POLITICS
06/08/2019 2:38 PM IST | Updated 06/08/2019 11:40 PM IST

'Are They Safe?' Kashmiris Fear For Their Families As Blackout Continues

The communication blackout is the most dehumanising part of the Modi government’s covert operation to revoke J&K’s special status.

NurPhoto via Getty Images

Hearing Home Minister Amit Shah strip Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood with one speech was—as one Kashmiri put it—“insane,” but to not be able to speak with one’s family and friends after these seismic changes to their homeland, to not be able to protest or dissent, was “unbearable.”

Another Kashmiri called it “torture.” A third one said, “traumatic.” 

While everyone else in the world had something to say about the Modi government’s move to revoke Kashmir’s special status, a carefully orchestrated communication blackout has left Kashmiris with no way of speaking with each other or with anyone else. 

The day after J&K was fundamentally altered, there was no news out of Kashmir, not even on how people were reacting to it. The websites and social media channels of Kashmir’s local media have been in a state of dormancy, not having been updated since Sunday.  

It was between 6pm and 10pm on Monday evening, almost 24 hours since internet and mobile phone services were severed in Jammu and Kashmir, that HuffPost India spoke to Kashmiris in Delhi and Mumbai who were desperately trying to reach their families in Srinagar. 

“I’m worried, very worried about my family. It’s a natural feeling when you cannot reach your friends and family,” said Mamoon Roshangar, who left Kashmir in search for a job a month ago.

Having lived through 26 years of unrest in Kashmir, this is the first time that Roshangar is not with his family during a curfew, and the worst part for him is not knowing how they are coping. “I would rather be in Kashmir than outside. At the very least, I would have known if my parents are safe,” he said. 

The communication blackout, which has made it impossible for Kashmiris outside the state to contact their family and friends, is the most dehumanising part of the Modi government’s covert operation to revoke J&K’s special status. 

The Modi government has also bifurcated J&K into two union territories:  J&K, which will have its own Assembly, and Ladakh. 

Not only has the largely Muslim population of Kashmir been silenced in the wake of these changes, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made it impossible for Kashmiris to even be sure of the safety and well-being of their loved ones, at a time when they are imagining the worst. 

I’m worried, very worried about my family.

Many Kashmiris living outside the state have posted frantic messages on social media, asking for any updates about their families and friends.

It is unclear how long this shutdown will continue. Till Tuesday morning, even the spokesperson for the J&K police, Manoj Pandit, was unreachable.

News reports on Tuesday quoted the principal secretary of the Planning Commission in Srinagar as saying that the state has enough food and other supplies for three months, raising questions about how long the government plans to clamp down on Kashmiris.

In Lok Sabha, Jitendra Singh,  Union Minister and a BJP leader from J&K, claimed, “The common man in the streets of Srinagar is rejoicing the abrogation of Article 370. There is, however, a veil of fear that is hindering them.” 

Political activist Shehla Rashid said that there have been instances of celebrations in Jammu, but not a single one in Kashmir. 

Following the arrest of political leaders, including former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, Rashid is one of the few Kashmiri voices which is opposing the BJP’s dominant narrative. 

The former JNU student said, “All of Kashmir is under house arrest, but celebrations are being allowed in Jammu. If Section 144 is in place, how can they allow celebrations in Jammu, but no protests in Kashmir? This is how the law is being played around with.”

If Section 144 is in place, how can they allow celebrations in Jammu, but no protests in Kashmir?

So many questions

Had their parents heard about the Modi government revoking J&K’s special status?  Were they safe? Was the situation calm in their neighbourhoods? Was there any violence?

These are just some of the questions that Kashmiris, who had not spoken to their families and friends since Sunday night, wanted to ask. 

Haunting them are images of thousands of Indian troops pouring into the narrow streets of Srinagar. 

And they know that their parents are worried sick about them as well.

In the conversations with their families before the internet and mobile phone service were blocked, everyone agreed that “something big was coming.”

With memories of the post-Pulwama  backlash against Kashmiris still fresh, their parents, they said, had urged them to return home so that they could face it together. 

Recalling the last conversation that she had with her family on Sunday night, Faqira Ali said, “My mother was telling me to come back. She said, ‘We don’t know what is coming, but if you are here then we can at least be together.’ But no one had imagined this.”

We don’t know what is coming, but if you are here then we can at least be together.

The 25-year-old, the first woman in her family to leave Kashmir to work in Delhi, is conscious of how worried her family is about her safety in the big city, even on regular days. 

“I speak to my mother every morning. When I woke up today, there was no call from her. I tried calling her. Her phone was switched off. I tried my sister. It was switched off. I tried my mother again...” she said. 

Ali, who works in the human resources department of a corporate firm in Ghaziabad, wants to head back home, but she is stuck until she can communicate with her parents. 

“Are my parents fine? What is the situation over there? They have sent so much Army over there, what will happen? she said. “These are the  questions that are going on in my mind. These are not positive questions, but negative ones.” 

As far as the backlash was concerned, Ali and other Kashmiris said that it was more like gloating, with their non-Kashmiri work colleagues and acquaintances speaking “insensitively,” and declaring, “Finally, Kashmir hamaara hai. Modi and Shah have done it.” 

Are my parents fine? What is the situation over there?

No landline 

Khawaja Itrat, a Kashmiri student, who was in Srinagar on Sunday, said that as the internet and mobile phone services were being shut down by the Indian government, he had heard that a few SAT (satellite) phones were being distributed to officials in the J&K police.  

He, however, did not have access to one. 

Instead, Itrat shared his landline number with this reporter, assuming that it would be the one mode of communication which would still work. 

“No one knows what tomorrow will bring. We are living in rumours. People are scared. Pray for us,” he said, before hanging up. 

Landline numbers too have been blocked.

No one knows what tomorrow will bring. We are living in rumours.

Adil Lateef, a Kashmiri journalist based in Delhi, who was also relying on a landline number to reach his family, described the situation in Kashmir as an “unprecedented clampdown.” 

“By 10:30 pm (on Sunday) the internet was gone. The last text I sent was 11:45 pm. By 12:00 am, the mobile service was gone. I was a bit relieved that the landline was working, but then I found out, these too were out. There was total blackout,” he said. 

Somehow, Lateef does not know how,  he received WhatsApp texts from a friend who was at the airport in Srinagar at 1:00 pm on Monday, an hour after Shah had announced that J&K was no longer a state. 

“He said that not everyone was aware of the situation, and those who had heard were in shock. He said that Kashmiris were worried about Kashmiris in other cities. He said, ‘We are worried about you guys.’”

Lateef, 26, said that he spent the intervening night between Sunday and Monday with his friends from Kashmir, but they did not sleep.

“My family does not know how I am. I don’t know how my family is. I’m worried about them, and I know they are worried about me,” he said. 

My family does not know how I am. I don’t know how my family is.

‘I was totally numb’

Ejaz Ayoub, a Kashmiri columnist based in Mumbai, said that Kashmir was riddled with rumours in the days leading up to Shah’s announcement, with people stocking up on food and essential medicines. 

Civilian traffic and shops, however, remained open. 

The last conversation that Ayoub had with his family was about stocking up on “essential medicines.”

Ayoub, however, said that he had managed to speak with a friend in Kashmir via an internet phone (IP phone), and he learnt that while Dish TV was working in the Kashmir Valley, cable TV was down. 

“In terms of ambiguity, a situation like this has never been witnessed before in Kashmir,” he said.

For almost a week ahead of Shah’s announcement on Monday, Indian troops were pouring into J&K, which, after the dissolution of the PDP-BJP coalition government in June, and the Legislative Assembly in November, is under President’s Rule currently. 

At the end of last week, suddenly, the Amarnath pilgrims were asked to leave Kashmir Valley. The Centre, till now, has not given an explanation for this evacuation, which not only costs the pilgrims their hard-earned money, but also the thousands of Kashmiris whose livelihood and businesses depend on the pilgrimage, every year. 

Then came the communication blackout, and the arrest of political leaders, even mainstream ones like Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, triggering rumours of everything from India going to war with Pakistan to the revocation of Kashmir’s special status. 

The BJP has maintained that J&K’s special status needs to go, but legal experts have pointed out that the manner in which the Modi government has tried to reach its goal is unconstitutional.

As per the Instrument of Accession, Kashmir’s special status can be revoked only after the Government of India (GOI) concurs with Kashmir’s Constituent Assembly or its Legislative Assembly, which then needs to pass a resolution on the same.

Focusing on a few persons celebrating in Jammu, who could be BJP sympathisers, exposed BJP’s “moral bankruptcy,” political activist Rashid said.  “If they are so confident about the legality and morality of their position then let them hold an election in Jammu and Kashmir, and have the legislative assembly pass this,” she said. 

Ayoub suspected that recents events were leading to the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, but he did not imagine that J&K’s relationship with India would be redefined in less than an hour. 

“I thought I was mentally prepared. For a moment, I was totally numb. It came as a shock. It was shattering,” he said. 

Referring to Article 370, he said, “It is very dear to us. It is an article of faith.”

“I thought I was mentally prepared. For a moment, I was totally numb. It came as a shock. It was shattering.

Given that the Indian government has plugged every source of dissent, and clamped down on all avenues of protest, Kashmiris believe the response to be this long, drawn out and painful.

Ali, who works in human resources, called the government’s move “foolish.” 

Lateef, the journalist, pointed out that expecting a “quick reaction” would be a mistake. 

Ayoub said that he counted himself among the moderates, but after the abrogation of Article 370, he had lost faith in Indian democracy. This move, he believes, would lead to further extremism in Kashmir. 

“This is a slap in the face of the Kashmiris who respected the Indian Constitution,” he said. “BJP is giving a steroid to separatism. The Modi government is giving a steroid to radicalisation.”