HADIYA’S father left home, in Mazhama village near Srinagar, on July 18 for Haj. Less than a month later, came the abrogation of Article 370, stripping J&K of special status, followed by a complete communications clampdown in Kashmir.
He had been speaking to his family almost every day on video call since July 25, telling them to “stay safe” as troops mobilisation in the Valley led to all kinds of rumours. The last call was on August 4, when he promised Hadiya, the youngest of his three children, that he would call her again the next day. Then, the phones went dead.
Mother Yasmeena says as Eid approached, on August 12, Hadiya, a Class 9 student, became more and more quiet, seeking to talk to her father. “She didn’t even celebrate Eid,” says Yasmeena, who said she didn’t want her family to be photographed or her husband named.
On August 19, there was the first ray of hope. A neigbour told them that the government had set up facilities at a police station at Parimpora in Srinagar for people to make calls. But the police station was 13 km away.
Despite restrictions, Yasmeena says, “We didn’t wait a minute… Hadiya took out her Scooty, I sat pillion, and we started for Parimpora. All three of my daughters ride the Scooty but since Hadiya is closest to her father, she went.”
Yasmeena remembers Hadiya’s face shining as they approached the police station and saw the people making phone calls from there. “We waited for some time. But, when we handed over the telephone number to the officials, they apologised saying they can’t make an international call.”
Dejected, the two started back, when a policeman told them they could make an international call from the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Srinagar. “Since it was late, we decided to go back home and return the next day,” Yasmeena says.
The next day, Hadiya and Yasmeena started for Srinagar again, on her Scooty. They thought they were early, covering the 13-km distance by 8.30 am. But when they reached the office, there was already a long queue.
“We didn’t know that people would arrive earlier than us. Many had been waiting for more than two hours. We were told our serial number was 253,” Yasmeena says.
For the next seven-and-a half hours, they waited inside the hall, almost not budging. “But there were more than a hundred people ahead of us. At 4 pm, we left.” They didn’t want to risk returning home in the dark.
At the Deputy Commissioner’s office, the calling facilities consist essentially of a round table kept in a large hall, surrounded by chairs and holding five cellphones. Two have international calling facility and three STD, with six government officials managing them. People are given a serial number and asked to wait their turn. Calls are mostly limited to two-three minutes. Some take the chairs while waiting, but as the numbers swell, the queue spills over to outside.
Inside the centre, there is complete silence. If needed, people talk in whispers, their ears straining to hear the names being called out on the microphone by an official.
Though the centre opens every day at 9 am, people start lining up from 6 am.
“So far, people have made 21,000 incoming and outgoing calls from here,” says Wahid Islam Dar, the in-charge of the centre. “In the initial days, there was a huge rush. Now that landline phones have been restored in some places, around 500 people visit us every day.”
Over the past 16 days, Wahid says, he has “seen it all”. “These are emotional days for us. Recently, there was a case where a person called up to enquire about his relatives who had gone for Haj in Saudi Arabia. He was told one of them had died. He left wailing.”
The official adds that while they work late into the night, till 11 pm, the phones keep ringing till many hours after. “We even receive abuses from people because they want to talk to their family members and don’t get through. At times, we give the number of the local SHOs so that they can call there to talk to their relatives. Once, I myself went to Palpora area after a girl called from Pune and asked for help to talk to her family.”
Hadiya made her third try to talk to her father on August 22, pleading with her mother to come with her. On that day, they left for Srinagar half-an-hour earlier. “This time our serial number was 375,” recalls Yasmeena. “We waited the whole day but again, our turn didn’t come. We got back home at 9 in the night.”
But Hadiya was determined, and the next morning, the mother and daughter left for Srinagar again, even earlier. However, it being a Friday, there were more restrictions on the road. “It took us more than an hour to reach the Deputy Commissioner’s office. We were stopped at 10 places at least. I had to lie, say I had to go to hospital. Only then did they let us go,” says Yasmeena.
“When we reached the office, Hadiya was crestfallen as there was a long queue again.” As her eyes swelled with tears and the two decided to turn back than spend another day waiting, one of the officials at the centre called out for them. They had recognised the two. “They said since you have been coming for three days and had left late Thursday, we will give you priority today.”
Finally, three hours later, they called out Hadiya and Yasmeena’s names, and an official handed over a simple Android cellphone.
Hadiya says she let her mother talk first. Yasmeena kept it brief, mindful of the limited time. “I asked him how he was, and said we were fine and were calling from the Deputy Commissioner’s Office and could not talk much.” She also managed to ask her husband when he would be coming home.
Hadiya took the phone next. She could only say, “Assalam-u-Alaikum papa, are you okay?”, before breaking down. Her mother patted her back, saying, “Don’t worry, beta, he is coming on August 28.”
The wait of three-and-a-half days had ended in a call of a minute. But Hadiya and her mother don’t mind. “For me, it was enough to hear my father’s voice,” says the 15-year-old. “We could have talked a little longer but we know everybody is waiting. My conscience didn’t allow me.”
On August 23, among those in the queue is Ghulam Nabi, 43, a resident of Chadoora who has been waiting for four hours. “I don’t think I will get a chance to talk to my son in Dubai,” he says. “Why is the government not lifting the blockade? Why are they playing with our emotions?”