A first-hand report of 2 weeks siege in Kashmir

[The Gulf News, 26 August 2019]
I WAS glad to be home as I landed in Kashmir a day before India revoked the state’s special autonomy, breaking it into two federal territories and bringing it directly under the control of New Delhi.
On August 4 — the penultimate day — while driving from Srinagar airport, I found most markets chock-a-block. Hawkers sold their wares and people were busy in festive shopping. Eid was a week away and one could sense a joyous excitement in the air.
Often ranked as one of the most beautiful places on earth, Kashmir is full of tourists during summer. Holidaymakers from around the world, and most parts of India, escape the summer heat and arrive in droves to picnic around the valley’s famous fresh water lakes, picturesque meadows and lush mountains.
It was in the middle of such a tourist season—when it is usually hard to find a hotel room in Kashmir—that the government issued a spate of advisories asking visitors to immediately leave the valley. Suddenly a major Hindu pilgrimage, undertaken by thousands of devotees each year, was also terminated.
Intelligence input warned of terror attack
You could sense some of that anxiousness around but people nonetheless carried on with their daily chores. Many bought the government assurance that the advisories were a result of ‘intelligence inputs’ that warned of a major terror attack.
Yet others felt that New Delhi was planning something big in Kashmir and an announcement to this effect was in the offing.
Not surprisingly, this atmosphere of confusion and suspense fed to rumour mongering. As the day progressed, long queues could be seen outside petrol stations and ATMs. People talked about an imminent Balakot-type strike on Pakistan and the possibility of an all-out war between the two nuclear-armed nations.
Communication blackout
At the stroke of midnight, all phone lines went dead.
This was preceded by the snapping of Internet. It was scary, startling and disquieting. Suddenly there was this realisation that you were marooned and cut off from the rest of the world. By instinct I checked the phones of other family members. No connection. The rumours were not entirely wrong, I thought.
That night no one slept well in Kashmir, fearful of what lay in store for them. Finding ourselves in the middle of a communication black hole, we had little idea that hundreds of people all over the state were being detained that night. The government was leaving no stone unturned to make sure that no large-scale protests — that invariably lead to violence — took place in the run up to the big announcement.
Over in seven minutes
We found soldiers guarding every major street the next day. Early that morning military jeeps went around at 5am, announcing restrictions and curfew.
With cell phones of no functional use, people switched on their TV sets — only to witness that the implausable was real. Amit Shah, India’s home minister, took all of seven minutes to announce the abrogation of Article 370 — a stipulation in India’s constitution that defines Kashmir’s relationship with India.
The state stood dissolved. It was unfolding right in front of our eyes.
In less than seven minutes, more than seven decades of trust, and over a century of jealously guarded Kashmiri identity, had come apart. I tried scanning the faces of a few friends and neighbours who watched the special broadcast, live from India’s parliament, with us. Their jaws fell. Anticipation soon gave way to despondency. The loss was both personal and collective, clearly hitting at the core of people’s sense of belonging.
A family heirloom
Article 370 of the Indian constitution conferred a degree of autonomy, however tenuous, to Kashmir.
While it was watered down over the years by subsequent federal governments, Kashmiris felt an intuitive, sentimental attachment to this special provision. “It was akin to a family heirloom. It might not mean much to others but for Kashmiris it carried a huge emotional value,” an elderly gentleman, well-versed in Kashmir’s politics told me over tea. “You cannot undermine people’s sense of identity in this manner because it may be their most valuable possession. A nation is only what it pretends to be,” he lamented.
While the Hindu right wing, presently ruling India, often chafes at such assertions, it is perhaps this profound expression of sub-nationalism that lies at the core of Kashmir’s current political imbroglio. In the days that followed, the only discussion across Kashmir — in its drawing rooms, mosques, meadows and orchards — anywhere people got together, away from the gaze of patrolling soldiers, was this: What is the meaning of this?
Many people were unable to perform the sacrificial ritual of lamb, an intrinsic part of Eid Al Adha celebrations. Barbecuing, handing out of mutton parcels, ‘qurban maaz’, and feasting — established cultural rites that one associates with Eid were either absent or partially adhered to.
The joy was all gone. Most people felt that at a time when their collective history and aspirations were being repealed in broad daylight, there was no point in making merry.
A search for oxygen
In the civil lines area where I live, cars were allowed to ply for short distances after a few days. Although we couldn’t travel distances longer than a kilometre, it was a relief to move within that narrow periphery. During one such short drive to a friend’s home, I gave lift to a harried, short man who frenetically waved me down.
I inquired where he was headed for. “My mother is very sick. She finds it hard to breathe without an oxygen cylinder. I’ve been running up and down to find a portable cylinder but there are restrictions. I have limited means but I am determined to find a medical oxygen cylinder for her — come what may,” he replied. His voice carried the hint of a sob.
After a short distance, I dropped him off.
The next week brought similar stories. Students were worried because they missed deadlines to fill online forms for courses they had opted for. Hundreds of weddings were called off because proper arrangements could not be made. Extended families within Kashmir had no way to get in touch with each other because of the communication blockade.
In many areas people were even unaware of what was happening in their own neighbourhoods. Those with children studying outside the state had no way to wire them money. Many parents had not spoken to their children for close to a fortnight. Everyone felt caged, distraught. The lack of empathy by authorities didn’t help matters.
The oxygen man’s mother died
Two days before I took a flight out of Kashmir, I saw the ‘oxygen’ man walking along the roadside. He was alone and wore the same dress that he was in the first time I saw him. Slowing the car down, I rolled the windowpane down and greeted him. He recognised me.
“Where you finally able to lay your hands on the oxygen cylinder?” I asked. “I couldn’t find it that day. There was no need for it afterwards. Mother passed away the same night,” he simply said.
The BJP government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed on August 5 revoking Article 370 of India’s constitution, which confers special rights to permanent residents of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Modi’s home minister, Amit Shah, said the long-standing rights that preceded India’s independence from British rule in 1947 were “temporary” and that the government would abolish them.
It will allow a flood of new Hindu residents
Critics of such a measure said that in doing away with Article 370, the government hopes to change Kashmir’s Muslim-majority demographics by allowing in a flood of new Hindu residents.
To tackle any law and order situation, the region was put under a heavy security cover, with prohibitory orders in place against public assembly. Top pro-India leaders were put under house arrest and internet and phone service have been cut.
Why now?
The Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys a sizeable majority in parliament after dominating the polls in the April-May elections.
Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can now push through parliament its key policy goals. This includes the BJP’s long-held promise to scrap Article 370. Critics say the BJP’s latest move is a part of its agenda to please core supporters and win more votes by stoking Hindu nationalist fervour.
What will be the immediate impact?
The state of Jammu and Kashmir will be bifurcated into two separate Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir.
The Union Territory (UT) for Jammu and Kashmir will have a legislature but there will be no Assembly in Ladakh.
The state of Jammu and Kasmir’s special status in the Indian Union is defined under Article 370 of Indian constitution.
When India gained independence from Britain, Jammu and Kashmir initially chose to remain independent and signed agreements with India and Pakistan, as per the provisions of India Independence act 1947. However after an invasion bid from Pakistan, the state ended up signing an Instrument of Accession with Union of India.
Defence, Foreign Affairs and Communications were the only three matters governed by the original instrument of accession and at the time of drafting the Indian Constitution it was proposed that only those provisions of the Indian constitution would apply to the State.
Article 370 was incorporated in the Indian Constitution to give special status to the state. This permits the state to draft its own constitution and restricted the Indian Parliament’s legislative powers on the state, related to matters outside the original Instrument of Accession.
Under Article 370 of the constitution, the state of Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed complete autonomy and the state legislature was free to draft its own laws except in the areas of communications, defense, finance, and foreign affairs.
Its significance
The special status, which has been in place since May 14, 1954, has helped Kashmiri Muslims and other communities preserve their strong sense of culture.
The ditching of the status has highlighted long-running fears that the local way of life and customs could be lost amid migration from other parts of the country.
Analysts say the Indian government wants to change the region’s demographics by allowing non-Kashmiris, mostly Hindus, to buy land and settle there permanently.
It is also likely to worsen the simmering and bloody rebellion in Kashmir, where an insurgency over the past three decades has left more than 70,000 dead, mainly civilians.
[Sadiq Shaban, Deputy Opinion Editor of The Gulf News, was in Kashmir when Article 370 was scrapped.]

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