Kashmir: A Year Under Lockdown
It's now a year since the Indian government rescinded the autonomy of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, effectively cutting off the beleaguered area from the outside world. In this, Shoaib Shafi speaks to Kashmiris about their experience of a year in lockdown.
August 5 marked a year since the Indian government rescinded the autonomy of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the disputed region of northern India. In doing so, the Indian government downgraded the state into two seperate Union Territories, with each directly ruled by the federal government in New Delhi. In order— the Indian government hopes— to effectively implement its long-held dream of establishing Israeli-style settler colonies in Jammu and Kashmir as an initial step towards the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Muslims.
A day before India’s unilateral decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy, the region was cut off from the rest of the world. All phone lines, internet connections and local cable television networks went dead, leading to a total communication blackout. The streets were wrapped in barbed wire, and the region placed under strict lockdown.
With the curfew in place, millions of people in Kashmir suddenly cut off from the outside world, and from all information about their family and friends. A year on, businesses, schools and universities remain closed and government offices shut. For the people of Kashmir, it was yet another betrayal from India, deepening the sense of resentment against the country.
As the lives of people on the ground have been dramatically altered, we speak to a cross-section of people in Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city, to get a glimpse of how one year under lockdown has affected their lives as they cope with the loss of autonomy in Kashmir.
ARBAZ SHAFIQ, 24, PURSUING MASTERS IN COMMERCE AT UNIVERSITY OF KASHMIR
The revocation of the article had a huge impact on us. As students, we have faced the worst. Our semester ended in July 2019 and even now we have not been promoted; exams are not held. One semester is for six months but we have already completed a year and are still in the same semester. We are told by our professors to study on our own, but then the internet is not working here. They have allowed 2G, but that’s useless. If we have to pay fees for examination forms, the transaction takes such a long time and then you keep on reloading it. Other students have so many opportunities but we are in limbo here.
Also, tourism as well as the handicraft sector are both badly hit. Usually, the tourism season starts after April, but only after two months in August, the situation in Kashmir worsened. The labouring class or the daily wagers, who work during the day and eat in the evening, I don’t know how they manage to survive, it baffles me. Handicraft sector is completely ruined; it doesn't have any scope. They [India] said the revocation of Article 370 would be a boost for Kashmir’s economy but as of yet, I don't see any sort of benefit. They said the public sector will develop and multinational companies will come here and employ Kashmiri people. But nothing happened, it was all a sham. In fact, whatever happened was opposite of what they had promised. What we rather got was the world’s longest internet blackout.
Now, it seems as though Kashmir doesn't belong to Kashmiris anymore. The people of Kashmir are locked in and everything else is going normal. . . We are living off by our savings, but soon it will come to an end.
URSILLA QUREISHI, 53, HOME-MAKER
It has been 30 years that we have witnessed this pain and conflict. But from the last year, it has been even more horrifying. At least, until then we had some identity, but now we have become like Palestinians. They way they were thrown out of their own homes by Israel, the same would happen with us now. Already they are throwing our youths into jail and slapping Public Safety Act on them, and they will never come out.
Do you know, when I heard that India’s Home Minister Amit Shah has tested COVID-19 positive, I was elated. Right away, I prayed for his speedy death. I prayed to Allah he should die as brutally as he made us suffer here in Kashmir. If he will die, it would be because of our prayers. All the people I know around me prayed for his death. I hope all of them, Modi and Amit Shah, die the death of a pig. That’s what they are.[book-strip index="1" style="display"]
GAZANFAR WANI, 43, BANK CLERK
My name is Gazanfar, but Gazanfar of pre-2019 August and post-2019 August, these are two different people. You won’t believe me, I was a firm believer of Indian democracy. I used to vote during elections when the entire Kashmir boycotted it. But you won’t believe how drastically my perception changed after India revoked Article 370. I wept and pulled my hair out when I heard the news. One thing I don’t understand is if it was, as they say, for our ‘development’, then why didn’t they ask us before taking a step. Instead, they jailed the entire population and humiliated us and took away our sense of security and belonging. They took away our pride, our autonomy, without taking us on board.
Before, I used to despise those young ones pelting stones at Indian soldiers, but now even if my son picks up a gun, I won’t stop him. My conscience won’t allow it. We have been humiliated by India, and trust me, if I had a gun, I would go and empty my entire round of bullets into the chest of these politicians.
SHEIKH LIYAQAT, 60, ROADSIDE HAWKER, SELLING FOOTWEAR
Look at my tongue, it’s parched. I have no money left now, my family did not have any food from the past two days. All of them are hungry. Except for water and sugar, we have nothing. Before August 2019, when the situation was normal, I was a salesman at a footwear shop and would earn enough money for survival, but after that when we were engulfed in curfew, my employer stopped paying as the shops remained closed. Then after a few months, I began to sell footwear on the roadside . . . As the curfews and restrictions were easing down in March, the coronavirus hit. And since then we are under a lockdown within a lockdown.
JASMINE ZEHRA, 19, MEDICAL STUDENT
Everyone is suffering in Kashmir, especially their mental health. This has been happening here even before I was born. But what happens is when you see suffering every day, you become emotionless, numb; and then nothing bothers you, whether people live or die. When death becomes as common as killing a housefly, you become indifferent afterwards.
We are a new generation, the youth, and we are more affected. Our studies are disturbed, the educational system here is not on track. We are not able to access the internet. And then our education suffered which indirectly deteriorated our mental health. When you see students from other states prospering, you begin to question yourself that why can’t you do this but I have realised it was because we are the children of conflict and are living constantly in trauma. And when all the connectivity was shut, a person starts overthinking. We had no information about the world, the family and relatives, we knew nothing about them. My father was out of the station and for two months we knew nothing about him and all of us at home were tense. I was in trauma and psychologically devastated. Anxiety and depression took over me. I would overthink a lot and I didn’t read a single page in 2019. And also, it has destroyed us financially as well.
SABA MEHRAJ, 30, JOURNALIST
India is seen here as an occupying power and people do not have any faith in India’s judicial system. Take the example of journalists, they are every other day detained and questioned by police. They are interrogated to reveal their sources, “why did you do this, why did you do that?” or “why do you portray India’s image as bleak and negative”. This is horrible! Where in the world do government authorities do that? Where in the world do they beat journalists, damage their cameras or threaten them with consequences if they report a particular story?
But the entire world knows what they are doing in Kashmir. International media like the BBC, Washington Post and Aljazeera have reported harrowing stories of torcher during the past year. The world will know the reality, it doesn’t matter how much they will put a curtain over their shoddy politics in Kashmir.
AAMIR ALI, 37, BUSINESSMAN
What will India get by jailing the people of Kashmir? The Indian soldiers have wreaked havoc here. Every time you go out, you are constantly stopped, frisked, innocent people are arrested without any evidence, and you feel like a refugee in your own land. Kashmir is ours, and India treats us as if they own us, as if we are their slaves. Who are they to take our decisions? Why can’t we take any decisions ourselves?
I deal with handicrafts, and from the past one year, we are out of work. Sitting with one hand on another. And who will compensate for the loss we suffer because of these curfews?
Okay, keep the profits and losses aside, if India would just leave us, then even if we had to eat salt and bread, we would be content even with that. You know, even if they will shower coins of gold on us, we still would not want to be a part of India. Our demand is simple: freedom from India’s slavery.
*ALL NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT IDENTITIES
Shoaib Shafi is a writer and independent journalist. He currently reports from New Delhi and Srinagar.