On an early Sunday morning — August 24, 2008 — my father and uncle hurried home from the mosque. There was a din outside. Two army jeeps had rolled into our neighbourhood and a curfew was announced all across the Kashmir Valley by loudspeakers. Shoot-at-sight orders were put in place. So we turned on the television, called up our relatives, and waited for the newspapers.
The curfew, we soon realised, meant a ban on news. In an unwritten order, security forces beat up local journalists wherever they showed up. The purpose: to stop any flow of information. For the next six days, no local daily hit the stands in the Valley.
I called my friend, Bilal Bhat of Sahara News to check what was happening. To my shock, he was in hospital. “CRPF personnel did not consider my curfew pass and hit me on my head,” he said. In all, 21 journalists were thrashed in the crackdown.
Despite the pitch of protests, few in the Valley had foreseen the curfew. Even a few days back, I had taken a stroll around the TRC playground. This had been the venue for the separatists’ call for ‘UN chalo’ to submit a memorandum on atrocities meted out to Kashmiris by the security forces. Just outside the playground and in front of the Radio Kashmir building, I had walked past frenzied crowds chanting anti-India slogans. The Amarnath issue had, it seemed, given birth to poets; the demand for independence and reunion with the Kashmiris across the border was being taken up by a million tongues. A small group of boys stamped their feet on the ground while a shout went up: “Tuti hui dewaar ko, ek dhakka aur do; Bharat ka jhanda, de ragda; Bharat ka tiranga, de ragda; Bharat ka naqsha, de ragda; Bharat ko ragda de ragda (Just give one more push to the already broken wall; The Indian flag, just rub it out; the Indian map, just rub it out; India, just rub it out just rub it...).”
Anti-India was certainly the predominant sentiment. Pro-Pakistan cries were just a time-tested trigger. This was, however, just a sideshow. The Hurriyat had been told to be peaceful and their speeches that day certainly stayed on the calmer side. Over spontaneous protests by schoolboys, they had no control. I spotted my neighbour’s son documenting the rally on his mobile camera. We looked at each other. Then we looked away. Something had gone wrong again in Kashmir.
Boarded in, blacked out
On Friday, three days before the curfew, special prayers were organised at the Eidgah in downtown Srinagar. We called up relatives and discussed the news of the day. ‘What should we do?’ ‘How should the crowds behave?’ ‘Did we know a boy had been killed in downtown, just two streets away?’ Questions. That’s all we spoke about.
A policeman made an appearance in the lane outside our home one day. He started beating up people. Somebody, he said, had whistled at him from one of these houses. Conservative estimates say 15,000 people were beaten up across the 10 districts of Kashmir on that single day. “It could be higher,” said a doctor at the Bones and Joints Hospital, Srinagar. “My colleagues in district hospitals have been busy all day attending to the wounded.” He added that the hospital administration had been warned against revealing data about casualties and told not to allow pictures to be taken of the wounded.
On Saturday, I went with some friends to Erena, a popular icecream parlour at Lal Chowk. It was packed. It was as if no one had had icecreams before. There were long queues in front of ATMs. People were preparing for bad days. On Saturday, the administration also imposed one of the harshest crackdowns Kashmir had witnessed in a long time. “We want the writ of the State to go unchallenged,” Inspector General S.M. Sahai said. “Separatists have failed to organise peaceful rallies. There have been reports of violence. So we have to crack down.”
With no other place or means to exchange information, mosques became meeting grounds and centres for news. The curfew may have kept people away from the streets, but it provided a space to groom ideologies in people’s backyards. I, who rarely visit a mosque in Delhi, now found myself making my way to one in Srinagar. Prayers were, however, not allowed at the shrine of Dastgeer Sahib in downtown Srinagar, the hub of protests.
Yesterday once more
The curfew continued for three straight days. Sunday. Monday. Tuesday. SMS services were stalled, TV news channels were blank. So people switched on that old and reliable mode of communication: the radio. Many were tuning into short and medium wave rather than FM after 15 years. “Yeh BBC London hai. Ab Wisatullah Khan se khabrain sune aur phir sherbeen Nayeema Mehjoor ke zubani (This is BBC London. Now hear the news being read by Wisatullah Khan to be followed by current affairs read by Nayeema Mehjoor).” These were the familiar lines heard inside many homes over the three days. “They are the same people who used to read the news in the early ’90s,” exclaimed my uncle. Even BBC Radio was telling us something that we were already feeling: it was the ’90s in Kashmir all over again.
At Lal Chowk, the administration put up quite a show. Lal Chowk and the Ghanta Ghar — both witnesses to the historic speeches of Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru — were turned into a tin box. Permanent barricades with iron bars were set up. Barbed wires encircled Ghanta Ghar, where the Indian flag fluttered on August 15 in the morning and green Pakistani flags at noon.
So what was the barricade for? Had the Hurriyat given a call to dismantle the Ghanta Ghar? No.
Nothing so dramatic. It was set up in panic. Plain and simple.