Early on Friday afternoon, Ali Saffudin frantically kept checking his mobile phone for nmessages while he waited for the taxi that would take him to the Delhi airport. The 26-year-old Kashmiri folk singer had flown into the national capital from Srinagar on Thursday, August 8, to buy medicines for his 78-year-old grandmother, who has asthma.
Back in Srinagar, there is no way to buy medicines, he said. Since midnight on August 4, the Valley has been under lockdown. Phone lines, internet connectivity and cable channels have been suspended. A government order imposed Section 144, prohibited public meetings and restricted the movement of people. Schools and colleges remain shut. Over the week before that, at least 35,000 paramilitary troops had been rushed into the Valley.
Cut off from the rest of the world, the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir had its special status revoked, and bifurcated into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – after Union Home Minister Amit Shah moved two resolutions on August 5.
At 4 am on August 8, Saffudin reached the Srinagar airport and stood in a queue to get the next flight out to Delhi. “It was a long queue of so many people who were mostly migrant workers going back home,” he said. A one-way ticket cost him around Rs 4,000.
He reached Delhi around 1 pm and the first thing he did was call his parents, who live in England. He had not been able to speak to them in the last five days. “They started crying when they finally heard my voice,” he said.
Saffudin was born in Srinagar in 1992 at a time when militant activities in Jammu and Kashmir were in full spate. “This is the time when Kashmir turned to what it is now,” he said. “The idea of dissent, resistance, indignation and distance from the Indian state was always there because the seed was sown in the 1990s. Now it has grown into a tree that is only being watered more.”
For Saffudin, music is a form of expression. His grandmother taught traditional Kashmiri music. In 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Valley, he released a protest song called Mazoor Nahi, which described Modi’s visit “unacceptable”.
While pursuing graduate studies in Delhi University in 2015, Saffudin was a part of an Urdu rock band called Ilham. Away from home, he later went back to Kashmir and got a masters’ degree in mass communication from Kashmir University in 2018. During his postgraduate studies, he set up a small studio and worked to produce his own renditions of Kashmiri folk music.
In 2016, Safuddin gave a fresh lease of life to Chol Homa Roshay, a poem composed by Habba Khatoon, a 16th century Kashmiri poet. His rendition of the poem was used for the film No Fathers in Kashmir, which was released in April this year.
But music is not on his mind at the moment. He said he did not feel like an artist. “This is the worst time for an artist to create anything,” Saffudin said. “You do not feel sane. The air is filled with so much tension. Every breath takes a toll on you.”
Even though he is used to the curfews and regular internet suspensions, Saffudin said that the shutdown this time had caused a “grave situation” in the state.
“It created a state of blankness in Kashmiri minds,” he said. “We have no knowledge about anything happening outside the vicinity.”
In the week leading up to August 5, the administration started to make announcements on the streets and asked residents to stock up on food and medicines. “It was like a frenzied state where people were queuing up outside ATMs, petrol pumps,” Saffudin said.
But these announcements also caused rumours to float around about what was to come. “There were rumours about a full blown war against Pakistan, about the hanging of separatists, about scrapping of Article 35A and about a terrorist attack,” he said. Though he did not pay attention to the rumours, many in Srinagar already believed that something would happen.
While all communication channels were snapped in the state, Saffudin said that his neighbours had satellite dish for their television. They were able to watch Amit Shah move the resolutions in Rajya Sabha on August 5.
When they found out about what took place in Parliament, Saffudin said, there was “collective shock” in his neighbourhood. Residents with political views across the spectrum live in the neighbourhood . Some want Kashmir to be integrated with the Indian state. Others feel the opposite, he said.
“But the last thing we expected was the removal of special status,” Saffudin said. “People feel a complete sense of betrayal. It is like being orphaned. How could they do it this way? What stories will we tell the next generation 50 years from now?”
Saffudin anticipated that these new developments could result in mass protests by Kashmiri residents. The absence of Kashmiri leaders would not deter them. But there was one change to which he pointed. “Those who always supported India feel backstabbed,” Saffudin said. “They will also feel like joining these protests as Kashmiris.”
Apart from buying medicines in Delhi for his grandmother, the musician also had other tasks to complete on his return to Srinagar. “A neighbour of ours who had come to Delhi a week back has been diagnosed with third stage cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant immediately,” he said. “I have to go back to Srinagar and break the news to his family.”