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Charred homes, battered lives: Kashmir a year after the abrogation of Article 370

Nawakadal, Srinagar, following the blast
By Dr Syeda Hameed*
It is almost a year since I last visited Kashmir. After the abrogation of Article 370 last August, I visited the state as part of a small fact-finding team. We wanted to open a window to the world to show how Kashmir had changed after August 5, 2019. At that time, we had moved around the city and surrounding areas, dealing with the ubiquitous security forces in the best way we could.
But this visit (in July, 2020) was a completely different experience altogether. Movement through the streets was not at all possible due to the pandemic restrictions. The little I did see was bleak: pot-holed lanes, closed shops, a few random cars and bikes on the streets, men and women slumped and masked, a dismal picture of utter weariness.
There seemed to be a sense of hopelessness even in the very air I breathed. My eyes brim over with tears – this is my beloved birthplace, my gehwara (cradle)! It speaks to me. This is the truth about the Kashmir of today. Through the 25 days of my visit, between long conversations and casual exchanges, even as the Kashmiris extended to me nothing but kindness, warmth and hospitality, I could sense the depth of their despair.
Over the last 30 years, I have never missed an opportunity to visit Kashmir. After each visit, I would return home to Delhi rejuvenated by its healing touch which was like a special benediction. It may be because of the fresh mountain air I breathed, or my visits to its sacred shrines. This time it is a different story. Almost home bound now, I feel like I am taking back a burden to which I can assign no name. Is it despair? Is it dread?
“Adi” in Tamil means ‘protest,’ ‘intervention,’ ‘violence’. The cover of the journal by that name says it all. A dead body is covered with a red kafan (shroud) that is Kashmir’s flag. The body is identified by a toe tag which says Article 370. It is surrounded by clusters of concertina wires in which are stuck torn scraps of paper; each one bears a scribbled word: ‘Livelihood’, ‘Internet’, ‘Education’ ‘Communication’, ‘Medicare’, ‘Movement’, or ‘News’.
Lockdown for Kashmir is the new normal. Fingers snap in Delhi and the Valley disappears bit by bit into oblivion. The first to disappear is the internet, then the news and telephone lines. Next, what rolls in is the inevitable hardware: barricades, concertina wires, boots and more spiked boots. This metal cocktail strikes terror in the hearts of the humble people who walk on the desolate streets of Kashmir.
There were seven fact-finding reports during a period of three months following the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019. Each one had a concluding chapter with recommendations based on eyewitness accounts from ground zero. Not a single recommendation or suggestion has been considered either by the state or the centre. On the contrary, 11 months later, what I saw was a plethora of measures to further strangle the worn-out populace of Kashmir.
Kashmiris have a deep understanding of politics and long memories. Every move of the Centre is keenly observed and followed by the people. For example, the amendment to the Control of Buildings Operation Act 1988 and the J&K Development Act 1990 gives the government open licence to declare any area ‘‘strategic”, meaning “open for occupation”. In practice it means, my home, my orchard, my property can be occupied and the Indian Army can carry out unhindered construction.
These constructions are not temporary sheds but permanent buildings as residential blocks for settling families. And it is absurd to even think of compensation or reparation! To quote Faiz Ahmed Faiz: “Baney hain ahl-e-havas muddayi bhi munsif bhi/ Kisey vakil karein kis se munsafi chahein!” (The ‘lust filled’ have become advocates and judges/ Who will argue your case, who will you ask for justice?) 
Kashmiris talk of a settler colonial project, comparing it with the Zionist movement and the South African apartheid
The day I reached Srinagar, the headlines of an Urdu paper read, ‘‘Encounter in Meva Bagh Shopian: Three Militants Killed’’ Who were they? Who claimed the bodies? Were they local boys who had raised guns? There was talk about mukhbirs (informers) who had become very active in South Kashmir. What happened to the people, the villagers who were caught in the crossfire?
BBC showed a video of a home reduced to rubble in Nawakadal, Srinagar. The women stood outside the ruins of their home; I have no words to describe the despair on their faces. The man looked straight into my eyes through the camera… That night when the boots crashed on his door, stamping around and searching 23 for hidden militants. And when they found nothing, they turned a living home into a massive wreck. The man was a poet of the masses who wept for the charred pieces of his manuscript. [Madhosh Balhami, March 2018]
Various articles written by journalists across the world opened a new window during my housebound stay. One read, ‘‘Kashmir on the Genocide Watch List’’. With over 600,000 troops, 8000 disappearances, 70,000 killings, mostly by security forces, the report declared Kashmir was ripe for genocide. Seven early warning signs of impending massacre and ten stages of the genocidal process were listed which are far advanced in this region.
My mindscape reverted to an earlier clip of New York where the Indian Consul General declared before an audience that the Israeli model of West Bank settlements is the way forward for Kashmir – ‘’If the Israeli people can do it, so can we.” The implications of revoking 35A are universally and all too easily understood by the people of Kashmir.
Kashmiris talk of a settler colonial project, comparing it with the Zionist movement and the South African apartheid. All special guarantees removed in one stroke means loss of property, loss of jobs, loss of livelihoods for the youth of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. “Indian Settlements” which are already in blueprint mean militarised infrastructure -- additional troops, more checkpoints, walls, watch towers. People are fearful of “deradicalization camps” for the Kashmiri youth; they understand the pattern of internment camps for the Uighur in China.
It is Education which has been the biggest casualty in the state. A beautiful school in Pulwama, where I had laid the foundation stone two years ago, is today a quarantine centre. The children are on the verge of collapse. Post August 2019, a small girl had deposed at the 30th Anniversary of UNCRC where I was also present: ‘When I wake up in the morning I have only one thought: is the school open today?’, not ‘what food to carry in my tiffin.’
Limitations of 2G are universal, but in South Kashmir even that is cut off any time there is real or false dhamaka. ‘As a child of J&K, I feel like a bird trapped in a prison waiting to be set free’. Problems of a single phone in one family, interrupted connections and limited data make education the biggest casualty.
“Silence is not an option” is the theme of the journal “Adi”, which became essential reading for my research. But Ather Zia, poet and academic, has given a different reading list – “Essential reading in Kashmir are the epitaphs.” I watched a video of a young Kashmiri poet reciting his verses. I could not find his name – he preferred to remain nameless, and for good reason. With his lines I end my piece:
“Chaman ki har kali kali lahu se laal laal hai
Zehen pe har shab-o-sehr ajeeb sa sawaal hai
Sawaal ye ke saarey khwaab zer-e-khaak so gaye
Sawaal kar rahi hain maaein jin ke laal kho gaye”
(Every bud of the garden with blood is red
In the mind day and night rise strange questions
Questions about dreams that are asleep in earth’s folds
Questions by mothers of beloved sons who went missing.) 
---
*Former member, Planning Commission of India. This article appeared in the e-book “The Siege: A Year Since Abrogation” (August 2020), published by the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) on behalf of Jammu & Kashmir Solidarity Group

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