Kashmir From Afar

I haven’t been able to keep my eyes from checking the Kashmir headlines the past three weeks after the Indian government ordered all tourists to leave Kashmir, then removed Article 370 from the Constitution and instituted a communications blackout that is still going on.

Watching this happen from afar has been an unusual experience. Previously it was our families and friends seeing Kashmir in the headlines and wondering how we’re doing whenever our internet was disabled. Now that my family and I are living back in the US we are the ones being concerned and attempting to contact friends in Kashmir.

I learned over the years in Kashmir that outside news was not usually accurate in painting a picture of what was going in Kashmir. The situation is always more complex and diverse than what can be conveyed in a brief news story. Large parts of Srinagar can be mostly peaceful and calm while specific neighborhoods in the old city might be filled with rocks and tear gas flying through the air. The opinions and ideas of Kashmiris toward the issues of freedom and independence, pro India or pro Pakistan, separatists, mainstream politicians, and militants can be diverse and not always hold to expectations or the main storylines presented by the news media.

Accurately portraying what is happening in Kashmir to people outside of Kashmir is tough. It’s hard enough inside Kashmir as the local news media also presents differing stories and viewpoints. The J&K police and government share their side of the story too and no one seems to believe them. In a place like Kashmir it is hard to know what is really true versus what is rumors and lies, what is a planned conspiracy versus an unfortunate series of unforeseen events. People will believe their relative’s message on WhatsApp about a news event more easily than what they see in the news. Skepticism and mistrust run rampant.

Taking all that into context it has been tough to be outside of Kashmir without a way to know what really is happening. A few days before all phones and internet were disconnected I exchanged some messages with friends on WhatsApp. They were okay but highly worried and unsure about what was going to happen. Kashmir is always an unpredictable place but this seemed to be at a new level. Kashmiri friends who normally don’t over-exaggerate or appear worried by previous instability seemed concerned by this.

After the communications blackout took effect I was able to get in touch with some Kashmiri friends who live in other cities in India. They were as clueless as me about what might be happening inside Kashmir and had no way to reach their families. Eventually I heard that some members of their families had managed to call from a government office or police station landline and briefly tell them they were okay but not much other news. Then there were conflicting accounts between India news media and international media about whether violent protests were happening or not. I lived too long in Kashmir to completely believe the Indian media’s side of the story, but I know international media can over sensationalize things too.

Something else I haven’t seen written about is that not only are communications being blocked in Kashmir, but local Kashmiri news media somehow isn’t allowed or able to share their news stories. While international and national media on the ground in Srinagar find ways to share updates despite the internet not working, local Kashmiri news sites aren’t updating at all. The popular Greater Kashmir website still looks like a time capsule from three weeks ago on the eve of the blackout and Article 370 announcement.

Greater Kashmir home page with their last updates from 3 weeks ago

This is strange to me because Kashmir often has had internet blackouts and phone communications temporarily disabled for security reasons during protests. In those times the local media almost always updated their sites and kept sharing news about whatever was happening. While local media has their own biases toward the Kashmir story, I usually found them the closest to being accurate in sharing what really was going on in Kashmir during times of unrest. Not being able to check their sites makes me feel even more in the dark.

This week will start the fourth week of the communications blackout. I hope phones and internet are able to be restored soon and local news media can again post their stories. I want to see blue checkmarks on my WhatsApp messages to Kashmiri friends or be able to call their mobile as most don’t have landlines which have partially been restored. I want to know they are okay.

As for Kashmir I don’t know what will happen there in this new uncertain future. I have my own opinions and thoughts, but what I really want to hear are the diverse opinions and thoughts from the people in Kashmir. What do they think about this change? What is their response? I want to listen and hear from them. I know the odds are slim, but I hope others in India and the world will also want to listen, and somehow a wise way forward can be found for the common good of all.

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