IN THE days since the Pulwama attack, there has been a sense of walls closing in, leaving room only for fear and anxiety in the Kashmir Valley. And over the last three days, the eerie silence of the night has been punctuated by the sound of jets tearing through the sky.
Internet services are operating at reduced speeds; schools and colleges are shut, with the long winter break extended at least twice; leave to medical staff has been cancelled; and, foodgrains have been sold urgently. Traffic on the streets and highways is thin due to the severe fuel shortage, shutdown calls and an uneasy calm. And the rumours continue to keep the tension simmering.
On Wednesday, the Jammu-Srinagar highway was shut due to landslides. For nearly five hours, the Valley remained cut off as the airspace over northern India was closed following the intrusion of Pakistani aircraft into Indian airspace and an Mi-17 helicopter crashing in Budgam.
Late in the night, with the announcement of oil tankers reaching Srinagar, fuel stations were crowded with commuters trying to get their tanks filled. The chorus: “What’s next for us?”
Apart from social media, groups of individuals sitting outside storefronts reference World War movies when speaking of airstrikes while those huddled together in homes near the border remind each other to remain vigilant. “There is only one casualty in this tussle between the two countries — Kashmir. And we are the only people who cannot do anything about it,” said Iram Bashir, a young mother and an engineer, in Srinagar.
Closer to the border, talk of shelling, bunkers and displacement has returned to conversations with children spotting contrails in the sky by day and adults maintaining vigil by night. Since tensions escalated between India and Pakistan, residents of border villages have remained on edge with the narrative shifting between attack and retaliation.
“Hectic exchange of messages between relatives, moving and stocking essentials and making arrangements just in case one needs to move, this has been the last few days. Basically, following every snippet of information and hoping against hope,” said Irfan Rashid, a school teacher in Uri.
In a surreal twist, there is also a sense of relief, since all the speculation over the Centre “doing away with Article 35A” has died down since India announced the airstrike on a Jaish-e-Mohammad facility in Pakistan’s Balakot.
In the days leading up to the strike, authorities were bracing for another spate of unrest in the Valley. The rumours had gathered pace after the state government initially did not provide an explanation for the movement of 100 companies of Central Armed Police Forces. There was also speculation over the nature of the Indian response to the suicide terror attack that claimed the lives of 40 CRPF personnel.
In the two weeks since, dozens of Jamaat-e-Islami members were arrested across Kashmir and Kashmiri students have been assaulted in other parts of the country forcing the Supreme Court to intervene. The atmosphere of isolation heightened the fear and uncertainty. There were fervent pleas across social media from people across political and social divide urging both countries to consider peace as the only option, driven by the #notowar hashtag.
But with each day, the jets seemed to hover closer, each lap adding another layer of fear in the dark. Until news broke as the clock ticked towards another night, that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would be handed over, and the wheels of peace have started moving again.