A protracted tussle between residents and the administration over a proposed memorial for militants has kept one of south Kashmir’s most important and sensitive towns shut for thirteen consecutive days.
Young men hunched outside shuttered shops In the biting cold on Wednesday and discussed how the “martyrdom of young Pulwama boys should be remembered”. On the streets, policemen stood guard with their armoured vehicles.
A shout away from the huddle, slain militants from Pulwama lie buried in an unmarked graveyard at the town centre. It doesn’t have a signboard to convey, what residents say, that “martyrs are buried here”.
When Omais Ahmad Sheikh, a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group, was buried there last month, the demand to erect a memorial grew.
“People want the memorial so that even a hundred years later, the next generation knows who all were killed in the ongoing conflict,” said Nisar Ahmad, a Pulwama resident.
Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani fueled the people’s call when he appealed for demonstrations across the Valley after Friday prayers.
Martyr’s graveyard is common in Kashmiri towns and villages but this is the first time the state has put its foot down.
Authorities were trying to reverse the lockdown by imposing the Essential Commodities Regulation Act, 1955, which compels stores selling essential items to remain open, but to little effect.
Other than a few pharmacies, almost all shops, business houses, banks and even most government offices remained closed.
“Normal life as well as trade has been hampered to a great extent. Every day, there is a loss of around Rs 43 lakh,” said Bashir Ahmad Wani, president of the Traders Federation Pulwama.
While Wani told HT a decision had been made to end the shutdown after the administration agreed to the demand about the memorial, divisional commissioner of Kashmir Asgar Samoon said nothing had been finalised.
The shutdown has been riddled with clashes between residents and security personnel. People alleged police night raids and arrest of about 20 young men who were subsequently released.
A senior police officer clarified that raids and arrests were routine procedure to control the situation during a lockdown.
“Traders, shopkeepers and businessmen are suffering the most, apart from education and health sectors. They want to open their shops but not going ahead fearing a backlash,” he said.
The traders were caught in a Catch-22 situation because the youth who initially started the memorial movement backed out and handed over the responsibility to them.
Representatives of the government and people were in the talks for the past few days, especially over the initial demand to put up an installation “featuring graphical imagery to glorify militants” at the proposed memorial.
Security forces identified Pulwama as the latest hotbed of Kashmiri militancy. Of 60-odd local militants active in Kashmir, around 15 are from this district.
“Militancy is penetrating the districts of southern Kashmir. The support base for militants is also spreading. That’s why you could see a large crowd at the funeral of a militant rather than former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed,” political scientist Noor Ahmad Baba said.
For many young men, 21-year-old Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani is the latest “great hero”.
“Things have changed for south Kashmir after the likes of Burhan have come out. South Kashmir is increasingly seen as a resistance hub. Almost 15 boys from the district have been killed since July-August in encounters,” said Sideeq Baba, a Pulwama-based researcher associated with the Unicef.
The Pulwama shutdown reflects the growing drift in south Kashmir.
Police officers say “unemployment, frustration and disillusionment” push the youth towards militancy.
But a college student in Pulwama dismissed the police theory, saying the real reason was the brutal “crackdown of Indian security forces on innocent residents”.