From Gurez to Srinagar: Witnessing 28 Hours That Changed Kashmir, Forever

From Gurez to Srinagar: Witnessing 28 Hours That Changed Kashmir, Forever

Why did it happen so suddenly? Why now? Was a war being fought on the borders? Were they now living in a Union Territory? Like Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, local Kashmiris are unsure of where they are at the moment


Suhas Munshi

Gurez/Srinagar: Well after curfew was imposed in Kashmir and the debate over Article 370 of the Constitution began in Parliament, people in the remote town of Gurez were still wondering what had happened. Had India gone to war with Pakistan? Would curfew be imposed? Had Article 35A been taken out? The normally erratic mobile phone network in Dawar, Gurez, had stopped working completely on Sunday night. But no one was sure why.

Hundreds of military trucks were moving to the town in Bandipora district, adjacent to Neelum Valley in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). “The Army is going full throttle up north. I’ve never seen so many soldiers in my life,” said a 60-year-old resident of Gurez, a Dard, whose tribe has inhabited this area for the past several hundred years. “Not even in the 1990s.”

At a tea shop, some 30 km away from Gurez, a man said he had seen hundreds of soldiers marching in Sonagam earlier that day. He was sure we would soon hear the first rumbles of heavy artillery fire. “We are going to war with Pakistan. That is what’s happening,” he said. “All the people are panicking, but within their homes. Why else would thousands of soldiers be marching into border towns? Had I known, I would have moved my family out in time.”

The taxi from Gurez to Bandipora was stopped several times. At one point, a JAKLI (Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry) soldier stopped the car slightly before Razdan Pass and refused to let us move ahead. No plea worked on him.

We asked paramilitary personnel, also stationed around, whether curfew had been imposed in the Valley. They weren’t sure themselves. Then suddenly, seemingly on a whim, the JAKLI soldier let the taxi pass, warning us that we would be stopped again a few metres ahead by the Army.

The usually busy route full of tourists, local picnickers, and natives – who are very busy at this time of the year stocking up supplies for the six hard months of winter beginning from November, when heavy snow cuts off Gurez from the rest of the world – was desolate.

It was just before Bandipora that the driver was asked to stop for good. A resident of Gurez, also a Dard, he was anxious to reach Srinagar. After debating on whether to find refuge in a house or walk towards the capital city, we decided to keep going on foot.

“In 2016, after (Hizbul Mujahideen commander) Burhan Wani’s encounter, there was a similar situation. It took me eight hours to get to Srinagar on foot,” the person said, giving a fair idea of when we would reach the city.

At a shop, the proprietor was watching proceedings of Rajya Sabha on satellite TV. “They’ve finished 370,” he said in Kashmiri. Apart from some people sitting under their shops, the towns and roads were deserted. The only noise was from convoys of hundreds of military trucks. In the stillness, the local Gurezi kicked an empty water bottle on the road. Soldiers immediately stiffened, their index fingers shifted to the triggers.

In what was a stroke of luck, a few kilometres ahead of Bandipora, a local man driving towards Sumbal town offered us a lift. “What exactly is happening?” we asked him. He did not know. Concertina wires were still being unloaded and stretched out on the road as our vehicle passed. We were stopped several more times. On one instance, an armed soldier with an assault rifle asked the man from Gurez to prove his identity.

“I’m from the CRPF,” he said, adding that he couldn’t show his ID because he didn’t carry it for fear of being identified by locals. He was carrying his election duty papers. “How many female battalions are there in the CRPF?” he was asked, sternly. The Gurezi got nervous and misspoke. After a few nervous tries, this soldier also decided, again apparently on a whim, to not detain us anymore.

The local driver, who had to go only till Sumbal, took great risks to drop us off at Batmaloo in Srinagar. He would have driven further, but it occurred to the Gurezi that the driver had come far enough to not be allowed to return home. “Tum log hame chhod ke jaa rahe ho. Dekhna ye log hame jaan se maar denge (You are leaving me behind. These military people will kill me, you’ll see),” the driver said, partly nervous, partly joking.

He offered both of us money in case we were running short of cash. We bade him goodbye and walked forward. We passed the police control room in Sher Garhi area, outside of which a woman was wailing. She had just been informed that her son had died some 30 km away in a traffic collision. Since the phone lines weren’t working, this information had taken a lot of time to reach her. And now she had no idea how she would fetch her son’s body or perform his last rites, as she didn’t know where her own family was.

The CRPF man who had been serving here for the past 10 years also hadn’t seen such huge deployment in Kashmir. We parted ways near Ghantaghar at Lal Chowk, the usually lively centre of the capital city, which was besieged by heavily armed forces from all sides.

A little after lunch, I met some journalist friends at the recently opened Kashmir Press Club. A senior media person working for a national daily, who had just arrived there with another journalist friend, said he was shouted at by CRPF personnel as he tried to move around the city. "We showed our press cards to a soldier, and he said, ‘Tum log Burhan Wani ke bhai lagte ho, yeh farzi card kahan se chapwaaye hain (You look like brothers of Burhan Wani. Where did you get these fake IDs made)?’” the journalist said.

Later on Monday, local media persons were invited to a press conference by the chief secretary, though they hadn’t yet figured out how they would file their reports in the absence of working mobile phones, landlines, and internet. But, shortly after, outside the press club, the local journalists, reporting for all the leading print and online publications of the country, were not allowed to move forward by a police officer. He claimed to have no information about the news conference.

“When you return to Delhi, tell them this. Tell them that we cannot report, we cannot move around,” local journalists said as they watched parliamentary proceedings and videos of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status being repealed, people dancing and bursting crackers, and panel discussions on television at the press club.

Those with families outside Srinagar are anxious about them. The journalists are staying put in the city because they don’t know if, in the absence of all communication, they can somehow reach their homes in Anantnag, Pulwama, Kupwara, etc, to reassure them, whether they would be allowed back in Srinagar to report developments. They also don’t know what is happening to their families living in these volatile towns.

Local journalists in Kashmir know that Article 370 has been rendered toothless, and that their state has become a Union Territory. But they know little else. Newspapers haven’t been published for four days. New visitors bring with them rumours of people dying in clashes, close to someone’s home. But there is no way to ascertain if the information is correct, if their families are safe.

Later in the evening, some people could be seen walking around, near provisional stores, meat shops and parks. Outside a mosque near Lal Chowk, a person going to offer namaaz asked whether Kashmir would still have a chief minister. Another resident was unsure whether his sister’s wedding, due next week, would take place.

While the forces haven’t enforced an “absolute” curfew in the Valley, people are being dissuaded from coming out of their homes and moving about. Some cars and motorcycles drive up and down, subject to frequent questioning and frisking every hundred metres.

But then the motorists aren’t sure whether they have enough fuel to last this spell of curfew or when the deserted petrol pumps would reopen. There is a sense of disbelief about what has happened.

Why did it happen so suddenly? Why now? Was a war being fought on the borders? Were they now living in a Union Territory? Like Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, local Kashmiris are unsure of where they are at the moment.

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