Sheikh Saqib arrives in New Delhi to work on his writing projects and communicate through the internet while making severe adjustments to continue with the pursuit of his education as an undergraduate student. In the process, he brings us this piece that narrates what young Kashmiris in Delhi have been experiencing through the communications blockade that has kept families apart and out of touch. The piece reflects the initial two months of the ongoing Indian siege on Kashmir, offering concrete examples of what it means when phone and internet services are deactivated by those in power and how such limitations cause severe loss, distress, and anxiety.
New Delhi, September
In the famous Community Centre near Zakir Nagar locality in the Indian national capital, New Delhi, twenty year old Abaan Asif Khachkar is seen garnering the attention of each passerby for his adept poetry skills. Presently, he is reciting the following lines from Jaun Elia’s Ghazal in Urdu language, Ajab Ek Shor Sa Barpa Hai Kahin (Somewhere, there is an astonishing commotion in the air).
Hai Kuchh aisa ki jaise ki yeh sab kuchh
is se pehle bhi ho chukka hai kahin
Tu mujhe dhundh main tujhe dhundun
koi hum main se rah gaya hai kahin
It seems as if all this has happened
we should keep on searching for each other
one of us is certainly lost somewhere
These lines, Abaan says, relate to the separation between people living here and their families in India-administered Kashmir, who have so far have had very little conversational exchange with their loved ones. Since August 5, when India by means of what several political commentators call illegal, revoked Article 370 of its constitution that guaranteed autonomy to the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir, the disputed territory of Kashmir has been facing a continuous curfew. Added to that, a telecommunications and Internet blockade has been imposed, coupled with the arrest of hundreds of political leaders (both pro-India and pro-freedom factions). Under such circumstances, people in the besieged Kashmir Valley, until recently, would call their family members and relatives based in India from landlines operational only at police stations and at a few government offices in Kashmir. Each call was allowed just for sixty seconds after which the phone would automatically hang up. But these landlines did not have international dialing, leaving the people living abroad tense and anxious.
Abaan, who is seated on a chair with his hands resting on a table before him, is surrounded by like-minded Kashmiri people studying in the India’s capital, or are here on some job. Every time he recites a new Ghazal of some famous Urdu poet or even one of his own, his new friends make sure to listen to him with undivided attention. He is set to leave for United Kingdom in a few days for undergraduate studies.
As people keep coming, the Chai walla (tea maker) facing the movables where everyone is settled gets more orders of Kadak Chai (strong tea). “Bhai ek chai dena, jaldi (brother, give me a cup of tea, quick),”says twenty-four year old Peerzada Sheikh Muzamil, who has just arrived with a frustrating look on his face.
“My mother called me today,” Muzamil interrupts the gathering of around fifteen people as he looks around for a chair in order to settle down. “She was calling from some police station. She asked about my well-being and it was just in the last 3-4 seconds of the total sixty seconds that she told me that she won’t be able to talk to me for a couple of weeks because of her worsening health complications and that she is scheduled to undergo some surgery tomorrow.”
Muzamil looked uncomfortable while narrating the whole conversation with his mother. “I don’t know what is wrong with her. Before I could ask her about what the surgery was about, the phone hung up,” he said while trying hard not to let the tears come out and feel embarrassed for crying in public.
Like Muzamil, Ahmed, 28, also had come to share what he calls a tragedy. “I met my neighbor around Batla House yesterday and he looked rather worried as he was moving about in a hurry,” said Ahmed, whose eyes had reddened. “He told me if I travel back to Kashmir in the coming days, I need to go to his place and tell his parents that Sahil (his brother) has been diagnosed with cancer,” he add.
A sense of silence prevailed when Hashim Hameed (name changed) told the group that he could not attend his maternal uncle's funeral after he died a natural death amid lockdown in the Valley. "I didn't know until a relative of mine came to Delhi on some job and couldn't hold back sharing the news when he arrived. If he hadn't come to Delhi, I would have never known about this," said Hameed while taking brief pauses to recompose himself.
Everyone looked shocked. “The thing is that we can’t even share our grief with our families,” concluded 22 year old Aiman, who has been studying in Delhi from last two years. “The situation is such that even if one of us here in India or someone there in Kashmir dies, neither of us will get to know about it until someone flies in to share the tragic news,” she added.
India celebrates Prime Minister Modi-led BJP's decision to revoke Article 370 of Kashmir
Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, Jammu and Kashmir has been the subject of dispute between both India and Pakistan. Both the countries have fought two of their three subsequent wars over Kashmir, and each administers a portion of the territory. On August 5, the people of Kashmir watched how the BJP-led Central Government introduced the Jammu and Kashmir Redistribution Bill in the Indian Parliament. The event was broadcast on the only operational TV channel in Kashmir at that time (as the others had been taken off broadcast), while Doordarshan, coincidentally India’s national TV channel, remained functional. Under this new redistribution bill, Kashmir ceased to be a state and was to be split into two union territories, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. While watching the bill being passed, most of the Kashmiris glued to their televisions called the act as the “violation-of-Article 370.” Meanwhile, in mainland India, people applauded Prime Minister Modi for the abrogation of article saying that the decision was necessary for "national integration." One of the party's MLA from Uttar Pradesh went on to say that the party's workers are excited by this decision as they can now marry "fair girls from Kashmir."
"The workers are very excited and those who are bachelors, they can get married there. There is no issue now. Earlier, there was a lot of atrocities on women. If a woman from there [Kashmir] got married to a man from Uttar Pradesh, her citizenship would be revoked. There was different citizenship for India and Kashmir. And the Muslim workers should celebrate here. Get married there. To a fair Kashmiri girl. There should be celebrations. Everyone should celebrate... Be it Hindu or Muslims. This is something the entire country should be celebrating)."
But various stakeholders in Kashmir are of the opinion that what this MP and millions across the country, while rejoicing, forgot was what Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, said on 26 June 1952. In the lower house of India's bicameral Parliament, known as the Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Nehru stated:
"Do not think you are dealing with a part of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Gujarat. You are dealing with an area, historically and geographically and in all manner of things, with a certain background. If we bring our daily ideas and local prejudices everywhere, we will never consolidate. We have to be men of vision and there has to be a broadminded acceptance of facts in order to integrate really. And real integration comes of the mind and the heart and not of some clause which you may impose on other people."
According to a fact-finding report released by a team of women activists, disturbing allegations against the Indian army deployed in Jammu and Kashmir have come forth. The allegations include the unwarranted arrest of 13,000 young boys by army personnel, and family members being taken away for questioning if curfew is "breached."
The report was released at the Delhi Press Club recently by Communist Party of India leader Annie Raja, Kawaljit Kaur and Pankhuri Zahree of the National Federation of Indian Women, the advocate Poonam Kaushik from the Pragatisheel Mahila Sangathan, and Syeda Hameed of the Muslim Women's Forum. The five of them visited Kashmir from September 17th till the 21st.
The report also stated that in some parts of Kashmir, people have been ordered to switch off the lights before 8PM otherwise they could be arrested:
"In a reflex action, my four-year-old places a finger on her lips when she hears a dog bark after dusk. Barking dogs mean an imminent visit by the army. I can't switch on the phone for light so I can take my little girl to the toilet. Light shows from far and if that happens our men pay with their lives,"
the reports quotes a woman from Bandipora area of Kashmir.
At the present, the Himalayan territory of Kashmir has entered its third month of siege. Today, most of the educational institutes in the disputed region of Kashmir are occupied by India's armed soldiers. Food, produce, medical supplies and basic essentials, including petrol, are hard to get to during the normal work hours. There is no access to healthcare even for newborn babies. 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. In such a sorry state of affairs, various sections of Kashmiri society say that they have, in past, suffered betrayal by the tallest leaders in history, like Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and continue to face the same to this day. With their basic rights denied historically and in contemporary times, Kashmiris continue to have only the right to remain silent, and as it seems, that silence is yet another form of imprisonment and alienation.