Notes From A Blackout

Amnesty International India
23 September 2019 2:46 pm

Kashmir, August 2019: This is my account of the situation in Kashmir. I am writing this because what I saw and experienced bears no resemblance to the narrative pushed by the Indian and international media.

Home | 1 August, 2019: I arrived with my sister in Srinagar on that morning. Having grown up in Kashmir, I didn’t pause when the tourist desk at the airport was closed   or think twice about the military presence – this had been a norm. My parents came to pick us up from the airport and while driving home, I noticed a larger presence of the heavily armed military, in what is already the most militarised zone in the world, than my previous visits but as such, things were relatively peaceful[1]. The tourist season was at its peak – the pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra were visiting in their thousands and with Eid and the wedding season just around the corner, the streets were busy, the shepherds with their cattle were ready, stores were opening and people were bustling around as the day commenced. It felt great to be home and I was excited to be spending Eid in the valley, seeing my favourite places and sharing photographs of my home, which my friends and colleagues looked forward to seeing!

Inklings of betrayal to come | 2 August, 2019: The following morning, I woke up early to my phone buzzing with messages from friends and family abroad and home asking if we were fine. NDTV, an Indian television news channel had broken the news that the pilgrims on Amarnath Yatra and other tourists were being asked to leave the valley immediately, due to an increased security threat. Later that day my cousin, who has a small hotel in one of the valley resorts, told us how they’d been instructed by the military to check all their guests out within two hours. There was a growing sense of unease and nervousness. People, friends, neighbours and family, who I spoke to speculated about the Article 370 changes, but the news channels continued to peddle a Pakistani/insurgent security threat narrative behind the announcements and reasons for the increase in military presence.

NDTV Breaking News alert sent by friends in the UK – 2 Aug 2019

Rumours and fear; Fear and rumours | 3 August, 2019: On Friday after prayers, reports of impending curfew started to circulate urging people to stock up on food, fuel and necessities. What ensued was chaos and panic across the city as people queued to get what they can before any rumoured curfew was imposed. The lack of independent news and understanding about what was going on further added to the panic and created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. We heard reports of further deployment of thousands of Indian troops into the valley. As I drove to visit family, the tension and chaos across the city was palpable. I’m someone who grew up in the downtown area and have the grit in my personality that comes collaterally with living there, but I felt nervous for my family and my people and the more we spoke amongst ourselves, the feeling of dread increased.

Chaos and mayhem at the fuel station – Srinagar, 3 Aug 2019

Last words | 4 August, 2019: The next day, there was no curfew and phone and internet continued to function creating an edgy sense of security but over the weekend, an air of dread and unease surged as we waited for some concrete news to emerge. My friends and other fellow Kashmiris in the UK and America, messaged on group chats, all concerned and wanting to know if they or family members should travel to, leave or stay in the valley. By Sunday evening, there was still no information, but rumours were circulating of a hartal[2] on Monday due to the ‘discussion’ in parliament about Article 370.  I sent a tweet to friends and colleagues at 5pm unaware this would be my last tweet for the coming 12 days:

“ Sorry for the lack of pics as catching up with family and considering there’s a rumoured cellular shutdown and curfew in the next 24 hours, I may not upload any. Know that I’ll keep safe but I do ask that you question the shut down and actions of the Indian govt”

At 10.20pm on 4 August, the internet lines went down and by midnight of 5 August, a blanket curfew had been imposed on millions of Kashmiris in the valley.

The day of the siege began | 5 August: As we woke up on the morning of the 5th, we noticed our television cable was down and phone lines were not working. The day passed in silence, the routine hustle and car horns from the main road were absent and, in our local area, where usually people would still mill about during hartals and curfews, the roads were empty and clear.

There was no news, and no one came to share anything.

Take injustice personally, write to Governor Satya Pal Malik to lift the blackout.

We found an old radio transistor and were able to hear the news from a crackling AM channel that the Indian Government had  unilaterally revoked Article 370 of the Constitution.  The detention and house arrests of all political and civil leadership sent a shiver of fear down everyone and that evening I went to bed unsure of what the future will hold for our people. The reality and precarious nature of Kashmiri lives are completely ignored and misunderstood by the Indian (and Pakistani) majority who have no comprehension of living under the control of the security forces that have the draconian powers to kill, blind, torture, or disappear individuals with impunity.

Empty streets with barbed wire across them – Srinagar, 7th August

Life under lockdown | 7 August onwards: After another day of absolute silence looming large in the air,  my cousin arrived late afternoon – having driven through the curfew. We were shocked to see her but so pleased to see a familiar face and between us we ascertained what real facts we could. That evening, I drove across the city to see my extended family. Those same streets that two days ago were full of people, animals, and vehicles were now deserted with barbed wire coiled across streets. As we drove across the city, we could see a group of civilians peacefully shouting slogans, beating their own chests and screaming at the military on the main road.

There were burning tyres and we saw the military picking up the burning tyres with long sticks and throwing them in to the Dal Lake. There were metal bins blocking the road and some civilians came to help move them so we could pass through. My cousin and I were seeing each other after two years and while on a normal day, we would be catching up on life and loved ones, this time we drove in silence and the only ‘conversation’ was at each check point with the military who asked for our identity proofs. I don’t think you can describe what a curfew, military presence and constant checking is to anyone who is not familiar. I often reflect on my instant affiliation with my Irish friends – may be it stems from a mutual understanding of living under the gun. I think they understand the bloodshed and significance behind constitutional provisions that protect those people who have been historically excluded.

Military trucks – SXR Aug 2019
Empty roads across the tourist valley, SXR Aug 2019

Over the next few days, the cable channels restored and we started to see and hear the national narrative from the central Indian government about the dawn of a new economic and peaceful stability to the region. I don’t understand how the government can speak of economic stability and peace when everyone is under lockdown and the economy has been crippled at its peak operational time. We could hear and see the narrative created about ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir but we couldn’t speak and share how ‘normal’ things were at our end. The entire tourist industry was stifled, including all local and small businesses who rely on the summer trade, the Eid trade to get them through the harsh winters of the Valley. This draconian and malicious act will not just impact people for this winter but for years to come.

Unsold cattle, Srinagar Aug 2019

Military standing on guard at every corner, SXR Aug 2019

We spent the days at home, entertained by the stray cats and our own animals. From a distance, we could hear shouting, unidentified bangs and blasts – soon enough any sound made us all fall silent. Helicopters circled low above regularly. We realised that cabin fever is a real phenomenon. There’s only so much you can read, so long you can sleep, so many conversations you can repeat with each other. Our creativity extended to choosing to sleep in a different room. I washed and ironed everything in my wardrobe – even things that were already clean. We had limited opportunities to go out in the evening and when we did, very few people were out walking, the only vehicles on the streets were private scooters and cars.

We were able to buy some necessities as few shops partially opened their shutters in the evening, but mostly we resorted to learning where shop vendors lived and going to their homes to collect the items we needed. As we spoke to shop keepers and locals, they told us how they were scared to be seen to be open for business. The shepherds were distraught as with Eid approaching, they had not sold their cattle and were afraid of being unable to afford to keep them for long. With no public transport available, people had to walk or hitchhike. We offered lifts to people as we made our way to visit and check on family. One woman we gave a lift to told us how she’d spent the day getting across the city to visit her mother and deliver medicine and she’d only been able to get enough for 2 weeks.

Eid, Srinagar 12 Aug 2019

Eid | 12 August: And then Eid came, and went without a hint of the huge celebration it garnered in the valley. No children were dressed in finery walking around and none showed off the toys they’d purchased, no street vendors sold sweets and savouries for people to enjoy – the roads were quiet. A few people were out distributing Qurbani meats but many were not able to perform this religious ritual. On the news, Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, spoke of how the people of the valley have been “allowed to celebrate Eid”! I believe this language speaks volumes.

Under the eye of the gun, Srinagar Aug 2019

We heard how the military visited the overseas Kashmiri visitors who registered at the airport and asked them to leave and how they had spent uncountable hours getting to the airport and trying to get tickets. As mentioned, we didn’t register when we arrived – firstly, because the desk was empty but also, why register when you have come home? How can a country evict people from their own homeland? Someone said they had heard that people who live near the airport have access to landlines and internet but who can they speak to if no one else has access?

My family spoke of their fear of young ones living and studying in India and their safety – the fear that Muslims now face is immense and there is very little understanding, knowledge or empathy for how Kashmiris live and have always wanted to live in peace. On the way back, we had to divert several times to avoid protests and military blocks. At one point, the locals who stopped us told us how they are ruined and now have nothing to live for and I felt their pain and despair. I fear what such sense of loss means for their mental health and the generations to come. We attempted to visit and check on other friends and family but were not able to do so safely and therefore, aborted attempts and returned home for another silent evening.

Army questioning anyone daring to go out, Srinagar, Aug 2019

The noises come home | 14 August: I am not sure how the last nine days passed – it felt like much longer. We had not attempted to venture out as reports stated that the curfew was much stricter that day. By early afternoon, noises of protests were coming from the main crossing area and then over the next few hours, blasts and bangs came closer and closer. We could see people, including women, running past our house and then followed the military – throwing tear gas and pepper spray canisters into residential places. Our house, although far from the main road, quickly filled with gas and we were not quick enough to close the windows which had been open due to the heat of the summer day. My parents are both asthmatic and struggled as we tried to clear the air in the rooms. The pepper made my sister throw up and I think I was spared as I’d been outside on the roof trying to see what was happening.

Later I heard reports of a person dying of breathing difficulties and I could see how it was so easy to happen. The sound of blasts and bangs continued, my video recordings show women and people screaming and then there was complete silence. We later saw military going house to house in the area. The news that evening makes no mention of any unrest, of the fear, the restrictions and the injuries we so clearly saw taking place. Instead, we heard central Indian government talk about how schools and offices will reopen. We saw images of people across India celebrating the removal of Jammu & Kashmir’s special status. Their celebration was not seen anywhere in Kashmir. No one in Kashmir was consulted or even thought of. I recall the envy I felt on how Britain treated the Scottish referendum. The very notion that Westminster would send troops to Scotland and revoke their devolution is unthinkable and yet India has not hesitated to act so unilaterally, trampling on the human rights of people of Kashmir.

House to house checks and taking people away, Srinagar, 14 Aug 2019

India’s Independence Day | 15 August – I watched the news and the broadcasts from the central Indian government, celebrating democracy and freedom. The Prime Minister talked about the joy of Indian people about his decision and I marvel at how a nation of a billion people can rejoice as they were fed news on a daily basis of normalcy in Kashmir. Meanwhile people here were afraid that with no transport, no safety or communication, they could only believe the worst of the stories that were being whispered from door to door. The city was completely locked down and while you could hear and see the military celebrating with fireworks, they celebrated alone. A young woman asked me “Do you think they will remove us from our homes?” I didn’t have an answer. I ponder on the definition of freedom. The freedom to speak, the freedom to move, the freedom to live.

Also read: Kashmir, The Other Side Of Silence: Apathy, Amnesia And Helplessness.

How is the world silent to what is happening here? I think of England and know that preparations would have started in some communities for November Armistice and the repeated slogan of ‘never forget’ to ensure we don’t let another massacre or genocide happen, yet here are 7 million people in a cage and the world from where I stand, seems silent. It is not just the 7 million people in the region, it is also the thousands of families who live abroad who I know will be experiencing their own trauma at the lack of news and contact with their loved ones. Prison is a state of mind.

My last image from Srinagar, 16th Aug 2019

Leaving the lockdown | 16 August: This is the day we were due to travel home. We leave at the crack of dawn even though our flight is not till 5pm. We have no way of confirming our ticket or knowing if flights and airport are even operational. At the airport, we see more military arriving with their bags. There is an eerie silence in the terminal. At the check-in desk, the cleric asked to see the identity proof I’d purchased my ticket with. As my husband had purchased the tickets, I didn’t have it with me and so he asked if I could contact him to verify. I said I would be glad to do so, if they would give me the means to contact him. The airline themselves did not have telephone access! He then said they would have to refund my ticket and I would have to purchase a new one, again, I was happy to do so but they had no means of taking payment as their web and phone lines were down. The rumour that the airport had internet and phone access was false. They asked us to wait while they attempted to sort something out. I must say they were really helpful and understanding.

An hour later, they managed to sort the issue and gave us our boarding passes. When I asked how they had done this, they refused to answer and I didn’t want to knock my luck. I know we were extremely fortunate since we only waited an hour compared to the 10+ hours others had waited! We boarded our flight – an aircraft that had the capacity for 200 passengers but carrying barely 50 of us. I know we are lucky but I also feel ashamed to be leaving, leaving my people in a cage, under lockdown, cut off from the world and now, even internally.  On the flight, the standard safety announcement blared over the speakers and asked us to ensure our seatbelts were fastened, seats upright, tables and bags stowed away and the window blinds open. I noticed the blinds were shut and I attempted to open them, at which the air steward instructed everyone repeatedly to keep the blinds shut. The aircraft slowly taxied off the runway in a deafening silence. Whenever I leave Kashmir, I always take a picture of the valley from the sky not knowing when I will be back, but that day, this small token, too was taken away. I only carried memories of fear, uncertainty and isolation.

Touchdown in New Delhi. Phone connects and 893 WhatsApp and SMS notifications vibrate in my pocket as we make our way to the International terminal. After 38 hours of travel, we landed on British soil, a different person than who I was 16 days ago, but in some ways, I am again, the 14-year old girl who left home in 1991, and as I make contact with fellow Kashmiris and humanitarians, I know we are starting to organise peacefully and with the resilience and dignity that is characteristic of Kashmiris.  The world needs to wake up and listen to Kashmiris and not indulge the views of Pakistan or India to represent their own vested interest. Kashmir can and must speak for itself.

Thank you for reading and taking your precious time to learn, or understand or simply hear me out.

This blog was written by Kashmiri blogger al_sasha who blogs at:  https://alsasha.wordpress.com/

[1]Peaceful in Kashmir has its own definition. It means, amidst security surveillance and the heavy military presence with their draconian AFSPA laws, that people can move about, go to work/school, communicate with the world and each other and have access the limited amenities and services available.

[2]Hartal is a mass civil protest, often involving a total shutdown of workplaces, offices, shops, and courts of law, and a form of civil disobedience similar to a labour strike. In addition to being a general strike, it involves the voluntary closing of schools and places of business.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Amnesty India.