‘Hell, again’: 40 offline hours and ghosts of August 2019

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When Raj Kumar dialed back home in Bihar, a state in northern India — hours after the burial of Kashmir’s senior resistance leader at his Srinagar residence — his call dropped. A beep sound on the other side but nothing else.

Then he went on dialing his wife, anxiously. But nothing.

When he noticed that his phone had no signal, he realized something was wrong. Kumar, who has lived in Kashmir for nearly two decades, said whenever his phone does not work, he understands that something untoward has happened in the valley.

For Kumar, who owns a snack stall in Srinagar city, the morning of 2 September appeared like a ghost of 5 August 2019, he said. “I had called my wife late in the evening and spoke to my children and had told her I would call her in the morning,” he said. “Owing to vulnerable situation of Kashmir, I call her and parents twice every day.”

Like millions of Kashmiris, Kumar’s phone was also merely a gadget without the network. The Jammu and Kashmir government imposed a strict curfew, fearing anti-India protests, amidst a near communication blackout after Geelani’s death on Wednesday at 10:30 pm. Ever since, the city’s roads are blocked with barricades with checkpoints after every half a kilometer and mobile and internet connection are shut, except the government-owned BSNL networks.

Born on 29 September 1929 in Zurimanz village in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, Geelani was the most prominent resistance leader of Kashmir. He was previously a member of Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir but later on founded Tehreek-e-Hurriyat.

Geelani served as a chairman of All Parties Hurriyat Conference (G), a conglomerate of pre-freedom parties in J-K. Last year, however, he announced his resignation as Hurriyat Conference (G) chairman.

On Wednesday night, Geelani passed away at his residence in Hyderpora area of Srinagar district following his prolonged illness. With his death, Kashmir’s communication blackout returned, leaving the population of eight million in despair — so did the desperate memories of the August 2019 clampdown. 

However, there were also thousands of non-locals — living in rented accommodations in Kashmir to earn their livelihood — who shared the feeling of Kashmiris of being disconnected from the outer world. 

Kumar, a resident of Bhagalpura in Bihar, whose rented accommodation is in Srinagar’s Batpora is one of the many non-locals. He was unaware of the exact situation till late hours in the morning.

Kumar did not really know who Geelani was but had heard about his death later. “Some big leader has died and that’s why people are observing a shutdown,” Kumar told The Kashmir Walla.

Kumar said that unlike 2019 — when the authorities had snapped all the means of communication including landline — this time, he was able to contact his family in Bihar as the BSNL connection was working. “A good Samaritan, on finding me worried, offered me his phone and I was able to speak to my family,” said Kumar.

In 2019, after India abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy, the government imposed strict curfew and snapped all forms of communication for weeks altogether. “While it seemed like 5 August, it thankfully did not go like that,” Kumar sighed.

Not just people like Kumar whose family lives outside the valley but people in Kashmir were also not able to contact their family despite living in the same region. The distance had disconnected them as there was no source of communication other than being present in person.

A 39-year-old Fatimah of Pallar area of central Kashmir’s Budgam district looked worried as she bought snacks from Kumar’s stall outside a major hospital in Srinagar. She was attending to her sister-in-law at a hospital in Srinagar.

“My brother just became a father and it was supposed to be the best day of his life,” said Fatimah. “But he does not know about it, he works in the gulf.”

Fatimah said that her sister-in-law gave birth to a daughter whose father had no idea that she had been born.Neither he nor us can contact him and tell him that he is now a father to a beautiful daughter, I hope the communication is soon restored,” Fatima rued.

In August 2019, Fatima was pregnant and was worried about her health. Today, as she explained, the situation felt like going through the same “hell again”. 

“It was like hell then, and it feels like going through that hell all over again,” said Fatima of her ordeal of being all worried of falling ill during the communication and movement blockade.

When the authorities put a ban on communication, almost everyone in Kashmir suffers in different ways – some are not able to contact their family while some get disconnected from their friends and loved ones. Asif Ali is one of them. 

A 27-year-old Asif Ali has spent two days in constant anxiety after not being able to talk to his fiancé. “I don’t have a BSNL sim, I don’t know what to do. I miss her like hell,” said Ali. “It is for the first time in years since we were engaged that I haven’t been able to talk to her.”

For him, the current situation is just like 2019 when he had visited his then girlfriend, now his fiance, house. “Back then we were not engaged, so it was not a big deal going around her home looking for her,” he said.

“Today everyone including her neighbours know that we are engaged, and it won’t look good going there again,” he explained. Now, he said, all he can do is “wait and hope that the internet and phone is restored as soon as possible”.

While Ali is holding on to hopes of network restoration, journalists in Kashmir are banking on internet connection, working on BSNL network. “I was near Geelani’s residence for the whole night when he passed away,” said an independent journalist, Imran Ali. “But not only we were disallowed to cover the proceedings, but I was not even able to write or send through all that I had been able to shoot.”

“The forces personnel are not allowing movement of journalists despite us showing them our credentials. And that is something that reminds me of 2019,” Imran said. “Not getting internet access to send our stories is similar to that time.”

Like many Kashmiris, Imran, too, does not have access to a BSNL connection. “BSNL is the least sought-after internet provider in Kashmir, and here almost everyone including me had switched to Jio, now it is almost impossible to find BSNL internet here,” he concluded.

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