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Kashmir: Not reachable!

By Athar Parvaiz
July 21, 2016 15:45 IST
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The suspension of mobile communication for 12 days in Kashmir amid strict curfew has put citizens in a desperate situation, says Athar Parvaiz.

When you receive a telephone call out of the blue from overseas and hear an anxious fellow Kashmiri thanking you profusely only because your number (in Kashmir) turns out to be reachable and because you seek to assuage his anxiety by conjecturing that his family would be safe amid a fresh upheaval in the valley, it only reaffirms your conviction that you belong to a godforsaken land, where people are selectively pushed into oblivion whenever the authorities wish.

This is precisely what happened with me when I received a phone call from London as my phone number, which by default comes from Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited whose cellphone services are largely used by government officials, is functioning while the rest stand snapped since July 8 following Hizbul Majhideen 'commander' Burhan Wani's death.

The killing sparked off an enormous emotional outburst to which the authorities, in a much expected knee-jerk reaction, responded with imposing a complete communication blockade which Kashmiris have been depressingly familiar with for almost a decade now. In the last decade, Kashmiris have been subjected to such blockades several times.

Not that it had faded out of my consciousness that I belong to a region which frequently comes under siege, but the telephone call churned me up again when the caller, who introduced herself as 'Tracy', told me that it was a big relief for her to get connected to someone in Kashmir.

After exchanging salutations, she handed over the phone to her colleague Shehzad, a Kashmiri in London who had no clue why he was not able to speak to his family back home.

Shehzad said he was from Hazratbal in Srinagar and he had been desperately trying to call his sister (Rabia), brother (Aamir) and his mother, but he could not reach any of them. Tracy, he said, had 'recently Googled your name for a professional reason and got your contact details. We thought since you are a journalist, your number might work. Luckily it did,' Shehzad told me, seemingly still in disbelief that he was speaking to someone in Kashmir.

As we spoke, he kept punctuating the conversation repeatedly with profound gratitude. 'Thanks a lot for speaking to me and giving me a sense of how things stand there. I feel so relieved,' Shehzad told me.

'How come none of the numbers I tried were working?' he asked innocently. He had no idea that none of those phone numbers, as I made out from their initial four digits, qualifies for the quintessential 'Code of Communication,' which comes suddenly in force every time a political upheaval unfolds in his native land.

Not surprisingly, staying away from home for long, as Shehzad's accent suggested, he had no knowledge of the doctrine which determines how information should not be allowed to travel in his native land during the political turmoil.

When Shehzad, someday, returns to Kashmir, his mom and siblings would probably explain to him how Kashmiris are crippled physically, psychologically, socially and emotionally by all sorts of blockades every time some incident triggers an uprising.

For now, he hopes that I, as a journalist, am able to locate his family in Hazratbal and make his mom and siblings speak to him on my 'privileged' BSNL phone number.

It is a throwback to the old simple days when there were no modern means of communication, but no security straitjackets as well.

This is why Kashmiris draw comparisons between the prevailing crippled communication in Kashmir and the days when there were no electronic means of communication, only to dub their land a misfit for modern means of communication considering its political instability and the sickening frequency with which communication means are suspended here.

"Earlier, we would at least walk or drive to get the information about our near and dear ones. But today, even that is impossible because of curfews," a Kashmiri woman, who has not heard from her sisters for the past eight days, told me.

Sitting in London, Shehzad has no idea how, in the garb of managing or stifling public anger, even the most unimaginable things like suspension of basic human rights -- right to communicate, right to inform and get informed, right to move around and right to have access to healthcare etc -- are enforced upon the people of his native land time and again.

It has now become quite normal in Kashmir that protest demonstrations necessitate the presence of paramilitary troops in abundance to ensure that pellets are fired in every direction where the slogans or stones come from, before the responsibility of those protests is dumped in the lap of Pakistan.

While 47 people have lost their lives to bullets in the current uprising, over 3,000 are nursing bullet and pEllet injuries -- including 150 with eye injuries.

The suspension of mobile phone services in Kashmir, including mobile Internet, and a three-day ban on newspaper publication, has left the valley at the mercy of rumour-mongers.

Speaking to me on a landline telephone, a woman from North Kashmir told me she had heard about the killing of three persons in firing on protesters in a certain village, which turned out to be false when I checked the details. This is how information gets distorted in the absence of the modern-day communication services.

Newspapers are reporting chilling stories of the injured getting beaten up in ambulances and the windows of ambulances being smashed by paramilitary troops, and sometimes by protesters as well.

Doctors in Kashmir's hospitals have complained about the loss of crucial initial minutes after the injuries (or the loss of golden hour) with ambulances not getting unstoppable access on Kashmir's barricaded roads manned by police, paramilitary and protesters.

Prominent Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq's answer to a New Delhi-based television anchor's question as to why he received a call from Pakistan's Bilawal Bhuto had sharp political undertones when he responded that the Pakistani leader had at least reached out to him while leaders in New Delhi did not even try.

The Mirwaiz observed that New Delhi or the state government in Kashmir only remembers Hurriyat leaders whenever the situation in Kashmir gets out of control. In 2010 and also during the current unrest, Hurriyat leaders were formally approached by the governments in New Delhi and Srinagar for their help in managing the situation.

"We are dubbed as traitors and trouble-makers during the so-called peace," the Mirwaiz asserted this repeatedly in recent days.

The dialogue between Kashmiri Hurriyat leaders and New Delhi stands suspended for years now. The last time New Delhi engaged the Hurriyat leaders in talks was in 2005, and the attempts at reviving the suspended talks in 2009 had failed.

IMAGE: A CRPF jawan asks a scooterist to return during curfew hours in Srinagar. Photograph: S Irfan/PTI Photo

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Athar Parvaiz