Depending on which way New Delhi moved, there were generally two expressions on Kashmiri faces: anger or hope. But as the news of New Delhi’s move to bury Article 370 and bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories sunk in Tuesday, those faces bore an expression of defeat.
“What is the point of seeking our opinion anymore? Everything is finished,” said Saeed Khan, 45, an electronics engineer living near Lal Chowk in Srinagar.
The Kashmir capital was a ghost town and Khan’s sentiment is the refrain on the lips of many: a fruit seller at Batmaloo, a father who walked his son home through a deserted alley near Eidgah and a policeman who stood guard near a concertina barricade at Rambagh.
Virtually on lockdown since Sunday, with communication lines and Internet suspended, prohibitory orders imposed across the Valley and a surge in troop deployment, Srinagar bore the look of a city under siege.
Markets and shops shut, schools and colleges suspended, roads barricaded and guarded by gun-toting security men and vehicle movement restricted only to emergency hospital services.
“After the 2016 upheaval, things had improved massively in the past year. Separatists were in jail. There were no strikes, hardly any stone pelting, schools were running, shops were open and tourist inflow had increased. Everyone was happy. Then, in one stroke they have antagonised every Kashmiri who was with them. I don’t know when and how we will come out of the aftermath of this decision,” said Khan.
His neighbour and friend, who requested anonymity, blamed it on hubris. “They are so drunk on power that they are unable to see us as people. They won’t have to bear the consequences of this, we will have to,” he said.
A kilometre away at Saraibal, Imtiaz Unwani, a BA first-year student hailing from Langate in South Kashmir, is worried and angry. “Kashmir is a Volcano with a lid of politics. They have put Omar (Abdullah) and (Mehbooba) Mufti behind bars. They are planning to arrest our MLA Engineer Rashid, a man who always told us to stay away from stone-pelting. And now this. They have opened the lid. ”
It is a worry shared by the J&K Police too. “I am a government servant. I will follow orders. But what will I explain to my son? How will I convince him that the Indian state is thinking about him and that he must not join stone pelters. The youngsters are already saying that when a death wish has been imposed on us, what’s the point of going to school,” said a J&K Police constable.
There is just as much uncertainty among senior officers. No one seems to know how long the lockdown and suspension of communication lines will continue, and what happens after it is lifted.
“This is unprecedented. We have never faced a situation like this. We were not taken into confidence about this. We learnt about it on TV. We are just following instructions as of now,” said a senior J&K police officer.
In the past couple of days though there have been no major incidents of violence in Kashmir barring sporadic stone pelting episodes.
The collective anxiety was also reflected in the Tuesday flight to Srinagar from Delhi. It went almost empty with barely 30 passengers, but flew back to Delhi packed.
In the journey to Srinagar, the flight largely had worried Kashmiris rushing back home: a Jamia Millia Islamia university student, a retired government employee coming back from Malaysia to see his daughter and a businessman flying his family out of Kashmir – none of them willing to be identified.
“My older son is in the US and the younger one is in Malaysia. I was in Malaysia for two months and landed in Delhi yesterday when I got the shock. My older son was saying come to the US, but my daughter is in Srinagar, and I have not been able to speak to her for the past two days. So I am rushing. We don’t know how we will reach home as we can’t speak to anyone in Kashmir. We will reach Srinagar and figure it out,” said the retired government servant.
The student from Jamia Milia Islamia, pursuing his M.Tech degree, was carrying a TV screenshot of the news announcing the scrapping of Article 370. “I live in Pulwama. I don’t know if my parents even know what they have been hit with. The cable lines have also been cut. I am also worried about them. If I don’t get a vehicle in Srinagar, I will walk to Pulwama,” he said.
He was also worried about his future. “I had thought of completing my education and then joining a college in Kashmir as a professor. But with Article 370 gone, that opportunity is also lost. Already there are no jobs in Kashmir. They think this way they can win our hearts. It shows they just want Kashmir and not Kashmiris,” he said.
The entrepreneur from Eidgah in Srinagar manufactures diapers and has been in Kolkata and Delhi for the past 12 days. He said he was going to get his family out of Srinagar, but said: “In one stroke, they have finished everything. Kashmir is gone from India’s hands. They have opened the gates for Pakistan to enter. All that was earned in the past few years has been lost. They have completely discredited Omar and Mehbooba, who were actually their people. They have burned the bridge they had with Kashmiris.”