SRINAGAR: The amount of damage the Indian media has done to Kashmir is unbelievable. More than anything else, the press in India has buried the voices of Kashmiris. Since the “abrogation” of Article 370 on August 5, when the government decided the fate of millions of people without asking their will, for the rest of India Kashmir it seems is only a well, where words echo inside but never come out.

On a recent five-day visit to Srinagar I found only deserted streets, shuttered shops, unhappy faces and a Jhelum flowing in silence. The auto driver who dropped me to Lal Chowk asked, “If everything is normal here, why doesn’t the government lift all restrictions from the Valley?”

Rahman (name changed) who was the cook at my hotel explained how the communication lockdown has crippled normal life in Kashmir. “First I thought my phone recharge had ended, but then I realised it was a communications blackout.”

“We only came to know about the abrogation of Article 370 two days after it was announced in Delhi,” said Rahman.

On my visit to Khanqah-e-Moula, the oldest mosque in Kashmir, I talked to an old man sitting at the entrance to the shrine. “The situation here is not as good as being shown in the media,” he said.

“This is the first time that mosques have been closed. It’s been seven Fridays that we haven’t prayed inside the mosque. And still the Indian media claims that everything is normal in Kashmir,” the old man added.

During my stay in Srinagar I witnessed no Friday prayers being performed. People say this is the first time in the history of Kashmir that people have been prevented from congregating at mosques. For two months now the mosques are locked. The prominent Jamia Masjid in Nowhatta has been locked since August 5.

Many also report that schools remain largely empty. The government recently told a Supreme Court committee that the security forces had detained 144 minors since August 5, including children as young as nine years old. Unofficial factfinding teams report numbers running into the thousands.

Meanwhile, the “mainstream” media in India has tried to show normalcy with visuals of bustling traffic on the roads of Srinagar.

“The police stop the cars on the bridges and roads for long hours, and then take pictures and videos of the traffic jams to show normalcy,” said Abdul (name changed) who runs a shop near the main road.

I walked around the lanes of Old Srinagar and talked to locals to understand the situation. Stopping at a breadmaker’s, the only open shop in that market, I introduced myself as a journalist from Delhi.

At this the shopowner angrily said, “What the Indian media is showing is absolute rubbish. Why don’t you people show the truth?”

I didn’t know what to answer.

He did not want to be named. “The situation is not normal here. Our business is running a huge loss, normal life has stopped, and still the media shows normalcy through traffic on the roads,” he said.

Despite their anger, Kashmiris are still talking to Indian journalists, in face of the hard truth that the media is the only way they will be heard.

“Madam, now you are here and seeing everything on your own. So when you go back, please write what you see here,” said a man who came to buy bread and joined our conversation.

Another man stopped by to state: “We don’t want to stay with India and they can’t force us.”

As no public transport is available here, commuting is possible only with a few auto drivers who are plying autorickshas at their own risk.

“I will drive till 1-1:30 in the afternoon” said Gowhar, the autowala who took me to the Hazratbal shrine.

“The Indian media has mostly ruined us. People are angry and the media shows that we are happy. Kids are sitting at home and the media shows that schools are open,” he added.

The Hazratbal shrine was mostly empty except for a few people here and there. “The shrine used to be filled with tourists and locals during this season, but this time it’s empty due to ongoing unrest in Kashmir,” said a woman inside the shrine.

Rahim (name changed), a bookseller outside talked about how the media manipulates news here. “The markets are only open in the early morning, from six to nine, for essentials. And the media show this as normalcy.”

“This is how we Kashmirirs survive in our tough times,” he said. “People in Delhi think we are happy because the media shows them this. But honestly, we are not happy.”

I visited many places and spoke with many people during my stay in Srinagar, but could not find one person who disagreed.

The Downtown area of Old Srinagar has seen the most protests in the past two months. I heard that every evening stone-pelting takes place in Downtown, but is never covered by the media, even the local media.

People were so hostile and hopeless that no one talked to me openly. One pharmacist in the Downtown area asked me to leave saying, “You are not safe here, even we are not safe. If anything happens to you, then Kashmiris will be blamed.”

“I will not tell you anything. I don’t know who you are exactly and what will you write about us,” he said.

An old man in Downtown talked to me for a while. He said that “just an hour back, there was stone pelting in this area. The police took a 12-year-old kid.”

Locals believe that none of this will come out in a media playing the role of a puppet. While the local press is mostly restricted from covering protests and unrest in the Valley, the “national” media is busy showing normalcy in Kashmir.

If not now, when will the media realise its responsibility, and how much power it holds to tell the truth?

Nibedita Saha is a journalist based in Delhi.

Cover Photograph of Kashmiris at an Army recruitment rally BASIT ZARGAR.