Couple of days before the curfew started in August 2019, three year old Mahi and her five-year-old sister Ayesha would take naabad, the sugar crystals that faith healers in Kashmir usually keep in their pockets, and share them with me while our mothers prayed in one corner of the shrine. We were at the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib, a sufi mystic who lived in Kashmir sometime in the 16th century; the evening prayers were still a couple of hours away.
The steps that led up to the shrine were bordered by young and old men selling mouth-watering street food. It was a warm summer evening and things were as normal as they could possibly be in a valley under a dense military cover. Over the last few days we watched in anxiety as troops were constantly being deployed in different parts of our homeland. In a matter of days thousands of additional troops watched over every inch of our streets.
A riot control vehicle was spotted by someone somewhere, which led to the circulation of its picture on the Kashmiri social media. There was a sudden increase in the number of aircrafts flying in our skies. What added to the confusion were the “everything is normal” declarations of the then Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satya Pal Malik, with the government simultaneously releasing orders for people to prepare for a prolonged law and order situation.
The faith healer offering naabad to Mahi was one of the many sitting on the edge of different windows in the inner room of the shrine and calling out to the people praying outside. Beautiful white and pink chandeliers hung over their heads. They gave away naabads and blessings like bread and water to people who hadn’t eaten in days. This went on until the caretakers came and ordered everyone to leave.
The government had issued statements asking tourists to leave Kashmir. To Kashmiris they told not to worry, however our past experiences had taught us otherwise. The shrine was emptied well before the Maghrib prayer. Not knowing what form of suffering would be inflicted upon us next was too much to bear at the time and we kept seeking assurances and reassurances from people who knew no better than us.
Too young to understand the struggle she has inherited by birth, Mahi clung to her mother. Her light brown curls tied in a pink ribbon bobbed up and down before she disappeared in a sea of heads rushing home in panic and chaos.
On the morning of 5 August, the world’s largest democracy unilaterally abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, without the consent, consultation or even knowledge of its 12.5 million people. With a total lockdown and communication blackout imposed in the entire valley, we sat huddled around our radio sets to hear the Home Minister Amit Shah announce in the Rajya Sabha what he called the complete integration of J-K with India.
According to Mr. Shah, J-K was the last missing point as its accession to India was not complete with the continuation of Article 370. “Everyone was feeling something was missing,” he said in one of his speeches.
For Kashmiris everywhere, Article 370 felt like the last smidgen of dignity and identity, and with it wiped out our existence had come under a direct threat. We watched helplessly as the armed men first filled up our streets and then started laying concertina wires, dividing one street from the other. We had no clue what nearby areas were going through as we had no means of contact with anyone other than our immediate neighbourhood.
Every evening smoke from the pepper and teargas would waft into our homes. It was the only way of knowing that a protest was happening somewhere near us. It would reassure us, even as we choked and our eyes burned, that we are still alive, still fighting and like everything else we are not going to take this hands down. This reassurance was short-lived as the troops outside our home was a stark reminder that they were ready, armed and waiting for a mass uprising.
People lined up outside the police station for hours on end in order to contact their children studying or working outside. After waiting for several hours in the sun, they would forget what to talk about in that 30 second phone call, which would then comprise of only a couple of sentences repeated again and again—we are fine here, do you need money and don’t discuss Kashmir with anyone there. These three sentences, echoing like a prayer from every working landline receiver, probably sum up the resistance of Kashmiris subjected to abnormal conditions for most part of the year.
Alone, isolated and already on the verge of a mental breakdown, Kashmiris faced an unprecedented decline in their mental health since the beginning of the August 2019 lockdown. Anxiety, depression and PTSD cases rose and patients who had previously recovered, faced relapses. This trauma was not restricted to Kashmir. With little to no news about their families back home and as stories about torture and arrests started emerging from Kashmir, students living away from their families started imagining the worst.
On 15 August, as India was celebrating 72 years of independence, I left Kashmir for New Delhi in the midst of a severe curfew. During the half an hour ride from my home to the airport, I was flagged down several times by the men in uniform and was let go only after showing my air-ticket. The carefree Delhi atmosphere felt suffocating and watching people go about their lives casually while people back home were caged, detained and tortured in their name was unbearable. I started having nightmares and often woke up in sweat and tears. In most of my nightmares, my family was leaving for some other country in a 1947 partition-like situation while I was stuck on this side of the border. Overcome by a surge of emotions, I would wait desperately for a phone call from my mother, even if just to hear those three sentences repeated again and again, we are fine here, do you need money and don’t discuss Kashmir with anyone there.
The most widely read newspaper of Kashmir was reduced to just a couple of pages, with a significant portion containing listings of cancelled marriage ceremonies. Soon they also included details of people who passed away, fathers who suffered heart attacks, letting their children know, in the only way possible, that they no longer exist. As weeks passed, the front pages of local newspapers featured government advertisements asking people to open shops and resume public transport.
“Closed shops. No transport. Who benefits?” read the advertisements.
“Are we going to succumb to militants? Think!!!” they said in bold letters.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about a new dawn of development for Kashmir, poorest of the Kashmiris, with no means of livelihood left were starving and surviving on scant meals. A basic human right like access of a chronic patient to a hospital and medication was denied. Doctors lost contact with their patients suffering from deadly diseases and patients, unable to call for an ambulance and with travel restrictions in place, were denied their right to life. And when a doctor with a placard, which read: ‘This is not a protest. This is a request,’ talked to the media about the shortage of life-saving drugs in the state, he was promptly detained by the police. Kashmir was not a place for any sort of rights anymore, has not been so for a long time.
National media persons who came to Kashmir and went around in government helicopters and chauffeur driven cars, painted a picture of normalcy in Kashmir. These pictures were full of cracks from where true, painful stories emerged of a nation bereft of rights and life. Children like Ayesha and Mahi haven’t been to school for a year now.
People who report facts are being muzzled by the government. Jobs have been lost and careers destroyed. Unable to access complete information of COVID-19, people are unaware of what they are up against. Thousands of Kashmiris are languishing in Indian jails under unlawful detentions.
The narrative of bringing peace and development to Kashmir has been long forgotten. BJP cadre has begun its search for land in Kashmir. Vultures are flying all over the valley, scraping pieces of meat from a dead, decaying body.
The author is a postgraduate student at the Convergent Journalism at AJK Mass Communication Research Center, Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. She writes fiction and non-fiction on issues of human rights, conflict and gender.