Kashmir : Paradise in pain
Since Jammu & Kashmir’s fate was overturned on August 5, the Valley has been caught in the winds of an agonising downward spiral – businesses are running dry, citizens feel alienated and democratic ideals are conspicuous only by their absence
"Be safe," Hussein, our cab driver, murmured anxiously time and over as we (my team comprising three researchers and myself) skid along the winding roads of Srinagar. From deserted roads to abandoned shops, this wasn't the Kashmir I had visited just a year back. An ominous silence loomed precariously as security forces in complete gear comfortably outdid the number of civilians dotting the streets. The idea of 'normalcy' that was being projected so ferociously in mainland India stood shamefully shattered at every dark turn of this otherwise lush hill city.
Hussein drove us from Srinagar Airport to a hotel at Lal Chowk, one of the few still functioning in the vicinity. A 23-year-old Rahman* welcomed us with the warmth that has historically been typical of Kashmiris – debunking rumours that locals have become hostile to people from the Capital. "Why would we hate the people? Its only the governments," emphasised a smiling Rahman*.
Meanwhile, the usual bustling market area of Lal Chowk remained deserted with only a few cars passing by. Lal Chowk, renowned for its numerous shops – ranging from clothes, accessories, fruits, general stores to big restaurants and hotels – wore a look of lonely despair. The shops and hotels had pulled their shutters down while the asphalt lay placid and unwelcoming.
"The situation has improved since the past four-five days, we are now allowed some movement. You should have seen the condition before that," Rahman* shuddered remembering the initial days of the curfew that has been intermittently in place since August 5 when the Government of India decided to revise Jammu & Kashmir's special status as provided under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
It was then that we realised that not much is 'normal' in Kashmir. Since August 5, numerous reports have been pouring in from the Valley. While some have painted pictures of happy citizens celebrating the decision, some others have been more
poignant in pointing out the anger,
protests, night raids and detention prevalent in this economy crippled by silence. My four-day visit to Kashmir was laden with stories told by angry voices in hushed tones and some more revealed unintentionally by empty roads – but most stark was the painfully visible grief, agony and despair that was still bravely interwoven with some rays of hope, though significantly diminished.
Kashmir has been witnessing a communication blockade for the past two months, except for landlines that were restored a month ago. Our hotel had a landline which was used by numerous people to contact family or friends across different parts of the world. The government claimed that the decision was made to wave off terrorist and militant activities. While political leaders in New Delhi called it a 'new Kashmir', people in the Valley sat in silent protest, unwilling to accept the 'peaceful' decision. "Media shows we are happy and people believe that! They have locked us in our homes and are we supposed to be happy about it?" he asked.
The otherwise congested roads of Lal Chowk are today abandoned, barring the khakis of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans who stand alert, carefully watching the movement of all who pass by. Occasionally, one or two vehicles drive by – but mostly, the roads are barbed with wires, barricaded or laden with heavy security.
"They have lifted the curfew, but the shops are shut due to a civil curfew," informed Sheikh, a shop owner at Lal Chowk. He was the only one to keep his shop open in the area. Civil curfew, we learnt later, is how Kashmiris are standing up against the abrogation of the special status and the communication barrier implemented by the government.
"People open their shops from 6 am to 9 am," Sheikh added, saying that nobody decided the time, this was how things have been since the beginning. This form of protest witnesses shopkeepers lifting their shutters from 6 am to 9 am, only so that locals can buy essentials. "It has been 52 days and we have been shut off from the world. The economy in writhing and business is down. They have removed the protection of Article 370 and broken our trust," said Sheikh.
Although Kashmir has been witnessing strict curfews for decades, the communication barrier this time has crippled not only people but the economy as well. With businesses shut and zero tourism, Kashmir is encountering an ever-increasing economic crisis. On the other hand, vegetable and fruit vendors are unable to sell their goods. "The security forces are not even letting people send their vegetables outside. The Indian media was blaming some militant groups for it but truth be told, all of them are stopping us from doing our business," said Mohammad*, sitting beside Sheikh.
Meanwhile, in the downtown area of old Srinagar, the hostility towards Indian media was unmistakable. "What is the Indian media showing? They say everything is normal in Kashmir, tell me is everything normal here," asked a medical shop owner. "Tell me, do we look happy to you? I don't trust you nor do I believe you. Whatever the Indian media has done is nothing short of terrorism," he roared.
In downtown's Nawa Kadal area, regular protests have been erupting since the August 5 decision. The area is deemed unsafe for outsiders and as we stopped to talk to a few men sitting outside an abandoned shop, we were informed that a 12-year-old had been detained by CRPF.
"Just a few moments back, clashes between civilians and security forces were taking place, after which they detained the boy. This is an everyday affair for us now," said Ahmad, also a resident of the downtown area. "Children are detained on the pretext that they are stone-pelters. They are kept in detention for months though some lucky ones come out within days or months," he added.
According to a fact-finding report by a team of five women who visited the region last month, about 13,000 boys have been detained in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5. Ahmad said that more than 10,000 boys have been detained from the downtown area itself.
In another area of Hazratbal in Srinagar, a famous shrine stood empty with only a dozen devotees praying inside. On approaching the empty roads near the market, a few men sitting outside their shops inquired what we were doing during the curfew. On replying, a conversation soon ensued. People were visibly angry. A man who had stopped and jumped into the conversation said, "Madam, the only perilous act we committed was that we sought help from India. And, from then till now, they have invaded our land and refused to let go."
The man was referring to the Instrument of Accession (IoA) that was signed by the Dogra king of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh, in October 1947. In the legal document executed by the king, the Indian Parliament received the power to legislate in J&K on three matters – defence, external affairs and communication.
The hostility coalesced with anger in people's hearts appears to only be worsening with time. With no businesses open and people locked in their homes as a curfew still lingers in the air, respectable citizens of India are restless and in agony.
"We are not going to sit back silently. They have caged the people of Kashmir and we are angry now. Our business has suffered. Many of us supported India but now we doubt them," said a shopkeeper at the shrine.
While trying to find an autorickshaw, we came across Shahid, who was one of the few auto drivers visible on the road. "I have been outside the house since 7 am and now it is 4 pm. You are my first customer," he said.
Visibly distressed, Shahid explained that the situation is "pretty bad" in Kashmir, contrary to what is shown to the world. "I sometimes wonder, why was I even born here," he lamented. Stunned, we could not reply. He spoke again, emphasising his disbelief towards the worsening situation. He said it was still tolerable in 2016 when 21-year-old militant Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter.
"We have witnessed curfews since ages, so Kashmiris are used to this – but the current shutdown has been worse. In 2016, at least our mobile phones were working."
We also found people on the streets every evening at 6.30 pm. There are regular clashes that take place between the civilians and CRPF, in the course of which, many are left injured.
"We are mostly angry at the J&K Police. Stone pelting starts the moment they come into the picture," explained Shahid. Echoing similar sentiments, people at Lal Chowk said that J&K Police have betrayed the people. Surprisingly, resentment towards CRPF pales in comparison to abhorrence towards local police. "These poor people (referring to CRPF jawans) have to stand for hours under the sun or in cold. We are at least caged in our homes, they have been forced on the road," said a breadmaker in old Srinagar.
Kashmir is in chaos, with daily raids in south Kashmir, where people's agitation is more visible; civilians wait in anticipation, unaware of what is going to erupt next. Some expect war, while few say nothing will change.
What is going to happen now? I asked. "War," said a shopkeeper. "There is going to be endless war and many more innocents will keep dying to pay the price for being born here," he said with a deep sigh.
*Names changed on request.
(The author visited Srinagar from September 24-28, 2019)