Fatima Jahan is a Bangladeshi living in Bangalore, India. Travel is one of Fatima’s passions, and one of her favourite places to visit is Kashmir, which she describes as “a paradise on earth”—she’s visited the region seven times.
This year, after she had made travel arrangements for Kashmir, the political situation there changed dramatically when, on August 5, the government of India revoked Article 370, the section of the Indian constitution that has provided special autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir since 1950. The Indian authorities placed hundreds of political leaders and their aides under house arrest, and suspended access to mobile, landline, and internet networks.
Fatima’s flight was scheduled for the third week of August. By that time, the authorities had begun to ease some the restrictions and slowly lift the curfews, though there were still some controls in place. Fatima decided, nevertheless, to undertake the journey to the region, where staying for a few days before returning to Bangalore. She shared some of her experiences in a series of posts on Facebook that we have excerpted below.
Here are some selected parts of her first two days of experience.
August 20, 2019: Arrival
This is my seventh visit to Kashmir.
. . . I get off the plane and notice an ominous silence outside. None of the airport stores is open. I do not look the officers in the eye, for fear they might take it as an offence and send me back!
As soon as I retrieve my luggage from the conveyor belt I leave the airport. Turns out that I was the only tourist on the entire flight.
August 20, 2019: Kashmir in the time of curfew
Exiting Srinagar airport, I take a taxi from the prepaid taxi stand. As we drive slowly into the city I witness the same ominous silence. It is 7:30am and the outside temperature is 13° C. The authorities lifted the curfew day before yesterday, but no shops are open. Some locals have come out to shop. They are walking; few people have come in their cars. There are even two or three women going to the market. The taxi driver, Ejaz Bhai, tells me he will go straight home after dropping me. One passenger is enough for the day in this situation.
According to Ejaj Bhai, no one leaves the house unless it is absolutely necessary, fearing the army might arrest them on any pretext. Most shops are still closed, so people are using up their stocks of food. Who knows what will happen tomorrow?!
Ejaz Bhai also told me that police have closed all the hotels here. On the 5th of August, they marked in hotel guest registers that no further guests will be allowed in.
There are a lot of armed security personnel on the roads. Approximately every three meters an army officer is standing guard.
I am going to Hussain Uncle’s houseboat. (I have known him for a few years). Ejaz Bhai drops me at Dal Lake Gate No. 7 and I take a shikara to the houseboat, which is also Hussain Uncle’s home.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has been in effect since 1990. The army has all the power. The law allows the army to pick up anyone, civilian or militant, and they don’t have to be accountable if people turn up dead or disappear.
. . . There are mass graves of thousands in the districts of Uri and Baramulla. It’s alleged that suspected militants were picked up and they ended up in those graves. This is the story in a lot of villages in the Kashmir Valley.
After the 5th of August many youths have reportedly been arrested, and no one knows where they are.
Even though [the government] have lifted the curfew, the people here imposed their own, civil curfew. No one is opening their shops; no one anywhere is working. This is all in protest at the decision taken to revoke Article 370.
The PSA [Public Safety Act] has been in force since 1978. This banned any kind of gathering or procession in Kashmir. However, people do come out for protests, and mass arrests take place.
This time, it’s worse. Telephone, internet lines are down and there is no contact with the outside world.
Before the curfew, the army had seized power from the police and took away their weapons. I did not see any police on my way into the city from the airport.
[The authorities] have arrested many political leaders and sent them to jail in Delhi and Agra. Rumour has it that the jails in Kashmir and Jammu are already full.
Even without the curfew in effect, no one is taking their car out. Because gasoline is not available. The buses are not running either.
In the afternoon, I ask Hussain Uncle to take me to the lakeside to see the situation in the city. He suggests that I go tomorrow instead: “Today there is trouble in the city.”
August 21, 2019: Day two
My second day in Kashmir.
I, personally, am in no hurry. Because of the situation, I have no plans to go anywhere. Hussain Uncle lives in one of his two houseboats and keeps the other for tourists, so I am now alone on a huge houseboat. All tours are now closed in Kashmir. . .
I talk with his son, Shehzad, during breakfast. Yesterday, a protest rally took place at Shalimar Gardens. Nobody knows what happened after that. There is no way to know how many were arrested, injured, or killed. There is still no telephone, internet.
Once, in 2008, the government allowed people to protest. People from all over the city came out into the streets of Kashmir, which was very hard to control. The government became smarter, and protests rallies are no longer allowed.
The common people of Kashmir want azadi (freedom). They have wanted it since the reign of King Hari Singh, before India became independent. I am not going to debate what the mass of Indian citizens want. . . . What Kashmiris want should be the main concern, because they are from this place.
They have started to ration food distribution again. Uncle’s youngest son, Junaid, went to the centre of the town and learnt that from tomorrow they will start the distribution of rations. They are providing only rice now. Earlier they used to distribute flour and sugar as well.
I spend the rest of the day sitting on the porch of the houseboat. Life on the Dal lake seems to be normal. People are going to their usual work or other places on small boats. During the curfew, the women here have nothing to do, especially as mobile phone and internet service have also been shut down. Except for TV, there is no option for entertainment.
In the afternoon I go out, and Uncle sends his son Junaid with me. From the boat, I step on to land and walk along the lakeside. I see some army men patrolling the Boulevard Road. After that, every 10 meters there is an army officer standing. Barbed-wire fences have been placed in front of almost all public buildings. Today I saw several cars and motorbikes on the street. I saw some local people strolling on Boulevard Road. Usually, many people from Srinagar flock here in the afternoon. . . .
Public transport is still shut down. A few shared taxis are waiting at the bus stand to take people to Jammu. All roads except those towards Jammu are closed.
Photography is prohibited on the street and there is an even stricter ban against photographing army personnel. Only a few journalists have permission to take pictures. I am a visitor and if they find out that I came here despite knowing about the curfew, I suspect they will send me back immediately. They could even book me on suspicion of extremism—and we know that after an arrest, there is usually no further news of the detainee.
After spending a substantial time in the city, I return to the houseboat. Hussain Uncle tells me that there was trouble in downtown. He heard the sound of teargas shells.
After the Maghreb prayers came the loud sound of prayers from the mosque. There is nothing else to do besides pray. On hearing that any words, positive or negative, are uttered in the mosque besides prayers, the army comes to arrest people. Ther are army spies inside the mosque listening to hear what’s going on.
All the big mosques were closed after the announcement of curfew.
Originally published on https://globalvoices.org