Following story has been shared with Porter Medium by Sagar Kaul, a Kashmiri non-migrant Hindu Pandit whose family didn’t migrate from Kashmir during the height of insurgency. He is the co-founder of fact-checking outlet @metafactai and tweets as @sagared. This story was originally published by him at Medium.com and is being published here with his permission.
This is the day two of complete communication shutdown and day 6 of my arrival into Srinagar. I’ve absolutely no idea of what’s happening outside and in comparison, I live in a much safer area, Badami Bagh Cantonment. I don’t have cable television or a radio, so whatever pieces of information I get is from my trips to the provision store outside in my house and the walks I do around the neighborhood. But again that’s of no help because no one knows what’s happening. One thing I can feel is that now people instead of being panicked are now busy with checking their phones to see if it has started working again. The confusion and chaos that was created by the Whatsapp forward a couple of days back have been taken over with a lack of information. And it’s not just the locals who are facing these problems even police and paramilitary personals deployed here are going through the same. After all, the network has been disconnected for the entire population except for select few whose numbers will be working and the ones with satellite phones as per one of the Whatsapp forward.
Yesterday, I went out to get an idea of what was happening. The roads were empty with barbed wires placed at random points making them checkpoints. On my way back I stopped at the only shop that was open and ended talking with a couple of CRPF guys who were buying biscuits and water bottles. They had come from outside two days ago, that meant a day before the communication shutdown. It seemed that this was their first time in the valley. They looked tired and disturbed by the fact that they could not get in touch with their families. One of them spoke about his pregnant wife who was supposed to deliver anytime now. His last conversation with her was just before she was taken to the hospital. For other two its was about their families knowing that they have been sent to Srinagar and then not hearing from them afterward. Also met a woman with her 3-year-old daughter outside GB Pant children hospital. She desperately asked me if my mobile was working because she needed to get in touch with her family. She wanted to let them know that they can come and pick her up. She lives in Baramulla, North Kashmir roughly between 40–50 Km’s from the hospital. The reason she didn’t leave on her own was that her husband had gone back home on Sunday evening to get some money, and Monday mobile services were shut down. I did offer her my place in case she wanted to freshen up and rest for some time but she refused because she was worried if and why her husband returns there would be no way for him to know where she was.
I am sure there would be countless such stories throughout the valley.
Last time when I visited Srinagar was in July 2018 to take an injured mix-bread Kashmiri cat from here to Delhi for medical treatment (interesting story and she’s a permanent member of the household now). I came back after a year, amidst rumors of revocation of Article 35A, delimitation and bifurcation of the state. I was following the developments, nothing new, having lived through 2008, 2009, 20010, and 2016 protests I do understand the SOP that administration and the security forces take during such times. But this time somehow things turned out to be a bit different.
Thursday, August 1- My flight landed around evening in Srinagar. On the way home my taxi driver laid out the confusion that’s been going on in the valley for past sometime and the duality of its inhabitants. The point he was trying to make was about the meeting of local BJP party members with Ram Mahadevan, which included an elderly gentleman with a long beard. A Sunnat in Islam. By evening social media and WhatsApp were buzzing with different government circulars and notices along with forwards with titles like #BREAKING#, #NEWFLASH# (these do make the forwards look authentic), etc adding to the already created confusion. Since I was not meeting anyone, I decided to take a walk and get some food packed from Krishna Dhaba, my go-to place for the years when I was living there alone. The traffic was crazy, Krishna was full of tourists and locals alike, with handicrafts hawkers lining up outside. I got my favorite, Rajma fried rice (rice mixed with rajma fried in butter) packed and got back home. Connected my laptop to my mobile hotspot and started watching Netflix. In between, I would stop to check Whatsapp, etc from time to time. It was a good feeling being back home to the known sounds, smells, and surroundings.
Friday, August 2 – The morning came with a flood of messages from all corners. Spoke with my wife to tell her my plan for the day and she would laughingly tell me that people have started asking when am I coming back, already. She laughed and said only if they knew that situations like these are what makes you happy. I know it’s sort of morbid but again, I grew up during the conflict. This is what I knew for most of my teen years. I am better at handling myself in cross-firing or an unfortunate fidayeen attack rather than in social gatherings. Getting back to planning my day ahead, I started going through Whatsapp, Twitter, etc to get an idea of what’s happening out there. To remain balanced and being able to sift through rumors and factually correct messages becomes almost impossible when few of such messages are quoted by reputed publication adding to the confusion. And that’s what was happening. The state administration would try to come out with statements regarding such rumors but again that’s not how disinformation works. Soon a message from the govt. officials would start circulating on social media platforms, new modified content with almost the same message would crop up and start circulating. By the end of Friday, the uncertainty of what’s going to happen finally played on the streets and there was chaos all around. People fearing the worst started hitting ATM’s, petrol pumps, grocery stores and started stocking up. Tourists were not “advised” but “ordered” to leave the valley immediately. Yatra was suspended and this was what unnerved the locals. Suspension of the Yatra and making tourists cut short their visit and packing them back was seen as some sort of a sinister plan by the government that would see them either killing Kashmiris en-mass or subjugating them to further abuses. The word “Genocide” did find its way on social media. To be honest, I did forward a couple of not so factually messages myself. I blame the siege mentality.
Saturday, August 3 – It seemed to be like any other day except for there were lines outside petrol pump and very little rush on the streets, keeping in mind Eid is just a week away. Anyone I met had the same question, “what’s happening? And when will it stop?”. By now the idea of 35A or bifurcation of state was at the bottom of the discussion list but cross border strike, limited war and how the geopolitics of Imran Khan’s visit to the US and withdraw of US forces from Afghanistan has unnerved India and that’s why the Indian govt. is take such drastic steps was on top of the list. Twitter handles who monitor aviation and sat imaginarily were constantly providing new pieces of information that pointed towards a build-up along the LoC and showing Air Force transport planes coming in and out of Srinagar. skirmishes along the border solidified the belief that this is the reason why additional forces were called in. Suspending Machail yatra in Kishtwar, circulation of notice to certain govt. employees in Kargil added to the mix. By now it was clear that there would be a communication shutdown along with restrictions but again no one knew when.
Sunday, August 4 – It was a repeat of the previous day, little traffic but people shopping and moving around. The famous Sunday market was in operation and the whole stretch of road from TRC till Poloview was taken over by the makeshift stalls selling almost everything from clothes, to carpets, cutlery, curtains, blankets, etc and it seemed busy as usual. By the evening messages of communication shutdown and an impending curfew was gaining momentum. And state administration giving statements contradicting the same. I bought an additional packet of milk and six-packs of Maggie. I had my priorities set. In the case of curfew, tea and maggie along with fruits are more than enough for me. To be clear I’ve rice enough to last me 6 months even if I eat it three times a day, vegetables in the garden would last me a month, just not sure about oil and masalas. Finally, the internet was shut down by late evening. The last message I sent across on WhatsApp was around 11:25 PM. After that, it was SMS messaging between me and my wife till midnight. Thankfully she knows the valley and how things turn out here during such situations. The last message we exchanged was about the mass shootings that had taken place in her country and I told her that as a bearded brown guy I’ll still take my chances here in Kashmir rather than in the US.
Monday, August 5 – Morning was the first day in my entire time spent in Kashmir during all the previous unrest, that I was completely disconnected from the outside world. My biggest fear and worry of the 21st century, not to be connected and not knowing what’s happening around me. For all, I know a war must have started or the genocide that some misleading twitter account spoke of might have become a reality. There was supposed to be a cabinet meeting chaired by the PM after which a statement would be issued on the Kashmir situation. I, obviously don’t know what was said as I don’t have a working cable connection (was disconnected during 2014 flooding) and obviously did not see a point of buying a new radio (which again went missing after the floods). To be honest, Monday was a bit difficult for me personally. Staying alone with no communication with anyone took some time to get used to. But one positive of having no internet meant I would not be staring at my mobile/laptop screen. I was able to tune my TV to play Vividh Bharati in hope of catching some news. So far no luck, I also bought a book with me so I started reading that, cooked, made countless cups of tea and overachieved my steps for the day (10,000 steps), watered the garden and hoped that someone would be able to give some information that would at least give an idea of how long this is going to go, so that I can decide if I should stay for some more time or pack my bags and leave back for Delhi. A luxury that I know the majority of people don’t have.
Tuesday, August 6 – The second day of the communication blackout. I still haven’t been able to get in touch with my wife or family outside. There was a missed call displayed on my phone from my wife yesterday evening. I don’t know how that happened. A freak half a second ring and that’s all. I have no idea what might be going through her mind at the moment or for that matter my mother who always turned hyper whenever I would visit home here in Srinagar. She knows I am capable of taking care of myself but guess that does not help. It’s still morning and I have the whole day to plan out. My guess is we won’t have internet back soon, and I don’t have any way of communicating with my wife which is the only problem that I can’t figure out how to overcome. My neighbors seem to have a small family function so the wazas are busy preparing the lamb for wazwan. My dilemma at the moment is should I go over the boundary wall and announce my arrival in hope of getting some of the dishes from the wazwan or just stick to my basic diet of proteins and fiber i.e boiled eggs and fruits. On the other hand, this makes me wonder how will people manage such things if there’s communication blackout? There are marriages that are happening here because the dates were fixed months in advance and calling it off also is not an option because obviously, you can’t inform others. Coming back to myself I think my mind is playing tricks on me, I’ve started to hear phone vibrations knowingly that the network is down.
Finally, by evening my friend from Shivpora was able to reach my home and gave me the news about 35A and 370 bills getting passed in both the houses. The whole 36 hr’s after it had happened. I stand corrected. All the tweets and discussion I did saying that these articles can’t/won’t be aborted without the state assembly etc was made due to my optimism that no one is willing to see bloodshed in the valley at least this soon. This was about the state and the politics it represents in the end. I landed in the state of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladhak and I’ll be leaving from the newly constituted (at least in parliament) Union Territory now. The clampdown is here to stay. Stone pelting has already started in some areas of downtown and other areas. Eid is around the corner. I don’t want to think about what will happen once the restrictions are lifted. Now it’s not just about Hurriyat but this largely affects the mainstream political parties and their survival. I’ve managed to get a taxi that will take me to the airport, on reaching the main gate I’ll beg my way in as I don’t have a confirmed ticket. If allowed in, I’ll try to get the earliest ticket out and I’ll get back to my privileged life of online ordering, uninterrupted internet and the luxury of stepping out any time of day or night I want and follow the happenings in the valley over social media, where people would still be trying to figure out how this will affect them, the outside laborers will still be trying to get a bus ticket out of Srinagar (cost of ticket is around 1500 for non-luxury bus). Lot of them not collecting the money that’s owed to them. Barbed wires making a way back on the roads and physic of its inhabitants.
Wednesday, August 7 – Woke up around 5:30 AM to see the sun coming up from behind the Zabarwan hills. It’s a beautiful sight in the silence of the morning. I’ve packed my luggage already. Few things need to be done before I leave but those will happen tomorrow morning. Saw my tenant and had a chat with him. He’s a state employee having his home in South Kashmir. He got back from home early morning and obviously, he’s worried and scared. Incidents of stone-pelting have already started in and around his area in spite of the restrictions. His kids haven’t been to school since Friday and he does not see them going back for some time now. I asked how the preparation of Eid was going home, not much happening, he replied. With all the restrictions and the situation getting volatile with every passing day it hard to say even if there will be a relaxation in the restrictions, he further added. Also if there are no restrictions, protests are bound to start after Eid namaz so we are just bracing ourselves for a long hard winter. Makes sense, looking at all the past protest from 2008 till now, one thing is clear and that’s the cycle of bloodshed is about to start. Amarnath land row of 2008 saw lakhs of people coming onto roads and protest, in comparison, this is as big as it gets. But again I’ve been proven wrong before, I might be proved wrong again. But knowing the people and the politics of the place, this won’t go down without making a noise. My friend managed to come from Bhagat to check on me. It was really nice of him but with all the risks he had taken I thought it was stupid of him to do that.
Thursday, August 8 – Not the best sleep but I did manage to get a couple of hours. Throughout the night I was trying to play different scenarios in my mind. What if my taxi driver does not come? Do I leave? Do I walk till TRC from Indira Nagar? I woke up early in the morning to close the rest of the house down. The agreed time was 7:00 AM and I was ready by 6:00 AM. The driver arrived on time. A big relief. The route till airport was filled with checkpoints. After being stopped a couple of times on the way I was able to reach the AIrport. It was a chaotic place. I estimated around 1000 people at least standing in lines outside the ticketing counters. Non-Locals, leftover tourists, employees and security personnel going on leave. It took me around 4 hours to get the ticket but thankfully I got one for Air Asia flight that was leaving at 2 PM. After clearing the security etc finally boarded the flight and landed in Delhi. I still haven’t talked to my friends since then. Got to know from others that they are fine though.