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.
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.