An open letter to India from Kashmir: still celebrating our plight?

A month and a half after the abrogation of Article 370 and the lockdown, Kashmir is still under siege, writes a beleaguered journalist from Srinagar in this open letter to India

An open letter to India from Kashmir: still celebrating our plight?

Majid Maqbool

Fellow Indians,

While you were celebrating the removal of Article 370 in Delhi and elsewhere, I was trying to dodge roads blocked and barbed wires, struggling to find a grocery shop to buy essential food items, including milk and and baby food so that my child and family could survive. I was not alone. Suddenly cut off and deprived of all means of communication, hundreds and thousands of other people were suffering, trying to come to terms with the lockdown.

Government’s spokespersons continued to speak on our behalf, almost saying that the siege is not a siege; that all is well. In between, they would also advise the people of Kashmir to cooperate – with the siege of course ! It’s just a preventive measure, they would say with a straight face, adding that the lockdown was solely for the welfare of the people. It was like saying that war is peace; that one can enjoy freedom in a cage, some of us said !

Removal of Article 370, we have been told, will “fully integrate” Kashmir and Kashmiris with the Indian Union and that Kashmiris will live happily ever after. But then the ‘integral part’ has been disintegrated, dismembered overnight from the rest of its state, its people locked up under curfew, while exposing and exploiting the regional faultlines, without seeking the consent of its people, and without even informing its constituent parts.

How is that disintegration a cause of your celebration? How can you celebrate the snatching of rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution? How can people make peace with the siege? Why should that make you happy?

Pardon me, but how can you just think of buying your way into the land, grabbing the territory, without caring about its inhabitants? How will that “fully integrate” Kashmir with the Indian State?

Even in these terrible times, I found people smiling at their tragic state and laugh at their own expense. It makes the siege somewhat bearable. Their unique sense of humour – the ability to laugh at their tragic and trapped existential dilemma – helps them survive yet another day of the siege.

“April 2020,” a medical store guy said when I asked him to check the expiry date on few remaining packs of baby food I found at his store after covering a long distance on foot. “Inshaallah, ager zinde aes tele,” he added with a broad smile. (That is, if we are alive till then!). For a brief while, a smile eased every anxious, worried face in the store as if the siege was momentarily forgotten, made irrelevant.

At another small grocery shop that had opened for a brief time one late afternoon in the initial week of the siege, thronged by a bunch of anxious and worried looking people looking for some essentials, one person said he has been frantically looking for a few bananas for his child since the first day of the curfew. He said he managed to get a few bananas on the third day of curfew after walking a long distance on foot to find a lone fruit seller on some roadside. “What kind of a life is this?” he asked.

But people in India, especially those who blindly toe the government's muscular line, will never understand or ask this question: What kind of life is this? Or, will they ?

During the first few days of the curfew, I would leave home early morning and cover long distances on foot in search of essential household items and some additional fuel for my vehicle in case of a medical emergency at home. At the end of a full day of the curfew, we would think about surviving yet another day of siege and curfew. When  you are under siege, there is nothing to look forward to, except the siege. The next day of siege feels the same as the previous day.

BABA, BABA, TEAR GAS’

One afternoon, encouraged by some sporadic movement of two-wheelers on the nearby road, I was returning home after going out for a few hours. I had to take many detours, negotiating some inner lanes and by lanes, avoiding concertina wire blockades and military personnel to find a shop where I could get some essentials for home. After a lot of struggle, I found a small shop, half of its shutter shut. After fetching some groceries, when I was closer to my home, a pungent smell of teargas hung heavy in the air in our neighborhood. The police and CRPF had fired several rounds of teargas shells to disperse some protesting youth on a road close to our home.

The teargas had also entered our home. I found my five-year-old daughter cupping her little hands to cover her mouth, trying to hide in one corner of the room. She was coughing. She advised me to do the same to avoid inhaling the teargas smoke.

The next day, when she again heard the sound of tear gas shells fired on the nearby road to disperse protestors, she rushed to the corner of the room, again covering her mouth and nose with her hands. “Baba, baba,” she shouted in panic, “tear gas.” Next morning, when she woke up, she came up to me, her eyes half open. “Baba, I saw a dream,” she said as she sat in my lap. “The police was firing tear gas… the smoke entered our home…and I ran…”

A few weeks ago, an old man in our neighborhood in Srinagar outskirts was hit by a speeding car while he was crossing a road to offer Friday prayers in a mosque across the road. When he was rushed by some neighbourhood people in a vehicle to the SMHS hospital amid the strict restrictions imposed on Fridays, they were not allowed to pass a barricade manned by government forces closer to the hospital. “I told them we are carrying an almost dead old man who needs to reach hospital sooner for emergency treatment,” a neighbour who was in that vehicle heading to the hospital told me. “But they didn’t listen to our pleas and we have to take another detour which took longer time to reach the hospital.”

DENIED BURIAL IN FAMILY GRAVEYARD

The old man, who had suffered multiple fractures, later succumbed to his injuries in the hospital. The communication gag meant that his family couldn’t even inform all their relatives on phone about his tragic, untimely death. The next day, his funeral was attended mostly by neighbours and some relatives his family somehow managed to inform on time. He couldn’t be buried in his ancestral graveyard in southern Kashmir’s Shopian district.

The physical siege might be temporary, as the government likes us to believe, but it leaves a lasting imprint, creeping up on the lives and memories of our children. The siege has also entered their dreams. The siege is not a temporary phase or a preventive measure; the siege leaves a permanent scar. The end of the siege is not the beginning of normalcy. Normalcy does not return after the siege.

The siege is always present. The siege is meant to strike another blow to the already brutalized people, break their will to resist, and disrupt their idea of a normal life. But the siege also ends up making people more resilient, and determined to outlive the siege. The siege also brings people together, making them more caring and concerned for each other in times of distress. We are not just the victims of the siege. We have also survived, and outlived, previous sieges.

For decades, the military siege has been painted as normal and part of democracy in Kashmir. But the markers of the siege – hundreds and thousands of troops, innumerable bunkers, military camps, outgrowth of concertina wires blocking roads – are everywhere and for everyone to see in Kashmir.

Snatching basic human and political rights of people cannot bring peace and assimilate people into the ‘mainstream’, or win their hearts and minds. It never has; it never will. And if you are fine with such utter disregard for the fundamental rights of people elsewhere – in Kashmir, for example – and don’t even question it, one day they will surely come after you, too. And, by then, there will be no one to speak for you.

(Majid Maqbool is a writer and journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir)

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Published: 20 Sep 2019, 3:45 PM