Why has a Kashmiri suburb barricaded itself against the Indian police and imposed self-isolation since August 9?
SRINAGAR — Amid a strict military curfew and communication blockade, the first signs of Kashmir's refusal to accept India's recent decision to remove its constitutional autonomy came from a small suburb outside the Srinagar city on August 9. A large procession of people outside the mosque of Jenab Sahib in Soura neighbourhood was met with tear gas shelling and gunfire, injuring several dozen people.
Ever since, the people of Jenab Sahib have been on a round-the-clock vigil, dispatching dozens of young men to guard the neighbourhood frontiers and keep the Indian police and paramilitary forces at bay.
The entrance has been blocked by tree logs, tin sheets, metal planks, piles of broken bricks and whatever comes in useful to block the police vehicles.
“The army has threatened us with dire consequences if we do not discontinue the protests," said Humaira, a 17-year-old resident of Jenab Sahib. "We are anxious. We fear for the safety of our brothers. They can be picked up by the soldiers anytime. That's why we're staying awake at night."
Inside the barricaded enclave on the afternoon of August 16, men, women and children were scattered in groups, joking while maintaining a fixed gaze on the entry and exit points.
For Rukhsana, 18, the trauma began on August 5 soon after the Indian government repealed the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, which was accompanied by a strict military curfew in the disputed region. She and her family have barely slept since. Indian paramilitary forces showed up in the neighbourhood, knocking on the front doors of several houses in the middle of the night.
"The soldiers would come thrice every night – at 1am, 3am and 4.30am – shouting into the loudspeakers and threatening us that the crackdown will continue and no one should go to the local mosque," Rukhsana said, recalling the night when Indian armed forces knocked on the front door of her house.
Surviving four days of intense siege accompanied by alleged instances of police harassment, the residents took to the streets on August 9 to protest not only against the heavy handed tactics of the Indian forces but also the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A, the laws that gave a nominal autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir state and, more importantly, safeguarded its demographic balance.
The UK's public broadcaster BBC World got hold of the protest footage, debunking the Indian government's narrative that Kashmir was "returning to normalcy". Due to a handful of embedded journalists who have large followings on social media platforms like Twitter vehemently defending the government's position, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs initially tried to preempt any possible criticism of the government's Kashmir policy by denying the BBC's footage and the occurrence of protest in Jenab Sahib, but within 24 hours it finally acknowledged the incident, calling the protesters "miscreants" who "mingled with people returning home after prayers".
To avoid police reprisals, the residents of Jenab Sahib barricaded themselves in, cutting the neighbourhood off from the rest of the city, which itself remains cut off from the rest of the world.
Rukhsana pointed toward her swollen eyes to describe the severity of their situation. “The men don’t sleep because they are protecting us from the army and the women don’t sleep because they continue to wait for the men to return. This has become a painful cycle,” she said.
There are several dozen men with pellet-shotgun injuries inside the neighbourhood. Bilquees Jan is nursing the wounds of her father-in-law, who still has some pellets inside his body after he was hit by the police on August 9 protest. Jan is also worried for her four-year-old son's health. He's unable to sleep and keeps riding his baby bike in the small alley of her house.
"Unless I go to sleep, he wouldn't sleep. You tell me how I can sleep in such a situation where our entire village is under siege?” she said.
Despite enduring the siege and the looming threat of police raid, the neighbourhood shows both defiance and resilience.
Shameema, 57, has lost her three sons to the 70-year Kashmir conflict. She feels the Indian government can cross any moral limit to force the neighbourhood into submission.
“We will continue to resist even if it is at the cost of our sleep and hunger,” she said.
Almost every resident of the neighbourhood detests the Indian media for "misrepresenting" Kashmir to outside world and speaking the language of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
They consider the international media the only credible source of information, a source they are unable to access due to the communication blackout. In view of the blackout, the BBC launched a shortwave radio service to keep the besieged Kashmiris informed about the current state.
The positive sentiment for international media is quite prevalent in Jenab Sahib neighbourhood as well, where a couple of placards nailed on the walls of the local mosque read: “Al Jazeera, BBC World News Respect.”
The fatigue factor has however started to weigh in. On one occasion while the reporter conducted one-on-one interviews with the troubled residents, old men, women and a handful of young people huddled around him and then spoke in unison. “We want international intervention, we want our sleep back.”