Hope and disappointment under lockdown in Kashmir – photo essay

·6 min read

Having grown up in the troubled Indian region of Kashmir, photographer Showkat Nanda knew what it was to be “a child of conflict”, the name often used to describe the generations of Kashmir’s youth since the 1980s. This picturesque Himalayan region has been a source of conflict between India and Pakistan for decades, with several wars fought over the territory, and since the 1990s it has been home to a heavy Indian military presence and a long-running separatist insurgency with an allegiance to Pakistan.

Yet while it is the militants, soldiers and politicians who dominate the headlines around Kashmir’s troubles, Nanda’s gaze had often turned to the more invisible victims, in whom he saw himself: Kashmir’s children.

  • A group of 11 friends take a break outside their school in Baramulla district. The girls have been friends since kindergarten. They were not able to see each other for nearly 18 months after the closure of schools on 5 August 2019 because of a military lockdown, which was followed by the Covid-19 lockdown. Meeting after nearly one and a half years has been an experience of a lifetime

  • Girls picking wild tulips in an apple orchard in the vicinity of their school

  • The girls walk towards school after play

Nanda had already been working on a long-term project documenting the emotional and psychological trauma experienced by young people in Kashmir when he was approached by the Magnum Foundation for proposals for a photo essay. His thoughts turned to a photo he had recently taken, of two young girls sitting together in the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital where they were being treated for depression, and what they had lived through since 2019.

  • Two teenage girls sit in the waiting room of a leading Kashmiri psychiatrist in the summer capital Srinagar. Both were being treated for depression in 2020

While lockdowns have been a reality for the world since early 2020, for the people of Kashmir, their lockdown began seven months earlier. It was in August 2019 that the Indian government decided to unilaterally revoke article 370, which had given Kashmir, one of India’s few Muslim-majority regions, a semi-autonomous status for almost 70 years. Kashmir was brought fully under the control of the central Indian government, led by Narendra Modi, and the whole state was subjected to a military crackdown.

  • Mubashira talks to her friends while seeing them off after they visited her home

  • Seerat feared that she would fail in her exams in 2020. The feeling induced extreme anxiety in her

Kashmiris were confined to their homes as thousands of troops moved in, politicians were arrested, phone lines were cut, the internet was shut down for more than six months and all schools were closed. Then, to add further to their strife, in March 2020 Covid-19 hit India and a nationwide lockdown was imposed.

“I wanted this project be a continuation of what I was already doing: photographing these young boys and girls, who have already gone through a traumatic childhood because of the conflict that’s been raging in the region, but then were affected by two years of lockdown, first from the military siege in 2019 and then the pandemic,” said Nanda.

“I got interested in this because as a child growing up in Kashmir, I experienced many of the things that these kids were experiencing now. It was, in a way, not just telling their story, but also my story.”

  • Iqra (left), Mubashira (centre) and Rizwana look out of a window of their class in Baramulla

But after visiting one of the girls in their homes in the small village of Baramulla in February 2021, Nanda learned that, for the first time in over a year and a half, schools were about to reopen. For this young 15-year-old, the excitement was palpable.

Not only had she been denied education for 18 months, but the closure of schools had also meant the separation of her group of 11 friends, all girls who had been friends since they could remember. This period of two lockdowns had been the longest they had been separated since they were at nursery.

“That’s when I had the idea to make this a hopeful story, to photograph this reunion and make this a photo essay about these 11 girls who are using this reunion with each other as a form of healing,” said Nanda.

  • M has suffered panic attacks and nightmares. She was on antidepressants for nearly three months last year

The girls were willing participants, though a few requested their faces be kept concealed, and it turned out that the headmaster of their school had gone to school with Nanda, and so trusted him with unusually open access.

“When I went to their school, I could see the girls were happy and playing together and I could also sense that some of the girls who really struggled with depression and psychological problems during the lockdown were being helped by these friends. They were almost healing partners for each other,” said Nanda.

Despite the girls being from a relatively remote village in Kashmir, and living quite strict lives, Nanda found that they were hugely engaged and curious about the world around them. “They were very outgoing,” he said. “They spoke about everything, they spoke about movies, they spoke about technology, they spoke about politics, they even spoke also about American politics.”

  • Girls in their classroom after their lunch break

  • R showed signs of depression in April 2020 and has been under treatment since then. In the last three months she has shown improvement and her symptoms have lessened to a great extent

It happened to be spring and so as well as documenting them in the classroom and playground, Nanda photographed the 11 friends as they played in the fields together, picking bunches of wild tulips and sitting below blossoming almond trees, and capturing what he hoped was the beginning of a new period of freedom and rejuvenation for these girls.

Yet, it was not to be. Less than a month later, a devastating second wave of Covid-19 swept through India, and Kashmir’s schools were closed once again. The girls were once locked down and isolated from each other.

  • Misbah, like some of her friends, was not able to come out of her home for many months. She said that she couldn’t concentrate on her studies and thought that Covid might attack her and her family

  • Hafsa plays with birds in a cage

Pivoting his photo essay from one of hope to one of dashed expectations, Nanda decided to finish by photographing the girls in their homes instead, capturing them as they stared sadly out of the window, their uniforms hanging limply on a hanger. With schools closed, and crucial exams facing cancellation, the girls feared for the futures.

  • Aizar’s uniform has hung on the wall since schools closed again. She went to school for only two weeks after they opened in March 2021. Aizar has not been suffering from any emotional problems. However, she said that sitting at home during the Covid-19 pandemic was extremely worrying

“I was on a WhatsApp group with all of them, and there was one message that kept popping up again and again: ‘Do you think there’s a chance the schools will open again’?” said Nanda. Four months on, they still remain shut.

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