Just Let Me Speak to My Family

Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard at a roadblock at Maisuma locality in Srinagar on August 4, 2019. Fears of an impending curfew in the disputed region of Kashmir ratcheted up tensions, as nuclear rivals India and Pakistan traded accusations of military clashes at the de facto border.

Source TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

For many Kashmiris, democracy in the “world’s largest democracy” just died.  

When I texted my brother just past midnight on Sunday, I implored him not to go to work in the morning. It wasn’t safe. I had just found out via Twitter that Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, had been placed under house arrest. Later, Mehbooba Mufti, another former state chief minister, was also detained. This was unprecedented. India had sent some 35,000 additional troops to the valley, already one of the world’s most militarized zones. Tourists, pilgrims and non-local students had been asked to urgently leave Kashmir. 

That’s the last I’ve heard from my brother.

Farhan and I are very close. We are each other’s best friends. When I was a newbie reporter in Delhi and was broke almost every month, he loaned me money. And I truly believe it was the delicious smoothies he made me every day one summer that helped heal me of a broken heart. Farhan keeps my secrets; I keep his. I remember we cried together sometimes when life got tough. And we laugh insanely loudly when we get together.

“I hope Farhan stays safe. I hope he skips work tomorrow,” I thought to myself while texting him. 

They make a desolation and call it peace.

Agha Shahid Ali, Kashmiri American poet

Just 11 hours later, my homeland changed forever. Jammu and Kashmir, then a princely state, had joined the Indian Union in 1947 under a specific set of conditions outlined in an Instrument of Accession. Those included a separate constitution and flag that gave Kashmir a sense of “autonomy” guaranteed under Article 370 of the Constitution of India. On Monday morning, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi unilaterally abrogated Article 370, effectively violating the very conditions under which Kashmir agreed to join India. We weren’t even a state anymore, carved instead into two federally governed union territories. All without even the pretense of consultations with Kashmiris.

But for me — as for tens of thousands of Kashmiris away from home, living across India and the world — there were more immediate concerns: How do we get in touch with our families to make sure they’re safe? The Indian government had enforced a telecommunications blackout over Kashmir. It’s not just Farhan; I haven’t heard from anyone in my family. Texts to my father and mother aren’t going through either, and my fellow Kashmiri friends are as anxious as I am. I see those worries playing out on Twitter too.

Having grown up amid an armed insurgency and a constant security crackdown in Kashmir, I know that staying indoors is the only way to ensure you don’t get hit by a stray bullet or shards from a grenade. I remember a neighbor who was shot as he turned the corner on the street we lived on in downtown Srinagar one day. I saw his bloodied body on a cot. I was probably 6 or 7. My 17-year-old friend died from splinter injuries in a grenade attack as she was walking home from her class, an incident that has scarred me for life. 

 

Mobile phone and internet blackouts in Kashmir are standard, whenever the Indian government senses protests. In 2019 alone, internet in Kashmir — which the U.N. has declared a basic human right — was suspended at least 51 times, according to the Internet Shutdown tracker. There were 65 shutdowns last year and 176 over the past eights years, including a six-month ban in 2016. But this time, the landlines and cable networks also were shut down.

Even before the blackout, my brother — whose office is in the central, sensitive Srinagar commercial neighborhood of Lal Chowk — had warned me that something different appeared to be unfolding this time. “Panic, panic,” he responded when we chatted on Sunday. There had been murmurs in the days leading up to Sunday night that the Modi government was up to something. Could it actually be about Article 370, a law that the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Modi had long wanted to end? Was it in anticipation of a terrorist attack? Were India and Pakistan going to war? But none of us could be sure. At 12:38 am, I sent my brother a screenshot of news I read that a curfew had been imposed in Kashmir. “Please stay safe,” I texted. 

Whenever there’s tension in the valley, Kashmiris stock up on fuel, food, grocery, medicines and other essentials. In that, things seemed no different this time. My family had stocked up too. But I could feel that this time was different. A veteran pro-Modi actor, Anupam Kher tweeted in the midst of all this: “Kashmir solution has begun.” Was he alluding to the Nazis’ “Final Solution” policy? It was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep that night. I heard stories from my Kashmiris living away from home of anxiety attacks. 

As Modi’s right-hand man and India’s Interior Minister Amit Shah announced on Monday morning, around 11 am, that Kashmir was being changed forever, I watched on television in disbelief. Analysts have claimed that this move by the Indian government is an attempt by the country’s right wing to change the demographics of Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state in the country — just as China has attempted in Tibet. 

Because of the blackout in Kashmir, there were no voices from my homeland on television or Twitter. The conversation on all platforms was celebratory — because the opposing view had been consciously blocked from the rest of India. I kept texting and calling fellow Kashmiris living away from home to get any updates. They were as worried as I was. We didn’t know what was happening in Kashmir or whether our families were safe. I cried. I was helpless. 

Back in my apartment, I thought of Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri American poet who helped me make sense of Kashmir when I was a young girl, and what he had said. “They make a desolation and call it peace.” I looked at the TV screen, but I wasn’t listening anymore. All I could see in my mind’s eye was the Jhelum River flowing silently by Srinagar, bearing witness to cruelty once again. 

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