“It was a harrowing night,” said Rehana*, her head shaking and her brown eyes widening, as she recounted her desperate attempts to speak to her family in Anantnag. It had been a fortnight since Kashmir was placed under lockdown. Phone lines and internet connections were still dead. And her 56-year-old uncle was in hospital.
On that night, Rehana called at least a hundred numbers to find out about her uncle. When that didn’t work, she used Facebook and got the phone number of the local police in Anantnag. Fate interceded and the next morning, an officer sent two juniors to Rehana’s house to enquire about her uncle Aejaz Hussain’s health.
Rehana was kept on the line by the juniors as they went to her neighbourhood. “As they were enquiring the route to my house, I could overhear the neighbours asking them if they were looking for the house where Hussain had died,” recounted Rehana, holding back tears. “I thought something had happened to my father until my brother came on the line and said that our uncle had died of heart attack the previous night.”
It was in that moment that Rehana had a tortured realisation. The 2,000 km distance between family home in Anantnag and her adopted city Hyderabad, which she used to bridge with the phone in normal times, had been made more tangible by the Indian government. There was one other realisation: the government’s betrayal this time was immutable.
All through her childhood spent in Kashmir valley, Rehana had witnessed countless strikes, bandhs and shutdowns. For her, as for most Kashmiris, this abnormal was the normal, and they had learned to deal with it. Her diabetic mother, for instance, stocked enough insulin shots to last her two months. Some general stores that ran out of homes continued to supply customers even during curfews. But this time was different. With the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, the government had burnt all bridges.
Rehana, who lives with her husband and six-year-old son in Hyderabad, remembers her uncle Hussain as an earnest man. He was progressive and a firm believer in education. A pharmacist posted at public health centres across the valley for the past 35 years, he encouraged his three daughters to become achievers. And when time came, he prodded Rehana to complete her Master’s, find a job and become independent. She now works with a private company.
This July, Hussain stayed back in a village in Anantnag district to work as a senior pharmacist, while two of his daughters moved to Jammu with their mother. The eldest was preparing for the civil service examination and the youngest was in school. The middle-born studied in Jalandhar, Punjab.
Rehana spoke to Hussain last on the phone on August 12, a week after Kashmir valley was locked down. Hussain had travelled to Jammu to be with his family for Eid, and for the first time since August 4, she was able to ask someone about her parents in Anantnag. “Unable to speak with my parents, it was soothing to talk to my uncle,” said Rehana. “He assured me that my family was fine and that I need not worry.” He left for Anantnag the next day.
Panic erupted ten days later, when Rehana got a call late at night from Hussain’s eldest daughter. The family was rushing to Srinagar. Hussain was in hospital. The cousin hung up, promising to give Rehana updates, but there was no further news. All mobile networks in Kashmir were down and the only way the public could make calls was from a few government locations, such as government offices and police stations.
Wracked by worry, Rehana called more than a hundred phone numbers, none of which led anywhere. She then put up a post on Facebook, requesting phone numbers in Anantnag. An old classmate saw the post and replied with the number of the station house officer of Sadar Police Station in Anantnag district. She got through to the officer’s phone at 1.04 am.
The officer was fortuitously sympathetic. Through her sobs, he promised to find about her uncle. Later that day, he sent off two juniors to her house with his own phone. The news was terrible: Hussain had died in the night. The government hospital where he was rushed was just 15 minutes’ drive from his house. But the three checkpoints recently set up en route delayed him.
Humiliation and anger
Rehana took a late-night flight from Hyderabad to Delhi, and then flew to Srinagar, from where she was picked up by her brother-in-law to be driven to Anantnag. The things she saw there put paid to the claims of normalcy in the valley.
As her flight landed in Srinagar, the cabin crew asked the passengers to pull down the window shades “for security reasons”. The tension hanging in the aircraft burst into a chorus of chuckles, when the cabin crew announced that phones could be switched on. Outside the airport, along the city’s roads, security personnel stood in groups. Shops were shut. Concertina wire lay nearly everywhere. Rehana and her brother-in-law took an additional hour to drive the 55 kilometres from Srinagar to Anantnag because at checkpoints, vehicles were diverted to use the highway.
As their vehicle reached a checkpoint at Khanabal, the entrance to Anantnag, a paramilitary soldier approached them screaming (while people were allowed to leave Anantnag, there were restrictions on entering it). The soldier’s arms were raised as if he would smash the windshield with his gun. A scared and angry Rehana leapt out of her seat, imploring the soldier to let them pass. There had been a tragedy at home, she explained. A local policeman nearby heard the plea and let them through, but not without sounding a warning: they could enter Anantnag, but not leave. Rehana once again pleaded that her brother-in-law had to drive back to Srinagar because his family lived there. “It’s not a nice feeling when you have to give so many explanations,” said Rehana.
At home, there was a riot of emotions at the loss of a loved one: there was anger, helplessness, betrayal, gloom. Some felt that by not letting Kashmiris communicate, the Indian government had pushed them into the Stone Age. “How can they say that schools are working,” one family member said. “How can they tell such blatant lies?” Thirty of Rehana’s school-going cousins were sitting around with vacant looks.
Hussain’s daughter who studied in Jalandhar was not informed of her father’s death, until she reached Srinagar. “By the time we reached home after several traffic jams and checkpoints, everything was over,” she sighed. While Hussain’s wife and eldest daughter attended the funeral, many other family members could not. “Even the dead cannot depart in peace,” said Rehana.
As conversations filled the eight days and nights she spent with her family in Anantnag, it was sometimes difficult for her to recognise some people she grew up with. A distant cousin, a mother of a two-year-old, who always defended Kashmir being a part of India, declared that she is preparing her child to fight for Azadi. One young man who worked with the police was mocked for being part of the “game plan”.
Rehana’s brother-in-law took her back to Srinagar on August 30. They had just entered the house around 6 pm when a cousin came up running. She had seen paramilitary soldiers chasing young men. Switching off the lights in the house, the family went up to the terrace. On the street below half a dozen teenage boys were being pushed into a bus and driven away. There was no protest, no stone-pelting. What had happened? With no newspapers, there was no way of knowing.
Episodes of this kind could only be known by word of mouth. It was jokingly said that “yeh ek paidal khabar abhi sunne me ayi hai” (this news has been delivered on foot). The absence of legitimate news fanned rumours. Nothing could be confirmed, which made people even more anxious. On one occasion, the rumour that war had broken out sent people running to withdraw money from their accounts. This led to restrictions on withdrawal of Rs 10,000 per person per day.
The situation is far from normal even now, said Rehana, who returned to Hyderabad on September 1. When she called Anantnag on September 6, she was informed that an undeclared curfew persists. Her cousins are still not attending school.
Rehana recalls the difficulties she faced during the years of insurgency. “We were gradually coming out of it, hoping that the situation won’t be allowed to inflame,” she said. When she moved to Hyderabad, she thought that her son would not have to face the things she had to, “but this chapter in Kashmir has pained me a lot”, she said. “This is not peace, this is agony. This entire exercise is not about us Kashmiris. This is the greed for our land.”
*Name changed to protect identity.