First person: When a vacation in Kashmir turned into confinement

  • Gulam Jeelani, Hindustan Times, Gurgaon
  • Updated: Jul 18, 2016 18:30 IST
Paramilitary soldiers stand guard during the tenth straight day of curfew in Srinagar. (AP Photo)

On a rainy Saturday evening, as I switched on my cell phones after landing at Delhi airport, hundreds of unread messages and e-mails screamed for attention.

The messages and e-mails had accumulated while I was holed up in ‘curfewed’ Srinagar for a week without access to phones, internet and newspapers. My holiday had turned into confinement at my home in Bemina, a suburb in Srinagar.

I had reached home on July 7 to celebrate Eid. A day later, in the evening, when I was meeting friends at a local English daily office in Karan Nagar area of Srinagar, the news about killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, came in. I could make out that my friends in the newsroom could sense what could follow. 

Anticipating a crackdown, I rushed home, two kilometers away, where my younger brother informed me that the separatists had given a three-day strike (hartal) call to protest Burhan’s killing. My 60-year-old father, who always downplays severity, said the ‘hartal’ would not last long as Burhan was no big a militant. But my brother insisted that a new wave of protests would accompany the strike given that the slain militant was hugely popular on social media.

Next morning, my brother’s fears came true. By the time I woke up, the Valley was gripped by an unrest that soon peaked into yet another leg of protests seeking ‘Azadi’ (freedom) from India. Young people had hit the streets, pelting stones at security forces and enforcing a shutdown. The government’s crackdown started with imposing curfew in sensitive areas, mostly in South Kashmir. Through the day, predictions about the turnout for Burhan’s funeral 50 kilometre away in Tral, were doing rounds on social media platforms. A large number of people did attend the funeral. Later that night, internet services were snapped, but not before reports emerged that several locals had died during sporadic clashes with security.

As the days passed, the Valley simmered with rage. Inside my home, the only access to the internet was through the BSNL Wifi. But as luck would have it, the Wifi modem went on the blink.

For a social media freak that I am, the lack of access to the internet was suffocating. I could have used a neighbour’s Wifi, but walking past a posse of security personnel in full battle gear along the alley was too much of a risk. My youngest brother who goes to the mosque regularly, would bring in the not-so-good news and updates. Father, who never took him seriously, would rubbish his ‘reports’ as rumours. The only ‘authentic’ source of news was TV, particularly the 7pm Kashmir bulletin on ETV and regional Doordarshan news. In Kashmir, the national media, particulary news channels, are not trusted. Pakistani news channels like Geo, beamed on cable TV, are more popular than Indian counterparts. 

On Sunday afternoon, as local boys and security personnel fought pitched battles on the street outside, a group of CRPF men, while chasing the boys, pelted stones at our two-storey house, hundred metres from the four-lane bypass that is the main battle ground for stone throwers of Bemina. Three window panes in the second storey were broken. My father helped my ailing grandmother from her place to a perceived safer place in another room. Elders in Kashmir have a fixed place to sit.

He asked me and my younger brothers to hide somewhere upstairs apprehending angry troops might harm us. Four other houses in the lane had faced the same fate. 

The next day, a tear gas shell landed in a neighbour’s courtyard filling our house with smoke, leaving every one present in tears and fits of coughing. This was my family’s first experience with tear gas and it was painful.

Read|It’s yesterday again: Kashmir’s old wounds need political healing

Like many others, I became a spectator as groups of young men threw stones and security forces retaliated with live ammunition, pellet guns and tear gas on the bypass. Newspapers kept informing about situation on the country side where mobile phone services were already snapped.

My father, like others in the neighbourhood, would fetch some food items early in the morning before stone-throwing youth and the troops started to appear on the road. Kashmiris have a peculiar habit of stocking essential commodities to cope with shortages of food and other necessities, and that can be useful in times like these.

On Thursday I mustered courage to venture out and see some friends in Lal Chowk, five kilometers away. Later in the night, what added to my frustration was when mobile phone services, except the state-owned BSNL, were snapped in Srinagar as well.

Unprecedented restrictions imposed on Friday apprehending protests after the congregation prayers, continued on Saturday which was the eighth day of curfew and the last day of my vacation. The cable TV was disconnected and state government asked local newspapers not to publish for a dew days. Whatever little update about the situation we got, was from my younger brother who would use a friend’s WiFi to access the internet.  

On Saturday, auto rickshaws bringing milk and vegetables from the adjoining villages towards the city were seized by cops, notwithstanding the high court’s directives to the state government to ensure proper supply of essential commodities to residents during curfew. The drivers told me they were mocked at by JK policemen who allegedly said that the people would fetch milk from Pakistan.

As my departure drew nearer, I asked a neighbour to drop me to the airport. Since he was taking his three-year-old niece to a hospital, he agreed to drop me as well. My father accompanied.

My father hugged me as he saw me off at the departure lounge urging me to call him on the BSNL landline. In 2004, he sent me to Aligarh Muslim University for higher studies, perhaps to shield me from ‘not livable’ Srinagar. But as Valley simmers in 2016, I could just see the helplessness in his eyes.

As I reached Gurgaon an hour after landing, there was more disappointment in store. I tried to call my father, but only to find the landline phone was not working. The only solace away from home is easy access to the internet.

For now, I get through to my brother on Facebook messenger which he accesses using neighbour’s Wifi.

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