Passengers can switch on their mobile phones now,” announced the SpiceJet air hostess in a monotonous tone as my flight landed in Srinagar last week. The statement was met with spontaneous laughter in an otherwise eerily quiet early morning flight from Mumbai. Other than the weariness of a 5 am flight, the daunting prospect of what lay ahead weighed in on all passengers on board and the announcement came as comic relief. The air hostess couldn’t quite understand what had evoked the laughter and went on to repeat the same in Hindi.
It had been five days since the unprecedented communication lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370 by the Narendra Modi government. I had just landed in my hometown after being unable to contact my 74-year-old mother, who lives alone in Srinagar.
I took a taxi from the airport to our house. Since it was 8 am, I couldn’t assess the impact of the restrictions enforced. Most shops were shut and there was very little traffic. All I could see were some vegetable sellers and a few early morning walkers. But my worry increased as I got closer to home. The gate to the house was locked from inside, and I banged on the green metal door till I heard my mother’s voice asking who it was. It was a flood of relief hearing her voice. She opened the gate and as I hugged her, she said, “I knew you would come to get me out of here.”
Enough has been written and said about the constitutionality of the move to abrogate Article 370. Enough has been argued on who has the rights to own the land and who doesn’t. Enough has been debated on how Kashmiris will react to the Centre’s move. But not enough has been written or said about the complete communication shutdown that has had a direct impact on citizens. No phones, no mobile network, no internet, limited access to television. In 21st century India, how do you communicate with zero access to technology? Imagine ‘no network’ bars on your phone, no WhatsApp notification, no access to national or international news, no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube. Just a deathly silence for lakhs living in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
An enforced, unprecedented communication freeze.
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The first person I met is a dear friend whose parents live in Nowhatta – one of the most volatile areas of downtown Srinagar. Despite living barely 10 kilometres away, she had no way of knowing how her father was doing. Her mother had gone for Hajj and her father was home alone. She tried to get past the barricades, but was stopped. Finally, she decided to write him a letter. Kashmiris eat a special kind of bread called ‘Girda’ every morning for breakfast, which is usually bought from the local baker. She knew her father has a favourite baker in a nearby locality. She left the letter with the baker, hoping her father doesn’t give up on his ritual. Three days later, the baker walked all the way to her house and handed her a reply from her father. She says it is the first letter he has ever written to her.
I am part of a WhatsApp group with my old classmates from Srinagar. Most of them now live outside J&K and are worried about their parents back home. For most of them, like for me, it’s a few phone calls a day to your parents or a video call to know of their well-being. Just ordinary, routine stuff. When they heard I was going to Kashmir to ‘extract’ my mother out of the Valley, they asked if I could check on their loved ones too.
I didn’t make promises since I had no idea what the situation was like on the ground. But as luck would have it, the Modi government had eased restrictions ahead of Eid and I was able to drive around large parts of the city. The volatile downtown localities remained off limits. I managed to reach a few of these aunties and uncles. I took their photographs at first. But then decided that the best thing would be to record their videos and share it with their daughters once I got network. Imagine old parents trying to keep a brave face, looking into the camera and uttering words of reassurance for their children. “Main theek hoon beta, aap fikar mat karo (I am fine. Please don’t worry my child),” was their simple yet hard-hitting message. The last thing any parent wants is for their children to worry. When I got back, I shared these with their daughters. Most of them broke down.
Even as I write this article, a WhatsApp group has been formed by the residents of the Rawalpora locality in Srinagar. One of many, from what I hear. The group called Rawalpora Curfew Updates was formed after a police officer, who had access to a working mobile phone, went from house to house, and got families to speak to their loved ones. The name of this police officer has been kept under wraps and I think that’s best. The group already has 100-plus members from all over the world, constantly messaging and updating others on the situation the minute they get to speak to their families. One of my friends is in this group. Her mother lives in Rawalpora and despite her best efforts she hasn’t been able to speak to her. My friend is flying in today from London to take her mother back with her.
In this unprecedented situation that the people of Jammu and Kashmir find themselves in, there are innumerable unsung heroes who have helped in connecting families not just outside but within. Never before have neighbourhoods been so isolated and cut off from each other.
The sad reality is that on our 73rd Independence Day, 11 days after the abrogation of Article 370, a population of 70 lakh-plus only has a few hundred government-operated phones to make that crucial call home. For everyone else calling the Valley – Iss route ki sabhi line-ayn bandh hain (all lines to this route have been shut).
The author is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. Views are personal.
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