Modi’s War

Dispatches from a seething Kashmir

A Kashmiri protestor at a demonstration against the Indian government, in Soura, on 23 August. The effective abrogation of the Article 370, which guaranteed Kashmir special status, is the biggest political tremor to have hit the region since 1947. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
22 September, 2019

THE NEW FOUR-LANE HIGHWAY connecting Srinagar and Jammu is supposed to have reduced the travel time across the Kashmir Valley. But in the weeks I spent there in August, each time I tried to go to south Kashmir, I was held up in blockades that lasted up to an hour. It was on this highway, in Pulwama, that a suicide bomber attacked a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in February this year, killing over forty personnel. The blast happened where the road slopes upward and traffic slows down—probably to inflict the most damage. In the aftermath of the attack, the government completely banned civilian movement from Udhampur in Jammu to Baramulla in north Kashmir on two days of the week, to facilitate the movement of armed-forces convoys. The highway has since been repaired, but vehicles passing over the spot can still feel a bump.

While I was there, this highway brought in convoys at various times on all days except Friday. When a convoy passes, all other traffic is brought to an immediate halt. Armoured vehicles and security forces block the way, the sense of emergency evident in the shrill sound of their whistles. The traffic piles up—even ambulances are not allowed to move. Most passengers dare not step out, but some become impatient and get out of their cars. They stand about, looking at the convoy and commenting on it, as if chatting about the weather.

One day in late August, I watched as a family with an ailing child drove down the wrong side just to be able to move. The child sat in the lap of the passenger, and the driver held a pink medical report out of the window, waving at the security-forces personnel to let them pass. After getting a go-ahead over wireless radio, the personnel allowed the car to go. The vehicles in the convoy that day were a curious mix: private buses, trucks, minivans and even Taveras. Some took a right turn and went towards the Tral and Pulwama districts; the rest kept moving towards Srinagar. Most of the uniformed personnel sitting inside these vehicles were asleep. Bystanders tried to guess the name of the force by their uniforms.

As word of the never-ending convoys travelled, Kashmir became rife with speculation of either a full-scale crackdown in the Valley—“It has been peaceful, why are they bringing in more forces?”—or a war with Pakistan. One middle-aged man standing in front of me on the road turned back to say something. When he realised that I am not Kashmiri, he said, “Kashmiri ko maarne ke liye itne forces chahiye kya?”—Do you need so many forces to kill Kashmiris? I wondered if the state, with Pulwama on its mind, was as scared as it made the people feel.