Continued Communications Blockade Heightens Sufferings of Kashmiri Students Outside State

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An Indian paramilitary trooper patrols at the top of a hill in Srinagar on August 25.

Zafar Aafaq | Caravan Daily

NEW DELHI — Mohammad Shafi passed away on September 2 at his home in Bandipore district of Jammu & Kashmir. His son Suhail Shafi who is a college student in Chandigarh, a city in north India, came to know about his father’s death a week later when he reached home. The family was unable to share the unfortunate news to him due to communication blockade in Kashmir. It was after four days someone in family was able to make a call and told his college friends about the death.

“We lied to him that his grandfather has died.” said Nasir Khuehami, a Kashmiri student activist who runs a volunteer group of Kashmiri students. His friends thought telling the truth will shock Suhail and they were unsure about his reaction. They said they wanted him to reach home safely.

“Collective punishment”

On August 5, Indian government unilaterally stripped the region of Jammu and Kashmir of its special status granted by the Constitution of India through Article 370.

The government enforced a strict clampdown imposing restrictions on public movement and electronic communication including blanket ban on cellular and internet services to “prevent people from voicing any opposition to the decision”. According to several reports thousands have been jailed since first week of August. These include prominent politicians, lawyers, businessmen, civil society activists. There have been reports of army and police nabbing children and men in night raids and subjecting them to torture in lockups.

Government claims that the restrictions on communication and movement are necessary measures to keep a check on the outbreak of violence, however, the United Nation’s Human Rights council has termed the Kashmir communications shutdown as a form of collective punishment.

Cut-off from families

Many Kashmiri students living across the cities of India complained of facing problems due to their inability to communicate with their families back in Kashmir.

Muniba Jan, a student at a private college in Dehradun — a city in the Himalayan foothills in north India, said that she is feeling distressed as she misses talking to her mother.

“I have a habit of going to sleep only after talking to my mom on phone. Since I don’t get to talk to her these days I am unable to sleep properly,” she complained. “I miss my mom like the deserts miss the rain.”

She said that some nights she doesn’t sleep at all and other times she wakes up in the middle of the night to check her phone for missed call from mother knowing well that “I am fooling myself”.

Of late, Jan felt, she has “become cranky” and said that she scolds her friends and classmates over petty issues.

Bisma, another Kashmiri student in the city, said she misses the cackle of her year-old niece. Evening of August 4 was the last time she saw her on the video call.

“I scroll through her photos and videos that I have saved in my phone,” she said. “That way I feel a bit relieved.” Every time her phone rings, Bisma hopes it’s a call from her family. In past two weeks Bisma has talked to her mother only once, barely for two minutes. “She called from a government phone booth,” Bisma said. “What could have we discussed in two minutes.  Both of us just cried and requested for prayers for each other.”

Health organizations have published papers reporting widespread presence of post traumatic disorder among Kashmiris owing to the conflict that has been raging from past thirty years. According to a 2016 report by MSF— a global organisation of Doctors without Borders — nearly 45% of the adult population in Kashmir suffers from “mental health problems”.

Little relief after restoration of landline phones

The government claimed that landline telephone services have been restored in Kashmir but since its distribution is sparse and feasibility erratic, the relief hasn’t meant much for students. “My village has no landline service and I have no way to contact my family,” Suhail Rather, who hails from a nondescript village in Kashmir’s Baramulla district, said. He said he has talked to his father once nearly a month ago. His father had to travel three hundred miles to the city of Jammu to call him. “It is emotionally draining to be cut off from your family but there is nothing in my hands.”

He is preparing for a competitive entrance test in Delhi. He said that the uncertainty about the wellbeing of his family “disturbs his concentration on studies”.

However, the step taken by the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, led by Naredra Modi to abrogate Article 370, has found a widespread support in mainland India. Several artists shared songs online talking about buying land in Kashmir and marrying Kashmiri girls.

Kashmiri students and  professionals living in rest of India often go through upsetting experiences. Many recounted how randomly people bring up conversation about Kashmir politics. “These conversations are essentially monologues trying to tell us how decisions of government are going to benefit us,” said Akhtar Lone, a student in Delhi. Most of the time Kashmiris don’t counter such arguments for the fear of altercation. “We have arguments but we are helpless,” Lone bemoaned.

Limiting social media activities out of fear

Kashmiri students said that they have limited their social media activity due to the fear of police action. In past police have booked Kashmiris under sedition charges for sharing political content concerning Kashmir on their social media accounts.

“We don’t share our stories of pain that we go through because it can land us in trouble,” said a student who wished not to be identified, “when I left home last month I was advised by my parents to avoid doing things that might irk anyone here.”

A Kashmiri college professor based in Dehradun told Caravan Daily that he deleted his Facebook and Whatsapp account to “avoid trouble”.  He complained of getting abusive comments and messages on social media. “I have a job and family. I don’t want to get in trouble,” the professor mumbled.

Kashmiris face difficulty in finding apartment on rent

There have also been several instances where Kashmiris have faced trouble in finding an apartment on rent in cities across India.

In one case a prominent YouTube singer Adil Gurezi was asked by his broker to leave the apartment when, last week, he returned to Mumbai, a metropolitan city on India’s west coast and famous for its association with Bollywood,  after spending a month under siege in Kashmir.

“I was shocked to see the behaviour of the broker,” Gurezi told Caravan Daily over phone from Mumbai. He said he could not understand why he was being punished when he had done nothing untoward. It was only after media covered his story that police intervened and ensured that he is allowed to live in the apartment.

A Kashmiri journalist made similar complaints on twitter saying he found it hard to get an apartment on rent in New Delhi. He said he was denied the house for being Muslim and Kashmiri.

Only in February Kashmiri students were evicted from hostels and flats in Dehradun and elsewhere as mob frenzy erupted across north India in the aftermath of the Pulwama bombing, which evoked airstrikes between the air forces of India and Pakistan.

Kashmiri students face cash crunch

As the Kashmir lockdown seems to have no end, students are facing issues of cash crunch. The lockdown has hit Kashmir’s economy badly. Shops, commercial establishments, private offices and public transport are shut. Horticulture, the mainstay of the rural economy, is paralysed due to communication blackout restricting farmers from contacting traders in outside markets.

A few students Caravan Daily talked to said they are running in debts due to lack of money. One among them was Shah Salman who hails from Kulgam district of Kashmir and is currently pursuing paramedical course in Dehradun.

He has taken the job of helper of a fruit vendor in the street outside his one room home. Salman was running out of cash and he had no way to contact his family. Then, Bilal Qureshi, a street vendor offered him an “evening job”.

“I am thankful to Bilal Bhai,” Salman said. “It is because of him I am able to make my ends meet here.” He earned as much that apart from feeding himself he was able to pay the rent of his room, he added.

To alleviate the problems, Khuehami’s volunteer group have been raising funds. The group has been able to raise around three hundred thousand Indian Rupees (over 4000 USD). “The donors are people from India and abroad irrespective of religion, cast, creed and religion,” Khuehami informed.

Besides that the group has been supported by Khalsa Aid, an organisation run by Sikh community. Their efforts have come as a succor for hundreds of students. They distributed cash and essentials among the needy Kashmiri students in different cities across India.

Note: Some names have been changed on request to protect privacy

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