A birth and a death amid Kashmir's harsh lockdown

By Devjyot Ghoshal and Fayaz Bukhari

SRINAGAR, India(Reuters) - Around the time Mohammad Sikander Bhat lay dying at home in Indian Kashmir's main city of Srinagar, Shafiq Ahmed was racing to get his pregnant wife to a hospital, negotiating about 85 km (53 miles) of highways through a maze of heavily guarded checkpoints.

Amid severe movement restrictions and a total communications blockade, triggered by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to withdraw special rights for Jammu and Kashmir state, one man perished without his last wish fulfilled: that of seeing his three daughters.

The other battled the odds, saved his wife, and became father to a son.

The death and the birth and both families' struggles reflect the human cost of the government's harsh clampdown in the Kashmir valley, home to nearly seven million people.

For the first five days after the government’s move, parts of Srinagar had been turned into a fortress, blanketed with armed paramilitary and rolls of concertina wire blocking main streets. Anyone attempting to cross the checkpoints faced questions.

It was around 2 p.m. on Aug. 7 that Bhat - suffering from cancer in his 70s - asked his son to go fetch his daughters, his son said, declining to be named because he feared authorities could disapprove of him talking to the press.

On most days, it would not take more than 10 minutes to drive to their homes, he said. That day it took more than an hour.

"By the time I came back, father had passed away," he told Reuters.

Under normal circumstances, he said they would have tried to call a doctor and make one last attempt to save Bhat, a moustached man with a love for gardening.

"This time, we could do nothing," his son said, because there were no telephones available to help bring a doctor quickly to Bhat's side.

Authorities say the lockdown and the detention of hundreds of local leaders aim to prevent widespread protests in the region, which is also claimed by neighboring Pakistan.

Some of these movement restrictions have now been eased, but aside from a few hundred public telephones, all communication remains blacked out for the 12th straight day.


Kokernag, a town in southern Kashmir, where Ahmed lives with his wife and daughter, was also locked down on Aug 7, he said.

A lean man with a ready smile, Ahmed took his expectant wife to a nearby hospital for a check-up.

There, doctors concerned about her blood pressure, referred her to the district hospital at Anantnag, some 25 km (16 miles) away, saying they did not have staff because of the shutdown.

"And if something happened, they said they wouldn't be able to manage without communications," Ahmed said.

So, Ahmed, his wife, his daughter and sister-in-law piled into an ambulance. Ahmed said what is typically a 45-minute journey took more than two hours, passing through eight checkpoints.

At the Anantnag district hospital, staff quickly ran tests. Again they determined they could not risk it, Ahmed said, asking him to take his wife to the main maternity hospital in Srinagar, about 60 km (37 miles) away, for a safe delivery.

They were stopped 10 times and it took them 2-1/2 hours instead of one to get to Srinagar, where his wife was able to deliver a healthy boy.

But the rest of the family is in the dark.

"Nobody has a clue where we are, in Kokernag, Anantnag or anywhere else," Ahmed said, because all communication lines are down.

The news of Bhat's death has not traveled far either.

On an overcast morning last weekend, a crowd of about 100 men and boys gathered at Bhatt's gravesite in Srinagar on the banks of the Jhelum river for prayers.

A military helicopter flew overhead as they prayed for Bhat. Paramilitary police stood at an adjoining bridge.

In normal times, the crowd would number in the thousands, including family and friends, Bhat's son said, but they had been unable to contact most.

Except for word of mouth, the only way to reach people was with advertisements in the handful of newspapers still publishing, which also carried notices of canceled wedding receptions.

"The problem is that even close family don't know," his son-in-law said. "Even his sister doesn’t know."

She lives only about 10 km (6.2 miles) away from Bhat's house.

(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Clarence Fernandez)