Unplugged from the world, Kashmir still awaits normalcy

Whether it to send online admission applications, pay bills or connect with a loved one abroad, the internet ban in Kashmir has alienated residents from the rest of the world. Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar

It’s January again. The entire world is in 2020. But Kashmir is not.

As tens of thousands of people around the globe gathered along the embankments of rivers and near famous city squares to burst firecrackers to ring in the New Year, people in Kashmir kept looking at their smart mobile phones rather curiously. Of course they wanted to send New Year greetings to their friends and relatives via WhatsApp and e-mails, but quickly realised that this normalcy was not meant for them or available to them.

Trapped in a time loop

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The arrival of the year 2020 does not mean much for Kashmiris whose lives haven’t seen any improvement in the past few months. A key observer puts it aptly: “We are not living. This is not what life is.”

The hands of the clock atop the famous clock tower at Srinagar’s city centre, Lal Chowk (named after Moscow’s Red Square), remain stuck. For 150 days and counting, Kashmir is without internet services, without pre-paid mobile phones, without WhatsApp, and also without normal signs of life that are considered normal in any part of the globe.

Imagine how a Delhite or a Mumbaikar gets crabby if his or her order on Swiggy arrives minutes late. Compare it to the patience of a Kashmiri who was not given access to mobile phones for the first two-and-a-half months, since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, and is now dealing with a five-month long internet shutdown.

Normalcy, not for Kashmiris

Those who justify the prolonged internet shutdown in Kashmir, perhaps do not find it normal for Kashmiri students, aspiring to get enrolled in world class colleges and universities, to have the luxury of applying online. For such people, the definition of normalcy for Kashmiris, is perhaps a life of suffering or taking up the challenge of turning adversity into an opportunity.

It also doesn’t seem to sit well with many that the Kashmiris too, like the rest of the Indians, deserve the luxury of making online payment for mobile phone services, electricity, water, and satellite television.

No wonder that the past few months have altered the definition of normalcy for Kashmiris. And, there is a broad consensus on the new meaning of normalcy. It is evident that not many want the eight million inhabitants of a mountainous region access the Internet or use WhatsApp when they already enjoy the snowflakes of winter, the falling of the Maple (chinar) leaves in the autumn, the visits to the valley’s almond alcoves and tulip gardens and the summer treks to Pahalgam and Gulmarg. Perhaps they wonder, “Why should Kashmiris have all the fun? Let’s redefine normalcy for them.”

Also read: Valley observes muted birth anniversary of ‘Sher-I-Kashmir’

It is to establish this ‘normalcy’ and accommodate the ideological agenda of a political party, that the valley was converted into a ‘hyper sensitive’ and ‘dangerous zone’ and Amarnath pilgrims driven out. A part of the ‘normalcy’ restoration process was to “teach the Kashmiris a lesson to show them their place, and instill a sense of defeat in them.”

When ‘normalcy’ stands in the way of normal life

As an advanced critique of globalization, Thomas Friedman in Thank You for Being Late talks about the galloping pace at which the world around is moving. Friedman recommends us to step back a little and take time off from this fast paced-life. Authorities in Kashmir seem to have taken the message too seriously and resolved to start the experiment of slipping to the Stone Age from Kashmir itself.

Be that as it may, how do Kashmiris spend their time without basic tools of communication? How is Kashmir’s ‘normalcy’ impacted by overdose of the new symbols of normalcy?

I recall how Sumaiyah Yousuf, a young Kashmiri woman working in New Delhi, lost touch with her parents following the security clampdown in the valley in August. Her father is diabetic. Her mother suffers from heart ailment. Since August 5 she did not hear from her parents living in north Kashmir’s Sopore town for over a week. No mobile phones rang in Kashmir. Worried about the insulin drug for her father, Sumaiyah took a bold decision and boarded an early morning flight to Srinagar. On reaching Srinagar Airport, she found no cab driver was willing to take a trip to Sopore. With several packs of insulin in her bag, she trekked 18 km by foot to reach Shalteng area from where one of her relatives offered a lift to take her to Pattan, a north Kashmir town, 35 km from Srinagar. With the help of several acquaintances, Sumaiyah managed to reach home by the late evening, a trip that should have taken one-and-a-half hour. This is Kashmir’s normalcy.

Similarly, an aged mother in uptown Srinagar was enthusiastically waiting for her daughter, who works in Dubai, and son, who studies in Singapore, to celebrate Eid with her. As the communication lines were snapped in Kashmir to bring development and the new kind of normalcy, the mother lost touch with her family. Before August 5, she would speak to her daughter and son via Skype and WhatsApp chat. Forlorn, she spent the Eid holidays alone at her home to understand the true meaning of big words like normalcy and development.

Sensing danger, a husband took his expecting wife to her parental home in Srinagar for it was closer to a maternity hospital. For several days the duo had no news of each other even when the distance between them was not more than 10 km. In a rare display of courage the pregnant wife drove her car and navigated many barricades —coils of concertina and barbed wires — to see her husband who lives in downtown Srinagar.

Also read: In trying times, Kashmiris find catharsis in prayers, books and TV series

Shohab, a 10+2 student aspiring to seek admission to a foreign university, was unable to receive the OTP (one time password) on his mobile phone, required to fill the admission form. He had to fly to New Delhi just to submit his application form. He was not alone. Thousands of Kashmiri students had to follow the same process. This way they learned a little more about Kashmir’s ‘development’ and ‘normalcy’.

In a similar way, Kashmiri businessmen travelled to Chandigarh, Delhi and Mumbai just to fill their GST forms and file tax returns.

Internet ban, Kashmir’s new bane

Not been able to reach out to one’s family and friends, colleagues and acquaintances, through mobile phones or simple e-mails has been a feature of Kashmir’s troubled times in the past few years. The valley witnessed unprecedented internet bans in 2016 and during the civilian protests in 2008-10 and 2017-18. Spending life without internet and phones for months is another addition to Kashmir’s version of normalcy.

Post August 5, the POS (point of sale) machines became dysfunctional at department stores. People who could draw money from ATMs, which again were running dry fast, paid cash. Credit and debit cards lost their use. Careers of thousands of students and professionals associated with the IT and tourism industries were wrecked.

For the first two-and-a-half months post scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood, no mobile phones rang in Kashmir. By mid-October, the post-paid phones became functional after a few fixed landlines started working. No internet. No WhatsApp. No SMS. Many in Kashmir thought about writing letters to their family members and friends the old way. Others mulled over the idea of training carrier pigeons with the aim to carry their messages to family and friends in the 21st century!

Also read: Prolonged e-curfew stops beats of Save Heart Kashmir Initiative

For now, Kashmir has gone back in time. Everything is possible in Kashmir, which is now a laboratory for testing ‘normalcy’! One senior editor remarked that he dreamed about restoration of internet in Kashmir. This is our normalcy. Wishing that you never get a taste of Kashmir’s ‘normalcy’, and yes, Happy New Year!

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