Kashmiris Struggling To Get In Touch With Loved Ones After Communication Blackout

Aug 22, 2019
Originally published on August 22, 2019 7:57 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A story from overseas now. It's been two and a half weeks since India's stripped its northern state of Jammu and Kashmir of its special constitutional status. It also cut phones and Internet there. The Indian government says those are being restored, but many Kashmiris are still struggling to get in touch with loved ones, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: A man named Ahmad unfurls silk carpets from his native Kashmir at his shop in Mumbai, but he's preoccupied, desperate for news from his family back home. Their phones and Internet have been cut for going on 18 days. He's had only one phone call from his mother - from a police station.

AHMAD: She was on a queue, and it took her three to four hours to reach the phone booth to call me. It was a 1-minute limit call, 30 seconds was cry - she cried.

FRAYER: Finally his mother managed to tell him she's safe, but an elderly uncle had died. By the time Ahmad got the news, the man had been buried more than a week. India says most landlines are now back up in Kashmir but not Ahmad's mother's, nor any of his relatives. Out of 20 landlines NPR called in the main city of Srinagar, 15 of them gave error messages like this one.

AUTOMATED VOICE: This call cannot be connected. Please try later.

FRAYER: Only two phones were answered - at a school and a clinic - and receptionists said they'd seen stone-throwing demonstrators outside. The government, though, is trying to convey a picture of order.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SYED SEHRISH ASGAR: Hospitals and banks are functioning normally in all districts of Jammu and Kashmir.

FRAYER: At a briefing yesterday in Srinagar, government spokeswoman Syed Sehrish Asgar said ATMs are back online, and medicines are being delivered. Schools have reopened but attendance is less than half, she said.

AHMAD: This is silk.

FRAYER: Beautiful.

Back at his Mumbai carpet shop, Ahmad and his colleague, Shora, wait by the phone. I'm not using their full names. They're frightened for the safety of their families. Thousands of Kashmiris have been arrested in recent weeks. Shora has two sons aged 8 and 2 who live with his wife in Srinagar.

SHORA: Each and every second, I am thinking of all my family. I'm very disturbed. I'm fed up because I don't know what is happening there. Is this democracy?

FRAYER: The government says it's taking away Kashmir's autonomy to better integrate it into India. It's even planning an investment conference there this fall. But these carpet sellers are not convinced. They say a lot of Kashmiris are angry. All they care about right now is reaching their families. But once restrictions are lifted, protests and possibly violence could break out.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.