30 DAYS AFTER ABROGATION OF ARTICLE 370, KASHMIR SCRAMBLES FOR SIGNALS
What does it mean to not be able to hear from your loved ones for weeks in times of distress? Kashmiris are learning it, the hard way
News18 Immersive
30 Days After Abrogation of Article 370, Kashmir Scrambles for Signals
30 Days After Abrogation of Article 370,
Kashmir Scrambles for Signals
What does it mean to not be able to hear from your loved ones for weeks in times of distress? Kashmiris are learning it, the hard way
BY AAKASH HASSAN

Srinagar/New Delhi:  I pressed the receiver firmly to my ear. The dial tone was comforting. Soon after landing I had found a public call office (PCO) at Delhi airport. This was the first time after spending a month in complete communication blackout in Kashmir that I was calling my friend in the capital.

A child, probably not older than seven, was staring at me blankly while I spoke on the phone. He tapped the arm of his mother to draw her attention towards me. “Why is he calling from that telephone when he has a mobile in his hand?” he asked her.

It was on the night of August 4 that I had made the last call from my cellphone. Soon after, the signal bars disappeared into ‘no service’, which meant that I couldn’t make calls from the phone nor could I pay my mobile bills in the absence of internet. Thirty days after the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was scrapped, I was still discovering the little ways in which that decision continued to affect our day-to-day lives.

On that night, no one could say with certainty what was about to happen. Rumours had been flying fast. In the absence of any communication, they flew faster. The annual Amarnath pilgrimage had been cancelled. On August 2, yatris and tourists were asked to leave immediately. Soon, 40,000 paramilitary soldiers were called in. Panic spread throughout the Valley. People began stockpiling essentials, and rushed from petrol pump to petrol pump, ATM to ATM, to hoard enough supplies for an event that nobody knew anything about, except that it was about to happen.

I went out with a friend to buy rice, packets of milk, pulses and enough supplies of potatoes and onions, which would last us around a week. Entire Srinagar looked panicked and busy like us. Some were queuing up outside pharmacies, others were desperately looking for baby food. At a departmental store, while a mother was collecting all the food items she could, her eight-year-old son was filling his pockets with chocolates and candies. Enough to last him a week.

Concertina wires were stretched out on the roads the next day, August 5, as curfew was imposed hours before union home minister Amit Shah moved a resolution to repeal Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. It wasn’t easy to move around, ascertain what was happening and report on it. But journalists did find voices and wanted them to be heard. In the absence of any communication lines, reporters had to find their own ways.

I managed to send across my first dispatch on the fourth day of restrictions by recording a video of my written text and sending it to my office in Delhi through an outdoor broadcast (OB) van. For a week, I kept working like this without knowing what was getting published.

In the course of moving around to file more detailed stories, journalists, especially those travelling outside Kashmir, found newer responsibilities.

Vikar Syed is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Srinagar. In the second week of the clampdown, he travelled to New Delhi to hand over his work. Before returning to the Valley, Syed, who hails from south Kashmir’s Pulwama, posted a message on social media, that if “anyone has any message for family or friends” living in Pulwama, they could reach out to him.

To his surprise, people did not only flood him with messages, some came to meet him. “I met a number of people who were desperate to communicate with their families. They were overwhelmed to see me,” Vikar said on his return to Srinagar. Some people even gave him cash to be delivered to their homes. He spent the following days reporting stories and delivering letters, cash, and audio messages from door to door.

What does it mean to not be able to hear from your loved ones in times of distress for weeks? On the morning of the seventh day of the communication blockade, there was a knock on my door. It was my father.

My family lives in Anantnag, an hour’s drive from Srinagar. For six days, we could not contact each other even once. My father had come from south Kashmir past several barricades just to find out if I was safe.

“In a normal situation, one can stay away from their children. A phone call a day eases all tensions. But in such a situation, all kinds of thoughts come to mind,” my father told me. He hadn’t been able to sleep properly for many days. Not being able to contain his anxiety any longer, he had left home that day before sunrise.

Migrant labourers at the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) in Srinagar waiting to leave Kashmir after the scrapping of special status. (Photo: Aakash Hassan)
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Sadiya Hakim (name changed to protect identity) was born with a psychological disorder. The 12-year old suffers from sudden, uncontrollable bouts of frenzy. To calm her down, doctors had suggested that she be shown videos.

Watching YouTube on phone helped her sleep. But in the absence of internet, Sadiya was left disconcerted. Her episodes did not end. To distract her, Sadiya’s parents made her watch TV but she was reluctant and her episodes became increasingly violent.

The situation worsened to the extent that a psychiatrist had to sedate her.

“She is on medication which actually reduces her energy levels. It is not a treatment; she will get worse like this,” Sadiya’s mother said. She wouldn’t name the ailment that her child suffers from.

During the first week, the priority for me was to get a restriction pass commonly known as ‘curfew pass’ in Kashmir. After a few visits and waiting for around five hours, I could meet the deputy commissioner (DC) of Srinagar along with four of my colleagues. He was kind enough to offer tea and issue us passes, but only for three days. For a couple of days, moving around the city became easier, the paramilitary personnel would let us go after looking at the parchi, the pass.

Army men check a car at Nikas village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama. (Photo: Aakash Hassan)

I visited hospitals and found patients who had no contact with their families. A day earlier, a driver was brought dead to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) in Srinagar after an accident. A message was sent to his family through the police but no one had arrived to claim the body.

At the same hospital, I met Upendra Kumar, a resident of Uttar Pradesh and one of those injured in the accident. Kumar works with the Army’s canteen stores department (CSD), but his unit and his family were unaware of his condition. As he was resting on a wheelchair, a stranger came in and handed him a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits.

The altruist was a local who visited the hospital every day to help people who had no one to take care of them.

In Uri, at an otherwise busy market, only a few pharmacies were open but they were running short of life-saving drugs. “Except antibiotics, we have no other medicines,” a salesman at Malik Medical Hall said. Pharmacists said that they had no fresh supplies coming in and were not able to place orders due to the communication blockade.

The desolate market in Uri, the last town near LoC in north Kashmir’s Baramulla. (Photo: Aakash Hassan)

In hospitals, doctors said the clampdown was hurting their ability to treat patients. “I used to communicate with experts on a regular basis. This would help me care for patients in a more efficient way,” said a specialist at SKIMS.

Sajid Ali, a resident of north Kashmir, couldn’t find life-saving drugs for his diabetic mother in Baramulla or even in Srinagar. He had to travel to Delhi to bring back a huge stock of medicines instead of just getting it from a next-door pharmacy.

In some cases, the communication blackout proved fatal.

Khurshee Begum (80), a resident of a village in south Kashmir’s Anantnag, suffered an asthma attack, but her nebuliser was depleted. The anti-allergy medicine was in short supply. By the time she was brought to a hospital, after checks at dozens of barricades, Khurshee had passed away.

Like the common man, government officials too were learning the nitty-gritty of the communication blackout on the go.

More than a week after the clampdown was imposed, the government put up phone lines in the offices of the district commissioners in a bid to ease the anxiety of the people. A few security personnel were put in charge of frisking visitors. But when women turned up to make calls, they were stopped. That’s because it hadn’t occurred to the administration to put in place female security guards outside the offices.

People wait outside Deputy Commissioner (DC) Pulwama’s office to make a phone call from the government helpline. (Photo: Aakash Hassan)

A female colleague accompanying me volunteered to frisk women visitors, but it did not cut ice with the people in charge. It took a few days for the administration to solve this problem by deploying female police officers at these spots.

After three visits to the deputy commissioner’s office, I managed to get another pass with two-day validity, only to be torn to pieces by a furious CRPF soldier near Fateh Kadal area of downtown Srinagar the next day. “Pass cancel hogaya hai (Pass has been cancelled),” he said. Journalists like me spent a substantial part of their day running these errands.

In the second week of the clampdown, the government established a media facilitation centre at a private hotel. Four computers, a mobile phone and erratic internet is what journalists reporting from Kashmir were relying on. Still are. Local newspapers were not published for over a week. And while publishing has resumed, there are hardly any reports from rural areas. District correspondents are not able to file their stories. The full extent of what has transpired in those parts is not known even a month later.

Travelling to north Kashmir gave one an idea of what the past few days had done to mainstream politics in the Valley. People here had not heard from their leaders for a month. Residents who were campaigning for their prospective representatives for the Lok Sabha polls are now in hiding. Most of the ground force of mainstream parties has been detained.

In the last town near the Line of Control (LoC), the local market was completely shut. People, who would vote in overwhelming numbers against the boycott calls given in Srinagar, feel betrayed.

An elected sarpanch in Uri, who was active in the last elections, told me that police were pursuing him, and since August 5, he had not gone home due to fear of arrest.

The administration has still not officially revealed the number of people who have been arrested since August 5. Some reports suggest that the number is over 3,000. In suburban districts, government guesthouses and other buildings have been turned into sub-jails as the existing lockups and prisons are running out of space.

The information blockade at a time of mass detention has also given rise to claims of human rights abuses, some in the form of nocturnal raids.

At one police station, I met three boys who claimed they had been picked up from their homes. One said he was a class VII student and was taken from his home during a raid one night. Even some government officials had been detained. A police officer, who wished to remain anonymous, said those people were in preventive custody because they were potential mobilisers of protesters.

Three minor boys in police lockup after being arrested in nocturnal raids. (Photo: Aakash Hassan)

In the downtown area of Srinagar, people are somehow managing their lives in the congested localities. Here, communication blockade continues to affect people, even in death.

In Rainawari, a woman’s funeral procession comprised only 10 people. The family said they could not inform anyone about the death. Not even the daughters knew that their mother was no more.

The deceased’s son, Mohammad Waleed, a retired government employee, said, “My mother passed away in the morning and even by the evening we couldn’t inform our neighbours...My two sisters live in another district. I don’t know how to inform them.”

The lockdown has also hit the Valley’s economy, which usually gets a major boost this season from the sale of apples. Since local traders can’t call their counterparts in other cities to check supplies and bargain for rates, the existing prices for apples have plummeted drastically.

But the most curious is perhaps the situation of those select few senior officials whose phones have been allowed to work all through the last four weeks.

“When I get a call, people around me get surprised,” a senior IAS officer told News18. “There are dozens of people who request me every day for a phone call. I try to make sure that my phone is on silent mode and not many people notice it is working. Besides, who in Kashmir can I speak to on the phone anyway?”

Now that landlines in a number of areas have been restored, there is a growing sense that the ongoing freeze on communication will eventually thaw. But that will take some time. For now, most of the people are still living in dark zones. In Delhi, I am flooded with messages from Kashmiris who have not been able to communicate with their families.

In Srinagar, while I am also not able to call my family, I try to reassure them in the little ways I can manage. During press briefings, I try to come within the television frame and smile at the camera, in the hope that someone in my family would spot me on TV and know that I’m all right. For now, that will have to do.

Credits

Produced by — Fazil Khan
Illustrations — Mir Suhail