In their 11-year-old relationship, the maximum duration Suhail and Nazia have been cross at each other for is two months. And that has happened only once over the decade-plus span. “During that time, we didn’t talk or chat on the phone,” Suhail, 28, tells me. “But I still managed to see her every day.”Suhail and Nazia live within a distance of four kilometres in Srinagar, Kashmir. When they had chosen not to talk to each other for those couple of months many years ago, Suhail, a businessman, could still catch a glimpse of his girlfriend whenever he wished.
But the last two weeks have been full of anxiety, concern and “forced-separation” for the pair. “From the 2008 Amarnath land uprising to 2016 Burhan Wani upsurge, our relationship has witnessed every curfew season and phone blockade, but it’s never been this bad,” says Suhail.
Since the midnight of August 4-5, the Kashmir Valley has been put under a never-seen-before communication blackout, with government snapping telephone, mobile and internet services. The unprecedented security and communication lockdown came in the wake of Indian government’s unilateral decision to scrap Article 370 of the Constitution, and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir state into two union territories.For couples like Suhail and Nazia, this lockdown means no calls, no WhatsApp messages and no exchange of romantic voice notes. “I haven’t been able to see her all this time because of the curfew… If I hear her voice this time, I will scream and break down,” Suhail says, taking long drags of a cigarette. To placate himself, he swipes through dozens of pictures of Nazia on his phone, numerous times, every day. When her memory becomes unbearable, he listens to her voice over recorded calls. “I have also some recorded video calls of her; I watch them too. These days, I avoid watching movies based on love stories. I have also doubled my cigarette intake.”There are times, Suhail says, when he takes the risk of travelling to Nazia’s area amidst strict restrictions. “I go past her house hoping that I might see her but I haven’t been lucky.”
Last week, the Jammu and Kashmir government announced “easing up” of restrictions across the Valley. Now, landline phone services have apparently been restored in 35 police station areas of Kashmir while 17 telephone exchanges out of 96 have been made functional.“But that’s still not an option,” says Arif Bashir, a junior executive with a private company in Srinagar. “I don’t have a landline at home and even if I manage to call my girlfriend, she wouldn’t be able to talk in front of her family.”
Bashir spoke to his girlfriend Khushi* last on the midnight of August 4. He has no knowledge of her since then. Bashir hails from Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district while Khushi lives in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. They are separated by a distance of more than 20 kilometres.“None of our arguments have lasted more than three hours… the last time we failed to get in touch for a long period was during the Burhan Wani uprising,” he recalls, adding “it was she who came looking for me to my friend’s shop amidst the curfew in 2016.”
Bashir and Khushi, a lawyer, started dating in 2013. Six years later and during the current crisis in Kashmir, the couple finds itself at the crossroads of a life-changing decision—only that Khushi does'nt even know of it yet. “My office has ordered my transfer to Goa and I may have to leave next week. I don’t know if I will be able to see her before leaving,” Bashir rues.
However, unlike Bashir, Umar’s restlessness forced him to take some desperate measures to see his sweetheart’s face. Ten days after the communication lockdown, Umar, 23, went to Ilm’s* village, some five kilometres from his, and lurked in the shadows outside her home for five hours. The curfew was on.“I brought along some friends and took a different route to reach her place. When I didn’t see any inkling of her for a long time, I bribed a little girl and sent her as an emissary,” explained Umar, who owns a mobile shop.The trick worked and the two lovers were able to see and talk to each other for a few minutes. During that short interaction, the couple decided on their next date and timing. “I told her I will come around her house at 6 PM on Wednesday. She will be there,” Umar hopes. What did she tell him in those precious few minutes, I ask. “Her face lit up when she saw me,” he recalls. “She said she was worried about me and advised me to stay indoors during the curfew as the police has been rounding up boys."In those ten days without any communication with Ilm, Umar says he tried all he could to reach her. “Despite knowing that there’s no network, I still dialled her number dozens of time every day. I also read our old chats and saw her pictures on my phone whenever I missed her.”But while the communication blockade has forced distances between lovers, the situation has also cast its shadows on the Valley’s wedding scene.
Every morning, Kashmir’s local dailies are full of notices carrying wedding cancellations or families announcing that the planned weddings will be celebrated austerely and with few guests.
Sadaf Bushra, a journalism professor at a Srinagar college, spoke to her fiancé last on the night of August 4. Since then, she has no idea about where or how he is. Her fiancé, Irfan, is a businessman in Russia and was scheduled to reach his home in Srinagar for their wedding ceremony originally scheduled on August 16. But she has no idea whether he has returned. “His family lives just five kilometres from my home but we don’t know anything about them,” she says.Their marriage is now scheduled at the end of this month. That means they still have some time to wait for the situation to normalise. Yet, she is afraid of taking chances. “The situation can change for the worse in just days. We have pruned the guest list from 500 to 30. It will be a simple ceremony and there will be only close relatives.”The only means of communication between the two families is a matchmaker who shuttles between the families with messages regarding the ceremony. No family has any means to know whether the message has been delivered to the other side. “He [the matchmaker] has to navigate through restrictions and only moves when there’s some public movement on the roads. Of course, he doesn’t want to jeopardize his life for us.”
When this reporter met Bushra at her home last week, dozens of sealed invitation cards lay stacked in one of the corners of her living room. “No one has touched them, because they are of no use now,” Bushra said, while tearing off one of the packets.But besides modest celebrations, the situation unfolding in the Valley has also meant a financial loss for Bushra’s family. “We had booked a community centre, make-up artist, designer and paid around Rs 1.5-2 lakh in advance. That’s all gone now.”In his first address after the abrogation of Article 370, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the government’s decision will bring “normalcy” and “development” in the now divided state of Jammu and Kashmir. But lovebirds like Suhail are not impressed and call it plain rhetoric. Suhail’s observation is poetic as well as political: “Anything that separates two lovers can never bring peace.”*Names changed to protect privacyFollow Safwat Zargar on Twitter.