It was not like catching just another flight.
“Will I be allowed to enter the city or will I be turned away from the airport?”
“Will my camera be taken away?”
These questions swirled in my mind as I took the plunge in these uncertain times — taking the flight from New Delhi to Srinagar.
The mission was to catch the buzz on the ground a month after Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its special status. The plan was to go in as an undercover journalist, mingle with the locals and get a first-hand account of what’s normal and what’s not.
‘Close your window shades’
At the Delhi airport, I checked a few times if Srinagar-bound flights were running on schedule and learnt that all was well. So the journey was on!
The moment I boarded the flight, I was face-to-face with a downcast mood. This is peak tourism season for Kashmir and the flight should ideally have been packed with cheery travellers. Instead, there were only Kashmiris on board, all heading home — an unmistakable worrisome look on all of their faces.
After an hour-and-a-half, when the plane was preparing to land, an unusual announcement over the public address system left me baffled.
“All passengers are requested to close their window shades during landing,” the crew’s voice rang out. It was a new thing for Srinagar-bound flights.
The air hostesses kept a close watch to ensure we followed the strange instruction. At the time of landing, though, I took advantage of the crew not lurking around and pulled my window shield halfway down.
The Srinagar airport I saw appeared hardly chilled out and bustling as touristy places are. Instead, it was a quiet and heavily militarised setting, with aircraft, patrols, lots of equipment and bunkers.
Claps of sarcasm
Just after the landing, as soon as the crew made the customary announcement — “Welcome to Srinagar, you may now use your mobile phones” — a loud and prolonged round of claps and jeering broke out inside the plane.
That’s how young Kashmiris on board, obviously aware of a communications blackout and frustrated over the pointlessness of switching on their mobile devices, mocked at the crew’s futile announcement.
This unusual scene was perhaps unfolding on every other Srinagar-bound flight.
As I collected my luggage, a few locals approached me with concern and suggested that I should take the next flight back to where I came from.
Their misgivings made me more adamant. The plunge had been taken. I ventured out of the airport and headed out to get a feel of Srinagar’s ‘new normal’.
Several cabbies outside the airport refused to drive me to the city where I could find a place to stay, citing security fears for outsiders in these tense times. Finally, a prepaid taxi driver took the call to take me in. He agreed to drop me to the Dal Gate area near Boulevard Road, where several hotels are located.
The drive from the airport to Dal Gate was an uncanny experience. It was eight in the morning and yet the streets were deserted as if it were a ghost town. The only sound was that of the cab purring down the empty streets. The only sight was that of CRPF personnel posted every 30 to 40 metres.
All the markets were shuttered. Troops, endless coils of concertina wire and stray dogs welcomed me to the ‘new Kashmir’.
All the hotels along Boulevard Road, the most buzzing touristy area in Srinagar overlooking the serene and unusually quiet Dal Lake, were closed. Some of them had been turned into temporary army bases.
I still knocked on some of the hotels, only to find their caretakers refusing to let me in. “It’s risky for you and for us,” they said.
One hotel manager, Yasin (name changed), after much dilly-dallying, agreed to give me a room, but he set a few conditions.
“I can give you a room towards the back of the hotel and I request you to stay indoors and not venture out much,” he said, cautiously adding that if someone were to ask me where I was put up, I should say I am staying at a friend’s place.
Asked who was stopping hotels from accepting guests, he said, “There are lots of people, especially unions. I will be beaten up if they come to know that we are keeping guests.”
Yasin later poured his heart out on the situation in Kashmir after apologetically saying that he can only serve dal and roti during my stay. “This is the peak tourist season. This is when we earn heavily. Some of the rooms would fetch us Rs 6,000 daily. But things are different this time,” he said. “Forget getting customers, every moment we fear that some stone-pelting incident will break out. Ordinary Kashmiris like us are caught between the military, stone-pelters and unions.”
With no tourists to cater to, all hotels have sent their staff home, with only managers and cooks hanging around so that they can send a word to the hotels in the event of an emergency.
Right adjacent to my hotel was a CRPF camp. Army personnel were posted round the clock in the neighbourhood, even outside the hotel.
It was a completely different Kashmir experience for me. The famed touristy city had fallen completely silent, with the only sounds being the calls to prayer and the regular thumping of boots of army personnel passing by.
Six hours of relief
“Vegetable vendors are getting to sell their stuff twice every day — from 6 am to 9 am and then from 6 pm to 9 pm. We buy everything during that time,” said a Srinagar woman as she wrapped up her hunt for essentials near the floating post office by Dal Lake. “These six hours are relief for us.”
Most Kashmiris seemed to have adjusted to the ‘new normal’ reluctantly.
Pirbaba, who sells shawls and woollens near Dal Lake, nowadays opens his shop at 7 am and closes it shortly afterwards, by 9 am. He fears goons may attack him if he keeps his shop open all day. “What is the point of opening the shop if there is no customer? They will anyway beat me to death if I keep it open beyond 9 am. That’s what happened to a shop owner in the Lal Chowk area. Who will report this?” he exclaimed. “The media is saying everything is normal!”
Before hastily shuttering his shop, Pirbaba lamented, “We are caught in the crossfire. America will sell the weapons to India and Pakistan for their business interests and these two enemies will fight each other for this land. We are badly caught in the crossfire.”
As I visited several parts of Srinagar – Boulevard Road, Soura, Lal Chowk, BB Cantt, Rajbagh, Tourist Reception Centre — I found Kashmiris questioning the timing of the lockdown: “Why did the Indian government have to do it now?”
“Tell me why did they have to do it now? We are heavily dependent on tourism and this is the time we earn and stock food for the long winter,” said Bilal Ahmed, a shikarawala. “You are my first customer since August 4.”
Hilal Ahmed, a tea shop owner near Lal Chowk, echoed the same view. “This year we are not getting to do any business. Looks like this winter we will starve,” he feared.
In BB Cantt, I befriended a retired state transport employee who invited me to his place to have a look at his dwindling food stock.
“The winter is long and we don’t have much stock. Don’t know how we are going to survive,” he said.