With Communication Cut and Confined to their Homes, Kashmiris Living Under Siege

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Security personnel deployed in Kashmir on Monday. — IANS

GROUND REPORT

Zafar Aafaq | Caravan Daily

SRINAGAR — Fifth day of clampdown ended in the Valley as sun eclipsed behind the snow-peaked mountains that ring the city of Srinagar. The clouds are dark. It may rain soon.

Telecom and internet services continue to remain completely shut. Paramilitary personnel wielding assault rifles are deployed across the length and breadth of the city. In towns and villages, army men have occupied roads. A pellet-firing incident was reported from near Soura, an area on the outskirts of Srinagar when worshippers came out of a mosque in procession after Friday congregation.

A few people, injured in the incident, were referred to a local hospital. Authorities disallowed congregational prayers at Srinagar’s Central Jamia Masjid where Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq leads the prayers.

Barricades of concertina wires are erected at the entry and exit points of all major streets, bridges and flyovers in Srinagar.

With shops shut, offices locked, the civilian movement remained chocked. The streets in uptown too remained desert for a major part of the day. An occasional car or a police vehicle breaks the monotony. In downtown, the restrictions are more severe. People in need of medical emergency are finding it difficult to convince the police personnel to let them cross the barricades and reach hospitals.

Even journalists are stopped from drive to their way to offices or to the press club located near city centre. “At Rainawari, some policemen forced me to return after I had covered the halfway from my home,” said Mohammad Raafi, a journalist who works with a local newspaper. “I had to go back and take the foreshore road to reach Lal Chowk.”

Needless to say in Srinagar no reporter associated with the media outlets outside Kashmir, was able to file a story on Monday due to the blanket ban on access to internet. Aakash Hassan, a reporter with CNN News 18 (Digital) managed to file a story after grabbing the video of printouts and sending the story using equipment of the broadcast van of his organisation.

“The situation is unprecedented and I have filed the first story since internet gag on third day using broadcast technology, which is unusual,” Hassan said.

In the absence of Internet, reporters who cover Kashmir for outside media have now started resorting to ‘jugaar’ (pragmatic solution). “I dictate my story to my editor on phone from a lone working PCO located near the airport,” a reporter said. Some hand over data cards to an acquaintance flying to Delhi who later emails the story to their editors.

On Wednesday evening, a group of journalists met the district collector for the restoration of Internet services at the Press Club. “He (the collector) expressed his inability to do so, but asked the reporters to use internet at his office.” But that access could not materialise as yet. “When we went to his office on Thursday evening he was somewhere else and the lower rung officials turned down their request saying they were not authorised to allow access the Internet,” said another reporter.

Indian security forces personnel stand guard next to concertina wire laid across a road in Srinagar during the security clampdown in Kashmir. — Reuters

Over 350 newspapers are published from Srinagar daily. Since Monday, only a few could be able to come out. These include some top names like Greater Kashmir, Kashmir Reader, Rising Kashmir, Tameel-e-Irshad, Aftab and Kashmir Uzma. The circulation of the papers remained confined to mostly some parts of the city.

In the city, no one knows what is happening in the villages. A female journalist recounted a heartbreaking incident at the club after returning from a cumbersome visit to SMHS hospital on Monday. “A biker had succumbed at the locked hospital gates after he had met with an accident on the outskirts of the city.”  He was lying on the road in a pool of blood for two long hours before an ambulance passing by picked him up. “Rushing him to the hospital was of no avail as it was closed,” bemoaned the journalist said.

Similarly, an Innova Cab on way to Srinagar from Leh skidded and fell in gorge at Baltal causing serious injuries to all the passengers aboard. The driver died on the spot. The injured were shifted at SKIMS Srinagar. “Their families don’t know they are here,” a doctor posted in Surgical Ward of the Hospital told Caravan Daily. One of the injured is battling her life in the ICU of the hospital.

Due to restrictions on the movement of traffic, patients in need of medical emergency find it difficult to reach hospitals. It takes a lot of persuasions to convince the troops at barricades to let the patients go. Specialised hospitals are dealing with patients with general ailments.

The families, whose wards study or work outside Kashmir, are worried about their wellbeing. “I don’t know the situation my son is in; whether he has money, food;” said Mushtaq Ahmad of Barbarshah of Srinagar, who was waiting in a queue at DC’s office to inquire about his son. Authorities have set up a telephone connection on the fourth day of the clampdown at the DC office in Srinagar for the public. The facility is of some relief for some lucky ones while many return without being able to make a call even after waiting for hours.

The Buildup

On Sunday afternoon, Kashmir began preparations for the “bad days” as word spread that the state is gearing up for imposing an indefinite curfew across the Valley by evening. It was speculative and based on information leaked by lower-rung officials but held credence despite denials from Divisional Commissioner’s office.

People queued up at vegetable carts and grocery stores to buy essentials in anticipations. Markets were flooded with frantic shoppers across all towns due to this panic buying. They bought essential food items and medicines in bulk.

Aashiq Husain, a banker, lives in Jawahar Nagar, an uptown locality in Srinagar. He was at his home watching TV when he received a call from his friend inquiring, “Are they imposing curfew in Kashmir from tonight”. Husain had no categorical answer. He informed his wife and they prepared a list of essentials to be bought. It included eatables that have less susceptibility to rottenness like rice, pulses, biscuits, packed milk and noodles, medicines and baby food. By evening he had hoarded the kitchen cupboards with the amount of food that could last them for at least two weeks.

In Srinagar, most of the shops ran out of packed milk within hours.

The city’s main hospital, SMHS Hospital, patients were forcefully discharged and wards were emptied. “I haven’t even imagined that such a thing could happen even in my wildest dreams. Even during wars, hospitals function. This is other-worldly,” said a doctor who works at SMHS Hospital. The evacuation of hospitals pointed to something big and ominous in offing.

Online space was flooded with emotional goodbye and prayer messages like, “We may not meet again”; “take care of yourself”.   There were apprehensions of total blackout of mobile internet, telephone and broadband services. “I informed my parents, who are on Hajj in Saudi Arabia, about the possible communication shutdown and told them we may not be able to communicate for weeks,” Shoaib Mir, a teacher from Kupwara, told Caravan Daily on phone on Sunday night. “Pray for all of us,” Shoaib wrote to his father on whatsApp at around 9 PM local time. He did not get an instant reply.

Eventually, at around 11 pm, the mobile internet services were shut and a couple of hours later broadband, cellular and telephone services too.

The next morning, Kashmir woke up to a Valley-wide clampdown. In Srinagar, authorities officially declared Section 144 of CrPC, but on ground, it was “worse than a curfew”.

The speculations running thick and fast for over a week now got affirmation late in the day.  The besieged Kashmir came to know about it — the abrogation of special status and reorganization of the state into two Union Territories — through TV and Government radio news bulletins. Four days have passed, many in Kashmir’s hinterland are still not aware about the development due to information blockade.

It all began on July 25 when a government order, which started doing rounds on social media, set alarm bells ringing. The order said that New Delhi is sending 100 companies of paramilitary forces to Jammu and Kashmir. The inferences drawn from such decisions were all speculative. No one was able to confirm what was New Delhi was up to. The week was highly tense in Kashmir. A few orders related to security issues were also leaked to social media.

At Budgam, a top railway police official issued an advisory asking the railway staff to store essentials in good quantities that could last for months. The advisory suggested a series of precautionary measures for railway staff including sending back families to their native places.

Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah responded by fervently asking the government to break its silence and come clear why orders were being issued which could result in deterioration of the situation for an extended period of time.

On Friday (August 2), the state government issued another advisory, more disturbing than the previous ones that appealed Amarnath Pilgrims and tourists to cut short their stay in the Valley and rush back home. The advisory was unprecedented. “Usually the government invites tourists to Kashmir, but this time it is asking them to leave. I have never seen such a thing happening before,” said Bashir Ahmad, a shopkeeper who runs a floating grocery story in the interiors of famous Dal Lake. “Kuchh gadbad hai” (something is amiss), Bashir speculated.

The non-local students of National Institute of Technology in Srinagar were provided state buses to make a hasty retreat to Jammu city, 300 kilometers from Srinagar.

The Clampdown

On late Monday morning, Union Home Minister announced in Parliament that the state of Jammu and Kashmir has been reorganised into two Union Territories and the government has scrapped Article 370 which gave Jammu and Kashmir special status.

“Everyone in the state was in a shock and the anger is brewing among the people. I think a delayed mass response to the move will require a trigger,” opined a senior Journalist wishing anonymity. “It also depends on how the state will manage the situation.”

Currently, most of the leadership across the political spectrum is under police custody. It is not possible for the masses to mobilise in an organised manner in the absence of the leadership,” the journalist contended.

The top layer of mainstream leadership of National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party, including former Chief Ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, is under “preventive detention”.  Sajjad Lone of People’s Conference is also detained. They were purportedly taken to Hari Niwas, a government guest house located in the foothills of Zabarwan near Dal Lake.

Former lawmakers, most of who reside at government-provided accommodations in Gupkar area, have been placed under house arrest. Journalists are not allowed to meet them. Strict manning is being conducted by forces personnel at barricades installed at entry spot of Gupkar. “We have been given strict guidelines to not allow any media person to meet the politicians,” a police official told Caravan Daily on duty at the barricade.

Due to communication blockade, separatists have not been able to send their statements in reaction to the constitutional changes imposed on Kashmir. Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was detained on Monday and was released two days later. The octogenarian leader Syed Ali Geelani is under perpetual house arrest.

Earlier on Saturday evening, state parties held a meet in Srinagar at Farooq Abdullah’s residence, urging the Centre to halt any plans vis-a-vis abrogation of state’s special status.

Ali Mohammad Sagar, a senior leader of National Conference sent his statement by hand to the newspapers in Kashmir. “Kashmiris will defend their autonomy and flag with blood,” Sagar was quoted in Aftab, an Urdu Daily published from Srinagar on Wednesday.

The non-local labourers, mostly from Uttar Pradesh and surrounding states, are fleeing the Valley in droves. Authorities have arranged buses and cabs for them to leave Kashmir. “We have seen tough situation but never before we left the Valley like this,” said 25-year-old Dilshad, a carpenter from Malda district of West Bengal. “Our families might be worried as we have not been able to make calls back home. We want to reach home as soon as possible”

In the past four days, Srinagar witnessed several incidents of clashes between youthful protestors and cops.

A boy drowned in river Jehlum in the downtown area of the city when police chased a group of boys who were purportedly pelting stones. The boy ran away to avoid being caught and jumped into the river and drowned, local residents said.

In Rambagh, a locality in the city’s uptown, pieces of shattered windshields were spread across the road that leads to the airport. According to witnesses, Monday evening at the hour of change of deployment of forces personnel stone-pelting incident happened. Police responded by chasing them away.

Wafts of pepper smoke spread across the neighborhoods in the city. Residents complained of coughing incessantly due to smoke used indiscriminately against protestors.

SMHS Hospital and SKIMS Hospital treated a few injured. They were hit with pellets during forces action in clashes. SKIMS admitted a boy with severe wounds. His condition is said to be critical.

The clampdown has affected mobilisation of municipal staff. Public dustbins are spilling above capacities and spots are littered with garbage and dogs loiter around. Several residents complained that their localities are dirty and stinking. Carcasses of dogs are lying unattended.

The subcontinent is observing Eid Ul Adha on August 12. The week preceding Eid would see herds of sacrificial sheep and goats adorning bazaars of towns and cities of Kashmir but people are not sure whether the state will let them come out of their homes on that day.

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