SRINAGAR: In his monthly radio address on Sunday, as the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi asked the nation’s poor for forgiveness, 78 year old regular radio listener Ghulam Hassan from Batamaloo, Srinagar, did not understand the message and turned off the radio.

It was beyond his comprehension why, for a mere 21 day lockdown, the PM should seek the people’s forgiveness. “Why should the PM regret the lockdown call? Can you explain to me why he was asking for forgiveness, especially when the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc across the globe?” Hassan asked Hilal Ahmad, his elder son.

Before his son can reply, Hassan adds, “Haven’t we observed a lockdown in Kashmir for months together, and yet we manage to survive? This is just a matter of 21 days, and this is a vital lockdown to save the lives of people from the pandemic.”

Authorities in Kashmir did not make many efforts to implement Modi’s lockdown call. Officials in the Jammu and Kashmir administration say that a simple message asking people to stay inside their homes and maintain distance between themselves was enough.

“Only a morning announcement through loudspeakers was enough to impose a curfew in Kashmir. People over the years have developed the habit of living under curfews and shutdowns,” said a police officer posted in the summer capital Srinagar.

Yet for the rest of India the lockdown call was unprecedented. In other states the lockdown deepens and criticism mounts over a lack of adequate planning ahead of the decision.

People in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra or Kerala had no clue how to live under curfews and lockdowns. With the streets deserted, markets shut, and transport taken off the roads there was chaos all around.

The economically poor majority were helpless. Under the lockdown, wealthy Indians self-isolate indoors, working from home and getting groceries delivered.

But for the dispossessed it has been an uphill task. Labourers and migrants assembled in the streets, out of a job, hungry and homeless. The sudden decision also forced migrant labourers to flee the cities and walk hundreds of kilometres home to their families.

There is a real fear these migrants could carry the coronavirus from urban areas to rural, which are largely underserved in terms of medical facilities.

People across the country showed their helplessness on social media. In a video posted on Twitter, a woman calls down to a crowd of people gathering below her window. They yell back up to her, desperate: “There are 400 of us here without food. We need help. There are lots of children.”

Emptied of most vehicles, Indian highways are lined instead with bedraggled, poor pedestrians, many carrying all their worldly belongings in bundles on top of their heads. Some cradle infants in their arms.

“I just want to go home,” one man sobs to a TV reporter. He says he’s trying to walk from the capital New Delhi where he worked, to his home in Bihar —at least 600 miles away.

In Kerala within days of the lockdown, due to the non-availability of liquor more than six people, mostly youngsters, died by suicide. To deal with the situation the state government has directed its excise department to serve liquor to chronic alcoholics with a doctor’s note.

But for the people of Kashmir the lockdown call simply reiterated the status quo.

Lockdowns and blackouts are nothing new in the restive Kashmir valley. In the twelve years from 2008, Kashmir has witnessed five major political agitations —which include months-long lockdowns, economic losses and communication blackouts.

Only in February Kashmir returned from a six-month clampdown, following the revocation of the region’s constitutional autonomy on August 5.

In 2016 the Valley suffered losses estimated over ₹16,000 crore during five months of unrest, coupled with loss of property worth crores of rupees, according to the government of India’s Economic Survey that year.

The most recent lockdown hit the horticulture sector particularly hard. In the handicraft sector more than 50,000 people were dismissed from their jobs. The hotel and restaurant industry got rid of more than 30,000 workers. The e-commerce sector, which includes courier services for purchases made online, saw 10,000 job losses. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that the first three months of the lockdown cost the economy ₹15,000 crore.

Despite these odds and troubles, people in the valley manage to live and survive.

Indeed the ongoing coronavirus lockdown is the first in the history of Kashmir where the government did not impose an information blackout. But at a time when people need information about the pandemic, high-speed internet access is still barred in Kashmir.

Khursheed Wani, a 42 year old Kashmiri journalist, was in Hyderabad at the time, but his eyes could see Kashmir. “When I drove through the streets of Hyderabad I could see my homeland Kashmir,” he said, sharing a video of the city’s empty roads.

“Never imagined to have a Kashmir feeling on the all-time-busy roads of Hyderabad,” Wani wrote on Facebook.

Another young student, Junaid from downtown Srinagar, wrote online: “Any Indian friends who want some tips how to survive in curfew days? Feel free to contact me, Kashmiris are masters in it.”

During the curfew, people of Kashmir spent time listening to the news on government sponsored All India Radio, or watching the national news on television. “There was no possibility of asking the government to play Ramayan or Shaktimaan on TV. All you could watch in Kashmir was what the government forces you to watch,” said Mohammad Younis, a research scholar from Shopian district in south Kashmir.

With lockdown troubles mounting across the country, the union government is saying it will not extend the lockdown period beyond 21 days.

Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba denied reports that the lockdown would be extended further. “I am surprised to see such reports. There is no such plan of extending the lockdown,” he told ANI.

Irfan Amin Malik is an online editor at Rising Kashmir

(Cover Photo: BASIT ZARGAR/ The Citizen)