Introduction: On October 2, 2019 it was the 58th day of the Kashmir lock-down. Of Kashmir's people denied of basic amenities, food and essential medicines, and modes of communication and information with each other and with the world at large. For the last fifty-eight days, the Indian government has claimed that Kashmir is 'normal'. Some of us disagreed. We believed if Kashmir is indeed normal, why is it under lock-down?
October 2, 2019 was also Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary.
Learning from Gandhi's chosen mode of protest against British imperialism, we called for a Cyber Satyagrah. We opened the Cyber Satyagrah to everyone, from all parts of the nation and the world.
The idea was dual: one, to protest the government though we had a sense that a government that has deployed 9,00,000 military and para-military troops to control 8 million people would not be moved by a few of us doing a non-violent, personal satyagrah
by turning off all modes of communication - phone, Internet, television and radio - for 12 hours from 10 am to 10 pm; two, to gain a sense, to personally experience, what it means to be under lock-down albeit for a very limited period. Then we write about our experience and share it with those who care to read. This we hoped will give those participating in the Cyber Satyagrah
and those listening about our experience a sense of empathy for what the people of Kashmir - who have been thrust into lock-down for the last fifty-eight days – are experiencing and undergoing.
Note: I thought I was pretty prepared for the Cyber Satyagrah. The 12 hour lock-down. I even had a dress rehearsal on a recent San Francisco to Hong Kong flight which was 13.50 hours long and on which I had turned off my phone and Internet. What I had discounted was the few movies I saw and the shots of gin and tonic I had had. Plus the fact that it was a journey to reach home. This lock-down was different. I was locked-down at home. Though it can be argued that this was a self lock-down.
Hour 1: My in-laws had returned from the United States a few hours before the clock ticked 10 am. We are at their place in RT Nagar, Bengaluru. In my haste to not spend an extra minute beyond 10 am online, I power off my phone. That is when I realise that besides using my phone to make and receive calls, compose and send and receive messages on messenger and WhatsApp, check my mails and Facebook and the Internet, take pictures and share them, I use the phone the most to check the time.
For many years now, I have not had a watch and my phone serves as my timekeeper. Going offline, which means switching off the phone, means being deprived not only of all modes of communication but most of all being denied the facility of checking time. By around 10.10 am, Lakshmi and I get into the car to drive back to our home in JP Nagar, Bengaluru. As soon as I turn on the ignition, the local radio comes up. I shut it down in haste. While driving back, I ask Lakshmi for the time. I honk a few times and wonder if that too is not another form of communication with other drivers on the road. After all, the people of Kashmir are not even allowed to freely drive on the roads. I have read that every 100 meters they are blocked by razor barbed wire coils and sentries rigorously monitor their movement.
Hour 2: By the time we reach JP Nagar in radio silence, I have decided to put my phone on but in Airplane mode. I imagine the people of Kashmir too would be checking time on their phones - minutes, hours, days, weeks, and now close to two whole months. The internet modem at home is on and when I check time again after about an hour I realise that somehow the phone has connected with the Internet. Five messages had come over WhatsApp, a few over Facebook, a few emails too had downloaded. One of the messages is from a young lawyer in Delhi who considers me her elder brother. Of course, I quickly go back to the airplane mode, deny myself the internet signal, turn on the computer and immediately disconnect it from the Internet. Yet, that message from the lawyer sister places me in a dilemma. Now that it has come, can I read it?
I decide not to read it. Yet, its red pending light glows on the WhatsApp. I believe in not keeping any messages to me pending. I feel someone from the big world has sent a missive and I might not be able to respond immediately but the sender deserves that I read it as soon as possible. I feel it is basic human courtesy. Yet, today because I am participating in the lock-down, I keep the messages pending. It hurts me to do something I normally do not do - be apathetic.
Hour 4: I have time to reflect on my work. I realise it is of two types. One is personal - writing, another is official or quasi-official (around my writing) through the Internet over emails. I count how many times I check the phone to get the time. At least nine times in the last two hours. Why am I so eager to check time? I noticed how on the computer, my hand automatically kept moving to click the Internet - to start a browser. Since there are no emails, the day seems empty.
I must focus on pending tasks. I decide to focus of the second type of work: compose pending emails, make notes that I have long neglected, finish pending tasks. However, I realise the access to Internet serves another function - of reference, of spell or meaning check, of data access, besides of updating myself about current news, of information of the things important and sundry. I am deprived of it. I am reminded of the situation in Kashmir every time I check my phone to get the time and notice that red pending light on the WhatsApp icon.
Hour 6: There are lists to be made. Lists of those who must get my upcoming book for reviews. Addresses of those folks to be acquired and entered in the list. How can I acquire those addresses when the Internet is down? I decide to focus on heating lunch. I realise that last evening I had given our house help Jayamma incomplete directions: make daal, I need to take it to my in-laws. I always feel hungry when I return from long flights and assumed my in-laws might also feel the same. I forgot to tell Jayamma to keep some daal at home too for lunch today. The fridge was empty.
I decide to walk down to the nearest darshini
for a thaali
meal. As I step out of home, I realise the people of Kashmir cannot even do that. Not only are they locked in their homes, their markets are also closed. It is a national holiday so the traffic is thin. I am looking at people, wondering if they too, like me, are in the lock-down? Of course, many aren't. Yet, I feel perhaps some are, some understand how I am feeling. Like perhaps the people of Kashmir must be feeling that some in India understand how they are feeling, what they are undergoing.
Hour 8: It is a bit eerie. Though most of the communication over the Internet is visual, text and images, I can sense my ears feel a silence enveloping them. Yet, I am listening more keenly. This is peace, a good space to meditate but I am getting irritated. I feel impatient. I feel tempted to peek once at the world. I resist. I get up from my desk. I walk around a bit.
Before leaving for the United States, my father-in-law - a central government pensioner - had left his important documents folder with me. I had forgotten to take it to him last night. In the folder is his government medical card. He needs it to fix his and Amma's doctor appointment. I was supposed to send him the card number but the lock-down had begun. I told him I will do that tomorrow. Yet, at seventy-five years now, he is an anxious man. What if he tries to call me today? What if he has already tried many times? He would worry himself. Worrying in a jet-lag from recent travel is not at all desirable for an elder man. I will send him the pictures of the card and the card number tomorrow, I hope he has the patience to wait a day.
My accustomed hand clicks the Internet icon and the Chrome dragon sneers at me: No Internet. Feeling cooped up is becoming unbearable. In any case, it is time for my evening walk.
I decide to go on a long walk. This time I leave my phone behind. Time has indeed slowed down and I do not need to know the exact hour and minute. My walking itself is a privilege the people of Kashmir do not have.
Hour 10: I come back and take a bath. Then I pour myself a drink. There is no friend home this evening. No one could call and say they are coming. There is no music on YouTube. I cannot put on the Caravan music-box which is marketed as a radio. There is no movie to watch. Netflix or Prime are down because of no internet. What should I do? I finish the peg in hand too quickly.
I pour myself another drink. I push myself to assess what is going on. On the one hand every indicator shows us that our economy is tanking and on the other hand we have this situation in Kashmir. I realise the government has hit two birds with one stone.
The Kashmir situation - including the role of Pakistan - is a distraction which will keep us riled up and will prevent any real questions on the tanking economy. Yet, the government has scored brownie points with its voters who will support it next elections in larger numbers. If someone were to ask the government: the very reason it took the decision on Kashmir was that Pakistan will now be answered then why is it that the government keeps using Pakistan as the reason to continue keeping the people of Kashmir under lock-down? But who will ask? It is an unending mess and the government will reap benefits.
Like all writings on isolation, I am reflecting on how important are signs and response to signs, the act of communication. How important to survival is a system, of sending a message in a bottle that I am here, where are you? How important is not only saying ‘I am here’ but also a response. As Pink Floyd sang in the 1980s, Comfortably Numb - Hello, is there anybody out there?
I start writing this diary of the lock-down.
Hour 11: Time has indeed slowed down. 57 minutes more to go. I want to burst and learn what my mates have been up to in the last few hours. All of us who participated in the Cyber Satyagarah. It is 18 minutes more to go.
At some point the 12 hours get over. It is 10 pm.
In the hour post 12: I pick my phone and switch off the Airplane mode. I go live online. I notice the battery which normally drains out in a few hours is quite intact at 81 per cent. Quickly, the number of pending messages in the red WhatsApp light on my phone turns to 39. Many more messages and notification unfurl on Facebook. A few more mails get downloaded. So many, so many messages!
If I can get so many messages in 12 hours, imagine how many millions or perhaps billions of such messages to and from the people of Kashmir must be pending in the cyberspace over the last 58 days. Messages from relatives and friends outside Kashmir. Messages from the people of Kashmir to the relatives and friends outside Kashmir. I know the Internet is vast but it must now be very heavy with all these messages. All these messages denied their destinations because the Indian government chose to ignore one message that had continued to be delivered for the last seventy years. The message that was embodied in Article 370 - a solemn agreement between the people of Kashmir and the government of India.
The clouds over Kashmir are indeed dense.
PS: when I read part of this long post to Lakshmi she said: the idea of writing it for someone to read tomorrow is itself a privilege. The people of Kashmir do not have the privilege, they do not know if they have a free tomorrow. Yes, it is. Privilege is so layered. Yet, I believe, writing is an act of a witness, recording a testimony. For there must be a court of humanity. Else, how are we to live?