An open letter to fellow Indians.
By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal
Dear fellow citizens,
Presuming that you are all English speaking, reasonably well-off or better and, like me, safely ensconced in your homes with enough provisions to last as the lockdown has been further extended, let me begin by dispelling all your romantic notions about the great leveler that this pandemic is and about the virtues of humanism and compassion it can kindle within our souls.
Amidst this nationwide lockdown as you find yourself trapped in your homes, you may all be trying to adjust to your new life with additional home chores or boredom to deal with.
And, some of you have also been reminded of a class of people to whom lockdown is as good as an unwanted appendage of their existence. In the last two weeks, I have seen memes, jokes and social media posts comparing the pan-Indian lockdown to the Kashmir lockdown post August 5, 2019. So, finally you can see grass on the other side of the fence. But can you really?
By any stretch of the imagination, there is no similarity between a lockdown imposed to protect the lives of people in a global epidemic and a lockdown imposed to rob and deprive people of whatever little power and privileges they enjoy. The difference between the two is as contrasting as the difference between “safety” and “control”. In the first, one can feel safe in the confines of one’s home. In the second, one can live in constant dread of random raids, crackdowns, arrests, and brutalities as homes no longer remain private and safe (like what you are familiar with) in the world’s most militarised zone. Do you realise how such situations destroy the lives of some individuals and impact the collective psyche of the people? Do you realise that mere absence of a shocking statistic of casualty is no solace for the people caught in such a lockdown, where one crackdown in a neighbouring locality, one arrest close by and one case of torture amplified for effect on loudspeakers is enough to instill overwhelming fear that leaves an indelible imprint on the memory and psychology of the people?
The August 5 lockdown was not Kashmir’s first. Bloodshed and brutality have been on a roll in previous lockdowns, though brief in period, in the last few decades. The one that started eight months ago had never fully ended when Kashmir again became part of the three-week nationwide lockdown. Can you imagine the colossal economic loss Kashmiris have already been battered by as you worry about the possibility of nationwide economic slowdown? As you whine about boredom and the difficulty of working from home, ordinary Kashmiris still don’t have that privilege as internet services are still only partially functioning. No 4G connectivity and no internet on prepaid mobile phones. Not only has this been the most prolonged lockdown ever, it was also the most stringent and absolute one. As courts continue to drag their feet over a bunch of petitions challenging the partial and slow internet connectivity, the Jammu and Kashmir government, in a fresh order, has used the pretext of the security situation and the “misuse of social media” to extend the partial blockade until April 27.
From behind your keyboards and your constantly beeping smartphones, you would have no idea what the Kashmir lockdown actually meant. It meant not being able to move out or even hear the voice of a loved one outside the confines of one’s home. It meant not getting to know if a close relative had died or if a baby had been born in the family. It meant complete information blockade even about the tiniest of celebrations and mournings that humans indulge in. It meant that patients on dialysis and cancer therapies missed their sessions. It meant that the underprivileged patients could not access the government’s healthcare welfare schemes, which are now fully digitalised. It took a month for landline phones to be made functional. For three months, there were no mobile phone services and the internet – so integral to “Digital India” – only started to be partially restored six months into the lockdown.
The difference between the two situations apart, learning to understand the predicament of another person only when you find yourself in a similar situation is really no compassion. Let’s not forget how some of you went euphoric in your celebrations over their misery or chose to remain silent either because you felt they deserved it or because you feared that you would be victimised for standing up for people who were being branded “traitors”, “terrorists” and called “villains” by television networks and the army of trolls let loose on social media. As Kashmiris were pushed behind an iron curtain, they seemed to have no friends in the rest of the country, which celebrated the full integration of the land they live in. Barring the support and solidarity of the usual suspects (the ones many of you would gleefully like to brand “Urban Naxal” and “Tukde Tukde gang” because they oppose your politics of exclusion or of silence), they found no sympathisers outside the Valley.
At the beginning of the present lockdown when some of you bombarded the social media with this sudden compassion for Kashmiris, even though the comparisons were odious and the timing not so convincing, I still had some hope that three weeks of experiencing just a fraction of some of the misery that Kashmiris face could make you more empathetic and sensitive. I thought that this period of isolation in your comfort zones would change the way you collectively think and perhaps begin to see the world in a different light. I believed, and continue to believe, that human minds can often be unpredictable, and the most unexpected responses can be evoked in situations of exception. But perhaps, this is not quite that occasion.
The reason for my skepticism is not just your inability to appreciate the far more distressing predicament of the Kashmiris, the reason is also the way you betrayed your cold indifference to the plight of teeming fellow countrymen, who were out on roads, without a shelter and without any food while you were cocooned inside your comfortable and well-stocked prisons inside the four walls of your homes. Within hours of the lockdown on March 24, millions of migrant workers had descended on the roads and took that long walk home, trekking miles to reach their distant villages without money, food. Weary and tired, one died of a heart attack on the way from Delhi to his village in Madhya Pradesh. A video of a small girl crying from fatigue and hunger accompanied her mother, who carried the burden of their belongings on her head and shoulders as they trekked on the highway, was heartbreaking. I don’t know if you saw that. I don’t know if you saw how some of them were brutally beaten up by the police for being out on the roads.
Many of you have shown your compassion by donating liberally for them and feeding some of those who have no money. But many of you have also been complaining as to why these people are going back to their villages and why they are out on the roads risking other people’s lives without trying to know that daily wagers like them have no means to pay rent or get food through the long lockdown.
With all means of transport shut and just a four-hour deadline to make arrangements, and in the absence of any assurances or any explanation from the prime minister who made that 8 o’clock announcement, what else were they supposed to do? Some of them managed to find themselves a space in the congested shelters that the Delhi government set up, some literally begging for food. (Needless to mention that 50,000 such migrant labourers working in Kashmir had nowhere to go even in August 2019 but you were too busy celebrating the victory of “integrating” Kashmir.)
But just as you thought eight months ago that Kashmiris were delinquents who needed to be shown their place, you have now begun to justify the ways in which the migrant workers and the underprivileged classes have been treated like vermin in their own country. Some of you have also been trying to invent new enemies or believe the propaganda of blaming Muslims for spreading the virus, without being sensitive to how this stigmatization makes them vulnerable – physically and psychologically.
That the horrifying plight of the poor and some of the religious minorities or their humiliation did not move you convinces me that it may take more for you to understand the plight of not just Kashmiris but any other people who are lesser privileged. They still remain the convenient enemies you can invent in your heads and blame for anything under the sun.
Let me admit that I do share your romanticism of a better world and dream of a better future, even a new economic, political and development model. But that would require all of us to look at the world differently, sans our prejudices but armed with the ability to see things from the perspective of others, and with the ability to pepper our good intentions with knowledge and reasoning.
I sincerely hope that we don’t have to go through more suffering before we begin to embark on that journey to realise this dream.
Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal
A fellow citizen
Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is executive editor, Kashmir Times.