'Plz Papa contact me': TV channel offers last line of contact to cut-off Kashmir

Staff at Gulistan TV have lost count of how many messages have flooded in over recent weeks. Every day, texts from viewers are broadcast across a banner at the bottom of the channel’s screen. Some are written by young people away studying at college, others are from Kashmiris travelling in India, or who have settled abroad.

The channel, which broadcasts to Kashmir from Delhi, is one of the few ways people can send messages home.

“Baha Ali, Imran and me all are OK and doing good,” reads one message, sent in English. “Hope u all will be fine there especially Mummy in Munwara.” Another, from Farhat, whose family are in north Kashmir, reads: “Plz Papa contact me as soon as possible.”

Many will not receive a response.

Messages can be seen scrolling across the bottom of the screen on Gulistan TV

It is nearly four weeks since millions of people in the state of Jammu and Kashmir were cut off from the world. From late in the evening of 4 August, landlines, mobile phones, the internet and, initially, cable TV services were all suspended. Hours later the Indian government stripped away Kashmir’s autonomy and repealed special rules that prevented outsiders from buying land. For many Kashmiris, the move was an unimaginable betrayal. They fear it will alter the demography and traditions of India’s only Muslim-majority state.

Across the world Kashmiris watched as TV news showed the region placed under strict curfew, with tens of thousands of extra troops deployed.

“It is choking. You feel helpless because there is nothing you can do,” said Behisth Shabir, who is from Kashmir but lives in London. She spoke to her parents after some landlines were restored last weekend but remains unable to call her husband’s family.

Who controls Kashmir?

The region in the foothills of the Himalayas has been under dispute since India and Pakistan came into being in 1947.

Both claim it in full, but each controls a section of the territory, separated by one of the world’s most heavily militarised borders: the ‘line of control’ based on a ceasefire border established after a 1947-48 war. China controls another part in the east.

India and Pakistan have gone to war a further two times over Kashmir, most recently in 1999. Artillery, mortar and small arms fire are still frequently exchanged.

How did the dispute start?

After the partition of colonial India in 1947, small, semi-autonomous ‘princely states’ across the subcontinent were being folded into India or Pakistan. The ruler of Kashmir dithered over which to join until tribal fighters entered from Pakistan intent on taking the region for Islamabad.

Kashmir asked Delhi for assistance, signing a treaty of accession in exchange for the intervention of Indian troops, who fought the Pakistanis to the modern-day line of control.

In 1948, the UN security council called for a referendum in Kashmir to determine which country the region would join or whether it would become an independent state. The referendum has never been held.

In its 1950 constitution, India granted Kashmir a large measure of independence. But since then it has eroded some of that autonomy and repeatedly intervened to rig elections and dismiss and jail democratically elected leaders.

What is Kashmir’s special status?

Kashmir’s special status, given in exchange for joining the Indian union, has been in place since 14 May 1954. Under article 370, the state was given a separate constitution, a flag, and autonomy over all matters except for foreign affairs and defence. 

An additional provision, article 35a, prevented people from outside the state buying land in the territory. Many Kashmiris believed this was crucial to protecting the demography of the Muslim-majority state and its way of life.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata party repeatedly promised to scrap such rules, a long-term demand of its Hindu nationalist support base. But analysts warned doing so would almost certainly ignite unrest.

On Monday 5 August 2019, the government issued a presidential order to abolish Kashmir’s special status. The government argued that the provision was only intended to be temporary and that scrapping it would boost investment in Kashmir. Critics, however, said the move would escalate tensions with Pakistan – which quickly called India’s actions illegal – and fuel resentment in Kashmir, where there is an insurgency against Indian rule.

What do the militants want?

There has been an armed insurgency against Indian rule over its section of Kashmir for the past three decades. Indian soldiers and Pakistan-backed guerrillas fought a war rife with accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killing.

Until 2004, the militancy was made up largely of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. Since then, especially after protests were quashed with extreme force in 2016, locals have made up a growing share of the anti-India fighters.

For Indians, control of Kashmir – part of the country’s only Muslim-majority state – has been proof of its commitment to religious pluralism. For Pakistan, a state founded as a homeland for south Asian Muslims, it is the last occupied home of its co-religionists.

Michael Safi and Rebecca Ratcliffe

Kashmiri communities around the world are desperately searching for ways to contact their relatives. On Facebook and WhatsApp groups, people share when they are flying back, and offer to take letters with them. A radio host in Kashmir, who had brief access to the internet, promised to relay updates, while many send text and videos to be played on Gulistan TV and other channels.

Weeks have passed since Sameer Gojwari, who works in Mumbai, spoke to his family, who live in downtown Srinagar, where there are often protests. “I don’t know if there is medication for my family, we have small kids in the family, do they have food?” he said, adding that his grandfather had heart problems and his grandmother was diabetic. “They need medication and they have to visit a doctor on a monthly basis that is outside the city. Are they allowed to go out? I don’t know.”

Across Kashmir, roadblocks and concertina wires have restricted movement.

“Mentally [the strain] is getting bigger and bigger, day by day,” said Gojwari. All he wants is to hear from his family, he said. “Even [prisoners] have the right to communicate.”

Government phones have been made available to residents in some areas but people have to queue for hours to use them and only have minutes to speak. Some landlines have been restored, but even these remain unreliable. On Wednesday officials said mobile phone service would be restored in most of Jammu, and in two northern areas of the Kashmir valley, Kupwara and Handwara police districts. However, these are far from the main city of Srinagar, and it was not clear on Thursday whether services had resumed.

Samer Afzal, who lives in Paris, has spoken to her mother twice over recent weeks, through her aunt’s landline. Each call has to be meticulously planned because her aunt lives in a different neighbourhood and cannot ring international numbers.

A few days ago she tried to wish her mother a happy birthday. “She quickly hung up. She said: ‘OK fine, we don’t have much time to get back home and it’s already dark,’” said Afzal, who worries about relatives making the journey back across the city. “Whenever I am able to [call] this stress [is] over me. I hope they reach back home safe and nobody harms them, nobody beats my brother and nobody takes him away.”

Over recent weeks, thousands of people have been detained, according to separate estimates collected by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press. At least 152 people have been hurt by teargas and pellets, according to data collected by Reuters. Despite heavy security, protests against Delhi’s actions still frequently occur in Srinagar.

Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard near a closed market in Srinagar on Tuesday.

Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard near a closed market in Srinagar on Tuesday. Photograph: Farooq Khan/EPA

Officials maintain that there have been only “a few” detentions, to prevent unrest, and that the situation is returning to “normalcy”.

Many Kashmiris are highly sceptical of government reassurances. “If everything is normal and this is a step towards progression, why were we stopped from celebrating Eid? Why can’t our kids go to schools?” said Shabir. Though a few schools have opened, most classrooms remain empty because parents are too afraid to send their children.

The communication block and restrictions on movement have severely hampered independent reporting, and there is a lack of reliable information.

Aleena Qureshi, who lives in Hyderabad, broke down and cried when her family called. “When I heard my aunt’s voice we both became very emotional,” she said. “My aunt said: ‘Everything is not OK here, [but] we are fine right now,’” said Qureshi.

She added: “I just want to see my mum, I just want to hug her.”


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