It took me precisely two weeks since the hasty announcement by Home Minister Amit Shah to abrogate Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcate the state into two union territories – to plan my trip to Srinagar. As a journalist, I felt it would be criminal to not visit Kashmir and report on the situation in the valley. I grew even more restless after many pro-government representatives of what’s known as the Indian media targeted the BBC, Aljazeera and Reuters for allegedly running fake videos of violence in Soura in downtown Srinagar on 9 August. To counter the BBC’s claims of unrest in the valley, the usual suspects in the Indian media had dedicated several hours of prime time TV to conclude that Kashmir had turned into an oasis of peace within days of the parliament changing the fate of nearly 10 million people by approving the revocation of Article 370 and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir.
Surprising as it may sound, Kashmir was always on my list of places that I was yet to visit. My Kashmiri friends, ex-BBC colleagues and those in the civil services, often noted that it was quite startling that I had never visited this ‘heaven on earth.’ Their jibes were legitimate and would leave me spluttering promises of visiting the valley with my family within weeks. Who would have thought that when Iqbal’s jannat would finally call, circumstances would have written its history, forcing local residents to now equate the life in the valley with that of hell.
Some of the government’s trusted lieutenants in the TV channels branded those highlighting the unrest in Kashmir as part of the ‘Negativity Gang’ and as ‘loyal warriors of Pakistan.’ They surely have learnt from the results of this year’s Lok Sabha polls that the best way to lend credence to lies was branding the harbingers of truth as liars, anti-nationals and threats to the country.
I left for Srinagar on 18 August with mixed emotions of excitement and a palpable fear of the unknown. My Srinagar-bound flight was nearly empty with the majority of my fellow passengers comprising of those returning from the annual pilgrimage of Hajj. Minutes before our flight was to touch down the runway at the Srinagar airport, we were ‘instructed’ to not open the windows for security reasons. The airline’s cabin crew made sure that their instructions were enforced. After all, it was not just another pre-landing flight announcement.
As I made my way out of the airport, I saw emotional scenes as little children ran frantically to greet their grandparents with flowers in their hands. All means of communications were cut off while these Hajj pilgrims were still in Saudi Arabia. The scene of their reunion was gutwrenchingly sombre.
I asked my taxi driver to take me to Rajbagh, where one of my former work colleagues had made arrangements for my stay. He had explained that this was also close to the hotel where a makeshift media centre had been formed by the government. It was at this media centre, where government officials would brief journalists about the day’s developments in the valley.
The 13-km stretch to the media centre from the Srinagar International Airport was heavily guarded by paramilitary forces in their army fatigues and automatics. Small roads leading to residential colonies on both sides of the road were blocked by barbed wires. I asked my driver to stop his car at one such place so that I could take a photo and even strike a conversation with some paramilitary personnel. He politely turned down my request saying he didn’t think this was a good idea.
I was pleasantly surprised to see some of the familiar faces of young journalists from Delhi in the media centre. They looked visibly exhausted and frustrated. At the media centre, there were over 100 journalists huddled in several groups either sipping tea or waiting for their turn to use one of the four computers with slow-speed internet facility. In one corner, a group of journalists stood surrounding one bearded man speaking on a mobile phone. I asked one of my acquaintances with a sense of excitement, “Have they restored the mobile phone services? How can I get mine functional?” The reporter replied, “We’ve been provided with one functional mobile phone by the government. We use that to speak to our loved ones or colleagues in the headquarters. But, you have to first register your name and wait for your turn. These reporters standing next to the local journalist are in the queue.”
This was the first sign of the so-called normalcy claimed by pro-government TV channels that I was witnessing minutes after arriving at the Sarovar Portico hotel. To manage my expectations effectively, I decided to wait until my return to Delhi to file my version of the ‘Kashmir series’. I quickly asked one reporter if I could go to Soura, the place where the BBC video had captured the scenes of violence on 9 August and which became a topic of intense conversation across media outlets both in India and abroad.
“You can’t go there. None of us have been able to go there. Some of us tried and were either attacked or spat on,” said one reporter working for a Hindi news channel. “But, isn’t Kashmir back to being normal?” I asked adding that ‘landline phones too in certain areas are said to be working now.’
He gave a wry smile and said, “Come, let me give you a tour of Srinagar before you set off independently.” We crossed the river Jhelum to arrive at Dal Lake gate before I found the majestic view of the legendary water body that I grew up reading about. I was told that the government had locked up at least 300 prominent politicians including Sajjad Lone and Imran Raza Ansari of the PDP in one Centaur Hotel, situated at the other end of the lake.
“Please don’t try to film yet. It’s not safe. The hotel is heavily guarded by CRPF men,” I was warned by my young journalist friend. We passed through the heavily guarded Centaur Hotel before making our way to Gupkar Road, which housed high-profile politicians such as the Abdullahs and Muftis when they wielded power.
As expected, the entrance to the Gupkar Road was blocked by barbed wires and at least half a dozen CRPF men stood there to ensure that no vehicle could pass through that road. I was told that while Farooq Abdullah was still detained at his house on Gupkar Road, his son Omar Abdullah had been taken to the cursed Hari Niwas, the residence of the last ruler of Kashmir, Hari Singh. According to local folklore, the palace was gifted to Maharani Tara Devi against the advice of the King’s astrologer. It is said that the Dogra King had to flee the Valley during the troubled time of 1947 soon after the queen entered Hari Niwas. The palace remained deserted for many years until Ghulam Nabi Azad ordered its renovation in 2007 to make it his official bungalow as the state’s chief minister. Azad lost his job as the CM the next year.
After we returned to the media centre, we were informed that the state’s principal secretary Rohit Kansal will brief the journalists at 6 PM today. I looked at my watch and realised I still had two hours to do something meaningful before being present for Kansal’s important press conference.
I asked my driver if he could take me to Soura or other parts of down Srinagar. He declined citing safety reasons but soon gave in to my determination and requested one of his friends to drive me to downtown. The other driver sounded more confident as we set off towards the areas of Srinagar that no reporters have been able to visit. We managed to enter the downtown area but only for a few hundred meters until we found the main road being blocked by barbed wires. This road, according to my driver, went to Jama Masjid. The area looked deserted and desolate.
I asked my driver to stop the car briefly so that I could click a photo. No sooner had I taken the picture that I saw at least three CRPF jawans from the other side yelling at me using expletives while charging at me. My local Kashmiri journalist host had advised to never argue with CRPF men if they stopped me from either filming or clicking photos. “Abhi unka mizaj hi kucch aur hai. Wo jo bhi kahein maan lijiye ga, bahas mat kijiye ga. (Right now they are in a different frame of mind. Just agree with them whatever they say. Do not argue with them).”
His advice fresh in mind, I smiled at the CRPF men charging at me and said, “I am a journalist. I have come from Delhi. This is my identity card.” My smile and introduction as a journalist from Delhi had no impact on them as one of them asked me menacingly, “video delete kar (Delete the video right now).” I said that I had clicked a photo and not recorded any video and was only doing my job as he was doing his. Satisfied with my credentials, one of them ordered me to quickly leave the area.
I returned to the media centre and narrated the whole episode to my journalist friends. They were not surprised.
The same evening Kansal announced that the government had decided to open at least 190 of the 900 primary schools after two weeks of shutdown. The next morning, schools opened as per plan, but parents refused to respond to the government’s call positively. As I returned to my guesthouse, I had very little doubt that the claims of normalcy in Srinagar were far from true.