The day the Indian government abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution in Jammu and Kashmir, in a move some legal experts have called unconstitutional, an immediate curfew set in. I had an unbearable anxiety attack. It was deja vu. The worst memories of my life till now would become daily life for millions of Kashmiris.
In 2016, I had a brilliant idea for a book and thought if I needed to do it properly, I should be in Kashmir, where the book was based. Barely one month after my arrival, the incredibly popular militant leader Burhan Wani was killed by Indian forces and what followed was almost five months under curfew. It was already clear that the violence following this would be unprecedented, and that there would be immediate internet cuts — at the least. The government shuts down the internet in Kashmir for much smaller issues. The intensity of what really would follow was something I really did not and could not anticipate.
I had to make a choice: did I want to stay or should I move back to Delhi? As a journalist, and according to my weird “slow journalism” philosophy, it was important to stay back and experience what the people of Kashmir were experiencing. Also, it seemed highly inappropriate to leave as soon as the bad times come – that’s what I had been taught since childhood. What I went through in those five months is what Kashmiris are going through once again, and the feeling is very unsettling.
First the boredom hits. Internet, phone lines, and mobile connections were cut, and one is not to roam around the city during curfew; you stay inside. Then the madness started. The postpaid mobile phones were restored about a week later, after the first round of disconnections. I talked to everyone I knew, it felt like. I just wanted to talk. I was stuck in my apartment, new in the city with no friends, with no phone or internet. I could do nothing except stare at the Shankracharya Mandir, a temple on the mountain right in front of my room’s large glass window.
I had transported about seven or eight books with me while leaving for Srinagar, which I started reading. They were all done in eight days, unfortunately, because you read like a maniac who has nothing else to do – quite literally. Now you again stare again at the Mandir or the ceiling of your room. Sometimes I would stare at the clear night sky through my huge glass window. One of my favorite pastimes was to see various constellations moving every month – or minute changes in the sky on a day-to-day basis.
Whenever postpaid phone services were restored, I would talk to my friends and parents for hours and hours on end because I didn’t know when I would be able to talk to them again. There was only one family I used to know and meet in Srinagar, who lived in Rawalpora – a fair distance from Rajbagh where I lived. To take a break from extreme loneliness, sometimes I would go visit them, which could happen only at 6 a.m. Six to eight in the morning and evening were dheel (break) periods during curfew. One could go out and buy essential home supplies. If I had to return from their house to mine, my friend’s father would inform an autorickshaw driver a day before to come at 6 a.m. to pick me up.
The stress and loneliness kept getting worse. It started affecting the brain. One day I woke up and felt my head spinning. I thought it would settle in a moment but it didn’t. I laid down again and tried getting up from the other side – it did not help. I knew I needed medical attention. My head was spinning like a top and I couldn’t even sit, forget about standing. Somehow I managed to reach my landlady one story below and she and her husband rushed me to the nearest private hospital. My blood pressure had dipped unbelievably low without any apparent reason.
After that, for the next three days, I was convinced that I had a brain tumor and that I was going to die. Under these circumstances, the mind starts playing games with you. Thinking what would happen to my parents in such a case, I cried for three days straight. In retrospect, however, I laugh when I tell people this, but it was difficult to breathe for those three days. Somehow, I just snapped out of it.
Then there were noises – some of which I am still slightly paranoid of. One of the Indian Army’s biggest cantonments in Badami Bagh is very close to Rajbagh (where I lived) – just across the Jhelum River. From my huge window, I could see helicopters moving and one would guess that part of the town was in trouble. I would silently say a prayer for the people at that end, although I am a non-believer. Even today I can’t disassociate helicopter noise from danger.
One evening, just after the evening prayer at the closest mosque, there was suddenly a huge ruckus. Men were shouting: hum kya chahte? (what do we want?). Others would respond: Azadi (independence). My heart started pounding and my body started shaking, fearing that sounds of firing would follow. Thankfully, it settled down in a bit. Once, slightly late at night, I could hear shots being fired from across the river. Pellet guns were being used and then there were sounds of tear gas shells being fired. I consider myself brave enough — I can be still and patient during trouble usually — but that day my whole body started shaking. I am still not very comfortable with sounds of firecrackers.
After 100 days of violence, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a civil society group, sent a fact finding team to Srinagar and I luckily bumped into them. I accompanied them to south Kashmir, where the things were really bad. I remember this grown man talking to me and suddenly bursting into tears about how the media reports about Kashmir. The most horrifying story I read at the time was in Al Jazeera. One of the eye doctors working at Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) was told that his three-month-old daughter was in agony after Central Reserved Police Force (CRPF) personnel shot pepper bombs at boys in their locality. I could not stop saying sorry when I actually met the doctor and sharing how traumatized I was after reading his interview. He said: “I feel very angry and guilty that I brought her in this world. We don’t even know yet the long term effects of inhaling this.”
I also visited SKIMS’s eye ward. It was difficult to come out feeling normal at all after meeting the victims with eye injuries from pellet guns. Most of them were looking at a future where they would never see again. One 13-year-old boy lost one of his eyes from a tear gas shell while he was out playing cricket with his friends. Once you lose one eye, doctors say, it is difficult to save the other one because of something called the Sympathetic Eye Syndrome.
I have already written about my experience of being on the street as a single Kashmiri woman and being sexually harassed by CRPF jawans. Every story breaks your heart and you think you have heard enough and then something more disgusting pops up. Last September, I was in Srinagar for a wedding and met a government dentist who was working in Soura. One day after office hours, she wanted to go relieve herself but the van was about to leave so she resisted the pressure and left for home. Living in downtown (old Srinagar, where the intensity of violence was much more), as soon as she got down from the van, she found CRPF jawans shooting pepper bombs at some boys; she sneezed so hard that she wet herself on the street in front of mocking jawans and horrified neighbors. It’s difficult to say when enough is enough.