Imagine a city of more than 10 lakh people with no civilian in sight. All you can see on the deserted streets are iron barricades, barbed wires, swinging batons and rows of gun-mounted vehicles. The only humans in sight are the security forces donning forbidding riot gear. The only sounds puncturing the eerie silence are of slow-rolling security vehicles and of gunfire warning the mobs gathering in alleys.
It’s not just life that’s thwarted in the city — dealing with the dead, too, has become tricky.
Showkat Ahmad, a 33-year-old resident of downtown Srinagar’s Lal Bazaar area, died last Wednesday evening after a prolonged illness. The family kept the body at home for the night as it failed to secure a curfew pass.
On Thursday morning, around 7, professor Mir Hussain Ahmad, father of the deceased, secured curfew passes for a few close relatives and headed for his ancestral graveyard at Malkah near the volatile Nowhatta area.
“We were stopped at a number of places. The coffin was checked,” says Rayees Qureshi, a relative of the dead. “The family then approached the Hazratbal police station, which provided two constables to accompany the coffin to the graveyard.” As a result, it took more than two hours to cover the 25-minute drive to the graveyard.
The reason for the security forces to be doubly cautious can be seen on the streets. From Bohri Kadal to Hawal in the downtown area and from Bemina to Hyderpora uptown, the main roads are strewn with pieces of red brick and pointed rock. Provocative slogans such as ‘Go India Go’ are emblazoned with charcoal on the walls.
As soldiers man the main streets, masked boys armed with stones man the backyards and alleys.
Along the back alleys
The city seems completely different when seen from the back alleys. There’s 15-year-old Ahmad, a class 9 student, who has grown a new habit — that of narrating to his friends his daily “brave acts” of pelting stones at the security forces. “I think it gives him pleasure to tell us his daily stories of pelting,” says Amin, who studies with Ahmad at a darasgah, or a seminary, in the old city.
Ahmad, the son of a fruit vendor, lives in a three-room wooden shed along with his younger siblings and parents. His parents are hardly aware of his acts. But whenever Ahmad leaves for stone pelting, he always takes along his 12-year-old neighbor Waris, a class 6 student. “For Waris, Ahmad is an icon. He wants to be like Ahmad,” Amin says.
The story of 14-year-old Tariq is, however, quite different. He lost one of his eyes to a stone thrown by a CRPF soldier using a catapult. “Why did they hit me? I wasn’t pelting stones,” asks Tariq. “Even Papa doesn’t stop me from throwing stones now.”
Small steps, big effort
No wonder, on the other side of the divide, the soldiers are on the edge. “I tried to venture out for milk and morning bread, but a CRPF jawan raised his baton in the air and shouted ‘Go back!’,” says Zahoor Ahmad Qureshi, a retired engineer who stays in Zaina Kadal, the centre of downtown Srinagar that’s spread over five square kilometres.
Text messaging, a key mode of communication here, has been banned for now. “We have been asked to snap the SMS service for an indefinite period… but not the call services,” says an employee of the state-run BSNL, the largest of the four mobile telephony companies in the Valley, pleading anonymity.
Apart from slowing down the circulation of news, the ban has also affected marriages. “I have to cancel invitations to more than 700 guests. An SMS would have ensured that the guests are informed; but that’s not possible now,” says Bilal Ahmad from the Eidgah area whose daughter is getting married this week.
The day before, Thursday, all roads leading to the Pathar Masjid were sealed and contingents of women police were deployed to prevent women from marching. “My salt had run out… I wasn’t even allowed to go to my neighbour’s in the next lane,” says a housewife from Kawdara over the phone.
Those above the salt
Away from the dusty, dingy lanes of downtown are the plush areas of Rajbagh and Nishat, were the city’s elite live. Life isn’t much different here.
“This is the time for people who live outside Kashmir to come home for holidays and pleasure. When the streets swell, these people are the first ones to move back. I have my clients who advanced their trips back to the US and the Gulf,” says Umar Nazir Tibetbaqal of Labaika Travels.
“It’s like living in a beautiful prison,” says the Dubai-based manager of an international brand who came to the Valley in early June. “I got my leave sanctioned after nearly two years; I wish I hadn’t come.”
Things were markedly different just a few weeks back. Tourists lined Boulevard Road on the Dal Lake. The dip in violence meant a spurt in economic opportunities. The private sector had taken tentative steps into the city. The Taj Group, for one, announced a new project in the Valley.
The first week of June saw the opening of Srinagar’s first modern shopping mall, Sangarmall, a compound spread over 8-and-a-half acres in Lal Chowk that houses the city’s first elevators. Customers were getting introduced to one top brand after another. Now the mall, like everything else, is shut.
When Omar Abdullah became the youngest Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir on January 5, 2009, a new hope had permeated the air of the Valley. Eighteen months on, there are only shattered dreams of peace.
Inputs by Ashiq Hussain