More than two decades ago when I was studying in college outside Kashmir, militancy in Kashmir was at its peak. Despite this, I don’t remember a single instance when I was unable to communicate with my family when I wanted to. Today, in the social media age, it has been one month since I have been able to speak to my family in Srinagar.
Seven million people have the same problem.
Even though we live in an era of sophisticated technology where we can push a few buttons to conjure up the faces of people we are talking to thousands of kilometres away, the people in Kashmir have been reduced to using the most basic ways to communicate with each other: they are writing letters that will be hand-delivered by acquaintances, receiving news of relatives outside the Valley from neighbours travelling home, travelling long distances to make a single phone call from the landlines at government offices that are still working.
It reminds me of the stories I was told of events during Partition, when anxious people would have to approach the government authorities to register the names of family members in the hope of finding out where they had been relocated. Others would discover the whereabouts of relatives from former neighbours and friends. Letters would be entrusted to strangers, in the hopes of effecting reunions. In the second decade of the 21st century, it seems surreal to be reduced to this again.
A simmering volcano
It has been exactly one month since the government of India took a unilateral decision to revoke the special status that had been promised to Jammu and Kashmir when it agreed to join the Indian Union seven decades ago. To add injury to insult, the state was partitioned into two Union Territories. To ensure that no one opposes the decision on the street, the government has imposed a communication blockade by cutting off mobile phones and the internet. It slapped on a curfew, effected an information blackout by clamping down on newspapers and restricted physical mobility.
The inability of Kashmiris to express their feelings about this decision and to challenge it with democratic protests is only alienating people in the Valley further. When the anger does eventually find vent, it will erupt like a volcano.
Today, many Kashmiris are feeling overwhelmed by the events that will change our futures. We are unable to comprehend the enormity of the changes or agree on an effective course of action. But, like those of us alive today wonder about the choices our grandparents made during Partition, future generations will judge us by the decisions we take today. It’s clear to me that we Kashmiris must keep recording our experiences, voices, testimonies and ground realities to feed history and allow it to offer a fair assessment of this fraught time in the decades go come.
We will not be alive to hear history’s verdict but I hope that we can do the world a favour by contributing to an understanding of what happens to a society that has its civil liberties stripped away.
The failure of ’47
Our failure to write our stories in 1947 allowed history to mute Kashmir’s struggle for justice in 1947, and the tyranny of the Dogra ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, which contributed to communal riots in Jammu and led to widespread killings.
That year was also when the first step was taken towards defining the formal relationship between Kashmir and India through the instrument of accession that Hari Singh signed with Delhi. With this, the seeds of the current Kashmir conflict were sown. The last seven decades have led to several failed attempts at reconciliation, broken promises, half-hearted peace efforts and eventually the eruption of a massive armed conflict in 1989. All this has written an incomplete saga of betrayal, uncertainty, loss and bloodshed.
When the 1989 separatist movement started, I was still studying in school in Kashmir. Soon, the whole Valley was engulfed in protests, led by a passionate separatist call: Hum kyachahtey hain? Azaadi – what do we want? Azaadi. It has been 30 years since then. Though some claim that progress has been made in the political peace process in Kashmir, nothing much seems to have changed on ground. The recent demonstrations against the hollowing out of Article 370 that guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir special status have also seen angry shouting the same slogans of aazadi, only with more anger and resentment.
The thin line that divides trust from betrayal and democracy from autocracy has been broken in Kashmir. This is exactly how the political systems fail. The vanishing middle ground between India and Kashmir will have ramifications not only for Kashmir, but for the larger democratic values that India claims to uphold.
Reading Manto in Kashmir
Among many stories of famous Urdu writer, Sadat Hasan Manto, describing the horrors of Partition, Toba Tek Singh stands out for starkly capturing the madness of dividing and scattering a people between two nations. In the story, when the inmates of the mental asylum of one country are shifted to the other, one old man, confused about the movement, becomes anxious. Standing along the no man’s land, he starts shouting the name of his village, asking the men of both countries to take him there: “Toba Tek Singh.” But no one can tell him in which country his village now liwa. For days, the old man stands uncertain and agitated, until he loses his strength and dies.
Like the man in the story, Kashmir has also been looking for Toba Tek Singh– for self-determination and autonomous decision-making, for a demilitarised existence, for complete civil rights. But the deep dishonesty of political establishments on both sides of the border have doomed Kashmir to be stuck forever in no man’s land.
Anisa Draboo is a city planner and development professionalfrom Kashmir who lives in New Delhi. Her Twitter handle is @drabooanisa.