KASHMIR’S INFO WARS
No one with internet access— that is anyone in India who does not live in Kashmir—can be unaware of the eerie disconnect between what our government (and much of our media) is telling us is happening in Kashmir and what is being reported in the foreign press and in sections of the Indian media.
On the one hand is an official story of peace and quiet, of a population accepting of its diminished Union territory status and perhaps cautiously optimistic about the future (if not exuberant like those in Jammu and
Ladakh). In this version, normalcy is returning, albeit gradually, and there have been no demonstrations involving more than 20 people. On the other hand, reputable foreign media have reported the use of tear gas and pellet guns to disperse as many as 10,000 protesters. Some Indian journalists too have reported the use of pellet guns and photographed young men, including teenage boys, in hospitals with serious eye injuries.
It seems that if Eid al-Adha was quiet in the Kashmir valley, it was because the (former) state was enmeshed in a security dragnet. For over a week, the streets have been mostly bare, save for troops and coils of barbed wire. People have had to queue for hours for a few snatched minutes on a telephone with family living abroad or in other parts of India. The shutting down of the internet is already familiar; India leads the world in such shutdowns, the substantial majority of which affect Kashmir. “There was a complete lockdown. I had come home from Dubai to celebrate the festival with my family,” said Aamir Ahmed, standing outside a locked mosque in Srinagar. A maulvi at
a Srinagar mosque said the day before Eid, he had been told that “people would be allowed to offer namaaz. Late that night, though, the orders were that no one would be allowed in.” But an official statement from the administration contends that “elaborate arrangements were made to facilitate people for offering prayers”.
Conversely, along the Line of Control (LoC), security seems less prominent. In the Tangdhar sector, villagers gathered for Friday prayers, the night before Eid. Mostly Gujjars, Bakarwals and Paharis, they feel cut off from the Valley. They say their identity is distinct, as is their ‘Pahari’ language, and their concerns too are less political than existential, focused on surviving poverty and Pakistani fire. Shopkeeper Mohammed Maqbool says whether Article 370 “exists or not has no impact on our lives. We need bunkers to protect us from shelling”. It is a longstanding appeal and though, say sources, 3,000 bunkers have been approved, none has been built. The removal of Article 370 “will be hailed”, says Shabbir Ahmed Shah, 60, from Titwal village on the LoC, “if it will bring the youth better education and jobs”. He says the people in his village are “extremely poor and often face discrimination from Kashmiris, so if removing Article 370 brings us closer to the mainstream, that would be great”.
Young people in the border areas echoed these concerns. Jobs, they said, were in short supply, even in Srinagar. First-year BA student Amjad Dar said villages along the LoC “need development”.
In Tangdhar, along the LoC, villagers are more concerned about survival issues and the construction of bunkers to duck Pakistani fire
Rafiq Ahmed, preparing for his 12th standard exams, says “if removing Article 370 can bring jobs and security, our lives will change”. Gujjars in Kashmir, says A.R. Badhana, a former member of the state legislature, “have always supported India and are proud of it”. Removing Article 370 is welcome, he adds, “but full statehood should have remained”.
Any such discussion, though, has been vitiated by politics and propaganda. “Terrorists in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir,” said Lieutenant General K.J.S. Dhillon, commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, “are making infiltration bids every night, but we are able to detect and stop them.” So, is the threat of terror the justification for impeding all communication and freedom of movement for ordinary Kashmiris? Is there a time-table for the restoration of normal services? The Centre is mum, and amid the information lockdown, news and opinion seem to have devolved into a test of patriotism. ■
GROUND REPORT Kashmiris during a protest after Eid al-Adha prayers in Srinagar