The Fear of Being Caged and Cut off from the Rest of the World — by Sheikh Saqib
October 13, 2019

Having graduated recently from the Summer Institute at the Iowa International Writers Workshop, young Sheikh Saqib summarizes his experience of the ongoing lock-down and media blockade imposed on Kashmir, right upon his return from the USA. As a student barely past his teens, Saqib describes the atmosphere observed and felt by the people of his native Srinagar, days before the Indian government’s announcement abrogating Articles 370 and 35A on August 5th and the weeks that have followed since. Accounts such as his are essential to understanding the situation in Kashmir from a Kashmiri perspective, and are welcomed at Inverse Journal, from Kashmiris of all walks of life, to narrate and describe what they have felt and observed under the latest siege that has put the Valley under complete lock-down bringing everything to an unprecedented halt. This time, the account comes from a young student who, just a few weeks ago, was learning how to write more effectively under the guidance and mentorship of faculty at University of Iowa’s prestigious MFA program to then landing back in Kashmir to face the present and enforced circumstances along with the rest of the Kashmiri population.

On the bus, I could hear an old lady imploring out loud to God, “Ya Allah Asi Pyeath Kar Raham” (Dear God, please have mercy on us). I was riding back home after spending an entire day at my college, at around 8 PM on August 3rd. Kashmir Valley was yet again entrapped between confusion and anxiety, balancing between fear and uncertainty while holding on strong to hope and prayer. The last time I had witnessed such a situation was in the immediate aftermath of the February 14th Pulwama attack when a local rebel—what natives in Kashmir call them—rammed his explosive-filled XUV car into a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), resulting in an attack where more than 40 Indian CRPF personnel, including the rebel himself, lost their lives.

On August 3rd, the developments were vastly different. The fear of abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A and a full-scale war between the two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, had been giving sleepless nights to the indigenous Kashmiri population.

The central government, earlier that week, had deployed 10,000 additional armed forces into Kashmir. Later, 25,000 more troops were stationed in the Valley (while according to new reports in the media, the exact number of troops pressed into action lately was said to be 1,80,000 exactly). This was in addition to the already 7,00,000 soldiers parked in the Valley, notoriously making Kashmir one of the world’s most militarized territories over the last three decades.

That entire day at school, before the bus ride home, when this sudden disturbance had engulfed the Valley, I was in center number 39 of Amar Singh College, glued to my seat, waiting for the question paper of my first semester examination. For the next two and half hours, I was to focus on my paper, while all sorts of big and mysterious events transpired around me and around everyone else in our community.

As I set my focus on the question paper before me, barely after an hour or so into the exam, a cavalcade of trucks and jeeps started ringing their horns in a loud and unpleasant manner from outside the examination hall. From the proximity of the sound that their horns and running engines were making, I could sense them within the college campus. It made me anxious and edgy as I was already aware of the growing uncertainty across Kashmir, particularly from Srinagar, the summer capital where news about the latest developments tended to disperse towards other districts. From the sound of the bustling engines, I knew these were armed soldiers barging in to occupy our college and our spaces of learning. The invigilators inside the classroom started exchanging whispers, and gesticulating. For a minute I forgot about my paper and started imagining the chaotic scenes that would be prevailing in the streets of the Valley while armed troopers made their way into our spaces of study. As a sudden anxiety-laced adrenaline kicked in, I panicked into thinking that I wished not to die in that confined structure of a dull exam hall, but rather on the streets of Kashmir, with everybody else.

After turning in my exam paper amid the psychological war that coursing through my brain, I hurried towards the corridor of the building and grabbed my bag in order to take out my phone and check every single notification that had been popping up on my mobile screen from the last few hours. Initially, I feared that the Internet had been shutdown, but it was still active and functional at that point. The first news item my eyes affixed onto was the advisory issued by Shaleen Kabra, the Principal Secretary (from the Home Department), to Amarnath pilgrims and tourists ordering them to curtail their stay in Kashmir and go back home immediately.

The communique stated, "Keeping in view the latest intelligence inputs of terror threats, with specific targeting of the Amarnath Yatra, and given the prevailing security situation in the Kashmir Valley, in the interest of safety and security of the tourists and Amarnath Yatris, it is advised that they may curtail their stay in the Valley immediately and take necessary measures to return as soon as possible."

As I kept surfing the Internet for more details, whilst ambling down the way towards the main gate of the college, I could see armed soldiers with guns latched onto their shoulders, manning several doors of the college buildings. I could see them parking their vehicles, loaded with guns and other ammunition, in front of the college library. The sight sent a chill throughout my body. I tried to comprehend the whole situation, but just felt as if the war was next door and had come knocking ferociously, with armed troopers and military vehicles in close proximity, immediately on the campus of the college where I was enrolled along with hundreds of students.

Parents, relatives and close associates started calling in to advise all of us to return to our home early. “No one knows what is going to happen. It’s safer to go home early today,” one of my school teachers told me. “Take the first bus and reach home as soon as you can,” my worried mother nervously demanded over the phone, calling several times over to ensure I was on my way to her doorstep.

As I kept walking towards the bus stop, I could see the chaos spreading everywhere on roads. People, fearing a long lock-down, were by now out on streets to buy petrol, medicines, groceries and other daily essentials. I could see the disorder and stress in the streets manifest in the hectic civilian traffic and in the haste with which people were trying to gather essentials, surely preparing for, and expecting, the worst yet to come. In one of the alleys, which is on my route to the bus stop, a 16-year-old boy jokingly told his friend while both of them were saying farewell to each other, “Download everything you want to, today, there might be a month’s long Internet blockade. You can’t trust India. They can do whatever they want.”

At that time, I thought to myself, how good it is for a Kashmiri to die than to survive such extremely terrible situations. On the one hand the grownups running up and down the streets from shop to store, buying essentials and stocking up quickly as if a nuclear conflict were to unfold within hours, while an unfazed youth schemed to download entire series of TV shows and films to watch offline locked within his house, in case the state did what it had done before, disconnect the Internet and leave Kashmiris out of touch with the rest of the world. The besiegement that Kashmiris felt was a daily routine by now, and previously entire months had transpired with internet disconnection, continued curfew and a general lock-down with newspapers suspended from circulation, particularly in 2016 when the rebel leader Burhan Muzaffar Wani was killed. This new situation, exhibited the previous policy measures by the state, but also was eerily reminiscent of the 90s, when almost overnight troop deployment and brutal counter-insurgency tactics resulted in massacres ingrained in peoples’ memories ever since. This was perhaps the reason why the abounding fear had engulfed people Valley-wide while many were rushing about to stock up on petrol, food essentials and medical supplies.

In the bus when I recounted the particular incident of the boys (preparing to download TV shows and films in bulk) to an old man, he told me, “Kashmir is a prison and we don’t even have the right to proper communication, like everyone else.”

The bus was mostly filled with members of the older generation. The memories of 1990’s were being refreshed. “They did the same in nineties when Jagmohan took over as the governor of the state,” Touath explained—in Kashmir, young kids would address the eldest man in the family as Touath. This was considered a mark of respect in the use of such affectionate nicknames, a practice that has now almost vanished in the Valley. The use of such appellations, though, still continues in some households.

“Jagmohan was the key player in evacuating Kashmiri Pandits in 1990’s. He told the Pandit community that he had plans of killing half a million Kashmiri Muslims in order to overcome the uprising against New Delhi. Pandits were assured that they would be looked after well, and would be provided free relief, jobs and free accommodation. They were assured that once the massacre of the Kashmiri Muslim population was done and the movement was crushed, they would be sent back to the valley. This is how the Pandits left. And I am sensing a similar situation in the books right now,” Touath told his audience on the bus. The ones in the front seat had, by now, turned their heads over in order to catch the glimpse of the person who was sharing some credible knowledge, with which everyone seemed familiar.

I had encountered a similar kind of retelling of history in a Daaba while heading back home. I don't know whether this was a coincidence or people were sharing a collective history with each other as there seemed to be a semblance between what transpired during 1989 and 1990 and the government’s response through mysterious policies being implemented at ground-level within a 24-hour span, all of which, in their summation, had seemed suspicious and sketchy to the local population.

“Today we are blamed for throwing out the Pandits when all of that was organized by the central government and now after another twenty to thirty odd years, our children will be blamed for throwing out tourists and Yatris, even when all of this is being done at the behest of the central government,” Touath added.

As Touath kept sharing oral history and giving predictions for the future, I reached my locality and deboarded the bus at my stop.

At home, everyone was tense and waiting for further developments on this new and unprecedented situation. The developments—a code-name for anything implemented by the government that severely impacted quotidian life in Kashmir—a day later on August 4th arrived as a major disappointment. With a telecommunications and an Internet blockade in effect, the whole state of Jammu and Kashmir was put under indefinite lock-down, which continues till today, entering its 3rd month, and having begun with the arrest of various pro-India and pro-freedom leaders and their associates.

The next day, the fear of the people became an untamable reality. On August 5th, the ruling Indian party, the BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) revoked Article 370 and Article 35A from the Indian constitution that guaranteed autonomy to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, through what several political commentators have called illegal and unconstitutional means, resulting in the split of the state into two union territories, namely Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh.

That night, amid the havoc and disorderliness, news of increasing military presence on both sides of the Line of Control (between India and Pakistan administered Kashmir), catalysed a new wave of madness and strain felt across the Valley’s homes, businesses and places of public gathering. Today, as the Valley continues to face the lock-down and communications blackout, we live in panic, terror and alarm, in a state of continued besiegement. Most of our schools and colleges are occupied by Indian armed soldiers, campuses are filled with AK-47s and war arsenal, and the economy has worsened exponentially. Food, produce, medical supplies and basic essentials, including petrol, are hard to get to during the normal work hours from early morning till late evenings. The harvest, dry fruits and nuts, grain and agricultural sectors overall have suffered severe damages. There is no access to healthcare even for newborn babies, and people who were generating employment for youth three months earlier are left with no option but to migrate and seek employment outside Kashmir. People from rural villages are seen hitchhiking on the highway trying to get to city hospitals and specialty clinics for treatment that they cannot get in their own areas. All this while there is heavy circulation of military vehicles on the roads, with troopers placed on every major intersection as drones habitually fly over villages and city areas.

The situation, presently, is worse than ever. Around eight million people are caged in the world’s most beautiful prison, Kashmir. Their crime is that they have never failed to show resistance towards those who try to overpower them by coercive and undemocratic means.

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About the Contributor

Sheikh Saqib is a non-fiction writer from India-administered Kashmir. He is a graduate of the Iowa International Writer’s Workshop, 2019. His work can be found in Asia Times, The Express Tribune, The Hindu, The Quint, Free Press Kashmir, TwoCircles.net, Newslaundry, LiveWire, The Indus Post, Kashmir Lit, Kashmir Ink and various other publications. He also maintains a blog www.sheikhsaqib09.blogspot.in where he posts most of his writings. He is presently based in Srinagar where he is pursuing his education and working on various journalistic projects.

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