Kashmir Dispatch 6: 10 days, 10 Phone Booths, and 80 Lakh People Waiting to Call Their Loved Ones

Kashmir Dispatch 6: 10 days, 10 Phone Booths, and 80 Lakh People Waiting to Call Their Loved Ones

While the government earlier announced it has put up helpline services at every district headquarter for distressed people to reach out to their loved ones, there are too few services available for an estimated 80 lakh people in the Valley.


Aakash Hassan

Srinagar: The communication gag in the Valley has hit not just civilians but also the security forces deployed in Jammu and Kashmir. Local policemen guarding roads and streets in the Valley are as cut off from their families and as anxious as any other person.

Mohammad Rafiq, a head constable in the Jammu and Kashmir Police posted in south Kashmir’s Pulwama, is distressed. Rafiq hails from Uri, the border town located near the Line of Control (LoC) in north Kashmir. For the last two weeks, the skirmishes on the border between India and Pakistan have escalated, making him anxious about the safety of his family.

“I keep hearing about the cross-LoC shelling in my home town. I am worried about my family,” Rafiq told News18. “Even if the helpline works or I have access to a satellite phone, I won’t be able to call my family.”

Rafiq finds the prevailing situation in the Valley similar to what Kashmir experienced in the early 1990s. “It is like we are back in the Kashmir of the 1990s. You are posted somewhere and there is no communication with your family,” he said.

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People like Rafiq cannot communicate with their families even through letters. “I wish I could send even a letter to my home,” he says, but stops in disappointment. “Even postal services are suspended here.”

News18 tried to reach out to the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Pulwama, Sayed Abid Rasheed Shah, for a comment but he was not available in his office.

Some distance from where Rafiq is posted, News18 spoke to Ghulam Nabi Dar. The retired government official has been leaving his house everyday at 8 am to reach the Pulwama DC's office. The 71-year-old has been walking six kilometres to and fro to try and speak to his daughter, unsuccessfully so far.

Dar's daughter studies in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. The only phone available in the town is at the DC's office. But from the last four days, Dar has been unable to speak to his daughter and is getting increasingly worried about her wellbeing.

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“I arrive at the gate of the DC's office in the morning and leave in the evening, waiting to make one phone call. This has been my schedule for the last four days. The security guards are not allowing me inside,” Dar told News18 while waiting outside the DC office in heavy rain.

“The security guards are saying there is a single phone and that is with the DC, who is staying at his official residence,” Dar, who sports a white beard and a skull cap, says. He is worried about his daughter’s safety and doesn’t know if she has money.

“I had promised her that I will send her some money before Eid. I don’t know how she is managing her expenses these days. Back home her mother is crying all the day. No one in the family is able to sleep properly due to worry,” Dar says, waiting at the gate.

Kashmir has been under siege since August 5, the day when the government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmi — Article 370 — and divided the state into two Union Territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. It was the 10th day of restrictions. Paramilitary, police and the army personnel are fanning across the Srinagar, the major city of the region, and other towns of the Valley. There is an absolute ban on internet; mobile phones and landline telecom services remain completely suspended in every part of the Kashmir Valley.

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A few days ago, the government announced it has put up helpline services at every district headquarter for distressed people who want to reach out to their loved ones. This means that if around 80 lakh people — who are put under restrictions — have to call someone, they can use these 10 spots. But then, like in Pulwama, these places are inaccessible and people like Dar are hopeless and angry.

“It is like we have been taken back by a 100 years,” Dar says. He is not alone in this desperate situation. There are around two dozen people trying to access the phone at the DC's office since the helpline was announced by the government.

Like Dar, Gulshan is waiting to hear the voice of her son, who studies medicine in New Delhi, over phone. “I just want to listen to his voice once,” she says, having tried every possible way to reach out to him. A day ago, someone told Gulshan about a satellite phone working in a police station in Rajpora, a town 10 km away. She rushed there in the evening, only to return in disappointment.

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The situation is even more complex for those who are worried about their families currently out of the country. Ali Mohammad Wani's elderly parents have gone for Hajj — the 40-day religious pilgrimage — to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Wani wants to talk to them but there is no way even if the helpline at the DC office becomes accessible.

“I cannot make international calls from there,” says Wani. His parents are scheduled to return on August 24, but he doesn’t know what time of the day. If their arrival is rescheduled, he will have no idea.

Last week, a family in Srinagar got to know about the demise of a woman in their family in Medina, three days after she was buried there. The family had to contact someone in Delhi, who then took a flight to Kashmir bearing the news.

As people become more distressed with each passing day, the government has announced that telephone booths will be set up in Srinagar and other places. As of now, there is not a single such booth visible anywhere. The communication gag has already cost a loss worth crores to businesses in the Valley. Businessmen are even worried about how they will file the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and their Income Tax returns.

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