Rights

A ‘Normalcy’ of Compulsion in Kashmir

As businesses suffer and detained young men's families still wait for their release, people have no choice but to go back to work to make ends meet.

Srinagar: Two weeks ago, when the Centre resumed postpaid mobile services in Kashmir, traffic movement saw a remarkable upsurge in Srinagar city. Around Lal Chowk, store owners lifted their shutters half-mast, buyers crowded the markets and footfalls started to climb. It seemed as though the city centre had returned to life after more than two months of a crippling shutdown.

The resumption of mobile phones brought much of the connectivity back on track: Wholesalers could now ring up dealers and ask them to deliver stocks; retailers called their customers to confirm that they were indeed trading; brides-to-be thronged salons; tailors hunched over their machines once again.

Everyone who had the opportunity to resume their business again, did. For over two months, life in Kashmir had come to a standstill. The shutdown was spontaneous. The demands were clear: the reading down of Article 370 has been unacceptable to the people. More than 80 days into the shutdown, the resentment hasn’t worn off. But in the face of mounting economic distress, which is now clearly reflecting across the Valley, public resolve has begun to wear thin.

We have seen this before. People across Kashmir erupt after a certain provocation and prolong the shutdown for months at a stretch, before their spirits begin to flag and they eventually capitulate.

This is an abiding trope in the Kashmiri repertoire which the Centre fully understands, and around which it seems to have decided to weave its current policy. The government appears determined to weed out all forms of dissent and impart fear at an elementary level –  forcing the press to cower, threatening agitators with draconian laws and heightening surveillance.

The restriction on communication is likely to become a long-drawn measure, evidenced by the recent story in the regional Urdu press in which officials sounded ‘worried’ that an escalation in attacks by militants was coinciding with the reopening of mobile networks. Short of any coherent policy, it is banking on people’s ability to tire out and remain both fearful and confused about the new state of affairs. It’s only on the back of this collective fatigue that the government intends to script a new story of ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir.

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At Srinagar’s Tourist Reception Centre, the traffic movement is extraordinary. It often ends up in jams, which have been a rarity over the last two months.

Right underneath a newly constructed flyover, a man clad in jacket and a cap waves his hands, calling for passengers. He has filled half of his vehicle and needs a few more riders before he sets off for Jammu. “I will speak but don’t use my name,” he mutters under his breath. He motioned to his aide to finish the work before proceeding to lead me to a secluded place.

He is among 340 members of the Tempo Traveller Agency Union Kashmir who make two trips back and forth from Srinagar to Jammu every week. “Now we are just making one trip in 12 days,” he says. “Previously I made Rs 5,000- 8,000 per trip. Our income has come down to zero. It is not that we are blind to the situation in Kashmir. I had borrowed money from friends. We were and still are ready to marshal a strong protest – one that decisively ends the dispute once and for all.  I have been a part of the resistance from a very long time.”

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He seems very well-versed with the news cycle and understands that Kashmir forms a centrepiece of Modi’s policy to lure voters. “They win votes by telling Indians that we have conquered Kashmir. Because we are a Muslim-majority region, we appear like a mini-Pakistan to them. The more they humiliate us, the more they feel content that they have given Pakistan a bloody nose.”

The honking and clanking at this teeming junction grows louder. It’s here that camera persons working with Delhi-based channels stand to shoot visuals. “They think that a lot of traffic naturally implies normalcy,” he says. “But our longing to see things stabilise stems from fact that we face enormous financial strain. For instance, I don’t think I will be able to pay the school fees of my children. We feed 340 families here. We all come from the lower- to middle-class segment. We alone can’t become the carriers of resistance in Kashmir. That’s not a sincere expectation.”

It’s unclear why Kashmiris from all walks of life end up retreating into self-inflicted shutdowns as a means of registering protest, from which they eventually yearn to withdraw. The most reasonable explanation has been that most moderate and non-violent forms of protests are disallowed in Kashmir. If permitted to take out a march, Kashmiris may well coalesce into an interminable horde – exactly the one that was witnessed in the 2010 summer during Eidgah chalo. Such gatherings could potentially spell disaster for the authorities. They also prompt international inquiries.

Second, any kind political mobilisation that allows Kashmiris to articulate their demand for the right to self-determination is not only prohibited, but also punished. This naturally opens up room for only two kinds of responses to emerge that can decisively impose costs on what Kashmiris see as the state’s intransigence: violence – stone pelting or terrorism – or spontaneous shutdowns in which all Kashmiris take part for as long as they can.

“The stress level is at such a scale that some businesses in Kashmir may never open up again,” says Nasir Khan, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries. “The situation is not conducive for development. Much of the shutdown by the business community in Kashmir is voluntary and if there are attempts to reopen, it’s because traders are trying to survive and not profit.”

Khan also said that the KCCI has supported the J&K High Court Bar Association’s petition challenging the legality of reading down Article 370.

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Before August 5, the deafening blackness of night at Dal Lake was tempered by a colourful flickering of lights from the hundreds of decorated houseboats which hosted visitors. Now, the scene looks dreary and desolate. The darkness of the evening, once it descends, empties out the streets. Houseboats turn off their lights and traffic stops.

I visit the area in morning. The shops are open briefly and they will close soon. Most people here turn out to be locals who have some errands to run. I disembark on the middle of the road, near a makeshift kiosk which sells cigarettes. Abdul Ghaffar sports a salt-and-pepper goatee. “I don’t do this work normally,” he says. “I row a shikara in the lake but our season ended. I am selling cigarettes because I have run out of money.”

Abdul Ghaffar selling cigarettes on the banks of Dal Lake. Photo: Shakir Mir

Rowers like Ghaffar – as many as 20,000 – are having a tough time. They rack up much of their income during the brief summer time. This year has been ruinous. Ghaffar is earning up to Rs 100 per day, making less than half of what he earns every month. His shikara needs refurbishing every season, otherwise its efficiency will be affected. “I feel tormented when I think about it,” he tells me. “I have two daughters who study. I don’t know whether to spare the money for their education or spend the amount on household expenses.”

Ghaffar doesn’t say much about his political beliefs. “Everyone knows what our demands are. We have a history which is different. But if you have resolved to make decisions that hurt people, you’re playing with fire. Now we don’t even know how it plays out in the long run. If anyone says they know, they are lying. Everything is uncertain. If I don’t even do this, who is going to feed my family?”

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Kashmiris are guided by the belief that shutdowns and protests will yield results if they persevere. But they may not, as long as the shutdowns are not accompanied by civil agitations. While Kashmiris may not understand this, the authorities governing them do.

“Unlike 2010 and 2016, this time the state didn’t wait to see people respond. It straightaway imposed a siege,” says Parvez Imroz, a human rights defender and recipient of the Rafto Peace Prize 2017. “The emphasis on normalcy has been an enduring motif of state discourse in Kashmir. After the eruption of militancy, they tried to project the 1996 elections as evidence of normalcy. They did it post 2008, 2010 and 2016 as well. But we saw what happened eventually.”

“This time, the stakes are even higher. To Kashmiris of all stripes, it is now an existential struggle. Look at the statements of Indian state’s functionaries. They normally say that the Gujarat pogrom was a Newtonian reaction to Godhra, but in Kashmir they say with confidence that nothing is going to happen. The Indian government believes that while the laws of physics apply elsewhere, they can be altered in Kashthe mir’s context. Any reaction that erupts in Kashmir will be the one which is likely to take state by surprise. India still awaits its Bastille Day in Kashmir.”

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The present bout of political repression is not yet quantifiable, but what everybody understands and has experienced is that it’s been more pervasive and intense this time around than it was in the past. It appears as though normalising things has become a widespread economic and existential imperative in Kashmir, but far from arriving at unanimity over it, Kashmiris are fragmented. And it is often in these divisions that discord is seeded, reflecting in stone throwing attacks, personal brawls and heated exchanges.

A fractured public opinion allows the state to project a neat dichotomy between ‘obedient’ and ‘irreverent’ Kashmiris – a playbook from which the national media has also become a deft-hand at taking a page. Thus it becomes easier to bat off questions about the state’s role here and focus instead on the nature of ‘irreverent’ Kashmiris, all of whom are vulnerable to ‘indoctrination,’ perpetually ‘misguided’ and numerically ‘marginal’ – a ‘vocal minority’, to use a term which has gained a lot of currency.

Last week, I was surprised to find tremendous support for the shutdown in areas of the old city on the death anniversary of Mehraj-ud-din Bangroo, a veteran Lashkar militant who was killed last year. Though normal in south Kashmir, it’s quite rare for a slain militant to be commemorated in Srinagar a year after his death.

Posters eulogising him had sprung up along a stretch extending from Fateh Kadal all the way to Karan Nagar – neighbourhoods which had not seen any pro-Azadi activity for a long time. Since then, there has been a redeployment of paramilitary men in these areas.

“A period of impasse is underway in Kashmir,” says Irfan Mehraj, a Kashmiri editor. “Repression is not new here. It’s not a historical discontinuity either. It was always fine-tuned according to the needs and yet we saw the eruption of civil disobedience every time. If even after 30 years of trying this technique, there’s still a threat of civil unrest in Kashmir, then it speaks more of the failure of repression than its usefulness. Kashmiris are still coming to terms with what has happened. We are yet to see how they will react once the full import of things dawns upon them. As of now, they are troubled by disruption of their livelihoods and curbs on connectivity.”

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On the same day when Srinagar was rushing headlong into this ‘normalcy’ of compulsion, I decided to visit the restive Pulwama district in south Kashmir. The scenes were a far cry from those that I witnessed in the city. At Kakapora, where five roads lead out of the main town square, everything was closed.

People frequently showed up along the roads waving their hands for a ride. In the absence of public transport, they had come to terms with hitch-hiking as a normal way of travelling. It did not occur to them that they might run late, get stuck on a deserted stretch of road or worse still, run into a military convoy upon whom militants mounted an attack.

The siege has inflicted an unprecedented disruption of civic life in Kashmir. The public appears suspicious of one another. They do not talk generally but when they do, the conversation is quite restrained. If you happen to be a reporter in pursuit of a story, people will be wary. They are likely to probe your frame of mind, study your political predisposition first and then answer accordingly. The responses are guided more to confirm the pre-existing beliefs of the inquisitor, especially if they are outsiders, than to reveal people’s earnest thoughts about the situation.

Fayaz Mir’s family. Photo: Shakir Mir

I arrived at Pahoo, one of many idyllic villages that dot that pastoral landscape of south Kashmir. At her house, Zahida Mir bends to stare into her phone. She has gripped it with both hands. Two days before the Centre ended J&K’s special status, her brother Fayaz Ahmad Mir (27) was bundled into a van by military men and whisked away. “They arrived at 11:45 pm,” she remembers. “They scaled the wall, called my father and asked for my brother. Then they took him.”

Strangely, worry does not show up on her face. She is quite composed and relaxed. Either she does not care or the depredations of state clampdown, arriving as they were, one after another, have calloused her emotions until she no longer feels affected by them. Fayaz drove a tractor on the orchards for a living. The family never expected that the vehicle that has been their source of income would one day become a source of misery. “He was detained on August 3 and we visited police station Kakapora after that,” she said. “We were told that Fayaz would be released on Eid day but that did not happen.”

When the family went to look for Fayaz one more time in the police station, they were informed that he had been shifted to a jail in Bareilly. It is from there that their hardships began to grow. “This tractor,” she gestured towards the compound where the vehicle is normally parked. “It was loaned out for Rs 8 lakh. Every month Fayaz is supposed to pay Rs 8,000. When the word about his arrest went out, the guarantor for his loan came to our house demanding the sum of Rs 16,000 – the two month EMI.”

The family arranged for the money and paid it in full. But that’s not the end of it. The family feels trapped in painful uncertainly. “Not only are we not earning currently, but whatever little income we have is spent to repay the instalments. We don’t know when Fayaz will be released. It’s this vehicle through which he earns. We cannot even sell it. Our father is a labourer. He doesn’t earn much.”

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My choice to visit Pahoo wasn’t without reason. Two days before, I was touring the narrow lanes of Srinagar’s old city when a young boy slipped out of nowhere and started walking next to me. He hung his head down and did not talk, as if to escape detection. “What’s the matter?” I asked. He did not speak until we were out of sight of a CRPF party picketed nearby. “I am from Pulwama,” he said. “I am attending to a small business matter here but my real reason for being here is something else.”

The day I visited Pahoo, villagers told me that close to 50 homes out of 600 had faced night raids. This has struck horror in the minds of youth, some of whom had fled to parts of Srinagar. “I want you to accompany me to my store,” he urged. “I don’t have an ID card and I don’t want to end up like my neighbours.”

Sowing season is underway in Kashmir, which means that it is during this time of year that tractor pullers like Fayaz get to earn. But the likelihood of his protracted incarceration has forced his family to give up hope of a stable life.

The family is also shelling out a large sum to pay for their travel to Bareilly and Fayaz’s legal expenses. “We met him in Bareilly. He looked weak and his face seemed puffed up. There, the officials warned us against speaking about politics of any kind.”

Fayaz is a postgraduate in Arabic and was trying to raise money to complete his doctorate in the same subject. “He had such dreams,” his mother said. She opened the iron gate and walked into the compound, before her face turned sorrowful and she began weeping bitterly. “How do I get my son back? It is as if a calamity has befallen on all of Kashmir.”

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.