Published: 06th February 2020
Blackout in the Valley: How these Kashmiri students survived six months without internet, calling home
Two young Kashmiri students talk to us about how August 5 had changed things upside down for them and the people around them — and the fear and concern that they felt as they were disconnected from th
On February 5, 2020, exactly half a year after Jammu and Kashmir lost its statehood, I made my first phone call to the valley. I was still unsure if the calls would go through. Surprise, surprise. My instinct proved to be right. However, on my second try, I heard ringing. A few seconds later, Raouf answered the phone.
Raouf, a 24-year-old from Anantnag is an MTech student at a university in Mohali, Punjab. If I'd spoken to him a year ago, he would have told me about his dream of pursuing an MBA from the University of Kashmir. "I completed my BTech from a university in Punjab. I am an only son and my parents had wished for me to stay with them for a few years," he says. So, in early 2019, Raouf wrote the CMAT examination and filled out the Kashmir University applications.
However, nothing went to plan. Not by a long shot. "The course was to begin in September 2019. A month before that, the government abrogated Article 370 of the constitution. Things were never the same since then," he says. Article 370 of the Constitution of India allowed a special status to the residents of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir. Along with Article 35A, they had access to a separate set of laws regarding citizenship, ownership of property and fundamental rights. On August 5, 2019, the Government of India had abrogated these two articles. Following this, Jammu and Kashmir had lost its statehood and was split into two Union Territories — Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
That's the political backstory. That and how people like the Abdullahs and other political heavyweights have been held hostage at home.
The reality of it, for youngsters such as Raouf, was the communication blackout that came with it. When Section 144 was imposed on various parts of the state, the internet services and other communication lines were shut down in one fell swoop. "Following the events of August 5, the university was closed for an indefinite period. My parents then told me 'Do not waste a year. Apply somewhere else. Your career and safety matter the most to us than your being here in Kashmir," he says. A few months later, Raouf began his MTech in Mohali. "We had no proper access to the internet or information. A lot of my friends were pursuing their MTech from here, so I followed suit," he says. The internet was restored only on January 25, 2020 and the university reopened on February 2.
Raouf is now home for the holidays. However, home doesn't feel the same to him anymore. "People around me are in a state of uneasiness. There's no happy face that I can spot. Everyone is angry inside, but their anger neither has light nor does it have fire," he says. "People are even afraid to talk over their phones, fearing that someone might tap it," he adds.
Six months back in time
Raouf recalls being in Amritsar on August 4 and hearing rumours about an emergency-like situation about to arise in Kashmir soon. "People were asking each other to get enough supplies and withdraw money. But I ignored it. That night, I was chatting with a friend in the valley and all of a sudden, my messages were not getting sent," he says.
He dismissed this as a regular network error. Those were common in Kashmir on the best of days. In case you haven't heard, Kashmir has had the most number of internet blackouts recorded in modern history. Of the 382 times the internet was shutdown in India, 180 times were in Kashmir, according to the Software Freedom Law Centre.
The next morning, he had gone to the airport to take his flight back home. "But at around 11 am, Amit Shah delivered his speech about the abrogation. I was shocked and scared. I could not reach anyone at home over the phone or the internet," he says. Raouf then did the next possible thing — call up relatives in other states. "Unfortunately, they were helpless too. They asked me to pray to Allah and eventually everything will be all right. But that wasn't the case," he says.
Raouf tells me that his home is around 60 kilometres away from Sheikh Ul-Alam International Airport, Srinagar. Normally, this distance can be covered in a couple of hours. But that day, it took him at least five hours to reach home. "I did not come back to the Kashmir that I knew. I saw people running in every direction, aimlessly and scared. There were army officers everywhere. I had no way to go home or contact anyone that I knew," he says. He remembers taking a lift to travel the last 20 kilometres. "But after that, I had to get down, because the army men weren't letting anyone go. I showed them my address proof and my travel documents and told them how it was important for me to go home. But they didn't listen," he says.
Carrying his bags, Raouf then decided to walk the rest of the distance. "I thought of my mother and father back home. They'd have been under so much stress, not being able to know my whereabouts. So, I thought I will walk all the way home," he says. Later, he met a truck driver who offered to drop him at his destination. "I was about to hop on to the seat next to the driver's. But he immediately stopped and asked me to sit inside the trolley. On the way, my luggage was checked at least five times," he says. He later sent me a photograph that he took, while inside the truck — it's probably the only one that he has from that day.
The photograph that Raouf took from the truck
"My mother broke down upon seeing me. She told me that the situation was quite bad and feared that the army may pick me up anytime," he says. Like many Kashmiris whom I'd spoken to in the past six months, Raouf believes that whatever that government had done was unfair to the people of Kashmir. "We do not feel comfortable in our homes these days. Unlike the popular narrative, the valley wasn't unsafe. But now, our government has failed us. What is the point of being a democracy, when you cannot assure the safety of your own people?" he asks. "It feels like Kashmir is cut off from India. The government is only considering the valley as a political tool. Politics these days is confined only to Kashmir and Pakistan," he says.
When Delhi is safer than home
Aeshal Nisar Dalal is a Kashmiri student, pursuing his master's degree from Delhi University's Ramjas College. He had gotten back to Delhi a couple of weeks ago, from Kashmir. Like Raouf, Aeshal too says that home doesn't feel the same anymore. "It is so unsafe and depressing back home. Sure there are incidents of violence happening in Delhi. But it seems far safer than Kashmir anyway," he says, as I listen in disbelief. In the last month, Delhi witnessed three incidents of shooting — two in Jamia Millia Islamia and one in Shaheen Bagh.
Section 144 imposed prior to August 5 (Pic: PTI)
"Things are getting back to normal. It is better than what it used to be a few months back," Aeshal says. "The internet connection was restored on all Android devices on January 25. Nevertheless, I sense an uneasiness," he adds. He recalls how home in Kashmir used to be a safe space all the time. "But that is an old story. I remember how during my trip home in September, I was dropped off at the airport by my family, 12 hours before the flight. They had to get back home before the curfew hours began. I waited for hours outside the airport," he recalls.
Aeshal also says that cases of depression and anxiety have gone up in the valley since August 5. "Doctors told me that people are increasingly finding it difficult to cope up with the situation. They are apparently handing out anti-depressants rampantly," he says.
Now, these young people do not know if things will ever get back to normal. "Nothing is predictable," says Raouf. He also tells us me about a change in his daily routine that occurred since August 5. "The first thing that I did every day after waking up, was to check my phone for notifications. However, I got over that. It has also been months since I loaded money in my PayTM account," he says.
No technology is sharp enough to survive an internet lockdown.