A massive hoarding of a state-run life insurance firm welcomes you with “guaranteed peace” as you step out of the arrival pavilion at an airport in Indian Kashmir. But outside of this mainly defense aerodrome, the peace that prevails is that of a graveyard.
The Himalayan region has been under a complete lockdown for more than three weeks now after the Indian government ended the semi-autonomous status of the Muslim-majority territory that is disputed between India and Pakistan and has been the flash point for two of the three wars between the nuclear power South Asian neighbors.
The Aug 5 move to change the constitutional status of the state and bifurcate it into two federally-administered territories was preceded by the deployment of additional tens of thousands of troops and severing of all communication lines.
The controversial step to de-operationalize Article 370 – a clause in the Indian constitution that gave Kashmir significant autonomy, including its own constitution, a separate flag, and self-government over all matters except foreign affairs, defense and communications – is seen by Kashmiris as a move to change the state's demographic make-up by giving people from the rest of the country the right to acquire property and settle there permanently.
In order to quell any possible unrest and protests against the Central government’s move, the Valley of Kashmir, otherwise known for the beauty of its fresh water lakes, lush green meadows and snow-capped mountains, has since been turned into a garrison.
Officials in both Delhi and Srinagar, the main city in the disputed region, are reluctant to speak on how long will the curbs continue even as they claim that the restrictions are being eased and life is limping back to normal in the valley.
But streets and marketplaces in Srinagar and other places in the valley belie the normalcy claims.
Media has been barred from visiting sensitive areas and journalists are taken in police vehicles to tour the places that officials want them to visit. Foreign journalists are not allowed to land in Kashmir.
In Srinagar, the deserted roads are dotted by men in uniform, with assault rifles slung over their shoulders and batons in their hands at every corner.
Road intersections have been closed with spools of concertina barbed wires to prevent people from crossing over to other neighborhoods.
The skies in Srinagar reverberate with military helicopters, apparently carrying out surveillance operations and civilian choppers taking officials to the residence of the state’s chief administrator, Governor Satya Pal Malik, appointed by the federal government, months before its decision of fully integrating the state with Indian union.
The constant hovering of military jets during the nights only add to the anxiety and fear that has gripped the nearly eight million residents of the valley.
After three weeks of closure, stocks of essentials and medicines, particularly life-saving drugs, which people had gathered in anticipation of prolonged restrictions, have began drying up.
In some cases, Kashmiris who live outside the valley have flown in medical supplies for their relatives but other families are not so lucky.
Shabeer Ahmed, a Srinagar resident, traveled through the interiors of the city, knocking at chemist shops for a vial of insulin for her diabetic mother.
After walking and searching for three hours, Ahmed reached Srinagar’s upscale neighborhood of Sanat Nagar, where restrictions were relatively eased, and found a chemist shop open. He was able to buy an insulin vial that will last for about 20 days.
“I don’t know what to do after that. But at least we don’t have to worry for the next three weeks now,” he told EFE.
Flying out of the valley is also unusually different. As people board their flights after hassles with ticket booking in the absence of internet connectivity and with travel agencies closed, passengers are told to keep blinds shut in preparation for take-off.
On the Srinagar-Delhi this correspondent took, passengers, mostly Kashmiris, spoke in hushed up tones and asked each other if the airport was being prepared for a war with Pakistan and people were prevented from looking at the hangers possibly parked with military jets.
As the flight flew out, one of the passengers remarked: “We were even robbed of a chance to say goodbye to our land". EFE-EPA