A paramilitary forces’ personnel stands on guard outside the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar. Photograph by Sanna Irshad Mattoo for The Kashmir Walla
Sitting on a well maintained blue seat in an airline facility bus in Delhi’s Indira International Airport, a 3-year-old girl is uneasy and throwing tantrums at her parents. Wearing a red frock, while her young mother holds her woolen sweater in hands, she nags her father, “Papa, everything will be shut there.” The people standing nearby grinned at her father.
“Who told you so?” her father asks. Unaware of the question, and her father’s surprise, she adds, “We won’t even have network there – how will I watch YouTube?”
Before all the passengers turned their phones on aeroplane mode, her mother downloaded a couple of rhymes in her smartphone, and the flight took off for Srinagar at quarter past twelve on 31 October.
In the meantime, in Srinagar, the summer capital of the newly craved union territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K), the chief justice of J-K’s High Court, Justice Gita Mittal, administered the oath of an ex-bureaucrat, G.C. Murmu, as the first lieutenant governor.
Mr. Murmu is said to be a confidante of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah from their Gujarat days. After the duo led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to centre after whooping majority in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, they pulled “their man” in the union government.
As we landed in Srinagar in the afternoon, passengers put on their winter apparels – the sun was harsh, and the cold waves felt fresh. As one walks out of the airport, accompanied by numerous small bunches of travelling government forces’ personnel in civvies, beautiful oil paintings of red flowers – on both of the side of the walk-way – lead to a board, which reads: “Welcome to Kashmir”.
“It’s a new Kashmir,” a senior Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel exclaimed within his group of five; a brief round of abuses followed. “They (Kashmiri politicians) won’t have a say now. It will be us (India) ruling here.”
His accompanies shared a warm laugh; no further explanation was needed. The bunch of five was coming back from their homes, in different areas of the country, and wondered what the new rumors are around.
Rumors are a vital source of forthcoming situation in Kashmir. Back in the first week of August, this year, multiple rumours captured the social media alleys of Kashmir, and the household discussions – Trifucation? Delimitation? Or war?
On the morning of 5 August, Amit Shah proposed the J-K Reorganisation Bill 2019 in the upper house of the parliament. Within 36-hours, the bill, which aimed at bifurcating the state of J-K into two federally governed territories of J-K and Ladakh, cleared the lower house with a whooping majority.
The rumors about a government forces’ lockdown was also true. So was the communication blackout. The saying in Kashmir that “only rumors are true” appeared to be true.
“I heard they are going to restore the mobile phone internet,” said one of the CRPF personnel from the group. A young and tough man, wearing a tight white t-shirt, from the same group replied, “Be thankful for the calling services. Did you forget how it used to be in starting?”
“[Though] you never know when it gets cut-off again,” the senior personnel sneaked into the conversation. The group shared another laugh.
As the roads lead to the city, all the shutters stay down and insignificant traffic could be seen plying on the road. Government forces’ had set-up checkpoints at every other corner of an empty street – however, no, or very fewer, restrictions were in place. Traffic police personnel rested under the shade of flyover in Jehangir Chowk, while the downtown seemed a garrison.
The Reorganisation Act also snatches the rights of the elected J-K assembly to make laws on policing and public order – extending the control of the entire forces’ apparatus to New Delhi.
Shutters Are Down, Again
A small time Srinagar-based tailor, Ataullah Khan, 26, doesn’t care much that J-K isn’t a state anymore; or that it has become a UT. Though, he cares about his business and the loss he suffered in the on-going shutdown.
When the market responded with silence to the centre’s decision in the initial weeks of September – Mr. Khan abandoned his rented shop and shifted to his home in Soura, Srinagar.
His new place saves him a sum of five to six thousand rupees – which he had to give as a rent – but, the customer inflow is “really low.” Owing to the communication blackout, which still continues partially, he said, “Customers aren’t able to locate him.”
This isn’t an exclusive experience for Mr. Khan; in 2016, when market remained closed for half-a-year following the killing of a popular militant commander Burhan Wani, he had to abandon his last shop due to the same circumstances.
Economy of Kashmir is at halt. Media reports quoted Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI) officials counting the loss during the shutdown at about 10,000 crore rupees.
Until a few days back, a very minute ray of hope struck business community of the Valley with things seemingly going back to track. However, the controversial and “unofficial visit” of a delegation of 27 European Union’s parliamentarians sparked a fresh round of protest in a very few areas and also pulled the shutters down, again.
Sitting on the banks of Jhelum river, on the bund side, 60-year-old G.M. Bhat, who is a former deputy secretary at civil legislature, wonders if he is back in the 1947; wherein the dominion of India and Pakistan have just been separated.
The people of Kashmir, according to Mr. Bhat, aren’t sure about what is going to change on ground. “As far as I know, our constitution has been wiped off and from today, we will be governed by the Indian constitution.”
While he measures and waits how centre would turn its cards in Kashmir, he is left alone with multiple what ifs – “they had taken people of Kashmir into confidence” “What they got from arresting politicians?”
Since the clampdown, the administration arrested, or detained, all the popular mainstream political faces in Kashmir; the list includes the names of three former chief ministers of J-K, Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah, and Farooq Abdullah.
While the word of track-II diplomacy with the jailed leaders is around, a word around their release isn’t. “It is a display of power,” said Mr. Bhat. “It (arresting politicians) is [an act of] threatening Kashmiris.”
Shoaib Zadoo, who is a 21-year-old college student from Srinagar, sees anything but mere political gain in the centre’s step of stripping the region of its special status.
He finds all the claims of the government, which it peddles as rationale argument for taking the step, hollow; from an increase in government jobs to raising educational standards – “all a lie.”
His belief that the BJP abrogated the special status out of the constitution’s reach is -firm – “it is their gunda raaj.”
The Valley is visibly the same as it was a few days, or a few weeks, back; uncertainty is prevailing and faces are anxious – of civilians walking on empty roads, or a forces’ personnel, standing guard to. Everyone waits how things will unfold in an inevitable new Kashmir.
Additional reporting by Bhat Burhan.
Yashraj Sharma is the Assistant Editor at The Kashmir Walla.