It has been exactly 50 days since the Narendra Modi government in India imposed a stifling clampdown and communication blockade in the Kashmir Valley. Restrictions came into effect on August 5, 2019, ahead of a speech announcing the revocation of the state’s autonomy by Amit Shah, India’s home minister. Shah made the televised address in the country’s parliament. A virtual information blackout has ensued ever since.
No business is functioning. Schools, colleges and universities remain closed. Hotels — linchpin of one of India’s most famous tourist destinations — are all shuttered. There are no holidaymakers. With everything coming to a grinding halt, this year’s tourist season has been completely wiped out.
The general suffering notwithstanding, for a lot of Kashmiris, commuting has become nearly impossible. The intra-Kashmir train service between Banihal and Baramulla remains suspended. While private cars can ply, most public transport is off the roads. Finding themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, those who cannot afford cars resort to hitchhiking.
Trauma in the Valley
For the Kashmiri diaspora — professionals, students and business people — it has been equally bad. Mobile phone service continues to be barred in Kashmir while authorities have shut down the internet for more than six weeks now. Being unable to speak with their loved ones, people have suffered emotionally and psychologically as a direct result of the continuing siege.
Recently India’s Supreme Court asked the government to restore normality in Kashmir “keeping in mind the national interest and internal security”. On its part, New Delhi continues to insist that the situation is returning to normal.
Sometime during the 50-day information blackout in Kashmir, the state flag was quietly lowered from all government offices and key buildings, symbolising its discontinuance. In a season of unforseens, it appears that everything in Kashmir — from its surreal beauty to songs are out of bounds
Hospitals and clinics, the government maintains, are functioning. The fact remains that the authorities have planned it well: There is, for instance, ample stock of staples and medicines, while landline phone service in many areas of Kashmir have been restored. However there is a slight problem: A vast majority of people do not have access to fixed line phones in the valley.
Some government offices too are open in Kashmir, but almost no one turns up. Parents and students are worried about the loss of class work and suspension of all academic activities. Generally life continues to remain paralysed since New Delhi moved in an unprecedented fashion to alter the constitutional position on Kashmir.
With the harvest season at hand, apple growers in Kashmir have fretted about the export of the valley’s famous apple crop. Kashmir produces more than 20 lakh metric tonne of apple, contributing more than 70 per cent to India’s total apple production.
Apples are the lifeblood of Kashmir’s economy, involving around half the population of the state. Sensing the anxiety, the government has agreed to buy the apple crop from farmers at a fair price this year.
Since August 5, authorities in Kashmir have arrested nearly 4,000 people in what the Reuters news agency dubs as one of the region’s biggest crackdowns. Among those detained includes three former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir — Dr Farooq Abdullah (who is currently a member of India’s parliament), Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, along with a host of state’s top political leadership (both pro-India and pro-independence).
Things came to a boil recently when the government decided to slap the controversial Public Safety Act on the 83-year old Farooq Abdullah. Widely interpreted as a harsh step, it was perhaps a signal from New Delhi that senior leadership is unlikely to be released any time soon.
Loss of identity
Post August 5, the story of loss has pushed countless Kashmiris to discuss existential questions about their very identity. There have been deliberations around the new altered reality and the place of Kashmir in a nation awash with nationalistic sentiment.
Previously under the special status granted to the state by Article 370 of the Constitution of India, Jammu and Kashmir could fly its own state flag in addition to the Indian tricolor.
More than 80 years ago, the creators of Kashmir’s flag conceived it as a symbol of unity that bound the state’s three geographically distinct regions — Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh.
Article 144 of the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir (which now stands revoked) stated that flag of the state shall be rectangular and red (symbolising workers of the state). In the middle, a white plough symbolised the peasants. Next to the staff, three equidistant vertical white stripes represented the three major regions.
A song was also dedicated to the state flag. It went something along the following lines:
Lehra aye Kashmir ke jhanday lehra
Har su lehra har dam lehra
Ta ba qayamat pyham lehra
[Fly, oh flag of Kashmir
Fly everywhere, fly everyday
Fly till the day of judgement]
Sometime during the 50-day information blackout in Kashmir, the state flag was quietly lowered from all government offices and key buildings, symbolising its discontinuance. In a season of unforseens, it appears that everything in Kashmir — from its surreal beauty to songs are out of bounds.
The blockade continues.