Have you ever thought Farooq Abdullah would cry one day saying, “I don’t know where they have taken Omar?”
Omar was not someone but the former Minister of State for foreign affairs and former Chief Minister of J&K. We are not unknown to tales of enforced and custodial disappearances in Kashmir.
But Farooq Abdullah asking like concerned father where “they” have taken his Omar was something no Kashmiri could have imagined. This happened on the morning of August 5, 2019, minutes after the government abrogated Article 370.
Would one imagine former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti would knock at the main gate of her Fairview residence at Gupkar asking her own guards to let her step out of her house? But she couldn't. This happened on August 4, 2019.
The day Article 370 was abrogated, almost all mainstream politicians were detained and taken to Sher-e-Kashmir Convention Centre (SKICC) on the banks of the Dal Lake. A few months later when these political detainees were shifted to the MLA hostel from SKICC designated jail, we went to see the in-charge of the SKICC Javaid Bakshi. He told me and my other colleagues that one of the politicians when brought to the SKICC for the detention was so upset that he felt that he will be beaten.
Photo credit: Chinki Sinha
Javaid is the son of former Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed. Bakshi took over as the Prime Minister of J&K after Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was arrested on August 9, 1953, on the orders of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Javaid had advice for reporters like us: Be with power always and be on the right side of the power. His emphasis “on to be with the right side of the power” did amuse us but his advice was followed by many politicians during the past two years.
They switched parties, they changed ideological stand in spite of being in the public life and then they would refer their every U-turn as pragmatism and understanding of the new reality. In the dustbin of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, many such pragmatic species can be found.
On August 5, 2019, Kashmir was closed for all. People looked confused and surprised and shocked. No one would believe what has happened. Fear of the unknown was eating everyone inside. It still does. There was no internet. No phone service. Those Kashmiris living outside were dying to know whether their loved ones are alive or have died. Some of them were crying in the TV studios of Delhi.
Some cable channels in J&K were running tickers with people’s message to their families that they are well. Kashmir was in a different time zone at that time. Nobody knew what happened to others, whether they are in jail or in-home. And above all Farooq Abdullah was saying he was in detention in his own house and the government in Delhi was saying he is a free man and can go anywhere.
Omar Abdullah was detained at the Hari Niwas sub-jail. Mehbooba Mufti at Chesmashahi sub-jail. Kashmir Bar President Mian Qayoom and former Bar President Nazir Ahmad Ronga in Agra jail. Business community leaders including Shakeel Qalander in the Central Jail Srinagar. For the rest of 8000 detainees, no one knew where they were. In already militarized Kashmir more forces were deployed.
Photo credit: Chinki Sinha
In this setting I along with my few colleagues passed by a police station in the uptown Srinagar. We saw a woman crying outside the police station. She said police detained her minor son. I told my colleagues; let me talk to the SHO. This infuriated one of my friends. “Let us file a story. How can they detain a minor? They cannot detain a minor. It is a story.”
Curiously, we looked towards him. I told him the internet has been snapped and phones are dead and above all Farooq Abdullah is in detention and whatever you will file will remain with you, let us talk to the SHO and see what the issue is. That moment he too realised that Farooq Abdullah is in detention.
Two weeks ahead of Article 370, the government would issue orders every day. And after Article 370 it continues to issue orders. Every day there is some kind of order or circular. On August 2, 2019, the government amid the Shri Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage asked all pilgrims, tourists and everyone who is not a resident of J&K to leave Kashmir.
Earlier there were orders to the railway police to keep food stock intact. Before that, there was an order for more deployment of troops in Kashmir. Before that, there was an order for the deployment of the BSF. Before that, there was an order for the police to present in their places of deployment. Before that, there was an order for the closure of schools and colleges.
But the August 2, 2019 order was the culmination of all orders. People thought there will be war. Some thought Article 370 will be revoked and there might be a war. We have grown up in conflict. We have seen killings. We have seen our own helplessness. But the helplessness of that day was inexpiable.
People would rush toward grocery shops, buying whatever stuff they could lay hands on. The August 2, 2019 order created frenzy. People presumed if the war prolongs food storage might help. One of my aunts called us saying in case there is war come over to her place and her place is just three km distance from our place.
And I was thinking how war could happen in one locality and not in another which is just three km away. Long queues of vehicles were at the petrol pumps. The clueless officials would issue statements saying there is no shortage of petrol. But they were equally oblivious of the frequent orders of the government.
Where will people take their vehicles in case there is a war? A few years ago an advisory was issued by the Disaster Management Department. The advisory said in case you see a nuclear bomb being dropped you should stop your vehicle and drive in opposite direction. The notice was carried by local newspapers. Perhaps impressed with that notice of yesteryears, in the first week of August 2019, people were filling petrol tanks of their vehicles to move in the opposite direction.
Every night planes were hovering overheads. The war seemed imminent. At midnight a friend called. I said what will happen if there is war. He said there are strong chances of the war but the war will not happen here. “Why,” I asked. He said, “we are surrounded by the mountains and the war will not happen here.” He still believes in it.
And I think it is this belief of people that nothing serious will happen to us even in the war and assumption of the officials that in case of nuclear war one can drive in opposite direction, that keeps us going.
After the abrogation of Article 370, we started filing stories from a government media centre established by the government at the Sarovar Portico hotel behind the UNO office in Srinagar. Every journalist was apprehensive about whether to use one’s own email or not to send stories. There were only a few desktop computers and around three hundred journalists would work from there sending stories.
Some journalists refrained from visiting the centre as they apprehended that every mail sent from the centre is being monitored. Kashmiri journalists would show camaraderie with each other during the tough times and one of the signs of friendship was asking each other to open google chrome in incognito mode. This way your email will remain safe. But we all knew nothing is secure. Every kind official and unofficial was visiting the place.
Those days the government spokesman Rohit Kansal would come to the government media centre to address the press. To every question, his response was word: “dynamic.” What is the number of people detained across the Valley? He would say, the detentions are subjected to "dynamic reviews". I remember one of his quotes: “If there are arrests, there are releases also.” But he would never say how many were released, how many were detained. He would say there is peace and situation has improved and people have greeted each other on Eid.
Why then three former Chief Ministers and all mainstream politicians are in custody? His response was: The situation is dynamic and evolving and the government is responding to it.
Those days’ local Kashmiri newspapers were not publishing anything except Kansal’s briefing. There were no editorials, no opinion pages. One day I saw an editorial in one of the local newspapers and it was about Cambodian politics. Means situation was so dynamic that those who couldn’t even write two paras about the neighbouring state of Punjab were writing edits about Cambodia.
Photo credit: Chinki Sinha
Six months after the detention under section 106, Omar was booked under Public Safety Act for having skills to convince voters and Mehbooba for having Kota Rani like traits, Kansal justified it also said the situation is dynamic and the government is responding accordingly.
Henry Kissinger in his book On China writes, in October 1962, before the India-China war, Mao summoned his top military and political commanders. “China and India, Mao told his commanders, had previously fought one and a half wars. Beijing could draw an operational lesson from each. The first war had occurred over 1,300 years earlier, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907)…The “half war,” in Mao’s mind, had place seven hundred years later when Mongol rulerTimurlane sacked Delhi.”
Then Kissinger adds, no one in the meeting seems to have questioned the relevance of these ancient precedents to China’s current strategic imperatives as no other country can claim so long a continuous civilizational, or such an intimate link to its ancient past.
Perhaps the dossier writer of Mehbooba Mufti had also believed in historical continuity. “The subject (Mehbooba Mufti) is referred, for her dangerous and insidious machinations and usurping profile and nature, by the masses as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and ‘Kota Rani’, based on the profile of a medieval queen of Kashmir, who rose to power by virtue of undertaking intrigues ranging from the poisoning of her opponents to ponyardings,” the PSA dossier against Mehbooba reads.
Kota Rani is known as the last ruler belonging to the Hindu Lohara dynasty in Kashmir. She died in 1339. The PSA dossiers writers showed that they could maintain a historical continuity. That while booking Mehbooba Mufti in 2020, they could invoke an example of the Kashmiri Queen of 1300 AD and no one was surprised by it. It didn’t sound grotesque to anyone.
Seven months later when the government ordered the restoration of low-speed mobile internet in January 2021, Kashmiris resorted to the virtual private network (VPN) to use social media networking sites including Facebook and Twitter.
The government said that VPN is banned and filed an open FIR against people involved in, “for abuse and misuse of social media.” The police had already entered the house of journalist Kamran Yousuf and bundled him in the vehicle and started questioning him for some social media post. That was the beginning of long trauma for media men and women though the police let Kamran off stating they were looking for another person with a similar name.
Since phones were dead and one had to go to people and seek quotes. I went to meet Mohammad Yousuf Taing, the author of Aatish Chinar (Flames of the Chinar), biography of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to seek his comment about the evolving situation. I knocked at the door of his house, and Taing himself opened it. His face showed he was not happy to see me. I told him the purpose of my visit. He refused to talk saying he is under house arrest. I couldn’t see any policemen around. I left him in his own detention.
Photo credit: Chinki Sinha
A few days later a friend took me to the house of Prof Abdul Gani Bhat. Bhat was with his admirers sitting on the lawn of his house. I asked him about his views about the current situation in Kashmir. He paused and then said, "what situation." I said, “I want to know his views about the abrogation of Article 370 and the situation after the abrogation of Article 370.” He took me to the virtual tour of South Asia, China and Afghanistan and said let sanity prevail among the leaders of India and Pakistan and let there be no war.
The only person who would talk to reporters after the abrogation of Article 370 was a lawyer, advocate Mir Shafqat Hussain. Shafqat died in 2020.
There was a rumour Omar Abdullah has grown a beard. Rumours always prove right. When Omar was released, he indeed had grown a long white beard. In December 2003 when the US forces captured Saddam Hussein who had been hiding in an underground hole, his beard was in much better shape.
The police sources were telling journalists during their meetings that there are militant sights at a number of places. I too went to confirm and asked an official whether it is true. “These are hallucination sights. Nothing that sort has been seen in reality.” Gulmarg was most talked about. We went to Gulmarg to see how it looks. There was no one in Gulmarg. All hotels were closed. No one was around. There were some stray dogs looking for food here and there. In Tangmarg a hotelier told us that most of the stray dogs of Gulmarg came down to Tangmarg in packs as there was no food.
Reporting was difficult. As reporters, we would go together. It saved us in many ways. We will all file the same story from different angles. To ensure if trouble comes, the burden will be shared by all.
In Bandipora I along with a young colleague Aakash Hassan entered a police station. There were many youngsters detained in the police lockup. Aakash couldn’t hold back his journalistic curiosity. He started talking to them while I entered into another to get permission to meet a detained person. Suddenly I heard shouts. The main door of the police station was closed and we were pushed towards a room. The SHO shouted at Aakash asking how he dared to talk to the detainees inside the police station. He threatened of booking him under Public Safety Act. He hurled abuses, some to himself, some to us. And finally, he said you don’t know anything about the present situation.
“I know what the situation is. Farooq Abdullah is in custody,” I said and this calmed him down a bit. Then another official came into the room scanning phone of Aakash, his chats, his phone history. He was checking photos. He scanned his dairy as we helplessly were watching.
Since then this checking of phones has attained normalcy and most reporters go through it. After the restoration of the phone service, a police officer called me to the police station one day. There his behaviour reminded me of the Bandipora incident. Another reporter was already there.
Our phones were taken, laptops too. We were taken to a small room. We were asked to spill beans about where we live; whom we are married to, names of our children, names of our late parents. Our pan cards, identity cards, bank details, everything was taken from us. Even the details of our relatives whom I had not visited for the past two decades had to be shared.
We were let off only when our colleagues went to senior police officials pleading the case on our behalf. We had filed a story based on a statement of the separatist political party like others. These days’ distant and close relatives hate journalists. They don’t seize phones of journalists only but of anyone who is in their home.
Satya Pal Malik, the then Governor was describing every order, issued by his government ahead of abrogation of Article 370 as a rumour. He perhaps didn’t know that communist leader BPL Bedi, who was an advisor to Sheikh Abdullah in the 1950s, was collecting rumours and paying people for telling him about the latest rumour in the city.
The rumour in the city was that Article 370 will be abrogated and Malik was describing it as a rumour. After abrogation, he told an audience in Goa that his Chief Secretary told him that there could be a revolt in the police and about 900 people could be killed in case Article 370 is revoked.
One day rumour spread that at the MLA hostel where mainstream politicians were detained, there was shouting and sloganeering. Rumour was NC leader Tanvir Sadiq’s two-year child was searched when he along with his mother went to meet his father. His relative when asked about it,reflected the mood of the nation.
“Nothing happened there. They just searched the child. That is it.” Anything else, asked a reporter. “They asked us to remove the child’s cloth. But nothing serious happened and why to write it. Politicians, you know, are load mouthed; they raised their voice against it. This is normal. Nothing worth to write about it.”
For long there was strange silence everywhere. Everyone is still silent. Many in the establishment are worried about the silence. This silence seems strange, some would say. Don’t read too much into silence. In a place where people instead of justice ask for the bodies only, what else do you expect?
In the case of the Hyderpora incident of November 15 where families say their kin were killed in a staged encounter, what have been the families asking. The bodies of their relatives only. Somewhere some father has dug a grave and is asking for the body of his son to be buried there. Noise is dangerous here. So no one makes a noise. Poets, artists and even politicians all found refuge in silence and the local newspapers in Cambodian politics.
Sometimes Farooq Abdullah breaks this silence with his cries. Recently he cried in a Delhi studio, this time not over Omar but over rising prices.