Kashmir’s five-month blackout: Life in a swirl of rumors

Why We Wrote This

Amid an internet shutdown, many Kashmiris have felt cut off from not just the outside world, but truth and a sense of trust. As the blackout starts to lift, one writer looks back at months in the dark.

Danish Ismail/Reuters/File
A Kashmiri girl rides her bicycle past Indian security force personnel standing guard in front of closed shops in a street in Srinagar, Oct. 30, 2019.

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One day in early August, Kashmiri teenager Adil Ahanger walked anxiously toward his father in their kitchen.

Were India and Pakistan at war, he asked?

The answer was no. But it’s the kind of alarming rumor that has swirled around Kashmir since summer, when New Delhi instituted the most sweeping changes to the contested region in decades – and promptly instituted a communications blackout, too, the longest ever imposed in a democracy.

Without steady phone or internet service, Kashmiris have navigated the crisis largely by rumor. For months, “news” has been a matter of hearsay: dapaan this; no, dapaan that. It’s a word that loosely translates as “they say,” or “it is said”; a word without a face, attached to any tidbit of information without a sure source. Misinformation spread like wildfire, along with fear, as people munched through rumors, with little way of confirming or disproving them.

This month, India’s Supreme Court ordered a review of the blackout, and internet access started to crawl back – 301 government-approved sites, that is. That leaves Kashmir residents once again saying, dapaan, they say the internet will be restored.

For Indian-controlled Kashmir, the past five months have been a roller coaster, the rockiest, most consequential in decades: an influx of troops; its autonomy stripped; a security clampdown; thousands of arrests; a near-brush with war, between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan; and a communications blackout, the longest ever in a democracy.

But as confusion and chaos grew, the rumors had one thing in common: dapaan.

Loosely translated as “they say,” or “it is said,” dapaan is a word without a face, attached to any tidbit of information without a sure source. It’s a catchall for anything from fact to fiction, news to rumors. And this fall, as Kashmiris lived under an unprecedented blockade, it’s the rumors that tended to multiply.

Sometimes, they proved true.

On July 25, about 10,000 troops were suddenly deployed to Jammu and Kashmir, already the largest militarized zone in the world: a semi-autonomous, Muslim-majority state, in a region India and Pakistan has fought over several times. The Hindu nationalist party in New Delhi had already made clear its intention of taking major steps in Kashmir, after a resounding electoral victory. Then, in early August, pilgrims and tourists were told to leave the state, as the military was put on high alert.

The developments proved to be a perfect recipe for something the residents of the Himalayan region, no stranger to conflict, had never witnessed at quite this scale: panic.

Residents stocked up on essentials, petrol pumps were overcrowded, and roads witnessed massive traffic jams. Some assumed the government was simply creating space for fear to breed. “People bought whatever they could. All of them seemed to be in a hurry,” says department store owner Mohammed Zubair, who worried he did not have enough staff for the “incessant gush” of customers.

Dapaan India will strike Pakistan.

Dapaan curfew passes have been distributed.

Dapaan Ganesh picket has been captured by Pakistan.

Meanwhile, speculations grew around Articles 370 and 35A in the Indian Constitution, which granted the state special status.

In early August, teenager Adil Ahanger walked anxiously toward his father, sitting in their kitchen in Srinagar, the region’s largest city. Moments before, he had overheard someone saying that India and Pakistan were getting ready for another full-scale war.

“Abu, dapaan Jung wathi,” he said. (Father, they say it’s wartime.)

No, his dad replied; India and Pakistan could hardly afford it. But “we have been at war since 1990, people die here every day,” added the car mechanic, whose business has been hit hard by the clampdown. “It would be better if they end the suffering once and for all.”

Adil’s mother, Haleema, turned from the gas stove to break the latest “news” she’d heard at the bakery: “Dapaan Yasin Malik has been killed in jail.” (The separatist leader had not.)

That was the general state of mind when, on Aug. 5, the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s autonomy granted under Article 370, and then split the state into two territories directly controlled by New Delhi – the most significant shift in years. Within days, internet and phone service had been switched off. 

Misinformation spread like wildfire, along with fear. People munched through information, significant or insignificant, and soon Kashmir was flooded with rumors of little credibility – and little way of confirming or disproving them.

Dapaan lots of people were killed in South Kashmir.

Dapaan they spotted men in Afghan attire.

Dapaan Anantnag will no longer be a district.

Mukhtar Khan/AP
A Kashmiri journalist checks his cellphone at a media facilitation center in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Dec. 31, 2019. Authorities are beginning to restore web services in the disputed region, about five months after India’s government downgraded its semi-autonomy and imposed a strict security and communications lockdown.

“Kashmir and its relationship with rumor are not something new,” says Amir Amin, a political scientist at Kashmir University. “We point almost everything to dapaan, and it became more potent before and after the abrogation of Article 370. From war with Pakistan to huge numbers of freedom fighters from Afghanistan crossing the Line of Control, I heard everything.” 

The monthslong shutdown “left a trail of rumors each passing day,” says Ashraf Peer, a retired government employee. “I heard so many things, and surprisingly every sentence started with the word dapaan.”

The Indian government sought to quell rumors. Yet one local journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes some of the information has been “leaked deliberately,” in phrases, to avoid a sudden surge of emotions getting “out of hand” for the administration.

News and rumors “were so intertwined,” he remembers. “Reports, information, and pictures of government orders and advisories reached my desk from our sources and minutes later were refuted by the administration.” Even rumors of the communications blackout were refuted, he says – until “the bubble broke” at midnight, and “services were snapped.”

“Kashmir is a place where if someone sneezes in Lak Chowk, the same incident is projected as a bomb by the time it reaches Raj Bhavan,” the then-governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satya Pal Malik, told reporters in July, dismissing rumors that the state’s status would change. Within a week, it had.

Now, six months later, news is slowly seeping back. Phone service was gradually restored last year. This week, after the Supreme Court ordered a review of the internet cutoff, 2G mobile web was made available – though only 301 government-approved websites have been made accessible, and no social media.

Yet dapaan still pervades.

Dapaan internet traawan yalle.” They say fast internet will be restored.

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