August 31, 2019
SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR — Streets are deserted.
Cell phone and internet services remain blocked in most of the state.
It’s been 27 days since India scrapped Article 370, ending Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, which the nation’s only Muslim-majority state has enjoyed since 1949.
In an attempt to curtail protests and the spread of misinformation, the state has been in a near-total blackout since. There is robust security presence on the streets and many of the region’s political ministers and legislators have been arrested.
Outside the Deputy Commissioner Office in Srinagar, one of the state’s largest cities, a throng of people line up and wait for the chance to make a one-minute phone call on one of the city’s few working landlines.
“I have been coming here every day for the last three days to call my brother, who is in Dubai,” says Mohammad Amin. Many people, including Amin, say they are scrambling to let loved ones know they are okay.
The scene is more chaotic outside of Kashmir Valley’s largest maternity hospital.
Those who have been treated are looking for a way home. Transportation is limited and no one can call friends or family for a ride. So people run to any approaching car or ambulance, hoping to find a seat.
Tariq Ahmed says his wife gave birth to a baby boy a week ago. They were lucky to make it to the hospital. But now, they can’t find their way home.
“I have been waiting here since morning for a vehicle. My wife was discharged today. I live in Uri and it is very far from here. The only way I can reach home is by an ambulance or taking a lift from someone,” he says.
Ahmed says that both mother and baby are healthy, but they haven’t been able to share the news.
“I can’t even contact my family to share the good news,” he says. “The people at my home will be very worried, but there is no option.”
But limited access to transportation is not as critical as the region’s fast-dwindling supply of medicine.
“We are facing a shortage of many life-saving drugs,” says Imran, who runs a local pharmacy. He declined to have his last name published, as people who speak to the press have been arrested in recent days.
The most critical shortages are of insulin supplies, psychiatric medications and hemophilia drugs used to clot blood. Basic necessities like Aspirin and baby formula are also running short.
Last week, Satya Pal Malik, governor of the Jammu and Kashmir state, declared in a public statement that there was no shortage of essential medications or commodities.
But citizens and shopkeepers alike say that’s not the case.
The national highway that links the state to the rest of India is open, but Imran says supplies come in only after orders are placed. And it’s impossible to place those orders now.
“As the phones and Internet are not working, we are unable to place orders for the medicines. We don’t know for how long will the situation remain the same, but if it doesn’t improve soon, patients will face many serious issues,” he says. “We need to stock up on essential drugs immediately.”
Bilal Ahmad, who runs a grocery store in Srinagar, says other basic commodities are in short supply too. But he can’t place orders and curfews have greatly restricted the hours he can open his shop.
“I open my shop for an hour in the morning and again for an hour in the evening. It is necessary as people need to buy essential household items. But we cannot keep our shops open all day. We are observing a civil curfew now,” Ahmad says.
Speaking out against the shortage has proven risky.
On August 26, Omar Salim Akhtar, a urologist at the Government Medical College in Srinagar, was arrested just minutes after speaking publicly about the impending health crisis caused by the lockdown. He held a placard that read: “This is not a protest, this is a request” in hopes of being heard by authorities.
The lockdown has psychological implications too.
“I have not been able to sleep properly for the last 20 days. I work in a private company and my office has been closed since the lockdown. Nowadays, I am getting angry at my kids unnecessarily. I feel very bad. There is frustration all around,” says Mehvish Hassan, who lives in Srinagar.
The government did try to open schools last week, but attendance has been thin as parents are apprehensive about sending their children out.
“The government wants us to send our kids to schools, but how can we send them in such a situation?” Hassan asks. “I will not send my kids to school until the situation is better.”
Governor Malik continues to publicly state the restrictions are necessary.
“It was necessary for the government to impose restrictions to ensure that militants and terrorists are handicapped in their movements and don’t succeed in installing fear and terror,” Malik said at a press conference on August 28.
As the state of Jammu and Kashmir becomes a union territory, which will allow the central government in Delhi to gain significant control over its affairs, there is concern that armed groups active in the region will start a violent uprising.
“All lies are spread through internet,” Malik told a small crowd of journalists at a press conference. “The medium of Internet is little bit useful for us, but more useful for terrorists.”
Raihana Maqbool, GPJ, translated some interviews from Kashmiri.