TORONTO — Kashmir has about the same population as Ontario.
That’s what 23-year-old student Sanna Wani thought, while driving around her home in Mississauga, Ont, after returning from a visit to the Indian subcontinent,. But she feels much safer here than she did there.
Wani and her family had just managed to get out of Kashmir, where they had been since mid-July. Her parents live in the region during the summer and she and her siblings had travelled together to be with them.
The region, on the northern borders of India and Pakistan and the southwestern border of China, has long been the site of conflict as those three countries continue to claim land while Indigenous Kashmiris try to hold on to some sense of independence.
The morning Wani left, on Aug. 5, was the same day the Indian government enacted a total lockdown of the Indian-controlled regions of Jammu and Kashmir. A curfew was put in place; shops, schools, any place of business was closed, and any form of communication was shut down.
Since then, more than 12 million Kashmiris have been stuck in the region with little to no contact with the outside world.
WATCH: Why Kashmir is mired in conflict.
Since 1947, three parts of the larger region known as Kashmir have been under Indian control and deemed an Indian state. Kashmiris were given some sense of autonomy. They had a separate flag, a separate legislative assembly. Article 370 and 35A were the laws that gave Kashmiris this protection.
They first recognized Kashmir’s special status as a region autonomous from India, which was allowed to legislate its own laws. Article 35A protected Kashmiri from outside interference - making it so that only local residents were allowed to purchase land and vote in their elections. This legislation protected Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state from external settlement and control.
That all changed on Aug. 5 when the Indian government issued a presidential order to repeal both Articles 370 and 35A at the same time as the lockdown.
“No one knew the [articles were] repealed,” Wani told HuffPost Canada. “Only people in the airport that had access to some sort of communication found out.”
“There was no way of spreading it other than word-of-mouth.”
Then, through hospitals, Whatsapp, and announcements from mosques, people started hearing about the spectre of a 24-hour curfew, Wani said.
Her father bought the family plane tickets, focused on bringing her grandmother and pregnant cousin out of the country with them. The curfew was confirmed around 10 p.m. on Aug. 4, when the family received flashing messages on their phone. It would start in seven hours.
“I was very much in the mindset that it would be fine, because I’ve been in Kashmir before when there’s been curfew,” said Wani. “But it was not like this.”
Back in Canada, Suraiya Siddiqui, an office administrator in North York, Ont., was saying what seemed like final goodbyes to her family in Kashmir.
“The last message was from my sister on Sunday,” said Siddiqui, who’s lived with her family in Canada for 23 years since moving from the region.
“She told me the internet might be down, and that she didn’t know when we might talk again. Just love and hugs, and to take care of myself.”
That was three weeks ago, and Siddiqui, 61, hasn’t heard from her family since. She used to receive a call every week. Her family in Canada tried to celebrate Eid, but it didn’t feel like a festival without knowing how her family was doing.
“Who celebrated it? We’re literally prisoners.”
Growing up in Kashmir and partially raising her children there, Siddiqui’s seen what the conflict looks like firsthand. She left with her family in 1994, when the armed conflict reached its peak.
Her children, she said, grew up being able to differentiate the sounds of different guns. But they were lucky to be able to leave.
“Can you imagine the mindset of that generation? Who have grown up seeing nothing but violence,” said Siddiqui. “Most of them are in their 30s and come to this point where they don’t even have a state.”
“We’ve been fighting for our independence. They’ve shattered the very basis of what we were.”
The morning of their sudden departure, Wani and her family headed for the airport at 8 a.m. The days before curfew, the streets were in disarray. Wanni saw what she said seemed like a million people heading to shops and stalls to stock up on what they could. Some bankrupting themselves to be able to stock up on provisions.
At that point, Indian officials were still trying to pass off a sense of normalcy, telling anyone who asked that nothing was going to happen.
Within five minutes of their trip, Wanni and her family encountered a military blockade. She said about 30 to 40 soldiers surrounded the barriers covered with barbed wire and signs telling people to stop. It would be the first of at least eight blockades they would have to pass.
“The first thing they ask is what you are doing outside,” said Wanni. She said her dad got out of the car, a risky move, to explain to the officers that he had plane tickets to leave. Each blockade depended on the temperament of the officer. In some areas, Wanni said, the Indian army wouldn’t let them pass no matter the reason.
When faced with rejection, experienced Kashmiris like Wanni’s father knew it was best to walk away and try another route.
“It’s an unspoken rule that you don’t try to argue with them.”
About four hours after they left, after begging officer after officer at several blockades, Wanni and her family made it to the airport. But they were worried about their driver, who would have to make it all the way back into town.
They tried to secure a curfew pass for him but the best they could manage was a printout of their boarding passes that he could show soldiers as a reason for breaking curfew. They don’t know if he got home safe
At the airport, her family received confirmation about everything that had really happened. The articles had been revoked, Kashmiri politicians had been arrested, and any idea of an independent Kashmir no longer existed.
As she boarded the plane, Wanni heard chants from supporters of e Indian government, celebrating the revocation of Kashmir’s protections as a national victory.
Wani said it’s the most tense she’s ever seen her father, who’s been in Kashmir many times over the years and seen its repeated conflicts.
“To put it in Canadian Indigenous terms, it’s really the beginning of a settler colonial project in that part of the world,” said Idrissa Pandit, a Kashmiri academic based in London, Ont. who works with the Kashmirs Scholars Consultative and Action Network, a group of policy makers.
Her work has focused on the conflict’s effect on women and children. In her years of keeping track of the region, this is the first time Pandit’s not seen an enthusiastic Eid celebration for Kashmiris in the region and around the world. The Islamic holiday has always been a major celebration in the region and for Kashmiris around the world. In her years of keeping track of the region, this is the first time Pandit’s seen celebrations dampened around the world.
“They have just been holding eight million people hostage,” she said. “The fundamental issue right now is the survival of millions of people who are under strict curfew.”
“People need to be able to live to do anything else.”
For Pandit and other Kashmiris, this lockdown has seemed different from others because of its aggressiveness, the speed of implementation, and the Indian government’s lack of distinction between Kashmiri politicians who supported separation and those who pledged allegiance to the Indian state.
“The reality on the ground has completely changed. Everybody is treated as an enemy, including the political leaders who owed loyalty to the Indian state over decades now.”
Coping back in Canada
Pandit, Wani and Siddiqui all now face the same problem — not being able to get in touch with their families.
They don’t know if they’re running out of food or medicine or other basic provisions. They probably wouldn’t find out right away if someone dies.
Siddiqui said the only way she’s heard of people getting in touch is through police stations and hospitals. Some Kashmiris have called asking for family members at police stations. If the officer agrees to help, she said the family member is brought to the station where they can speak on the phone, in the presence of police officers.
“Everybody says it’s fine and then they mumble, ‘We can’t talk,’” she said. “The only consolation is knowing that at least the person is alive.”
Siddiqui still texts her sister everyday hoping for a response.
To cope with the lack of information, the three women have turned to activism.
Wanni has exhausted herself trying to talk to anyone who will listen. Siddiqui attended a protest at the Indian embassy in Toronto with other members of the Kashmiri diaspora. Pandit sent a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, asking for Canada to intercede in some way.
The academic thinks Canada can play an “important” and “proactive” role as a peacemaker in the region, working alongside the United Nations.
One of Pandit’s requests was that Freeland make a public statement, which did happen, but it doesn’t name India anywhere.
“That statement does not at all speak to the current misery of the people of Kashmir, who have been under curfew, and our complete state of darkness from our own families,” Pandit said. “It doesn’t even speak to the humanitarian crisis that is going on there.”
Pandit said Kashmiris find themselves outnumbered against an Indian diaspora with strong opinions.
“There’s never a cool-headed, factual on-the-ground reality that anyone is willing to buy, because they have been brought up with lies about a place that have been made to believe as ‘the part of the country cannot live without,’ no matter what the will of the people is.”
Pandit’s whole family is still in Kashmir. Like other Kashmiri expats, she hasn’t heard from any of them. She said the messages she received from them and from a network of journalists she keeps in touch with were like “last goodbyes.”
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”
Wani feels frustrated with the lack of attention on the issue and is relentlessly trying to bring light to it.
“I feel like until the curfew lifts, I’m not going to be able to stop talking,” she said. “I think that’s what I feel like my obligation is, as someone who was privileged enough to get out.”
She often dwells on the population of Kashmir being roughly the same as that of Ontario.
“If Ontario was shut down the way Kashmir was shut down right now, it would be an international crisis,” she said. “And then to think about why Kashmiris are allowed to be taken advantage of — it’s such a privilege of location, it’s such a privilege we get to live in this place.”