Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir – Ghulam Mohammad Mir, an ambulance driver on the move, has not communicated with his wife and two children since Monday when the authorities imposed an unprecedented clampdown on the disputed region, shutting down internet and mobile phones, barring movement and bundling Kashmiri leaders into jails.
But that has not stopped the 42-year-old from carrying from villages and towns expecting mothers and attendants to Kashmir’s major Lal Ded maternity hospital in the main city of Srinagar.
“Except for Indian troops and their check points, there’s nothing visible in the streets. I have been beaten up at several places for helping the patients since yesterday. What is my crime?” he asked.
Mir knows he hasn’t committed any crime but his ambulance is plying on the streets of a new Kashmir, which has just been stripped of its semi-autonomous character – including its constitution, flag, and hereditary rights – by the right-wing government of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) through rush decrees in the Indian parliament, igniting an old powder keg of South Asia.
“Our honour has been sacrificed. When I heard about the abrogation of the terms of accession I felt like I have lost a part of my body. Kashmir is not going to remain the same area.”
“Zulm, zulm, zulm [injustice, injustice, injustice],” repeated a fuming Ghulam Mohmmad Reshi, 73, a farmer in northern Tangmarg area, who also passed through several military check points to reach the hospital with his daughter in labour pain.
“While we seek curfew passes from authorities to travel on our own roads, Indians are celebrating our collective mourning by distributing sweets,” he said of the state-run Doordarshan, the only TV channel being aired in Kashmir that beamed footage of elated Indians throughout the day.
Before India could end the special status of the region and split it into two areas to be directly ruled by New Delhi, tens of thousands of Indian troops were deployed to curb a potential civil uprising, in addition to already half a million stationed there. The lockdown, enforced overnight on Sunday, has seen all means of communication snapped and restrictions on movement imposed.
“This blackout is unprecedented. We’re forced to store videos and pictures in our pen drives, which are then carried to our newspapers and TV channels in Delhi physically by those flying out of the valley,” a senior journalist, wishing anonymity and working with a New Delhi-based news magazine, told Al Jazeera.
“Other journalists are begging for bandwidth in government offices and hospitals with emergency internet facility available.”
Although few leading dailies managed to print their newspapers on Tuesday, most of the stories were wires or curated articles. The local press remains dysfunctional. The websites of leading newspapers show stories from August 4 and 5 when the internet blockade began.
‘Won’t accept India rule’
The picturesque Himalayan region remains disputed by India and Pakistan, who have fought two wars over it since 1947. In February this year, the nuclear rivals came dangerously close to a third war after a Kashmiri rebel rammed his car laden with explosives into an Indian army convoy, killing over 40 Indian soldiers and igniting tit-for-tat air attacks between Indian and Pakistani air forces.
Armed rebels and civilian protesters want either Kashmir’s independence or a merger with Pakistan through a UN-backed plebiscite. The low-intensity rebellion against the Indian rule since 1989 has left tens of thousands, mostly civilians, dead.
Pakistan says by altering the demography of Kashmir and settling Indians, New Delhi could change the outcome of a future plebiscite.
Al Jazeera spoke with almost a dozen locals who fear demographic changes will now be inevitable in the Muslim-majority region, where non-residents from the largely Hindu India can now buy properties and seek government jobs.
“Our bigger worry is that non-state subjects could overpower us and turn us into a minority soon. The future looks bleak,” said Nabi Khan, 65, who was carrying his daughter-in-law to the city’s maternity hospital when news broke of the end to Kashmir’s special status within Indian constitution.
Inside her house in Abi Guzar neighbourhood of Srinagar, Safiya Nabi, 66, said she felt restlessness when her son told her about the fate of Kashmir’s autonomy.
We won’t be celebrating this Eid. It’s a mourning.
Ahmed, Kashmiri businessman
“I have put up this face only to cook for my family and support them but my heart is crying. We will fight in the streets but won’t accept the rule of India which betrayed us.”
The last time severe curbs were imposed in the disputed territory was in 2016 after the killing of a popular rebel leader Burhan Wani which sparked months of anti-India protests that left nearly 100 dead.
But this time, Indian authorities not only arrested separatists, even pro-India leaders, whose pro-autonomy stance forms the bedrock of their politics, were jailed along with their supporters ahead of Eid-ul-Azha.
“We won’t be celebrating this Eid. It’s a mourning. Under a well-planned conspiracy, the Muslims of the region are being punished,” said businessman Ahmed, who gave his first name only.
Fearing mass uprising, India ordered Hindu pilgrims and tourists to vacate the region citing “terror threats”. Police sleuths searched hotels and houseboats, asking tourists to leave the region, prompting a series of advisories from the UK, Germany, Israel, and Australia to their citizens against holidaying in the region.
“I have spent a month here and made many friends. My sense says that what the Indian government is trying to do is something which is not for the benefit of the Kashmiri people,” Rachel Jones, 41, a Canadian-born US tourist told Al Jazeera.
“So, I have decided to stay back. I feel my presence is very important to show my solidarity with Kashmiris.”
“I arrived seven days ago. I had a 25-day trekking plan but because of the announcements seeking tourists to leave I had to cut short my plans,” said Anuja Bose, a tourist from India’s western state of Goa.
“So far, I have been a solo traveller in the Kashmir valley. The people here are amazing.”
Hotel owners say the sudden advisories have killed their business in the region where economy is already in shambles.
“We were doing some good business. Not anymore,” said Jehangir Ahmad, 33, a guest house owner in Dal Gate neighbourhood.
“The police and the troops scared away our guests. And while I was shocked to hear India has abrogated our special status, some Indian tourists in my guest house rejoiced but I couldn’t utter my dissatisfaction to them. Deep inside I was like ‘you first stole our voices, and now, our land'”.
Others like Waseem Wani, 32, a businessman of Soura neighbourhood, said Kashmir is headed for a West Bank-style arrangement where settlers push and squeeze locals out of their neighbourhoods.
“We have faced atrocities from the last four decades but now I am really worried about the future of my children. What will they face?” he asked.
“When I think of all this, the picture of kids of Palestine comes to my mind and I cry. India cheated on us after 70 years,” he said. “But we will not let Kashmir become another Palestine.”