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“Kashmir Turned Into an Open-Air Prison”

I was in Kashmir when India launched its brutal crackdown last month. Before I knew it, my beloved home had been turned into an open-air prison.

A Kashmiri man pleads an Indian paramilitary trooper to allow him to cross the barrier during curfew-like restrictions, on September 10, 2019 in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, India. (Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)

I arrived in Kashmir on Thursday, August 1, delighted to be home after eleven months away. I planned on celebrating Eid with family and friends, and going hiking, fishing, and boating. Most of all, I wanted to spend time by the Dal Lake. The scorching heat of Delhi had zapped my energy. Only the wondrous climate, mountains, and lakes of Kashmir could restore me.

But after just two days, everything changed. Kashmir turned into an open-air prison, and its inhabitants became inmates.

Saturday, August 3

There was an intense clamor at the petrol pump today. The cars and motorcycles formed a seemingly endless queue, longer than I’d ever seen in Kashmir. People resorted to pouring petrol in flasks.

“The rumor is that India is going to have a war with Pakistan,” one fellow told me. “It is Dafah 370, Article 370,” another man replied. “They will abrogate the article, and if that turns out to be the reality, we will have another Syria here.”

Over the past few days, rumors have been circulating that the state of Jammu and Kashmir will be trifurcated. The Indian government has sent thousands of troops to this already heavily occupied region. An official order urged all tourists and Hindu pilgrims to vacate Kashmir by August 6. Seasonal laborers, mostly from the Indian parts of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab, cleared out overnight.

A sense of dread and anxiety hangs in the air. Kashmiris are well acquainted with the tactics of the Indian government, and they smell something shoddy cooking up in New Delhi’s cauldron. But they know not exactly what it is.

As I rode my motorcycle home from the petrol station, I saw scenes of panic: long, gnarled lines at the ATMs. People stocking up enough medicine for six months, buying whole cartons as if they were candies and chocolates. People running from here to there, as if devoid of any reason.

When I got home, I began to read Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. On the evening news, the governor, who represents the Indian government in Kashmir (following the constituent assembly’s dissolution in November of last year) insisted in a statement that Kashmir’s autonomous status is not under threat. Kashmir is safe and secure, he said — no need to worry.

His comments have only increased the paranoia among people. If it is not the Article 370 they are set to abrogate, then what was it? Are they going to bomb us?

Sunday, August 5

Shortly before midnight, I got a text from my cousin who lives in Chennai, in southern India.

“Is it true that the phones and internet will be shut down from tomorrow?” he asked.

“Nobody knows anything. Everything is so unpredictable here,” I replied.

Only 350 mobile phones will work starting tomorrow, he said. Arms and ammunition have been confiscated from the J&K (Jammu & Kashmir) Police. Only India’s Central Reserve Police Force will have weapons. I laughed.

“I have to sleep and don’t pay heed to these rumors. Nothing like this is going to happen.”

I prayed to God to protect all of us.

Monday, August 6

In the morning, I woke up in an altogether new world. I wondered why the movement of traffic hadn’t woken me, why the familiar noise of children hadn’t disturbed my sleep. I rubbed my puffy eyes and looked for my mobile. The display flashed before me: No Network.

I threw away my duvet and looked out the window. The road was empty, like a desert. The streets were depopulated, the shops closed. A dead silence prevailed. I turned on the television. Network Error. Contact your cable operator. I looked for the broadband — dead. Same with the internet, the 118th time in the past two years.

A few minutes later, my uncle brought the news. A strict curfew had been imposed in the area, and the Indian Parliament was set to repeal Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. He had heard the news from the old-fashioned transistor radio buzzing at the baker’s shop.

I felt like I had lost a limb.

Wednesday, August 7

One local channel came alive today, bringing the news.

I cannot watch. The Indian politicians deliver speeches about how economic development will come to Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370. But it is all a sham.

There is terror and a sense of dread everywhere. I cannot bring myself to sleep. What if all the Hindu nationalist goons come over and slaughter us? Like the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, when Narendra Modi was chief minister of that state? Now that he’s the prime minister, he could easily turn our bones into ashes and no one would dare speak up. India has become a fascist state, I raged — and Narendra Modi is our Mussolini.

The entire population of Kashmir is locked up in their homes. The essentials, like milk, food, and medicine, have to be brought before six in the morning or late in the evening. At home, everyone looks at each, disconsolate. School children find it difficult to concentrate on their studies. Mummy says it is futile to cook delicacies for Eid.

Monday, August 12

Eid today, and it seems everything is burning. Eid is a festival of sacrifice, recalling the faith Abraham had in God, which made him sacrifice his son for Him. Normally, many families slaughter a ram on Eid, but very few did this year.

Early this morning, intense clashes broke out between young protesters and security forces. They fired thirteen tear gas canisters, enveloping the area. Helicopters and drones survey us all day long. It feels like a war zone.

It was impossible to celebrate Eid. So many restrictions, Ya Allah!

Tuesday, August 13

My father says Modi repealed Article 370 because he failed to create employment and was trying to distract people from the economic downturn India is facing.

During afternoon prayers at the mosque, one of the boys I met said, “The power supply will be cut off beginning tomorrow. They had mercifully kept it intact just because they did not want the people to celebrate Eid in darkness . . . Now sitting back at home is pointless, we have to fight against the oppressors. Bring me the gun and I will show you how to do it.”

Thursday, August 15

It is Indian independence day today. And we are all locked up inside. More police have been stationed outside our home.

Someone said that landline phones would work. But not a single house in our area has a working telephone line. You can’t make a phone call or access the internet on a smartphone in all of Kashmir.

Two weeks have passed since the abrogation of Article 370, and people are wracked by mental trauma. Our neighbor, Fayaz, beats the drum all day and chants freedom songs. I feel like I am in the company of inmates and they are on the verge of breaking down.

Sunday, August 18

Last night, our neighbor Rosy’s son was taken by the police. I could hear her wailings from my room. Later, the police officer told her: “Forget that you have a son for at least a year.”

An old man in the neighborhood died of asphyxiation. The security forces had fired a pepper-gas shell into his room, and the smoke had choked his breath.

In the evenings, when the curfew relaxes, all the men in the area come out on the road to protest. There are discussions about everything under the sun: the war on terror, the Afghan war, the crisis in Yemen, Modi’s Hindutva ambitions. And the history of betrayals Kashmir has suffered from India.

Friday, August 23

I will have to go back to New Delhi.

Everything is lost. Now nothing but residue remains.

Well over a month has passed, and Kashmir is still cut off from the rest of the world.