SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir — Kashmir’s local administration has arm-twisted street vendors to ply the streets, jailed store owners for refusing to keep their shops open between 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, and urged gas station owners to stay open, police sources told HuffPost India.
A school bus operator said the administration forced him to run empty buses for three weeks until the mounting losses meant the buses couldn’t run anymore. A shopkeeper said he was one of 20 store-owners jailed by the police for refusing to stay open during business hours. The state’s farmers are yet to participate in a much-touted Central government scheme to procure Kashmir’s famed apple crop.
Here in Jammu and Kashmir, which was India’s only Muslim-majority state till August 5, when the government of Narendra Modi unilaterally scrapped its constitutionally guaranteed autonomy, demoted the former state to a Union Territory (bringing its police under direct control of the Central government), flooded the valley with thousands of fresh troops, imposed a communication blackout, and jailed over 4,000 Kashmiris, including the region’s prominent politicians.
Since then the government’s supporters, and its fervent allies in sections of the Indian media, have sought to convince the rest of the country, and the world, that life in Kashmir has returned to normal and ordinary Kashmiris actually welcome the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which protected the state’s special status. Only last week, Prime Minister Modi urged Indians to “hug a Kashmiri”.
Meanwhile this week in Houston, Texas, US President Donald Trump staged a huge ‘Howdy Modi’ rally for the Indian PM, an event enthusiastically promoted by the India media, which almost largely ignored the crowd of protesters outside the event that questioned Modi about the human rights violations in Kashmir and raised slogans like “Modi, Modi you can’t hide, you committed genocide”.
The revocation of Article 370 immediately sparked outrage and even the threat of war with Pakistan. Kashmiris fear this will lead to a demographic transformation of the region from majority Muslim to majority Hindu.
Now, a cross-section of police sources, businessmen, shop owners, and trade associations have revealed the Indian government has sought to stage an elaborate reality show to normalise an unprecedented coercive campaign against the region’s civilian populace.
There are almost no restrictions on movement in Srinagar, but the much-touted traffic movement in a few thoroughfares the city is mostly government employees getting to and from their place of work, and people trying to procure basic essentials.
Some are moving around to salvage marriage ceremonies in what happens to be Kashmir’s wedding season, which is soldiering on without the internet and mobile services. There is no public transport. People from the capital Srinagar to Tral and Anantnag in south Kashmir, wait for hours to hail down one of the few passing private cars.
So vigorous has been the administration’s attempt to airbrush reality that locals joke that even the barriers erected along Srinagar’s thoroughfares are meant to create fake traffic jams.
The presence of thousands of heavily armed troopers has virtually guaranteed that any widespread public protest will end in a bloodbath, so Kashmiris are resorting to a silent, non-cooperation movement by refusing to engage with the Indian state.
HuffPost India spoke to a wide cross-section of Kashmiri society, all of whom sought anonymity as they feared arrest.
The Indian state, a well-placed police source said, has responded to this non-cooperation by simply staging an alternative reality.
“India can be obscenely irrational when it comes to Kashmir,” said the police officer, explaining that it was standard practice in the valley to intimidate poor people, especially unorganised workers who work for a daily wage, even bribing them with money, to get them back on the streets to project normalcy.
A policeman, who has witnessed such “pressure tactics” being used to project normalcy in 2010 and 2016, said, “It’s a kind of blackmail. Pushcart vendors are dependent on the local administration. They are told that if you come out on the streets today then you will be allowed to return when the normalcy returns. They are told that you sit today or never.”
The policeman added, “That promise is not always kept.”
This strategy has its limits.
As the school bus operator put it, “You can force shopkeepers to open shops but you cannot force parents to send their children to school.”
“This is our silent protest against India taking away Article 370, our human rights and our dignity,” said the shopkeeper who said he was jailed for a day by the police for opening his shop from six to nine in the morning.
“The police has tried to force us to operate from nine in the morning to five in the evening. They want to show the world that everything is normal, but nothing is normal,” he said. “We will not open our shops until we get back Article 370.”
“They want to show the world that everything is normal, but nothing is normal."”
The Economic Toll Mounting
As the clampdown in Kashmir grinds on, the costs of this resistance are beginning to bite.
To cut their losses, store owners open their shops for three to four hours in the morning. Some store owners sell their perishable items for a few hours in the evening, but they do so behind closed doors.
“I don’t want to suffer a total loss,” said one store owner, who was selling food items from his house in the evening.
“But I don’t want to be the only one opening my shop in the evening. You really can’t open when no else is doing it. There is fear of what others will say, but I’m also angry,” he said. “The Indian government and the Indian media are claiming that things are normal, we will show them normal. We will expose their lies.”
The administration has pointed to the case of Ghulam Mohammad Mir, an elderly Kashmiri store-owner who was killed by three unidentified gunmen in August, as evidence that the shutdown is enforced by militants and does not have popular support.
Police officials told HuffPost India that the gunmen were militants. Shabeer Ahmed Mir, Ghulam Mohammad’s son, sounded circumspect when he spoke with HuffPost India.
“I don’t know what happened. Was it militants? Was it some other agency? There are so many operating here that no one can tell anything in Kashmir,” Shabeer said. “Investigation, what investigation are you talking about? There is no investigation in Kashmir.”
As his elder brothers tried speaking with this reporter, Shabeer Ahmed cut him off. “What more do you want to say?” Shabeer shouted. “Do you also want to wind up dead by evening? Be quiet.”
There have been reports of posters warning storeowners against opening their shops.
In the volatile neighbourhood of Maisooma, last week, there was stone pelting after a few shopkeepers remained open for an hour more than their counterparts.
Vendors said that they are afraid of the “young men on bikes.”
“We are playing with our lives, every time we come out. I could get shot. There are men who come on bikes, beat you up and upturn your stall,” said Nazeer, a middle-aged street vendor selling eggs from a pushcart. “I don’t want to come out. I’m angry too, but I also have to feed my children.”
While driving past a scattering of pushcart vendors on a Sunday, the policeman, who spoke with HuffPost India regarding the local administration’s efforts to project normalcy, observed that those coming out was a fraction of the normal turnout.
“There is no space to drive during the Sunday Market,” he said. “There is fear but there is also a lot of anger. This could be the calm before the storm.”
“I don’t want to come out. I’m angry too, but I also have to feed my children.”
The arrests and detentions of thousands of political workers, lawyers, civil society activists, and ordinary civilians have robbed Kashmiri society of an entire section of people who could liaison with the state.
As this consequence, this “silent protest” appears organic and leaderless. That a shutdown has to be observed every day, shopkeepers say, spread through word of mouth and has become a silent pact.
Earlier, during lengthy agitations, shopkeepers say that separatist leaders would publish a fairly comprehensive shutdown schedule in local newspapers, but now there are informal neighbourhood committees which decide on these matters.
“Earlier the mainstream parties had workers on the ground, who would help stabilise the situation,” explained a young mother who has refused to send her child to school. “Community leaders would speak with the state government officials. Now, there is no one left. No one wants to speak with this government.”
Even those who could potentially speak to the government are wary of cooperating.
A transport leader told HuffPost India that he was summoned by government officials, last month, but he did not go for the meeting.
“They want buses back on the road, but it’s not possible. There are no people on the road. There is no business. Who will the buses ferry?” he said.
“We don’t even know where the buses that were on the road on August 4 went. Where is the staff? We have not been able to reach them since the communication blackout,” he continued.
The head of a trade association, which oversees over 500,000 shops in Srinagar, said that he has not been able to convince a single shopkeeper to return to work. “They simply refuse,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“There are no people on the road. There is no business. Who will the buses ferry?”
Saquib Khan’s store stocks everything from juice and almonds to shampoo and soaps, was the only one that appeared open in Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s busiest thoroughfare, one Sunday evening. Its shutters were half down and a couple of customers were bending double to enter.
While some shopkeepers open their shops for a few hours in the morning in Lal Chowk, and close by 9:00 am, the 27-year-old operates for a few hours in the evening.
“I don’t want to but I really don’t have a choice. My situation is different from the others who are selling shoes, clothes and handicrafts. I have fast moving goods that are perishable,” he said. “I’m trying to sell at least some before these are ruined.”
The local administration, Khan said, had approached the trade leader of the marketplace and pressured him to get the shopkeepers to open for business. The J&K police, Khan said, had also approached shopkeepers and told them to open their shops, promising to provide them security.
So far, he said, the shopkeepers have refused.
“I slept in one Article and I woke up in another Article. I slept in one law and I woke up in another law,” he said. “This is a different fight. For me, this is not a fight for azaadi (freedom). This is a fight for Article 370.”
“I slept in one Article and I woke up in another Article. I slept in one law and I woke up in another law.”
Khan estimated that he has suffered losses worth Rs 1 million since August 5, but his financial losses, he added, have faded in comparison to the emotional toll of the past six weeks.
He did not speak to his brother for 20 days due to the communication blackout. A close relative, he said, became ill and died, but he did not hear of it until four days after he was buried.
“We are a generation that has known conflict when we were in the wombs of our mothers,” Khan said, explaining why his friends and he were continuing this protest despite its costs. “We know how to suffer and we know how to fight back.”
“We are a generation that has known conflict when we were in the wombs of our mothers.”