The sense of siege hit early, in the air, long before seeing the barbed-wire barricades and security forces armed to the teeth blocking the way. Fifteen minutes before the plane touched down at Srinagar, an announcement was made asking the passengers to close the windows. The staff went around making sure all windows are shut—“An order from the DGCA, sir,” one of the flight attendants said upon enquiry, referring to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation. First there was mild disbelief, then there was mocking. A Kashmiri passenger next to me laughed and said, “This is nazarbandi”—house arrest. Others repeated the word as if they were adding it to their vocabulary. Some of them, curious, opened the windows halfway to peep out but closed them in a hurry. It was 7.30 am and I saw a glimpse of the verdant green Valley enveloped in grey monsoon mist. “Probably they don’t want us to see how many (security) forces they have brought into the Valley,” one person said. The passenger was coming home for Eid, which was the next day, on 12 August.
Some tried to laugh about it while others looked anxious. Soon, they had to figure out how to reach their destinations. As the flight landed on the runway, many passengers switched on their cell phones and kept staring at them, probably out of habit, and maybe some hope. The reality struck them soon enough. The Valley has been under strict lockdown since 5 August, with no communication services, when the union government effectively abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution. The green ticker at the tourist department counter next to the baggage belt kept flashing the message: “Welcome to the paradise on earth.”
I went to the office of the divisional commissioner of Kashmir, along with a couple of other Delhi-based journalists, to secure what is called a “curfew pass,” which is helpful for moving across some parts of the city. Technically, it is a “movement pass valid for 144 CRPC restrictions” only, and useless during curfews. The red Kashmiri flag with a plough and three vertical stripes was fluttering next to the Indian tricolour on the divisional commissioner’s office building. The office premises were full of angry people waiting to make calls to their family members outside the Valley. Many who could not make the calls were shouting and venting in Kashmiri and, in a camaraderie triggered by crisis, complained to random strangers who would listen.
It was the turn of serial number 32, during the forenoon, and 420 people were still waiting. The television journalists from Delhi were, however, seen giving a positive twist about the telephone facility easing people’s troubles. A young man confronted Nazir Masoodi of NDTV, accusing him of reporting that there has been normalcy when there is so much repression. Others joined him and surrounded Masoodi and argued with him till other journalists came to diffuse the tension.
The young man, a 25-year-old student named Arif, later told me he was more upset with the Indian media for peddling the narrative of normalcy than not being able to contact his brother. “If India was so adamant at abrogating Article 370, they could have at least taken into confidence the leaders such as Omar and Mehbooba,” Arif said, referring to the former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, both of whom have been arrested. “They are the ones who instilled and fought for the idea of India in the Valley ... Today, it is clear that the idea of Kashmir is completely unsafe with India.”