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It’s been a fortnight since Jammu and Kashmir lost its autonomy and became a truncated Union territory. These are testing times, sad times, desperate times, anxious times, uncertain times, angry times, lie-low times.… Like all roads, the one to Bandipora district in the Valley’s north is rigged with soldiers, armoured cars, and the occasional J&K Police constable spinning his lathi and trying to look pleased with the new order. Men of varying age are seen in small groups along the road. These are strange assemblies surrounded by martial law-style restrictions or curfews. They are silently soaking the balmy August sun peeking through monsoonal clouds; not a single stone in any hand to throw, no temptation either to shout a protest or pelt a rock at the soldiers on patrol.
They won’t talk, young men in warm pheran cloaks basking by a shuttered shop at Saderkote Bala village. As if they are done with the talking. They show least interest in reporters because “you will not show what we will tell you”. Please, we are not television, tell us. The prod works—they were mostly drivers, rendered jobless since August 5, the day the Union government revoked Kashmir’s special status. They are in shock; the other day, paramilitary troopers assaulted residents of the village for alleged “trivial matters”.
Anger runs high, subdued only by the presence of thousands of soldiers, their rifles cocked. The men say they are watching the emerging situation and would react once curfew is lifted, and the hundreds in prison are freed. “Our education is gone, our jobs would be taken by outsiders and settlers would come to the Valley to replace us. This is a long battle. They are pushing Kashmiris towards more violence,” one of them shouted staccato and hushed up instantly. Professor Noor Mohammed Baba explains the silence as “people are trying to figure how it happened and how they should react to it”.
The undercurrent of unease—something the Valley has been living through for three decades of insurgency—has already taken the form of posters that appeared in Srinagar on Wednesday. The message from the separatist leadership is a call to battle: “Every person, young and old, men and women, should march after Friday prayers” to the office of the UN Military Observer in Srinagar, which was set up in 1949. In the old city and uptown Srinagar, youngsters threw stones at security forces. In the Soura area, protesters carried banners, boldly announcing the date to establish that the protest is fresh, not old “as shown by some Indian news channels”.
In Bandipora town last weekend, restrictions were off partially, but the shops remained closed, traffic was thin, and anti-India graffiti were freshly can-sprayed. Residents called it a “civil curfew”—a protest. “The army asked shopkeepers to open their shops, but no one obeyed,” says an elderly man. Outside the Bandipora police station, people waited to make calls as the government had exempted one phone in select police stations from the communication lockdown. There were women carrying lunch boxes, delivering food to their teenage children locked up before August 4 for breaking the law or as a preemptive step. Sources say around 130 people have been taken into custody from Bandipora alone since August 5.
In Kashmir’s deep south, Kulgam is a rice bowl where lush paddies mingle with apple orchards. “I was studying outside. I came back home for two reasons after August 5. I thought there would be anti-Kashmiri hate crimes outside and I wanted to see my family as there was no news of them since the clampdown on the internet and phones,” a teenager tells Outlook in Taragam village. Most of the teenagers in this village, which has been voting CPI(M)’s Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami to the state assembly since 1996, fear a spurt in militancy. Tarigami’s house is just off the road; the one with concertina wire on the brick parameter wall, the one with a sand bunker for guards. “Tarigami saheb is in custody in Srinagar. The government has removed our security here. We are at the mercy of anyone. Militants can occupy the house. If a shootout happens, the army would blame us for shielding militants, and the militants would call us informers,” says Mohammad Abbas, the legislator’s nephew. Militants had attacked the house in the past.
At the Dak Bungalow, Anantnag, 74-year-old Kabir Pathan voiced similar fears. The former National Conference MLA for Pahalgam feels betrayed. “We haven’t seen this India. We don’t know it,” Pathan says. “We raised the Indian flag in Kashmir in 1996 when no one dared to utter ‘India’ in the Valley. We fought elections when no one dared to talk about polls. Today, they have withdrawn our security. No one needs a bullet to kill me, a stone can do that.”
The mood in the BJP camp is clearly upbeat. The divisions in society are visible already. Local BJP leader Rafiq Wani says he was the sole person to hoist the tricolor this August 15 in the Lal Chowk area of Anantnag. He and party colleague Mohammad Maqbool Ganai believe militancy would go down (unlike Pathan’s prediction that “it will increase 100-fold”), and the uncertainty and public anger would subside. Insisting this won’t last long, they toe the party line—that businesses will flourish and Kashmir will become the prosperous paradise it deserves to be.
For their part, businessmen of Kashmir wonder if the new package—all that opening of the door to a restricted region—isn’t mere publicity. “The government used to lease out land for 90 years to industrialists from other states to invest in Jammu and Kashmir,” says businessman Zafar Salathi. “Industrialists are here. Five-star hotels are already here. This is a myth that industrialists were barred from investing in the Valley.”
Another businessman, Afroz Ahmad Misger, has his misgivings. “Our economy and industries were doing well. We were hoping for a great decade ahead. The government’s decision derailed everything. Wonder if Kashmir will ever recover from it,” he says. The road to Kashmir’s recovery, in whichever direction it may lie, looks long and arduous indeed, at least for now.
By Naseer Ganai in Kulgam and Bandipora