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Incommunicado Kashmir: The other side of Article 370 abrogation

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By: Waleed Bin Owais

I was driving and heading towards my home located in the suburbs of Srinagar, the summer capital of erstwhile state, and currently the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.  It was the month of July and the sun was at is scorching best, when a congestion near the famed Amar Singh College halted the traffic on the service route that led to the flyover connecting the city center to the suburbs. My phone buzzed with the email notification that I had just received. The email contained the much-anticipated visa that I had been expecting since weeks. Among other things, it mentioned the date by or before which I was supposed to travel. I mentally calculated the dates and I reckoned that I had less than a month to spend in Srinagar. It was a mixed emotional response for someone like me who almost gave up on an engineering career just so I could stay and work in Kashmir but circumstances and fate willed otherwise.  I was privy to the fact, that if nothing, I would not be able to visit Kashmir, at least for a year or so. I started chalking out plans and itineraries and prioritized a ‘to-do’ list.

Meanwhile weeks passed and now the calendar announced August. It would be on 17th of that month that I would be leaving Kashmir. It was the first day of August when rumors were afloat and heard through the grapevine about the Union of India’s plan to abrogate the Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Some laughed it off and others ignored it outright attributed to the uncanny relationship Kashmir has with rumors, but the atmosphere was gradually getting charged and panic was ensuing. Additional companies of the paramilitary forces were flown in citing security reasons. The atmosphere, as overwrought as it was getting with the passage of time, suddenly escalated into a pandemonium when the Amarnath pilgrims and the tourists were evacuated at war footing. The air was fraught with danger, chaos and skepticism.  The change of stance of the state government from being tight-lipped to denying it outright did not help much. Social media was abuzz with leaked photos of satellite-phone numbers that were to be distributed among the high-ranking officials.

The sun dawned on the second day of August. Nevertheless, life continued and people started panic buying and stockpiling petrol among other commodities. Filling stations witnessed never ending long queues that exacerbated the already worst traffic congestion. The gas tank of my car was at an alarming E indicating that I needed to re-fuel as soon as possible, but the never-ending queues at almost all the petrol stations were a nightmare. Next day the station was closed and so were other such outlets but the people had already lined up with their cars, two-wheelers and empty cans alike. I was headed to the University of Kashmir in another vehicle after spending nearly three hours at the filling station bore no result. There was an unnerving silence yet commotion.

The fact that I am leaving the country was constantly beckoning me and ensuing a whirlpool of emotions, but I still figured that I have more than two weeks left to bid adieu to my friends. The day ended on bitter-sweet note. The next day being Sunday was spent at home.  The crisp air of the hot Srinagar afternoon asserted about the calm before the storm. Texts and images were circulated on WhatsApp ad nauseam. Meanwhile I was scheduling about Monday that I had intended to spend at the University of Kashmir. I re-fueled my cars to the brim, jumping on the panic buying bandwagon, lest the fuel stations ran dry. If nothing, I wanted to spend my last days augmented by the convenience of my car. Political activity got charged up when almost all the political leaders across the spectrum met.

On the intervening night of August 4 and 5, reports started pouring in about snapping of internet, and mobile communication. I was attending to my midnight phone call when political leaders started tweeting and informing about them being detained and taken into undisclosed locations.  Ironically my internet connection and general mobile communication was still in service unlike a lot acquaintance’s who disappeared from the virtual world, I slept.

I felt a gentle nudge on my arm, I opened my eyes to the sight of my brother standing in front of me and breaking the news – the Article 370 had been abrogated, by the Union of India, unilatellary. I rushed downstairs to see the union home minister tabling the bill that was three fold. Abrogation of 370, downgrading the erstwhile state into a union territory, a carving a separate union territory of Ladakh. 70 years of history had been unwritten in a blink of an eye. Meanwhile curfew had been imposed in almost all parts of the erstwhile state. Loudspeaker noise, emanating from the police patrol warning repercussions to anyone found defying the curfew, echoed in the dead silence.

The landline phones, broadband communication, mobile internet, general mobile communication and cable TV was snapped. Kashmir was rendered incommunicado across the spectrum. Even the radio broadcast was stopped. I was lucky to have a satellite TV so we all were glued to the TV screen, yearning for any information that we could get as to what was unfolding. A part of me knew the state of affairs was to continue for a very long time, but a part of me kept hopes alive. I was battling emotions vacillating between the heartache caused by the act and the thought of exiting the country while being incommunicado. People who lived at stone’s throw from each other didn’t dare visit one another, let alone travelling from one part of the city to another. Broadcasts from news channels showed huge barricades, concertina wires at almost all the road conjunctions amid heavy deployment of armed forces. I glanced at the phone and it peeked back at me myriads of times proclaiming its helplessness.

Days passed. Respite was nowhere in the sight. Meanwhile agony, distress, and despondency increased manifold in the heart of every soul who was impacted. People couldn’t reach out to family and friends alike which escalated the anxiety. Tensions soared high, the people of the vale though used to relentless internet shutdowns over the decade didn’t fathom being incommunicado outright. The clock ticked. Days passed. Anticipating some measure of respite on the festive of Eid-ul-Adha, that was celebrated five days after the abrogation, too disappointed. People were barred from even praying at major mosques, let alone any relief in the communication.

There was hopelessness written all over.  There was unfinished conversations and never said goodbyes constantly beckoning and triggering a tsunami of emotions and downcast feelings. Communication was still snapped, and physical movements without a valid curfew pass where fraught with danger, not that I didn’t try, only to be reprimanded by the security forces and the local people alike. I wanted to argue, scream and run away, but there was only much that could be done. No one had the temperament to reason, emotions were running high across.

The penultimate day dawned and I mentally said a million prayers as I again set forth on a road to the north of the Srinagar. The first make shift road barricade guarded heavily by the paramilitary forces at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Memorial hospital was the first stop. To the gentle tap of the baton on my windshield I responded by greeting the officer on duty. “Where are you headed to?” I looked him in the eye saying, “Sir, I need to see a relative of mine.” I saw the force personnel sending other cars being back and not allowing them to cross the road block. To my utter disbelief, the security force man allowed me to set forth of my journey and cautioned me to return soon. With the childlike glee, I pressed hard on gas and drove. I had come a long way to say my final goodbyes, yet was nowhere close.  An electric pole laying amid huge stones and another concrete barricade laying horizontal on the road greeted me. The tyres squeaked. I alighted the car. There was no chance one could overcome that obstruction especially with the car I was driving. Other cars were turning back. I just stood there contemplating. I had come a long way. I was so near yet so far. As I was figuring out the ways to cross the obstruction that was metaphorically and otherwise the greatest impediment I could think of, of late, a stone missed my car by a whisker. Before I could come to terms what was happening, a pitched battle between a group of youth and the paramilitary staff ensued. I drove away as fast as I had driven to my intended destination. That is how it culminated.

The next day I caught an early morning flight and left the country, carrying with me an emotional baggage that wasn’t going to ebb anytime soon, or even to this day as I write this piece.

The psychological trauma, of being incommunicado from everybody, that was inflicted on the likes of me who had to exit the country in mere 14 days is inexplicable. The indelible impact of the unfinished conversations and goodbyes that were never said, haunt me to this very day. It wouldn’t be exaggeration to say that the mere thought of that 14 day period inflicts debilitating anxiety, gloominess and nightmares. It is something that cannot be put into words, no adjective has the depth that can put across what I felt. I have had to live with that anxiety post August 5 and that is something that will be part of me for a very long time.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

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