- Kashmir Diary by Rifat Jawaid Part 1: “It’s a living hell in Kashmir”
- Kashmir Diary by Rifat Jawaid Part 2: “The story of ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir, Rifat Jawaid reports from Srinagar”
I was still shaken by my earlier encounter with the CRPF men, who wanted me to delete the visuals of the shutdown in downtown Srinagar from my mobile phone, as I made my way back to the guest house that night. A businessman friend had invited me to join his family for dinner that night.
At the dinner table, I shared my experience with them. Pat came a response from my friend, “And you thought we Kashmiris cooked up stories of CRPF’s brutalities. What do you have to say now?”
It was clear from my conversation that 15 days of complete shutdown in the valley had left even this otherwise affluent family adversely impacted. Modest dum aloo and daal (lentils) had replaced the famous Kashmiri multi-course wazwan. My host apologised politely as we started our meal together while watching the goings-on on BBC World TV (yes the government had allowed cable TV to operate). “It’s a shame that we are not able to treat you to our sumptuous wazwan even though this is your first time in Kashmir. You must realise that we are thankful to Allah for being able to just have a meal. We are going through an extraordinary time.”
As we discussed politics, my elderly host’s wife jumped in with her profound observation with some conviction. She said, “Rifat sahab, earlier Kashmiri population was divided into two sections. There were separatists who wanted self-rule and then we had the political class such as the Abdullahs and Muftis who strived to keep Kashmir united with India. By arresting the Kashmiri politicians en masse, the Indian government has just turned every Kashmiri into a separatist. You simply can’t gauge the level of anger that exists amongst Kashmiris from 5 August.”
Her daughter-in-law, an MBBS doctor who spoke English eloquently, said that she never agreed with the separatists in the past but ‘everything changed on 5 August’ as she watched Home Minister Amit Shah speak in the Rajya Sabha with an extraordinary sense of consternation. “Thanks to (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi and Shah, that India has lost me forever. Today, whenever the restrictions are eased and protests take place, not only will I personally take to the streets, but I will also take my two-year-old daughter there.”
This young doctor/mother’s words gave me a chill down my spine. What her words meant was that the Indian government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and divide Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories by using extreme measures had forever alienated even this aspirational crop of the new generation of Kashmiris. This reminded me of my last year’s on-air encounter with Jintendra Singh, a powerful minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. Singh was a guest at a conclave organised by News 24 and he had not reacted too kindly to my questions highlighting the glaring inconsistencies in his government’s policy on Kashmir. Later, during a tea break, I had told Singh, “My only request to you and your government is to do something to get the aspirational generation of Kashmiris on your side. Please don’t do anything that alienates even this group of people in the valley. They are your last hope.”
As our conversation progressed, my host intervened to state that the Indian government had turned the entire Kashmiri population into an unguided missile. “They’ve arrested every Kashmiri leader,” he said adding that ‘for the first time Kashmiris are without any leaders.’ “That can lead to only one thing. The Indian government has just turned the entire Kashmiri population into unguided missiles,” my host, a former government official, told me.
His wife informed that she had run out of her husband’s medicine supply due to the two weeks of complete shutdown. She said that even though pharmacies were now open, they had not been able to replenish some critical out of stock medicines. She said, “My husband is diabetic. His diabetes medicine is over and we can’t buy them here since no pharmacy shops have them.”
I promised to get that medicine in Delhi after my return to the national capital and send it through a reporter traveling to Srinagar.
The utter despondency among Kashmiris wasn’t limited to this family alone. I met a local Kashmiri journalist, publisher of an English newspaper. He said that the government had pushed the valley back by ‘at least a century.’ Speaking at a common friend’s house, this journalist said, “Before I left my place, I wrote a note and left it on my table informing my folks that I was going to be here. This is just to make sure that they can look for me here in the event that they don’t hear back from me. We’ve been pushed back by at least a century. The government has made some landline phones functional but I don’t have a landline phone.”
As I was making my way to the airport, my Muslim driver said that ‘we had ourselves to blame for our misery.’ “We’ve become disobedient and not following the teachings of Islam, so Allah has imposed a brutal dictator on us. This is the time to reflect for all of us here.”
Just when our car approached the airport, I was convinced that I had gathered enough material for my Kashmir diary. But I was blissfully mistaken. As I made my way to the check-in counter, I saw an unusually large number of soldiers travelling in civil clothes. The ground staff was not particularly pleased with their excess baggage and made it clear that they had to pay for their excess baggage. The soldiers in question, seemingly belonging to the CRPF, moved away from the queue to deliberate on how they were going to arrange for cash at such short notice.
I was next to be checked-in. The ground staff asked for my identity document and asked, “do you have a seat preference?” I replied with a straight face, “What difference does it make? I would have preferred a window seat but you are not allowing us to keep our window open during take-off or landing at this airport.”
“You are worried about not being able to see the scenic beauty. We are having to worry about more serious things in life here,” he said with a tinge of pain in his voice. Clearly, the development of 5 August had impacted every Kashmiri cutting across their religious divide.
I quickly proceeded towards the security check-in. The Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel, responsible for frisking passengers and stamping their boarding passes, looked at my name and asked in Urdu, “Where are you headed to?” I said I was a journalist from Delhi and was returning to my base after staying in the valley for a couple of days. He asked me if I would report the situation accurately or I had also sold my zameer (conscience). I told him that I was moved by what I had seen during my stay and intended to write with full honesty. I also expressed my solidarity with the people of Kashmir. This appeared to reassure him that I wasn’t a part of the pro-government Indian media.
Reassured by my credentials, he asked if I would join him for a cup of tea since he was finishing his shift. I could detect a desperate urge in him to share his story with me. I told him that whilst I did not have time for tea, we could chat.
He said that the Indian government doubted the loyalty of the JKP and had placed the state police under the watchful monitoring of the CRPF. “They have also confiscated arms from many JKP police personnel and deployed CRPF personnel outside police stations. They think we may rebel against India. Is this how you aim to win the hearts and minds of the local population?”
His words chimed with what my local driver and some journalist friends had told me earlier. A local journalist had even taken me to a police station, heavily guarded by armed CRPF men. “This doesn’t look right to me,” I had told him.
The boarding for my Delhi-bound flight had started. I got up to proceed towards the departure gate and extended my hand for a handshake. Instead, the officer gave me a warm hug. As we both hugged, he whispered with a choked voice, “Please pray for us.” We exchanged numbers and promised to stay in touch after the mobile service was restored in the valley.
(We’ve deliberately omitted the names of those who spoke to Rifat Jawaid during his stay to ensure their safety.)