Kashmiri student in Mumbai: Will I hear my father's voice on Eid?

Updated: Aug 11, 2019, 08:16 IST | Jane Borges

A young Kashmiri student in Mumbai recalls a harrowing week spent waiting for a text from her family

Kashmiri student in Mumbai: Will I hear my father's voice on Eid?
Activists cover their mouth during a demonstration to condemn the scrapping of Article 370 that granted a special status to Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian government, in New Delhi on August 9, 2019. Pic/ AFP

Five hours before PM Narendra Modi's address to the nation on Thursday, in which he defended his decision on Kashmir, 23-year-old Zooni S (name changed) was a bundle of nerves. Half-smiling at us, when we meet her at a suburban café, it is hard to tell what the state of her mind is. She spells it out: "I am upset. I am disturbed."

Zooni, a Kashmiri Muslim from Srinagar, currently pursuing BTech at a city college, has spent the last four days twiddling her thumbs, while staring at the phone, in the hope that "baba will call". Sitting across her, we see her take halting sips of the peach iced tea, as she tries redialling the J&K helpline numbers 9419028242/9419028251—tweeted on Thursday morning by District Magistrate of Kashmir Shahid Choudhary—which she sourced from Instagram, only earlier in the day. "Both lines are busy," she dismally informs.

Despite all the negativity coming her way since the BJP-ruled Centre sweepingly announced that it was revoking Article 370 in J&K, Zooni, who last heard from her father on Sunday (August 4), says she will speak, though anonymously, about the anxiety of being cut off from her family. "Everyone around me is celebrating," she says. "But what difference does it make to me? The only thing that matters right now is family [her father, twin sister and ailing dadi live in Srinagar]. I lost my mum three years ago. I can't lose anyone else."

The lull before the storm

While Mumbai was drenched and the Mithi River threatened to alarmingly rise on Sunday, Srinagar—nearly 2,200 km away—was unnervingly calm. It had been two days since the J&K administration had called off the annual Amarnath yatra "in view of intelligence inputs of terror threats". Pilgrims and tourists had been advised to leave almost immediately.

But Zooni, a scholarship student, who lives in a city hostel along with other students from the former state, remembers her baba and sister being unaffected by the happenings around them. "Because of the heavy rain, I was holed up in the hostel for most part of the day, and was constantly tracking news about the Valley on the web. While browsing through Instagram, I learnt that additional paramilitary troops had been deployed in several parts of Srinagar. Of course, we have lived through many curfews in one lifetime, but this felt different."

Early in the evening, she had a brief conversation with her sister, who told her "that there was nothing to worry about". Her father, a retired educational official in the government, was out playing golf with his friends. "I insisted that she get me to speak with him." Finally, around 9 pm, her father, who had just returned home, called. "Because dad is a principal with a school run by an NGO, he had received a government advisory, asking schools to remain shut, as a curfew was most likely to be imposed. He told me that they had stocked enough rice and lentils at home, but this was not anything serious. After that call, I did feel better." However, an hour later, when her father unexpectedly called again and said that he was transferring money into her bank account for her brother, who is pursuing his engineering in Chennai, and her, in case "this is the last time I speak with you," Zooni got alarmed. "I was restless after that, and couldn't sleep." After tossing and turning in bed, around 3 am, Zooni decided that she should try and call her baba once again, to check on him. "By then, the phone lines were down."

Growing up in the Valley

"I am a curfew child," says Zooni, when talking about life in the Valley. "The day I was born [in 1996], there was curfew in Srinagar. My mum had to go through several checkpoints, before she could make it to the hospital. She always reminded me about that incident. She said, 'You were born during curfew. You will live through anything'."

Zooni admits to having a secure childhood—both her parents were professors in colleges, and because, they taught at some of the best institutes in Srinagar, they ensured their kids were also admitted to "elite" schools in the Valley. "But that does not mean our parents could shield us from the unrest outside. My mum hailed from Eidgah, which is in Downtown Srinagar, and we lived in the newly-developed part of the city. Eidgah was infamous for protests; the youth there are fierce and fearless. Even when we experienced the floods of 2014, it was the people from there who went out of their way to rescue families in other parts of the city. So, every time we visited Eidgah, we were privy to scenes of unrest."

Her first disturbing encounter in conflict-ridden Kashmir was when she was around eight years old. "There was a crackdown, and our school bus was stopped. I remember a CRPF jawan with a gun in hand, entering inside. When I saw him for the first time, I did not know whether he was there to protect us or attack us. All of us were terrified. It was only after I went back home, and my parents explained the situation to me that I knew they were there for our security."

The Kashmir unrest of 2010, however, affected Zooni in many ways. The violent protests and riots in the Valley, which began in June 2010 after the Indian Army claimed to have killed three "Pakistani infiltrators," resulted in 112 deaths, including of an 11-year-old boy. "This boy could have been me," she says.

Five years later, Zooni, egged on by her mum, decided to apply for a scholarship for students from J&K. "My dad was apprehensive about sending his kids outside Srinagar. But, when my mum, who was diabetic, passed away after suffering a heart attack, dad suddenly changed his mind. He didn't want me to go to Delhi, though. He said, 'Go to Mumbai, people there will be nice to you.' Today, I know why."

A week of restlessness

On Monday, Zooni, who had barely slept through the night, woke up around 11 am. "Colleges and schools were shut due to rain." Zooni tried calling home again, but couldn't get through. An hour later, while browsing through Twitter, she realised that her feed was bursting with tweets about "Naya Kashmir" and "Azad Kashmir." Only half-an-hour earlier, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had announced the proposal to revoke Article 370 and Article 35A, which conferred special status to J&K. Shah had gone on to declare that J&K would be "reorganised"—Ladakh would be a Union Territory without an assembly and J&K another, but with an assembly. "I immediately called up my brother [he is two years younger to her], who had come out of an examination. He was shocked," says Zooni. "But baba had always seen this coming."

In June, when she was home for vacation, Zooni remembers having a discussion with her father about Article 370. "He said, 'If and when it happens [the Article is revoked], it is definitely going to affect the people of Kashmir—whether it's going to affect us in a good way or bad, one can't say. We have to be hopeful'."

On Tuesday, when the bill to bifurcate J&K was passed in the Lok Sabha, Zooni knew there was no going back. "In Kashmir, we are all aware of Article 370 and 35A, and the fact that it allows us special privileges. I don't think I ever had a problem with it being revoked. I have a problem with how it was done. Kashmir is as much anyone else's, as it is mine. And, I am an Indian, just like any other Indian in the country. Why this step-motherly treatment?"

As a Kashmiri Muslim, Zooni and a few others at her hostel have also been at the receiving end of a lot of hate from Hindu Kashmiri girls. "One of my college mates spoke out against the government's decision, and the girls in the hostel ganged up against her. They started dredging up the humiliation meted out to Kashmiri Pandits. They had turned against us. I was quite affected by the chain of events. If I could only speak to baba once, he'd have calmed me down."

The first two days were tough. "Each time, I picked up the phone, I tried calling baba. I was also worried about dadi, who is paralysed waist down, and needs medicines and constant monitoring. In case of an emergency, it would have been difficult to get her out of home," she says. All her messages to her father have gone unanswered.

"The messages appear to have been delivered, but I hope baba is reading them."

After zero contact with her family for over 48 hours on Wednesday, Zooni got desperate, and even contemplated going back home. "I reached out to a friend in Jammu, as phone lines are working there. She, too, had no clue about her family in Srinagar, but advised against coming back," she says. "I didn't go to college that day, because I lacked the will. Baba's call was the first thing I received in the morning. And now, I don't even know if he is doing fine." Zooni was going to be travelling back home for Eid, which is on Monday. "Now, I want to hear his voice on Eid."

A few hours before we met on Thursday, Zooni chanced upon an Instagram handle that shared helpline numbers. But, it proved unhelpful. That same day, a college friend, who is from Nagpur, told her that her family is now planning to buy land in Kashmir. "This is what everyone has reduced the developments to. Everyone wants land, but what about the people of Kashmir?" But for every naysayer, there have been 10 others rallying around her. "I have been getting incredible support from friends in the city."

An hour before Modi's Thursday speech, in which he spoke about how Article 370 and Article 35A, "gave only separatism, nepotism and corruption" and how it's now the right time for people of J&K, "to show their capability to the world," we received a text from Zooni: "Received a call from my cousin sister [in Hyderabad]. Her uncle works in the police department and she called from his satellite phone. She says everyone in her locality is safe."

Zooni, whose family lives around 10 km from her cousin's home, was still to get details of her own.

Silence continues

She spent Friday and Saturday with a friend from Srinagar, who works in Mumbai. "We've been keeping ourselves updated through social media. I don't think the media is showing the true picture. While news channels claimed that people were allowed to go for Friday prayers, videos on Instagram showed that many were barred from entering mosques." On Friday, there were reports of people defying curfew to stage a large-scale protest in Srinagar. The following day, restrictions were said to have been eased in Kashmir. At the time of going to press, Zooni had still not been able to establish contact with her family, and it had already been six days. "With every day that passes, my frustration and fears are growing."

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