Podcast; Voices from the Lockdown: Amit Shah told Rajya Sabha situation in Kashmir is normal; Valley reporters test claim

The following is a transcript of a conversation between Greeshma Kuthar and three reporters — Danish Bin Nabi, Quratulain Rehbar and Kaisar Andrabi — from different parts of Kashmir.

Greeshma Kuthar December 14, 2020 19:39:53 IST
Podcast; Voices from the Lockdown: Amit Shah told Rajya Sabha situation in Kashmir is normal; Valley reporters test claim
  • This new Firstpost podcast entitled Voices from the Lockdown seeks to explore the ground realities in Kashmir

  • Addressing Rajya Sabha last week, Home Minister Amit Shah said Kashmir is already functioning normally

  • Firstpost speaks to our reporters who are travelling across north, central and south Kashmir

Editor's Note: Addressing Rajya Sabha last week, Home Minister Amit Shah said there is no question of normalcy being restored in Kashmir because Kashmir is already functioning normally. The Valley, which has been attempting to inch back to daily functionality, has reportedly reverted to a curfew-like situation. Posters have appeared across the Valley warning people from running their businesses and even taking out their vehicles. In order to understand what is transpiring in Kashmir, Firstpost will take a closer look at ten districts, issues specific to each region and then report on where things stand in the Valley. Firstpost speaks to our reporters who are travelling across north, central and south Kashmir who crosschecked Amit Shah's claims regarding communication, mobility, functioning of government services, militancy and the curbs on politicians.

Podcast Voices from the Lockdown Amit Shah told Rajya Sabha situation in Kashmir is normal Valley reporters test claim

Representational image. AP

This new Firstpost podcast entitled Voices from the Lockdown —which drops at 8 am every day — seeks to explore the ground realities in Kashmir, Ladakh and Jammu under this communications shutdown through conversations with journalists and experts from the Valley.

The following is a transcript of a conversation between Greeshma Kuthar and three reporters — Danish Bin Nabi, Quratulain Rehbar and Kaisar Andrabi — from different parts of Kashmir.

How is the situation in north Kashmir?

Danish Bin Nabi: Since 5 August, north Kashmir was completely shut down. However, in the first and second week of November, things were inching back towards normalcy. But as soon as (Home Minster Amit) Shah made these remarks about normalcy in Kashmir, things have changed drastically. North Kashmir is witnessing a complete shutdown, although there are pockets like Handwara, Kupwara and the main town of Baramulla which are operating normally. Rest of north Kashmir is under shutdown, similar to what the region saw after 5 August. There is absolutely no movement of public transport and markets are shut too. I have been travelling in north Kashmir for three day, everyone is telling me that just as things were getting back to normal, these remarks by the Home Minister have brought everything to a grinding halt.

Danish, there is something else that I want to understand. You mentioned that things were reverting to normal but as far as north Kashmir is concerned are there any sectors that have been drastically hit?

Danish Bin Nabi: Yes, north Kashmir is known for its apple orchards. That industry has been completely devastated by this shutdown. The apple orchard farmers aren’t able to operate like before. Apart from them, the student community has been affected as well. The business community is hit in other ways. Due to the internet lockdown, they are unable to fill tenders.

Students are unable to communicate with their colleges. I was just speaking to a student from Handwara Degree College who said that her college is unable to make contact with Kashmir University. The internet lockdown has halted all processes.

This seems contradictory to Shah’s statement on educational establishments. As far as schools are concerned, Shah mentioned in the Rajya Sabha that 20,412 schools are open and functional. And that exams are ongoing...

Danish Bin Nabi: Exams are underway but schools haven’t been functioning normally. There is absolutely no presence of students in schools or colleges. Like I said, there is no communication between colleges and University of Kashmir due to the internet shutdown. The university is unable to send notices and other material to their colleges. When I asked the student, I was interviewing, what the way forward is, she said that even college authorities don’t have an answer to this.

Internet has been partially restored in some government offices in Srinagar city alone, it hasn’t been restored in the government offices of north Kashmir.

I have a case which highlights this. It is from the Municipal Council of Baramulla. A parent visited this office to get the birth certificate of his daughter. When he approached the Municipal Council Office, the officials were watching movies. They said nothing can be issued as everything needs to be done online and that the certificate cannot be issued till internet resumes.

So the services which are supposed to be available at government offices aren’t available in north Kashmir?

Danish Bin Nabi: Yes, they aren’t available at all. There is another case from Shiri in Baramulla district. There was a boy who was bitten by a snake when he had gone to his apple orchard. He was referred to a hospital in Srinagar for an antidote. The store where the antidote was kept couldn’t be unlocked because they were unable to communicate with the person who had the keys. The youth died. There are many such cases where the communication blockade has created problems for people.

Next, we will speak to Quratulain Rehbar who will give us updates from the city of Srinagar and Central Kashmir. Qurat, I am sure you are aware of what the home minister said in the Parliament. He said things are normal. He said 59 lakh post-paid connections are functional, 93,000 landlines are open, 20,412 schools are functional, Section 144 has been lifted and everything is normal. What do you have to say about this?

Quratulain Rehbar: Just the other day, former finance minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha, who is on a four-day visit to Kashmir as part of a delegation, remarked after seeing the situation and economic losses that the situation is far from normal. This is someone from outside who came here, saw the situation and then reached at this conclusion. Even if (Amit) Shah is claiming that things are normal, the locals ask why then are prepaid services and messaging services yet to be restored?

I was speaking to a businessman who makes public documents like pan cards. He said that he hasn’t been able to do any work in the last three months. He said that when people are not able to get SMS-es and OTPs, which is connected to messaging services, how will they get these documents or even other things linked you’re your phone, like banking services. This is a simple example of how people here are still suffering.

Most politicians are still under house arrest. The rest of the lower and mid-level leaders are out, but their security cover has been withdrawn. What is the situation with respect to that?

Quratulain Rehbar: Nobody from the government has spoken about what is going to happen with these politicians who are under house arrest. National Conference leader and former chief minister Farooq Abdullah, who has been detained under PSA, his family is not able to meet him properly. They are not allowed to meet any officials. When Yashwant Sinha tried meeting politicians like Mehbooba Mufti and Farooq Abdullah, he was not allowed. It could be that the politicians aren’t going to be released any time soon and there is no word from the government about this. No statement has been issued.

What kind of political activity is visible right now in Kashmir?

Quratulain Rehbar: See, political activity is on a complete halt. BJP is the only party right now which is the dominant force in the region, because it is the only party which competed and campaigned for the block development council elections. Rest are all in detention.

Finally, we will speak to Kaiser Andrabi about south Kashmir. Kaiser, in his statement in the Rajya Sabha, Shah mentioned that Section 144 has been lifted across the Valley, he also said that apple trade, which forms a major part of the economic activity in south Kashmir, is inching back towards normalcy. He also said a lot of other things about hospitals being fully functional, petrol diesel, LPG, rice being freely available. Is this true, in the context of south Kashmir?

Kaiser Andrabi: See, the situation in southern Kashmir, which includes Anantnag, Shopian, Pulwama and Kulgam, is completely different from what we are witnessing in other districts, like central Kashmir and Srinagar. From business activities to education and mobility, all the processes connected with these activities is not physically visible. Though in the last one week, in the main towns, people associated with business activities are opening their shops after 4 pm. But in villages people are still scared. So, it is a different situation there.

The incidents of killing of non-locals happened in south Kashmir. That affected the apple trade and many transporters stopped traveling to south Kashmir after that...

Kaiser Andrabi: Yes, on 15 November, five non-local workers were shot dead by suspected militants. And this happened on the same day that a delegation of parliamentarians from European Union were on a two-day visit to Kashmir. Since 5 August, militants have been targeting truck drivers and non-local workers. On 14 October, a truck driver from Rajasthan was killed. And an apple orchard owner was assaulted in Shopian district. This has created fear among apple orchard owners and has affected economy. Farmers associated with the fruit business couldn’t operate properly, and there have been very few buyers. This left them with no option but to sell their annual production for lesser rates.

Have these incidents of killing affected general functioning of districts in south Kashmir?

Kaiser Andrabi: Yes, it has, it definitely has. It has created a negative impression in people’s minds because this has created fear among them. These killings were messages to people connected with various other business activities, it wasn’t just for apple traders. This was a general message to all these who were trying to restore normalcy in these districts.

Another aspect that Shah mentioned was that all newspapers and television channels are functional — the press and the media are working. And that, the BDC elections suggest that political activity is normal in Kashmir.

Kaiser Andrabi: See, the claim that media is functional is debatable. Media is functioning through a single media facilitation center where the government has installed eight computers, through which all media outlets have to access information. But they don’t know that district reporters in southern Kashmir are not able to work, because they have no means of access to information or internet.

Are newspapers being distributed regularly and smoothly?

Kaiser Andrabi: In some parts, but not all over South Kashmir. This is because public transportation is still not functional, so it is a very difficult task for news agencies to send newspapers across south Kashmir.

Because public transportation is not functional?

Kaiser Andrabi: Yes, it is not functional in these four districts.

There are many politicians who are under detention, and for those who aren’t, their security cover has been withdrawn. What do you have to say about this?

Kaiser Andrabi: Political activity in Kashmir had been missing after PDP and BJP coalition government collapsed. And after 5 August, it has completely vanished. There is no political activity in any part of the Valley, only BJP is operational in every district because their leaders and their workers are not under detention. They are, in fact, expanding their networks. All other local leaders are either under house detention or some of them have been released but after having to sign a bond saying that they will not resume any political activity. This is the first condition. Second, the security cover given by the government before 5 August has been taken away from them. This has created a fear among them that once they are outside they can be attacked.

The government has also said that militancy is under control, there have not been any untoward incidents. Is this also true?

Kaiser Andrabi: Suspected militant activities have risen. In Srinagar, there are continuous grenade attacks in the main market. In south Kashmir, non-locals are being attacked and killed. There are messages and posters in every district and town, warning people from resuming normal activity. This claim of normalcy kind of falls flat.

Shah also mentioned that all hospitals are functioning normally and that all medicines are available...

Kaiser Andrabi: Hospitals were functioning even during full clampdown as medicines were available. But the major problem is that they are understaffed. The staff are not able to travel without public transportation. This is the problem. All offices, whether government or private, are highly dependent on the internet. In absence of internet, most of the hospitals and other offices are affected.

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