Lal Chowk, Srinagar,
August 7, 2019 (Photos: Ashish Sharma)
THE VISTARA FLIGHT to Srinagar from Delhi is half empty. The Kashmiri
students who have boarded with us are glued to their mobile phones even as the air hostess repeatedly asks them to switch the phones off. “Have they done it?” asks one in a middle row of his friend. Five minutes later the plane is in the air, braving heavy monsoon clouds over Delhi.
Fifteen minutes on, as we are selecting our refreshments, ‘they’ have done it.
But we will know it only an hour later after we land at the Srinagar airport. Our mobile phones have gone silent—there is no network. Kashmir is under an unprecedented communication blockade. A few policemen are huddled outside the VIP lounge, speaking in whispers. “Kar diya,” says a paramilitary jawan standing a few feet away from them; he says it even before one has popped the question. They have done it. The jawan tries hard to suppress his smile.
On the road that leads to Srinagar city, security forces are out in large numbers. But there is no stringent restriction on civilian movement. Cars and bikes are moving quite freely. A few people are on the roads, in twos and threes, going about their business. Some shops are open, too. On the roadside, local fruitsellers are out with their produce; we see two ice-cream vendors as well. On certain roads, barbed wire has been laid to restrict traffic. But if one convinced the police and paramilitary jawans that he or she had a real need to be on that stretch, the wire is pushed aside to make way. Even as we cross the heavily fortified Badamibagh Cantonment area, several shops are open. We wait patiently for an army convoy to enter the garrison and resume our journey.
At the hotel gate, the guard opens the door with caution. Very few rooms are occupied. There are no ‘green zones’ for journalists, as I see some TV channels claiming later in the night. In the day, I would witness a young woman reporter from Rajasthan’s local TV channel 1st India recording a piece-to-camera by herself on the city’s Zero Bridge. She is not a local but has chosen to report outside informal press enclaves.
Inside the hotel, we take our room keys and rush to switch on the television. That is our only window to New Delhi.
They have done it.
In ten minutes, after taking stock of where things stand in the Rajya Sabha, we are out again. At Lal Chowk, as we negotiate our way with a police party, the afternoon azaan rises from a mosque. In a few seconds, other muezzins take cue as well. A bored cop, sitting on a broken plastic chair, sits straight up. It is here more than 70 years ago that two Kashmiris stood beside each other, sealing a covenant between Kashmir and India. One’s ancestors had left Kashmir long ago, making life elsewhere, chosen by Mahatma Gandhi to lead independent India. The other’s ancestors had converted to Islam and he was now willing his people to India, which was predominantly Hindu. Soon afterwards, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah would change his mind and fall for a wish for a ‘new Medina’, just like Jinnah had established to Kashmir’s west. But by this time, however, India’s political and emotional investment in Kashmir was complete.
Forty-five years after that covenant in Lal Chowk, a bearded man used a handkerchief, perhaps his own, to keep together India’s national flag as the pole carrying it was split in the middle. Moments later, the man he was acting deputy to, the BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi, unfurled it, albeit in a huff, as nervous security personnel guarded them. It was 1992, and the Kashmir Valley was in the tightest grip of Islamist insurgency. The man, who later spent days in Budgam in central Kashmir, living quietly with a Kashmiri Muslim family, fishing with the family’s head, running by him an entire list of questions he had on Kashmir, is now the Prime Minister of India. And just weeks after his resounding return, Narendra Modi has chosen to do something which was always thought of as unthinkable.
On the day they have done it, two young men walk back home in Srinagar’s posh Rajbagh area, after buying milk nearby. “It is calm right now, but nobody knows for how long,” one of them says. What do they think about the Government’s decision? “What can I say? The special status was our identity and now it has been taken away,” he says.
Identity is a word that appears often when one speaks to Kashmiri Muslims in the Valley about the state’s special status. They do not know what it is, but they have often heard their elders and even their peers refer to it. This status was on in 1990 when insurgency broke out in the Valley, driving four hundred thousand Kashmiri Pandits into exile in a period of a few months, making the Valley a homogenous society. Massive anti-terror operations followed. Caught between terrorists and security forces, ordinary Kashmiris had nowhere to go. The elite had their businesses outside; they could send their children to foreign universities who then returned to Kashmir in the summers and taught young boys that even Edward Said was a stone thrower. They returned to their seminars elsewhere; the young boys went to jail under the Public Safety Act. Someday, when peace returns to Kashmir, perhaps some audit will be done on how many of those are now buried in Kashmir’s so-called martyr’s graveyard.
“What has this ‘identity’ given Kashmiris so far?” asks a doctor who does not want to be named. He has come to the deputy commissioner’s office in Srinagar to collect curfew passes. “So far, our only gift from this identity is that if we go to Delhi in our car bearing a JK number, we will be put to search at every second barricade,” he says.
The Kashmiris are tired. In 1990, many believed here that Kashmir would become independent. “It was just euphemism for merger with Pakistan if you really ask me,” says a senior police officer who fought militancy in those days. In his room, a few men speak of how in those days many even in the police force believed that Dr Abdul Ahad Guru, ideologue of the terrorist organisation Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JLKF) would become the premier of ‘Azad Kashmir’. It was when the Indian state in Kashmir had come to its knees, more from its own weakness than the damage inflicted upon it by separatist forces in the Valley. The situation was so drastic in 1990 that a horde of civil servants, including senior bureaucrats, signed the JKLF’s memorandum to the United Nations for a plebiscite in the state. “I remember receiving a phone call from a civil servant who expressed his regret that he had earlier decided against becoming a signatory to the memorandum floated by Guru,” one of them recalls.
In a few years though, it was clear to most Kashmiris, including those who had taken up arms, that the Indian state would never become weak enough to part with Kashmir. It was then that they realised that it was better to make money in connivance with the mainstream political leadership. The ordinary Kashmiri, till recently, spoke of “aar ya paar” as an end to the Kashmir imbroglio. “You may hear a few youngsters still saying ‘Jeeve Jeeve Pakistan’, but the fact remains that older generations hate Pakistan now,” says a senior official. “They know ‘paar’ means a sacrifice of thousands of Kashmiris once again and yet this paar will never happen,” his colleague adds. And now, with the Centre’s decision, the ‘aar’ is pretty much final.
Among the Kashmir police, which has been at the forefront of fighting militancy, officers talk of how Kashmir bore the brunt of its leadership “running with the hare and hunting with the hounds”. “Kashmiri boys were offered this spiel that a Pakistan-trained terrorist is equal to ten soldiers of the Indian Army,” one of the police officers says, “And then they surrender to us in droves or are killed within minutes of a siege.” The Kashmiris must come out of this self-created illusion, he says.
As helicopters hover one after another above the Shankaracharya hill, there is palpable anger among Kashmiris against the Valley’s two mainstream parties, the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party. “When she felt the ground beneath her slipping, Mehbooba (PDP leader) started running around in the middle of the night like someone possessed,” says Mohammed Ashraf. He is in Batmaloo, outside the Police Control Room, finding a way to reach the ‘bod aspatal’, as Kashmir’s main general hospital is referred to, for the treatment of his sick son.
“I tell you, more than separatist groups, mainstream politicians in Kashmir ended up justifying separatism more,” says the staffer of a senior bureaucrat who has come to pick up a satellite phone for his boss from the police headquarters. Inside, a cop, who is from south Kashmir, speaks of how Mehbooba Mufti would give hours of hearing to even an ordinary Jamaat-e-Islami worker. “Why wouldn’t he feel empowered?” he says.
Senior police officers tell stories about how Hurriyat leaders would be given ultimate power, not by Pakistan, but forces owing allegiance to the Indian state. “When a Hurriyat leader landed at the airport he would be given access to the VIP lounge. The chief of the anti-hijacking unit at the airport would carry his bag. Tell me, how would a young Kashmiri who saw this feel any respect for India!” says one.
Among them is an officer, a local Kashmiri, who has served in the most terrorism-prone districts of the Valley. “Tell me, what will change now? Will removal of 370 make me less Kashmiri or less Muslim?” he asks.
The narrative spun by some in New Delhi is that the Kashmiris are voiceless and that they have had no say in what has been decided by Delhi. But the counter-question remains: is an ordinary Kashmiri even in a position to say that he supports the Centre’s decision or that his life remains unchanged by it? What if it does not concern an ordinary Kashmiri whether Article 370 is removed and that Jammu and Kashmir is a Union territory? Nobody, till now, has asked this question of the Kashmiris in Kashmir.
Journalists have mostly chosen to imagine it all on every Kashmiri’s behalf from TV studios.
Those who have fought militancy, sometimes putting their lives in grave danger, are happy. “You have no idea how much pressure would be exerted on us sometimes from the political leadership to set free overground workers of terrorists who were also doubling up as workers of these parties. Now they can do nothing because I am directly answerable to the Home Ministry,” says one. “My boss now is Amit Shah,” laughs his batchmate.
No matter who one speaks to in Kashmir today—even the ones who push the narrative of their identity being taken away by the Centre’s decision—everyone agrees that a few political families and those in their inner circles have taken all the ‘cream’ from Kashmir, leaving the poor Kashmiris to grieve over the dead bodies of their sons.
On the morning of Day Two, a few people have come out for their morning walk in Srinagar’s Pratap Park. By 8 am, the security personnel on the roads are more active than Day One. Word is that the National Security Advisor is in town, monitoring every step. By late afternoon, many other political leaders who had appeared the previous night on TV have been put under detention.
In the hotel, a few waiters watch as Farooq Abdullah appears on TV, claiming that he is under detention. He appears emotional and invokes his father’s covenant with “secular India”. He is addressing cameras outside his home. As they identify the place, one of the waiters breaks into angry laughter. “Magarmacch ke aansu,” he says. And then he goes quiet. In the Lok Sabha, later, Home Minister Amit Shah says that no one had put a gun to Abdullah’s temples to appear in front of the cameras.
In Kashmir, news, both true and false, travels very fast, even in the absence of communication machinery. A story flying fast by word of mouth right now is a supposed dialogue which took place among Farooq Abdullah and his son, Omar, and Narendra Modi, during a meeting days before Jammu and Kashmir was declared a Union Territory. The buzz is that Modi looked at his principal secretary and asked him to convey to Omar Abdullah a message in a language (English) which he understood best.
The message, which we choose not to reproduce here, is already giving Kashmiris a sense of what the future will bring for them. In a humorous video many circulated just a day before the mobile network went off, a Kashmiri is seen with a fellow Kashmiri, debating whether he should sell his land to a ‘Bihari’. Outside their home, they end up meeting one, and agree to sell him their land at a premium. The Kashmiri then offers the outsider even the eyes of his fellow Kashmiri for a price. In Kashmir’s uneasy calm though, nobody is thinking that far today. They have heard Amit Shah calling Kashmir the crown of India and his promise to bring economic prosperity to the new Union Territory. As they take it in, they wait for something to explode. “Doodh mein ek ubaal toh aayega (the milk will come to a boil at least once),” says a cop.
As far as the current bandobast goes, the milk is unlikely to spill.