THE LOUD SILENCE
THE VALLEY IS QUIET, BUT IT IS FAR FROM PEACEFUL. THE GOVERNMENT CLAMPDOWN HAS KEPT THE LID ON AN ANGRY POPULATION, WAITING FOR RESTRICTIONS TO LIFT EVEN AS IT STRUGGLES WITH THE EVERYDAY
An uneasy peace rules in J&K as Kashmiris seethe over their downgraded status; the Centre maintains all is well
Q+A with Ram Madhav
Goodbye to Kashmiriyat by A.S. Dulat Fear and Anger Runs Deep by Jean Drèze
ON THE MORNING OF Eid al-Adha in Srinagar, a young boy in spotless, if creased, kurta-pyjamas is trying but failing to keep his sheep under control. The sheep, perhaps sensing its impending sacrifice, tries to make a run for it and becomes entangled in the coiled mesh at one of the security checkpoints that have blanketed the city since August 5, when the government announced its intention to do away with Article 370 which conferred special status and autonomy on Kashmir. Anticipating protests, the government had cleared Kashmir of tourists, including Amarnath pilgrims, at the height of the season, and imposed a communications ban, affecting mobile phones, the Internet and even landlines.
Stuck, the sheep bleated while the boy became increasingly upset at being unable to help. It was finally rescued by the men manning the checkpoint. They were wearing camouflage, their bodies weighed down with protective gear; some of them were armed. And soon the boy is joined by other children his age who help him corral the sheep. They say their Eid plans will differ this year, with no one lighting firecrackers, going shopping, or flying kites. Instead, says one boy shyly, “Iss Eid par
Khuda se dua karenge ki halaat theek ho jayein (This Eid, we will pray to God for the situation to improve).” Perhaps Kashmiris believe only divine intervention can help them now. It’s been over two weeks since they became virtual prisoners, unable to say what they feel about the momentous changes being forced upon them, to the cheers of much of the rest of the country.
The small steps being taken to restore to Kashmir the appearance of normal life—including the restoration of some landline connections and the reopening of primary and middle schools—have had little effect, with parents too scared to send their children back to school and communications still mostly restricted as people take to the streets in protest. The government, though still maintaining that not a single bullet has been fired in anger, has had to acknowledge that there have been
protests, including incidents of stone-throwing, and that tear gas and pellets—as reported in the international press and sections of the Indian media—have been used to disperse crowds of protesters.
But, say authorities, none of this is new to Kashmir. “Most importantly,” says Rohit Kansal, principal secretary, planning and development, in the now erstwhile state, “there has not been a single death, unlike in 2016, when 37 people died in the first week of protests after the killing of Burhan Wani.” He makes this point frequently to the members of the Delhi media holed up in a Srinagar hotel. Wani had been a potent symbol of Kashmiri alienation—a social media celebrity of sorts, often photographed posing with an AK47—who successfully recruited young men to become militants.
The government, while maintaining that not a single bullet has been fired, has had to acknowledge that there have been protests
Truth be told, the government has been underplaying injuries to civilians. There are no official numbers to turn to, but there is anecdotal evidence of people being treated for injuries in hospital, including those hurt seriously enough—like a small girl hit in the eye by a marble fired from a slingshot—to warrant extended stays. The administration has been vociferous, even high-handed, in its dismissals of reports emerging in international media, but at the same time, it continues to block out requests from journalists for more accurate information.
In this news vacuum, most ordinary people in Kashmir believe that the government would rather give the rest of the country false reassurance than listen to them. “If things were fine,” says Abdul Wahid from Downtown, a Srinagar neighbourhood that is a Hurriyat bastion, “and there was no violence, why are there still curfews? Why aren’t mobile connections and Internet access fully restored? The administration is lying when it says things are under control.”
There have been reports of clashes in Downtown almost every day since the dilution of Article 370. Streets in the area are carpeted with stones thrown by angry protesters, some of them flung at security forces from the terraces of neighbourhood houses. Entry and exit points into the neighbourhood have been blocked and the narrow lanes are choked with troops. Arif Mohammed, a BSc student in Srinagar, says Kashmiris “are no strangers” to violent clashes with security forces. “We have dealt with stonepelting, pellet guns, terror attacks, human rights violations and security lockdowns before,” he says, “and we will deal with them in the future.”
Few people in Kashmir have bought into the government’s narrative. While government spokespersons claim that those in Jammu and Ladakh have welcomed the partition of the state into two separate Union territories, the silence out of Kashmir has been deafening. There are rumours about thousands being detained, of ordinary
residential buildings being converted into prisons. Government sources, albeit anonymously, say as many as 4,000 people have been arrested since August 5.
Police have jailed community organisers, lawyers, journalists, activists and protesters who have a record of stonepelting—anyone who represents a threat to the appearance of order in Kashmir. Most prominently, of course, the government continues to hold such high-profile politicians as former chief ministers Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah and his father Farooq Abdullah, though home minister Amit Shah has denied that the latter is under house arrest. But, Kashmiris are asking, for how long can
so many be detained? Munir Khan, additional director general of police, has told the press that some people have been detained under the Public Safety Act, which is typically used to hold suspects behind bars for years without charge. “We don’t want collateral damage,” Khan said, “and civilian casualties.” There is a suspicion though, among Kashmiris, that such draconian measures could backfire on the Centre—Kashmiris feel even their most basic rights are being snatched from them. “This is a war,” says a college student in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, “when mainstream politicians aren’t safe, no one else is. But this move (the dilution of Article 370) has united people to fight New Delhi.”
There are reports that even young Kashmiri police are growing disenchanted with the government’s methods. Anticipating some amount of anger, local police, even those manning the barricades, have been accompanied by large numbers of central forces. During the Independence Day celebration at the Sher-e-Kashmir stadium, some local constabulary took digs at national journalists covering the event. “Fake Indian media”, was heard, a common insult among Kashmiri civilians, and “Indian media, go back!” Coming from cops in ceremonial dress, the epithets were startling and an indication of the strength of feeling.
“There won’t be a rebellion,” said one policeman, “but there is anger among the ranks. That’s why we are being monitored so carefully.” One policeman, in his early 20s, said about the evisceration of Article 370: “It’s like killing somebody in their sleep.” Part of the security team of a highranking official, the policeman had an AK47 strapped to his side. “I am well educated,” he said, “I have a Master’s in political science. What was done was undemocratic.” Strident in his condemnation of the methods employed by the Narendra Modi government, he was, nonetheless, cautious enough to add: “Please don’t write my name. I will be in trouble.”
Outside Kashmir, where the overturning of Article 370 has been broadly popular, it appears Indians are unwilling to acknowledge the difficulties being borne by their fellow citizens. Just a week before she was due to have her baby, Arifa Jan, from Shopian in south Kashmir, had to take a taxing 60 kilometre journey from her home to the Lal Ded Hospital in Srinagar, the only maternity hospital in the Valley. She was forced to negotiate security barricades and circumvent protests to reach the hospital for a check-up on August 12. Doctors told her that given the curfews and other restrictions, she should stay in the hospital rather than return home—but as a result of the communication blackout, Arifa couldn’t let her family know, plunging them into worry and prompting her husband, Mohammad Iqbal, to defy curfews and make his own way to the hospital. The journey, with all the stops and checks, took hours. When he finally arrived, Iqbal had to use the hospital loudspeaker to let his wife know he was there, and then he made the same journey back home to let their families know she was safe.
The very next day, he took the same meandering route to the hospital once more to see his wife, bypassing secu
Even the police seem weary. At the I-Day celebrations in Srinagar, some local constabulary took digs at journalists, saying, “Indian media, go back!”
THE RIGHT TO DECIDE Kashmiris protesting the dilution of Article 370 amid curfewlike restrictions in Srinagar
FACES OF PROTEST: (from left) Kashmiri women shout slogans; a road dug out and barricaded to prevent security personnel from reaching a protest site; J&K police personnel avoid the media gaze after the I-Day celebrations