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When my mobile phone rang with an unknown number, I expected it to be a marketing pitch. But it wasn’t. “Amy. This is Siddiq Wahid,” a voice said, as my brain froze. It was a Harvard-educated academic from Kashmir, the volatile region of India that has been unreachable for weeks. “Oh my god!” I screamed. It was as if a beam of light had suddenly shot out of a black hole.
Mobile phone and internet services to Kashmir’s 8m people have been suspended and New Delhi has barred foreign journalists from visiting Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state, since it was stripped of its political autonomy on August 5. Many of the Himalayan region’s political and civil society leaders are under house arrest or in jail under rules that allow authorities to hold people without charge for up to two years if they are deemed a threat to law and order.
Those incarcerated include Mubeen Shah, a handicrafts exporter and former Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry president. He used to gripe to me about the difficulties of doing business in the highly-militarised area over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars. Mr Shah, 63 and a diabetic, was flown to the sweltering Agra Central Jail, says his wife, who is “camping in Delhi” and visits him there. His cellmates are the president of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association and the chairman of the Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation.
Unable to talk to Kashmiri contacts, I have struggled to reconcile the government’s claims of normalcy with Indian reporters’ accounts of angry protests and harsh repression in a region still smouldering with the embers of a Pakistan-backed separatist insurgency that has claimed at least 45,000 lives. The situation reminds me of covering military-ruled Myanmar from Thailand a decade ago. Back then foreign journalists were rarely granted visas and waited for people from “inside” to visit Bangkok and brief us on the shifting political and economic tides.
And so, one day after Mr Wahid’s phone call announcing his arrival in New Delhi, I met with the former vice-chancellor of the government-run Islamic University of Science and Technology. He got his first inkling of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to create a new order in Kashmir at 2:30am on August 5. His wife — a maths professor — woke him to to say that their mobile phone, internet and telephone landline had all gone dead.
In the morning, they found an old radio and heard the news that the government was scrapping Kashmir’s autonomy, overturning a ban on outsiders buying property, and demoting Jammu and Kashmir from a full-fledged state to a union territory under direct rule by New Delhi. They sat in shocked silence, as Mr Wahid fumed. “It felt like an assault on your dignity,” he says. The clear message to Kashmiris, he says, is that “you don’t need to be talked to, you don’t need to be consulted, you are nobody”.
New Delhi argues that Kashmir had to be politically reorganised to bring prosperity. It says that most Kashmiris support tighter integration with India, and that the clampdown was necessary to prevent potentially lethal violence.
Mr Wahid counters that the central government is treating Kashmiris like “an occupied people”. He says most Kashmiris believe India is preparing for a demographic re-engineering of the valley, much like China flooded Tibet with Han Chinese settlers.
Life in Kashmir remains disturbed, he says. At first, shops and schools were closed on government orders, which also pushed all visitors out of the region at the peak of the tourist season. Now, authorities want Kashmiris to get on with their normal lives, but many businesses are operating sharply reduced hours, and few children are going to school.
India blames the continuing disruption on militants, who killed a Srinagar shopkeeper for opening his store. But Mr Wahid says many Kashmiris support what they call a “civil curfew” to express anger at what has transpired.
It’s unclear how this will all play out in the months ahead. “If you get on a wild horse in the morning, you don’t know where you will end up in the evening,” he says, citing an old Ladakhi proverb. I wonder how long it will be before we can speak again.
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