspersed and obfuscated with checkpoints, concertina wires and crude control.
Weeks later, when I read an article in The Hindu about a funeral in Kashmir, it said that the obituary of a certain Maimoona Bukhari, lovingly called Mouj, read that no congregational prayers would be held for her because of the situation. Mouj - not only the Kashmiri word for mother, but sometimes also the quintessential term of endearment for mothers and grandmothers in Kashmir - could have been any woman in Kashmir. I used to call my maternal grandmother Mouj and no part of me could imagine her funeral, which all those who loved her attended, to have been devoid of grief or gathering. I wondered how you heal from an event like that, where the blockade shatters collective mourning and instead reduces loved ones into human islands of pain, incapable of contact and solidarity with one another.
File photo of a funeral in Pulwama. Photo: PTI
Life had also become disconnected. My cousins had not been to school for over a month when I came home. None of them had heard from their friends in school during that time. The youngest, no matter how much her parents coaxed, refused to touch her books anymore. As she saw it, they were going to be promoted without exams - a logical proposition that the adults could not argue with because there were multiple precedents in Kashmir's uncertain terrain. In 2014, when floods wreaked havoc in Kashmir, and in 2016, due to the situation after Burhan Wani's killing, many schools promoted kids without examination or assessment. In the years of mass civilian unrest in 2008 and 2010, when schooldays were scarce, the syllabus was cut massively; even the final papers tested students on just 50% of the original syllabus.
Thus September, which would otherwise have been a month of industrious preparation (most final school exams in the Valley are held in early October), panned out rather differently. Few local newspapers notified parents to bring pen drives or hard disks to collect study materials for their children - in the form of video lectures and typewritten notes.
Adapting to life that is limited to your home has reduced school into a string of assignments. Children were expected to finish them at home, under their parent's guidance.
There had been attempts to 'invent' normalcy. Weeks earlier, the government had ordered schools to re-open, but no parent would send their child. 'Yeti chu soari band; bacchi koat soazoakh?' ('Everything here is shut; why will we send our kids?'). Parents could not push their children to the frontlines of motion to re-establish life after it was deliberately brought to a standstill.
Representational image. A file photo of school children in Kashmir. Credit: Reuters
On the night of August 4, I noticed the internet suspension begin at around 11:30 pm and phone signals followed at midnight. The ground for the communication blockade had been laid in the preceding week. Uncertainty, thick like smoke, hung in the air. For days, the news reported official orders asking all non-locals to leave the Valley, local police to report the details of all mosques and their imams, some departments asked to ensure ration for months and so on. And then there was also the massive inflow of Indian troops.
Everyone could smell the doom, and neighbours, friends and relatives alike would share whatever rumours or information they had heard. Sentences would begin with 'dapaan'—'it is being said'—and followed by an ominous possibility. Nobody knew the source of this information. 'Dapaan' as a word assumed a new centrality, as prominent as that of the 'halaat' (situation) itself. One rumour in the beginning of August that reached me foretold, albeit a little inaccurately, the trifurcation of J&K.
Even several days after August 5, many people in Kashmir did not know the full extent of what had passed. Cable news was also not working. The few who heard it from others thought they were rumours and even dismissed them for a while. A close friend would later joke that in Kashmir, one could doubt the news but should always trust a rumour.
In September, a different type of rumours circulated. Some spoke of autorickshaw drivers being paid money by the government to start plying on the roads. After the opening of schools failed to get a response, the government was now asking employees to report regularly to duty. I wondered if the reason employees could not report was because of the absence of transport facilities and concertina wires blocking many roads.
A blatant stubbornness was palpable in Srinagar's air: people were slowly reclaiming their routine, but refusing to be tricked into 'normalcy'. Almost every other day, I would hear somebody remark that at a particular future date, the 'halaat' will be bad again. I did not know the source of these conjectures and neither did those who shared them. Perhaps there was a sense of resignation, that conflict would be constant. Either way, the consensus was that the uncertainty had not fully unravelled and survival should not be mistaken for living.
Kashmiri journalists stage a silent protest inside Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar. Photo: Mudasir Ahmad
If August had seen the collapse of life as Kashmiris knew it, with September came the slow, heartbreaking attempt to partially accept this fact. People were worried about running out of milk, panicked that petrol pumps would run dry and were willing to venture out to find fresh vegetables. But survival dictated the choice of what to buy and what to venture out for. One of my friends, whose father owned a shop in the city centre Lal Chowk, said the 'texture' of shopping had changed - no customer browsed through options; instead, people would come to buy only what they did not have.
On the day I walked around Lal Chowk, closed shop shutters greeted me. The ghanta ghar (clock tower) was overlooking nothing but desolation and militarisation. This was a Monday afternoon when the area is otherwise pure chaos, bustling with people and vehicles. I was forced to marvel at how life had been drained out of the physical environment.
Like everyone else, I took the eerie silence of the streets back home with me to examine later. Like everyone else, I still haven't succeeded.
Huzaafa is a researcher from Kashmir and has a master's degree in political science.