We hide from violence and terror. We hide from Covid-19. Is there an end in sight?
We in Kashmir have been under lockdown since August 5, 2019, when the Indian government revoked the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir and put the entire state under strict lockdown and curfew for months. We had never thought that such a lockdown and curfew would be imposed in Kashmir in the 21st century. But we were wrong.
Internet was shut down and media was put under strict restrictions. People were caged in their homes and nobody knew what was happening in the neighbourhood, village, or town. Then after several months of this curfew, the internet was restored.
Life returned to normal in March after too much snowfall during winter. People were half jubilant. They knew something was lost. They knew that Kashmir was not the same like it was before August 5. But they couldn’t do anything about it. Laws were changed and thousands of people were still in jail. And the smoke of terror was still in the air.
Then came the coronavirus aka Covid-19 with full flow, which brought with it a new lockdown. It had started in December 2019 but spread rapidly only in February-March of 2020. Educational institutions were closed. And curfew-like restrictions were again imposed. I, too, like any other young men wanted to reconcile with the things around me.
I immersed myself in books. I read many books during this time, like Iranian writer Shokoofeh Azar’s Booker-nominated The Enlightenment of Greengage Tree, Alice Munro’s short stories, Viktor E Frankl’s book about the Holocaust, Man’s Search For Meaning, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Albert Camus’s The Plague, Amandeep Sandhu’s Sepia Leaves, and Shabir Ahmad Mir’s The Plague Upon Us, and many others and also hundreds of articles on literature, politics, and culture.
I don’t like popular literature much, but during this prolonged lockdown, I read Cecelia Ahern’s PS I Love You and enjoyed it. After some weeks, I started visiting the playground and playing tennis-ball cricket there. But the peace was missing as Covid deaths increased with each passing day. Every day, someone was losing some dear one to Covid. People were rendered workless and jobless. One of the biggest migrations in India started with the announcement of a lockdown. Poor migrants died on roads and railway tracks. And nobody cared.
This routine continued for few months till the effect of the virus diminished. But these few months were tough. My mother in his old age asked me many times:
“Vi kya banne yath. Hartal karr mokli.”
(What will happen now? When will the hartal end?)
And I would reply with the same words which I have used many times since the 1990s when militancy first erupted in Kashmir.
“Kehn doh pati. Halaat gassan jaldi theek.”
(After some days. And conditions will improve soon)
And this question I heard after every three-four days, and my reply was the same on every occasion. And on the other side, killings of civilians and militants continued. Mothers and sisters continued to wail and families were denied the last glimpse of their loved ones who got killed in the crossfires. These dead were buried hundreds of kilometers away from their families and homes in the woods and on mountains.
Thousands of people were denied job opportunities as the offices were shut and interviews cancelled and because of no recruitment notices. Thousands were rendered jobless. Thousands lost the opportunities to study in universities and many in colleges. Children, without going to school, were promoted to the next class.
And when the half-normalcy returned, it was too late. It was exam time. And then winter came and schools were again closed. And when the schools opened this year, they have closed again after a month, before children started to read and understand anything. And this time again because of the second wave of Covid-19. So again the same story: Lockdown and curfew. Closure of offices. Deaths of dear ones. Mourning and gloom everywhere.
The second wave brought much more destruction with it than the first wave. Now, not only are the poor dying, but engineers, doctors, professors, politicians are dying of this virus, and nobody knows what is in store or has any clue about the end of this virus.
I have again started to read books like the previous year, but deaths and destruction have robbed the taste of reading books. The killing of hundreds of children in Palestine by Israeli attacks during this summer has made the atmosphere gloomier. My heart goes out to the Palestinian children caught in this deadly conflict. Children running for cover and hiding under rocks and broken homes reminds me of my childhood in the 1990s when we used to hide behind the walls and lay down in our houses to avoid being hit by stray bullets during crossfires between forces and militants.
And during one such crossfire, children, young and old, and even women started running away from our village. It was like bullets were flying above our heads and we were thinking that at any moment bullets will hit us too. It also reminds me of the children who lost their mothers and fathers during this decade-long conflict.
May this Covid end soon and may peace prevail in Kashmir and the whole of the world so that children breathe in the air free of violence and terror and start to go to school again. Amen.
Ashraf Lone is a writer associated with Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.