Waleed Bin Owais
I was driving and heading towards my home located in the suburbs of Srinagar, in the month of July when the sun was at its scorching best. A congestion near Amar Singh College halted the traffic on the service route that led to the flyover connecting the city center to the suburbs. My phone buzzed with an email notification. The email contained the much-anticipated visa that I had been expecting since weeks. Among other things, it mentioned the date by or before which I was supposed to travel. I mentally calculated the dates and reckoned that I had less than a month to spend in Srinagar.
I was someone who had almost given up on an engineering career just so I could stay and work in Kashmir. Circumstances and fate now willed otherwise. I was privy to the fact that I would not be able to visit Kashmir at least for a year or so. I started chalking out plans and itineraries and prioritised a ‘to-do’ list. In such preparations days passed and now the calendar announced August. It would be on the 17th of that month that I would be leaving Kashmir.
On the first day of August rumours began that the Union government was planning to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Some laughed it off and others ignored it. Kashmir has an old relationship with rumours, but the atmosphere was gradually getting charged and panic was ensuing. Additional companies of paramilitary forces were being flown in. The situation, overwrought as it was, suddenly escalated into pandemonium when Amarnath pilgrims and tourists were evacuated on war footing. The very air seemed fraught with danger and chaos. The change of stance of the state government from being tight-lipped to denial did not help much. Social media was abuzz with leaked photos of satellite-phone numbers that were to be distributed among the high-ranking officials after a communication shutdown.
Nevertheless, life continued. People started panic buying and stockpiling petrol, among other commodities. Filling stations witnessed long queues that exacerbated the traffic congestion. The gas tank of my car was at an alarming E, but the queues at almost all the petrol stations were a nightmare. I woke up early in the morning on August 3 and headed straight to a nearby petrol pump. The station was closed, and so were others, but people had already lined up with their cars, two-wheelers, and empty cans. I headed to the University of Kashmir in another vehicle after nearly three hours at the filling station bore no result. There was an unnerving silence yet commotion there. I spent the day unawares of what the future had in store for me and others alike. Little did I know that it would be last time I would be seeing or hearing from friends and colleagues.
The fact that I was leaving the country was constantly confronting me and causing a whirlpool of emotions, but I comforted myself that I had more than two weeks left to bid my friends adieu. The day ended on a bitter-sweet note. The next day, being Sunday, was spent at home. The crisp air of the hot Srinagar afternoon suggested a calm before a storm. Texts and images were circulated on WhatsApp ad nauseam. Meanwhile I was scheduling for Monday, which I intended to spend at the University of Kashmir. I re-fuelled my car to the brim, lest the fuel stations run dry. If nothing, I wanted to spend my last days in the convenience of my car.
Political activity meanwhile became hectic after almost all the political leaders across the spectrum met. The silence of the government was only adding to the confusion. When the dead of the night was approaching on August 4, reports started pouring in about snapping of internet and mobile services. I was attending to a midnight phone call when political leaders started tweeting and informing about them being detained and taken to undisclosed locations. My internet connection and mobile phone was still in service, unlike of many who disappeared from the virtual world while I slept.
I felt a gentle nudge on my arm in the morning. I opened my eyes to the sight of my brother standing in front of me and breaking the news that sent a shiver down my spine. Article 370 had been abrogated, unilaterally. I rushed downstairs to see on TV the union home minister tabling the bill that was three-pronged: Abrogation of 370, downgrading the state into a union territory, and a carving out a separate union territory of Ladakh. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. Seventy years of history had been unwritten in the blink of an eye.
Meanwhile, curfew had been imposed in almost all parts of the erstwhile state. The noise of loudspeakers, emanating from police patrol vehicles, warned of repercussions to anyone defying the curfew. The warnings echoed in the dead silence. It felt as if people had held their breaths.
Landline phones, broadband internet, mobile phones, and cable TV were snapped. Kashmir was rendered incommunicado. Even the radio broadcast was stopped. I was lucky to have a satellite TV so we were all glued to the TV screen. A part of me knew that the state of affairs will continue for a very long time, but a part of me kept hoping for the better. I was battling emotions vacillating between heartache caused by the humiliation that was done to the people of Jammu and Kashmir and the thought of exiting the country while being incommunicado. People who lived at a stone’s throw from each other didn’t dare visit one another, let alone travelling from one part of the city to another. Broadcasts from news channels showed huge barricades, concertina wires at almost all the road junctions amid heavy deployment of armed forces.
I glanced at the phone and it looked back at me with helplessness. Days passed. Respite was nowhere in sight. Agony, distress, and despondency increased manifold in the heart of every soul. People couldn’t reach out to family and friends, which aggravated the anxiety. Tensions soared high, the people of the vale even though used to relentless internet shutdowns, couldn’t deal with being rendered without any means of communication. The clock ticked. Days passed. Hopes of some respite on the festive Eid-ul-Fitr, that was celebrated five days after the abrogation, also met with disappointment. People were barred from even praying at mosques.
There was hopelessness written all over. There were unfinished conversations and unsaid goodbyes hanging in the air. Communication was still snapped and physical movement without a valid curfew pass was fraught with danger. Not that I didn’t try, but only to be reprimanded by the security forces and the local people alike. I wanted to argue, scream, and run away, but there was only so much that could be done. No one had the temperament to reason; emotions were running high all across.
The penultimate day dawned and I mentally said a million prayers as I again set forth on a road to the north of Srinagar. The first makeshift barricade on the road, guarded heavily by paramilitary forces at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Memorial hospital, was the first halt. To the gentle tap of the baton on my windshield I responded by greeting the officer on duty. “Where are you headed?” I looked him in the eye for him to gauge my desperation and helplessness. “Sir, I need to see a relative of mine,” I responded. As I blurted out this response, trying my best not to be overcome by emotions and fighting a million emotional battles inside, the sight of other cars being sent back hit me like a rock. I was neither sent back nor allowed to proceed, for a while. Then, to my utter disbelief, the officer allowed me to set forth on my journey and cautioned me to return soon. With childlike glee, I pressed hard on the gas and drove ahead. I had come a long way to say my final goodbyes, but I was still far from my destination when I saw an electric pole lying across the road, amid huge stones and another concrete barricade across the road a little ahead. The tyres squeaked. I alighted from the car. There was no way anyone could overcome that obstruction. Things were partly easy for two-wheeler riders who somehow maneuvered past the obstruction. All cars were turning back. I just stood there. I felt so near yet so far. As I was figuring out a way to cross the obstruction, a stone missed my car by a whisker. Before I could come to terms with what was happening, a pitched stone-throwing battle between the locals and the paramilitary staff ensued. I drove away as fast as I had ever driven. That was how it culminated. The final nail in the coffin. There were going to be unsaid goodbyes.
The next day I caught an early morning flight and left the country, carrying with me an emotional baggage that wasn’t going to lighten anytime soon, or even to this day as I write this piece.
The psychological trauma of being cut-off from everybody, which was inflicted on the likes of me who had to exit the country in a mere 14 days, is inexpressible. The words and goodbyes that were never said haunt me to this day. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the mere thought of that 14-day period inflicts on me a debilitating anxiety, gloominess, and nightmares. It is something that cannot be put into words. No adjective has the depth that can put across what I felt. I have had to live with that anxiety ever since August 5 and that is something that will be part of me for a very long time. May be forever.
The writer is studying for an MS at Qatar University, Doha