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.
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 Hours later the Indian government stripped away Kashmir’s autonomy and repealed special rules that prevented outsiders from buying land.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.
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.
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 form 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 movementhave 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.”