In 1997, Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri poet living in the United States, wrote a poem titled The Country without a Post Office. It was written against the backdrop of violence in Kashmir as militancy peaked in the 1990s.

With postal services blocked in the state for seven months, Ali wrote about letters and packages that piled up in post offices and went undelivered. He died in 2001 but the poem was considered his masterpiece.

This month, the poem has gained a fresh lease of life as postal services were suspended in Jammu and Kashmir in the wake of the Indian government’s decision on August 5 to revoke the state’s special status. The state was simultaneously bifurcated into two Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

Hours before the decision was announced, the state was placed under a military clampdown and communications blackout, which hasn’t been entirely lifted two weeks later.

Two days later, Carnatic musician TM Krishna released a clip of himself reciting the poem.

Mobile services, landlines and broadband internet have since been partially restored in both the Union Territories, but that is not the case with postal services.

“As of now, postal services have resumed only in Jammu and Ladakh region,” said an official in the Department of Post at Dak Bhawan in Delhi, on the condition of anonymity.

The official pointed to a memo dated August 14 from the department that said: “Temporary suspension of booking and transmission of articles and bags for Srinagar will continue till complete normalcy is restored.”

What happens to the undelivered letters?

The postal officials in Delhi claimed there were no letters or packages addressed to the residents of Kashmir that remained undelivered. “There is nothing piled up,” said the official at Dak Bhawan, who said that post offices were not accepting packages for Kashmir. “What is the point of booking a letter or package if you cannot deliver anything there?”

The last time postal services were suspended anywhere in India was during the floods in Kerala in August 2018, the official said. “This is not a common thing,” he said. “Postal services may be suspended only once or twice in a year and it happens only in the case of natural disasters or a political situation.”

Are post offices open in Kashmir?

In the age of instant messaging services, mobile phones and internet, the relevance of postal services for personal communication may have gradually decreased, but official correspondence, particularly with the government, is still routed through the postal department.

The post office also remains a place where many citizens access welfare entitlements due to them under government schemes.

The Jammu and Kashmir postal circle has a total of 1,695 post offices across the state and it is headquartered in Srinagar. It is not clear whether these post offices remained functional through the lockdown.

RTI query

The allusive nature of Shahid Ali’s poetry has sometimes escaped the more literal minded. In 2016, an event at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University titled “A Country Without a Post Office” grew into a controversy that resulted in the arrest of key members of the student union, including Kanhaiya Kumar. It even prompted an engineer from Hyderabad to file a Right to Information application seeking to establish the extent of Kashmir’s postal network.

He had these queries: “First, what percentage of Kashmir is covered by the postal department? Second, how many post offices are there in Kashmir? Third, what should be the number of post offices in Kashmir, according to postal department norms? And fourth, if there is difference between the numbers of post offices established, what is the reason for the difference and what steps are being taken to cover it?”