“Salaam Walekum, Mehvish,” said a voice on the other end of a call from an unknown number.
It took Mehvish Baba a few seconds to recognise that it belonged to her “mamu”
(mother’s brother). The rest of the conversation went like this:
“Are you fine?”
“We are fine. Do you need something?”
“Is naani okay?”
“He said, my naani (grandmother) was fine and then the call dropped,” said the 27-year-old Kashmiri living in Gurgaon.
This 15-second conversation on Saturday morning was the first time in six days that Baba spoke with a family member in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), where the Indian government has severed mobile services and the internet in order to suppress any backlash against its decision to bifurcate the northern state, revoke its special status, and demote it to a Union Territory.
There was no time for Baba to bring up Eid ul Adha, one of the biggest festivals in Islam, which will be celebrated in Kashmir on Monday.
In fact, Baba, a program manager in the life insurance sector, has “no clue” how her uncle had managed to call her.
Did he call from one of the satellite phones given to high-ranking police personnel before the communication blackout, she wondered. Or did he stand for hours to use one of the two helpline numbers set up in the Development Commissioner’s (DC) office in Srinagar on Thursday.
How long was queue that her uncle might have stood in, she wondered. Were her parents standing next to her uncle and listening?
Baba, who was supposed to fly out to Srinagar to celebrate Eid with her family, felt that she had no choice but to cancel her plan.
“I live 25 kilometers away from the airport. I have no clue how I will even reach home in the middle of curfew,” she said. “This is the first time that I won’t return home for Eid, but the saddest part is that I won’t even be able to speak to my family and wish them on that day.”
Kashmiris are used to curfews and curbs on the internet and mobile services — even on festivals — but the lockdown since 5 August has been unprecedented. In addition to internet and mobile services being severed, landlines and cable TV have also been suspended. Kashmiri media outlets have not been able to update their websites for a week. Over a 100 people, including politicians and activists, have been arrested.
The curfew — compounded by the communication blackout — has forced many Kashmiris living outside J&K to cancel their plans to go home for Eid.
Those who have had no communication with their family for seven days might even consider Baba lucky for being able to speak with a family member for 15 seconds.
Sameer Gojwari, a 32-year-old Kashmiri living in Mumbai, is worried sick about his parents and grandparents.
On Saturday, Gojwari, who works in a bank, said, “In a democratic country in 2019, I have not spoken to my family in seven days. Parents have to wait for hours to make a one minute call to their children. This is humiliating. This is unimaginable.”
“This is humiliating. This is unimaginable.”
Even as the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government insists that people in J&K have welcomed the abrogation of its special status , a video of a violent protest in Soura, a locality on Srinagar, tweeted by the BBC on Saturday, suggests otherwise.
It took the district administration four days — after blocking all internet and mobile services — to set up two helpline numbers in Srinagar for Kashmiris to reach friends and family members living in the mainland and overseas.
In 2018, J&K had almost 14 million telecom subscribers, and 1.92 million internet subscriptions, according to the Indian government’s 2018 telecom statistics.
While the Modi government says the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status will grow business and boost investment in the conflict-ridden region, telecom operators are losing an estimated Rs 4 to 5 crore a day in the wake of the shutdown. Local businesses, which have been shuttered for almost a week now, one Kashmiri businessman said, are “bleeding.”
At this point, multiple petitions against the communication blackout have been filed in the Supreme Court.
Initially, two helpline numbers were set up in Srinagar, a city of 1.2 million people, but four more landlines were added, Shahid Chaudhary, the District Magistrate (DM) and Development Commissioner (DC) of Srinagar, told HuffPost India on Friday.
There are reports of people queuing up for hours to make phone calls that last barely a minute. These are people who manage to reach the DC’s office in the middle of the curfew. There are others who either live too far or can’t make it beyond a certain number of security checkpoints.
Total calls till 7:00 pm on Sunday, Chaudhary told HuffPost India, were 5,916. He did not clarify how many of these were incoming and how may were outgoing.
It is important to note that these helpline numbers are for residents of Srinagar city. The situation in the rest of Kashmir Valley, comprising ten districts, is unclear.
Chaudhary has announced that government is “shortly’ setting up more than 350 helplines in Kashmir.
On Sunday, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) also tweeted out a helpline number for people to call for any “assistance or updates.”
Political activist Shehla Rashid, who spoke to her mother on August 10 for the first time since the shutdown, said a “fair share” of people had received calls from their parents.
Regarding the conversation that she had with her mother, Rashid said, “I asked her whether she was alright, and she said yes, but I can’t be sure. Parents are speaking from the DC office. They are not allowed to say much. I’m not sure if she was speaking her mind. It is a very censored environment.”
Speaking to her mother after a week of heightened stress and worry, Rashid said was “bitter sweet.”
“I feel content, more at ease, but it also makes me sad that I cannot speak with her the way that I want to. At the end of the day, I just needed to hear her voice. We all do,” she said.
On Sunday, Rashid said that she had dispatched a handwritten letter to her mother through a friend who is traveling to Srinagar.
“I’m not sure if she was speaking her mind. It is a very censored environment.”
If the Modi government had to sever internet and mobile phone services in order to bifurcate J&K and revoke its special status, making alternate arrangements well in advance of the communication blackout is the least that the local administration could have done.
The fact that the two helpline numbers in Srinagar were set up four days after the communication blackout suggests that this in part a face saving exercise amidst growing criticism in the international media.
Some Kashmiris claimed to have tried the helpline numbers “hundreds” of times only to find the phone lines busy or unreachable.
Gojwari had tried calling the helpline numbers to not only get a message through to his family in Srinagar, but also for two Kashmiri siblings from Sopore, who were trying to reach their father after their mother, a cancer patient admitted in a hospital in Mumbai, took a turn for the worse.
Gojwari said that he knew of at least four cancer patients in Mumbai, who were trying to reach their families in districts other than Srinagar — Rajouri, Anantnag, Sopore and Samba (Jammu).
The families of the cancer patients, Gojwari said, need to be in touch with their relatives to call for things like money or a blood donor.
As of Saturday, Gojwari said, the siblings had not reached their father in Sopore.
That the long-suffering cancer patients cannot speak with their families on Eid, he said, was heartbreaking. “You have cut communication. This is inhuman.”
“You have cut communication. This is inhuman.”
For the first time in the eight years since he left Kashmir, Gojwari will not return home to celebrate Eid with his family.
“This is distasteful. If they had to disrupt our lives, why not wait till after Eid. We all have such busy lives. This is the one time in the year that I can connect with my family, connect with my people. It’s emotional,” he said.
For Gojwari, leaving his wife and three-year-old son in Mumbai on their own is not an option. But he is equally scared of taking them to Kashmir, where they the might end up navigating a curfew to reach his house in downtown Srinagar, which tends to be a hotbed of protests, stone-pelting and retaliatory fire from the security personnel.
Seared into Gojwari’s mind is that one day in 2016, when he got stuck in a curfew with his wife and son, then five-months old.
“I stopped at every barricade and begged my own people to let us go. I said, ‘I am a family man. I have my wife and son with me.’ It was humiliating,” he said. “This kind of thing leaves a deep impact on a person.”
As he talked about taking the 6:30 am flight to reach Srinagar in time to have tea with his family on Eid, every year, Gojwari sounded overwhelmed by the realisation that he won’t even be able to speak with them — even to explain his absence to his grandparents.
“My grandparents are 80 years old. They look forward to my coming, every year. You know how grandparents are, They say, ’You must come. Who knows if we will be around next year.′ My grandmother counts the days until I return,” he said.