Being ‘normal’ in #Kashmir: Walking 18 km to see if one’s parents are safe

Sumaiya Yousuf went from Delhi to Srinagar during the clampdown in Kashmir. This is her journey through a state under lockdown.

BySumaiya Yousuf
Being ‘normal’ in #Kashmir: Walking 18 km to see if one’s parents are safe
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August 2 was the last day I spoke to my mother over the phone. It was a hurried conversation as I had a hectic schedule for my day ahead in New Delhi. News stories had begun emerging of curtailing the Amarnath Yatra and my mother, living in Sopore in Kashmir, warned me to stay safe, realising the situation on the ground had started to boil. However, she had no idea that she would not get to talk to her children for days or even weeks to come.

Being a Kashmiri mother, she was less worried for herself but more so for her children staying outside the state. It wasn’t just her: relatives, friends and colleagues in Kashmir made frantic calls to me, inquiring about what was going to happen in Kashmir. They all had the same fear: that the Centre would do something bad. I tried to calm them but deep down, I knew the government had something up its sleeve. 

It was three days after my phone call with my mother that Home Minister Amit Shah singularly decided the fate of millions of Kashmiri people by repealing Article 370 and Article 35-A. To me, this was done with the utmost dishonesty and deceit towards the people of the state. Kashmir’s ties with the rest of the globe were suspended. Nothing was functional. Mobile phones, fixed lines, data Internet, broadband and landline connectivity—everything was shut.

The day the announcement was made, my heart ached. On this day of grave injustice, citizens were deciding which chunk of land they would buy in Kashmir. People in New Delhi were celebrating, bursting crackers, exchanging hugs and kisses. Public figures made jokes about being able to marry Kashmiri women—remarks that are insulting and hurtful to Kashmiris themselves but also highly racist and shameful for women as a whole, as if gori ladkiya exist in Kashmir alone.   

All this while I and thousands like me were dying to see our families.  

***

As communications lines snapped in Jammu & Kashmir on the intervening night of August 4-5, I lost touch with my parents. I was worried about my father who is diabetic and depends on insulin to keep his life going. My mother’s heart uses a double-chambered pacemaker to beat normally.

Between August 5 and 10, I tried calling local police stations as I was told the government had established helpline numbers. I called day and night but to no avail. SOS Kashmir groups on Whatsapp were flooded with messages from Kashmiris across states and countries. I waited and hoped the uncertainty would end. 

Maybe I was naive. Or maybe I was just wrong. But on August 10, I gave up on waiting and I gave up on hope.

So, as a Kashmiri woman living and working in New Delhi, I took the risky decision to fly to Kashmir, to Srinagar. I packed my bag in a hurry. I was clueless about what I would do, but I would go to Srinagar only to witness how hollow the government’s claims about “normalcy” in Kashmir were.   

As the plane landed at Srinagar airport, the cabin crew made the routine announcement that passengers could now use their mobile phones. The announcer knew very well that her announcement made no sense at all. She knew she was telegraphing lies. We knew it too. But she went through her routine and many of us broke into tears. It was a sense of collective helplessness.

After landing at the airport, the gravity of the situation hit me further. No cab driver was willing to take me to north Kashmir’s town of Sopore where my family lives. I approached the cab service counter, assuming that what we were told in New Delhi about Kashmir’s “normalcy” could turn out to be true. I and my cousin sister tried to convince the cab drivers by agreeing to pay double the normal fare, but there were no takers. Many fellow Kashmiris were also eagerly looking for cabs while there were none. I met Kashmiris at the airport who had also come all the way to ascertain the well-being of their parents, friends and relatives.

It was one of those “so near, yet so far” moments—I wasn’t at home in my homeland. 

Knowing my father would need insulin, I’d brought some from New Delhi, along with medicines for my mother. My parents are in Sopore, 55 km from Srinagar. With no cab driver agreeing to take us home, my cousin and I decided to walk. 

***

We walked the deserted roads of Srinagar. At various points, we were asked to produce identity cards. Gun-wielding uniformed men were on the Srinagar-Baramulla highway. 

We covered 18 km on foot and reached the house of an acquaintance near Shalteng. 

Reaching Sopore seemed an impossible idea by then as walking further was not going to help. But I refused to give up. One of the family members at the acquaintance’s home dropped me near Singpore and locals were kind enough to provide me with lifts up to Sangrama. Finally, I reached my sister’s home where my niece lent me her Scooty.  

My cousin had to go to Bandipora and managed to get a lift until Sumbal, a town in Bandipora district. We parted ways near Shalteng.

It was Day 5 of the clampdown in Kashmir. Having experienced countless human rights violations on us as the “other”, I knew there would be no means available to my parents to buy their medicines. They didn’t even have time to stock up on groceries, medicines and essentials—they were told it was a “rumour”.  

Pattan was tense. There were stones and broken pieces of bricks scattered all over the road. I could smell canisters. In air-conditioned studios in Delhi, the media was claiming Kashmir was normal. But this was Kashmir’s normalcy. I navigated through countless barbed coils, concertina wires and barricades. 

Finally, I reached home.

***

When I entered, my father was shocked and thrilled at the same time. He hugged me. Both of us cried. 

“We were looking at the door every day and expecting that you would come to see us on Eid, but you shouldn’t have risked your life, my beloved. Why did you come?” my father asked. 

“I thought I would never be able to see you again,” I responded. 

It was the eve of Eid-al-Adha, which otherwise witnesses glittering markets, crowded shops of bakers, hustle and bustle everywhere. This year it was silent. The charm of Eid was lost in the din of falsehoods spread by TV anchors.

TV anchors were shouting, “Ghati mai satar saal baad manayi gayi Eid. For the first time in 70 years, Kashmiris are celebrating Eid.” A cruel joke, since this is the first time we weren’t celebrating Eid in Kashmir. I couldn’t meet my relatives and sisters who live in surrounding areas as I was told there was curfew. I couldn’t wish my loved ones. I couldn’t see my nephews and nieces wearing colourful clothes and roaming on the streets, playing with each other. There was no Eid at all.

***

I had left Delhi with a bunch of messages from fellow Kashmiris, received either on Facebook or the SOS Whatsapp groups. I’d promised to deliver their messages. So the day after Eid, I set off.

I managed to go to Chinkipora area of Sopore first. I desperately searched for the house I was headed towards but there was no one to help since strict curfew was enforced. I finally knocked on one of the doors.

A voice came from inside. “Who is it?”

I said, “Aunty, can you please open the door? I want some help.”

She said, “Oh, I thought it was the police. Sorry dear, we have to keep the doors closed. I hope you will understand. Tell me what it is.” 

Can you help me with this address, I asked. And so the door opened, this frail and exhausted-looking woman in her 50s gave me directions, kissed my forehead, and said, “May God protect you. You better go home.”

I reached the house I was looking for, 300 metres away with a green gate. When a woman opened the door, I said, “I am here to give you this letter that your son has sent. I hope this brings some relief to you.” I can’t put into words how delighted she was. Her tears gave me goosebumps.

From there, I visited a few more families delivering messages from loved ones. I had one last task: to telephone my best friend who hadn’t been able to make it to Kashmir. I’d promised to call and tell her about the well-being of her mother and brother.

I headed towards Sopore’s Town Hall, which houses several government installations including the official residence of the Superintendent of Police. Seven men in uniform stood at the residence’s entrance with two police personnel in civil clothes who weren’t carrying arms. 

As humbly as possible, I said, “Hello, sir, I want to go to the SP’s office to make a call.”

One of the personnel said, “No one is allowed to go there as curfew is in place. Go home or come when curfew is lifted.”

I couldn’t speak a word due to fear. I left and went back to my parents’ house.

***

On August 14, my cousin and aunt dropped me at the airport. We left Sopore at about 3.30 am and reached the airport one hour later. I bid them goodbye and till date, I have no idea of their well-being. 

All I want to convey to my friends and colleagues in India is this: Imagine being caged inside your houses without access to food, medicine, essentials, and most importantly, all channels of communication. Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.

Many good journalists from print media in India that I know of are not able to write what they have seen in Kashmir, for fear of being labelled “traitors” or suffer the backlash. I pity them for not being able to stand up for the truth. Even the saner voices have disappointed me and my fellow Kashmiris—they surrendered as we were unconstitutionally and stealthily stripped. They watched as spectators.   

Am I allowed to ask what the government means when it says “everything is normal and peaceful” in Kashmir? Is the siege normal? Is the act of snapping all communication channels for eight million Kashmiris normal? Is not allowing Kashmiris to speak their heart and mind normal? Is enforcing desolation and calling it peace without the will of the people a normal act? 

The collective punishment meted out to Kashmiris has its roots in the BJP’s ideological and civilisational view on Kashmir and Kashmiris. Are we allowed to ask why? Eight million Kashmiris have a question: why were w  e betrayed by the world’s “largest democratic nation”? Why were we denied basic rights to free movement and free speech and to celebrate Eid? If everything was normal, why was the Amarnath Yatra called off and tourists asked to return home? This so-called “peace” is maintained in Kashmir at gunpoint. What Delhi calls peace, Kashmir calls desolation.

In Kashmir, our love for the families and parents is unparalleled. Most Kashmiris seldom sip a drop of water until they speak to their parents and are assured of their well-being. The pain that the present colossal humanitarian crisis has inflicted on all of us is inexplicable. 

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