The day after the Indian government legislated the state of Jammu and Kashmir out of existence, Shahnaz Qayoom’s colleagues at his office in Delhi walked up to him with a box of sweets.
“Sir,” Qayoom recalled them saying, “Aapko zindagi mil gayee.” [You have been given life.]
“I don’t know what to do. It’s my workplace,” Qayoom said in an interview with HuffPost India. “I don’t want to get into an argument. I don’t want to be called an anti-national.”
“I walk away. I make a sad face. I say that I’m worried about my parents,” he said.
The last time that Qayoom spoke to his elderly parents was on Sunday night. His father, who suffered a heart attack and then a brain stroke last month, had recently returned to Srinagar after getting treated in Delhi.
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Now with most phone lines in Kashmir Valley severed, and the internet blocked, Qayoom is trying to get his parents to Delhi. His work colleague, another Kashmiri, who has not been able to reach his wife and his seven-month-old baby, has taken a flight to Srinagar. “We are completely distraught. It’s traumatic,” he said.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has claimed that its decision to nullify Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and bifurcate the state into two union territories, has widespread support in the Valley.
Yet, as Qayoom’s experience suggests, the move has alienated even so-called mainstream Kashmiris settled in mainland India.
For Qayoom, the total exclusion of Kashmiris from the decision-making process, and the undisguised excitement of his non-Kashmiri office colleagues has made clear that the Modi government’s decision is not meant for Kashmiris, but for whipping up jingoism across the country.
“If this is about Kashmir, then how does it make a difference?” he said. “I thought we are already an integral part of India?”
Voting for the first time
Qayoom moved to Delhi in 2003 and, over the past 16 years, has found a way to balance growing up with the death and violence that had pervaded Kashmir in the nineties, with the excitement of a new beginning in the mainland, and the banality of the day-to-day.
Time, however, cannot dull the memories of the afternoon that he was shot at by Indian security personnel while heading to his tuition class in Srinagar. He was 11-years-old. The bullet, which he believes was meant for his head, hit his ring finger. His uncle, he said, pushed him out of the way in the nick of time. He was, however, left with a finger without a joint.
And yet, over the years, Qayoom became comfortable identifying as an Indian. He did not let go of the past, but as he did well professionally, the frenetic corporate world and humdrum of family life became his immediate reality.
In 2013, Qayoom became the first person in his family to have ever voted.
His grandfather and father, who were prominent journalists in Kashmir, never voted.
Qayoom can recall the day that he decided to vote. It was after a chance encounter with Balram Tanwar, the MLA from Chattarpur, who, he recalled, was all smiles on learning that he was Kashmiri.
When it came to the issue at hand — extending the water pipeline for it to reach Qayoom’s neighborhood — Tanwar listened attentively and got it done.
Qayoom was so pleased with his interaction with Tanwar that he broke with his family tradition and decided to vote for the first time in the 2013 Delhi Assembly election.
“I felt that I should vote because I felt part of a community. I had issues, local issues. This voting was not about Kashmir, it was about my needs in Delhi,” he said. He chose AAP because of its crusade against corruption.
“I felt that I should vote because I felt part of a community. I had issues, local issues.
Tanwar, a Congress Party leader, lost the 2013 Assembly election to the BJP candidate in Chattarpur. In 2015, AAP won the constituency.
Qayoom voted for AAP in 2013 and 2015 Assembly elections, and the 2014 Lok Sabha election. He was traveling during the 2019 Lok Sabha or he would have voted for AAP.
Recalling his meeting with Tanwar, he said, “I really liked him as an individual and he did great work for his constituency, but it was the anti-corruption movement that captured my imagination at the time. I was really moved by it.”
When Delhi’s Chief Minister, AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal, tweeted in support of the government’s move to nullify Article 370, Qayoom felt betrayed.
“I am really disappointed with Kejriwal. I don’t understand why? Is this about the election? To earn some brownie points? Those voters are already with the BJP. This is not going to help,” said Qayoom.
If he did not feel completely betrayed at this point, Qayoom would have voted for AAP in 2020, but this Kashmiri has decided that he no longer wants to participate in Indian democracy.
“I thought of myself as Indian and then Kashmiri, but not anymore. Not after today. Not after that tweet,” he said.
I thought of myself as Indian and then Kashmiri, but not anymore. Not after today.
‘My 100% focus is to leave India’
If even AAP — a party that has premised its political existence on the demand for full statehood for Delhi — is supporting the BJP, has made clear to Qayoom that Kashmiris can expect little from the Indian state.
“Today, Kashmir is changed with brute force, while Kashmiris are caged and left without a voice,” Qayoom said. “Tomorrow, our voting rights could be taken away, and we won’t be able to do anything about it.”
The seeming political consensus around this events of this week suggests the BJP has effectively hijacked the political conversation, making it hard for any political party to oppose them without being tagged “anti-national” — or worse — “anti-Hindu.”
Tomorrow, our voting rights could be taken away, and we won’t be able to do anything about it.
It’s not the BJP that has disappointed Qayoom, but the other political parties that barely resisted revoking J&K’s special status, with no participation from Kashmiris themselves.
“I don’t blame Modi or Shah for this. They never guaranteed Article 370. They have an ideologue to follow. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. He said, ‘Ek Vidhi, Ek Samvidhaan.’ But what about the Congress? What about AAP? The bigwigs of Indian politics. We had a lot of hopes from them. Their failures have really cost us.”
Qayoom doesn’t always see eye to eye with politicians like former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, but he recognizes them to be India’s flag bearers in Kashmir.
“If they can be arrested, and locked away for days without any explanation, then what about ordinary Kashmiris,” he said.
Actor Anupam Kher’s tweet, he said, gave him goosebumps.
It’s not only the ruthless manner in which J&K’s special status was revoked that bothers Qayoom. For a while now, the 40-year-old father of two children has been fretting over hate crimes against Muslims in BJP-run India.
The lynchings of Muslims in India, and the sudden blow against Article 370 in Kashmir, broke the camel’s back.
“I have lost faith in the democratic system. I don’t want to vote for anyone. My 100% focus is to leave India,” he said. I will not let my children grow up here. I have no second thoughts about it.”
I have lost faith in the democratic system. My 100% focus is to leave India.