There are two parallel developing narratives on Kashmir, demonstrating the unbridged chasm between fantasy and ground reality. Other than the political leadership, thousands of Kashmiris are behind bars, not just in Srinagar but in Agra and Bareilly jails. Some estimates say as many as 4,000 — and they aren’t all your stone-pelting, antagonised youth that the security establishment portrays as would-be Burhan Wanis. They include key figures of business and law associations, bankers, entrepreneurs, teachers and civil society leaders. Despite the civil and security administrations’ claims that restrictions on communication and mobility are easing in a return to normalcy, it depends on how the new normal is defined. Land lines in some parts of Srinagar (the Civil Lines area) are functioning but dead in the inner city and the districts; attendance in schools is virtually nil and there is panic as Class X and XII board exams approach in October. Shops open for a couple of hours and supplies are handed through back doors. Shutters are down in the main markets. An additional 30,000-strong paramilitary force has been added in recent weeks to the nearly 375,000 combined troops stationed in the Valley.
“Ask your questions quickly, I only have internet for a few minutes” messaged a photographer friend from Srinagar on Whatsapp two nights ago. A returning colleague describes the mood as one of sullen, stiff civic resistance: “Defiance is not measured by body count alone, if that is the administration’s definition of “normalcy” he says. A family friend and long-time resident of Raj Bagh in Srinagar has shut her house to bring her elderly, widowed mother to Delhi. “She was in complete depression. It was unbearable.”
One of the most authentic first-hand reports on the “dueling narratives” is published in Nieman Reports this week, the Harvard-based media foundation, by Toufiq Rashid, bureau chief for nine years of a leading daily in the state. “Every day,” she writes, “journalists gather in the basement of Sarovar Portico, a local hotel designated by the government as the “media center,” to file their reports. The conference hall in the basement is packed. At least a 100 journalists wait, sometimes for hours, to get their turn to access email via one of the four computers tucked in one corner of the hall. Most of the time, only two or three computers are accessible, since at least one is always occupied by an official of the state information department. Reporters write their stories on their laptops, copy them onto a thumb drive, and then try to quickly send them by email to their offices, via agonisingly slow internet connections.”
How can the Kashmir story be accurately pieced together with such an information blockade? “In previous crises,” Ms. Rashid notes, “reporting was still possible. What’s different now is how thorough the crackdown has been.”
What’s also different now is no one — neither the political, civil or military establishments — can predict how long the lockdown will last or what the fallout might be if some of the punitive curbs are lifted. Given the conflicting narratives of “normalcy” and an untested game plan Kashmir is in deep freeze for an indefinite time.