This report from inside Kashmir details how protests in Kashmir are being violently suppressed as India's military siege enters its sixth day and people suffer without basic freedoms.
Srinagar — Ward number eight of the SMHS Hospital wears a desolate look. In a corner lies Waheed Ahmad – his right eye blue and swollen.
The Indian government decided to ease the strict curfew in the Kashmir yesterday so Waheed and his friends went out to play cricket in a field in Parimpora within the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, Srinagar.
“A huge procession [of protesters] passed - suddenly, security forces appeared and fired teargas shells and pellets at the protesters,” Waheed said.
Waheed said he and his friends tried to flee when the protesters started scattering. Suddenly, something hit Waheed in the eye and he fell on the ground, unconscious. He was rushed to SMHS hospital on a scooter by his friend.
The curfew was re-imposed soon after. With all modes of communication blocked, his family, who were just a few yards away, had no idea their son was lying wounded in the hospital.
Waheed was struck by multiple pellets on his face. Most of the splinters hit his right eye, causing severe damage. These pellets are from 'non-lethal' weapons that discharge hundreds of metal pellets, or 'birdshot' and were used to lethal effect in 2016 to cause what some call the world's first 'mass blinding'.
In Illahibagh, on the outskirts of Srinagar, Waqas met the same fate.
“The government had given relaxation in curfew in view of Friday prayers. I sent my son out to buy bread from across the road. Everything was calm. But he did not return even after an hour,” said Waqas’ mother.
Waqas was crossing the road when, out of nowhere, a paramilitary vehicle fired a barrage of pellets at him, Waqas’ mother quoted him as saying.
“He said he felt something hit him on his back. When he looked back, another barrage of pellet hit his face, damaging his both eyes,” Waqas’ mother said.
Doctors at SMHS hospital say Waqas' liver has been damaged after taking fire. Both his eyes are damaged, even as doctors try to ensure he does not lose his eyesight completely.
The entire Kashmir Valley is under a brutal siege. The roads are teeming with Indian armed forces, with the token presence of local police.
The lanes and bylanes are punctuated with barbed wire and armoured vehicles. There’s a strict restriction on the movement of vehicles and people. Four or more people are not allowed to gather, let alone walk together.
On a barren road in Srinagar’s Qamarwari area, Fayaz Ahmad Zargar hastly manoeuvres through roadblocks and concertina wires laid by the Indian armed forces to curb any civilian movement.
Despite the strict siege that the Kashmir Valley is reeling from, Zargar has taken his chances to reach SHMS Hospital, some 4 kilometres from his home, to get medicine for his wife.
Zargar and his wife had returned on June 25 to Kashmir after his wife underwent chemotherapy in New Delhi’s Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Hospital.
He holds his wife’s medical prescription close as he walks – his only justification for 'violating' curfew.
“My wife is running out medicine. She has not had her medicine for the last two days. I have been trying to get out of my house to reach the hospital. And every time I am being sent back by the forces. They are not even ready to listen,” Zargar says.
Right outside Zargar’s home, there is a contigent of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) who ensure the curfew is enforced.
Today, Zargar says, the CRPF personnel seemed in a good mood. ‘It did not take me much pleading.”
But that was not the only hurdle to cross.
Zargar says he was stopped at least five times in a 2-kilometre stretch by different contingents of CRPF.
“At few places, I was let go after a few minutes’ pleading, but some were too adamant to even listen,” he says.
Zargar’s wife’s health has worsened ever since the curfew was imposed in Jammu and Kashmir.
“My son was supposed to come home for Eid. He was supposed to get medicine for my wife. Now we don’t even know his whereabouts,” Zargar says.
Kashmir has been under curfew so many times that people have found unique ways to deal with it. This time, however, Kashmir is witnessing an unprecedented situation.
The facade comes crashing down
The lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir started a night before the Indian government, to everyone’s surprise, announced that it was stripping the conflict-ridden state of its 'special status' that granted it semi-autonomous status through the Indian constitution.
Article 370 and 35a were revoked through a special 'presidential order' that many have compared to an 'annexation' likening India's presence in Kashmir to a 'settler colonial' project that confirms India's status as an occupier in the disputed region.
In the already densely militarised zone, the central government airlifted an additional 43,000 armed forces to the valley. It was followed by a complete communication and information blackout: calls on mobiles phones and landlines remain suspended; mobile and broadband internet services are down and local cable TV services are off the air. No news travels from one neighbourhood to another.
Under this strict seige, Zargar says, reaching his son is impossible.
“This is not a curfew. This is something else. I have not seen anything like this in my entire life. My wife is battling cancer and I can’t get her medicine,” he says.
After announcing the decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s (and Ladakh, territory that China lays claim to) special status, the government feared massive resistance and, therefore, imposed the curfew and arrested pro-India politicians that formed J&K's government.
On Friday, the Indian government announced they would ease restrictions in the wake of Friday prayers. People were allowed to offer prayers in their local mosques. In the historic central mosque, Jamia Masjid, in Srinagar, no one was allowed to pray.
After prayers, Srinagar city convulsed with mass protests, followed by clashes between protesters and the armed forces, who used teargas shells, pellets, rubber bullets and fired live ammunition into the air to disperse the crowd.
There is almost no news coming out from the rest of the valley who are even more severely cut-off. All the news that comes out from valley’s southern or northern parts is carried by those who manage to pass through hundreds of barricades to reach Srinagar.
There are a few points set up where people can make one-minute calls to their families and Kashmiris are taking advantage of short-lived glitches that allow people to access the internet, especially near facilities like hospitals.
Mukhtar Ahmad, a resident of Palhallan, reached Srinagar after two days. It is barely a half-hour drive from Srinagar. But with vehicles off the roads and checkpoints after every few hundred metres, Ahmad had to spend a night at a friend’s place.
“My daughter was supposed to return yesterday from Delhi. I have not talked to her since Sunday night. She has not reached home. I don’t know where she is,” Ahmad says. He continues his journey by foot to Barzullah, an uptown locality on Srinagar outskirts, where he hopes his daughter might have stayed at a relative’s place.
Kaiser Ahmad, who works in SMHS Hospital, says people in the Valley are caught in a strange predicament.
One the one hand, Kaiser says, there is an unimaginable anger brewing against the Indian government’s move to revoke Article 370 and relegating the state to two centrally-governed territories; on the other hand, people are feeling helpless and left to struggle for food, medicine and the whereabouts of their dear ones.
“I don’t want to imagine what lies ahead. I don’t want to imagine how people will vent their frustration,” Kaiser says.
The government eased the curfew again on Saturday in view of Eid.
The lockdown continues into its sixth day. The Muslim holiday, Eid al Adha, or the festival of sacrifice, is two days away.
All the grim Kashmiri faces make one wonder whether it is Kashmiris who are the sacrificial lambs this Eid as India seeks to stamp its authority over the disputed mountain paradise.