In the Valley, a festival with no festivityUpdated: Aug 12, 2019 23:57 IST
Srinagar/Anantnag/Pulwama: Last Monday, as Union home minister Amit Shah was rising in Parliament to propose scrapping Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, Tariq Ahmed was swerving past checkpoints in a race to get his pregnant wife to hospital in time.
It was around 11am in Srinagar and security forces had cordoned off chunks of the city with large coils of barbed wire, barricades, and armed posts. Ahmed reached the hospital, Lal Ded in central Srinagar, in time, but the citywide shutdown and communications blackout made it impossible for him to go back to get food, supplies and spare clothes.
Hailing from Kulgam in north Kashmir, Ahmed struggled to get the word out to his parents. “Luckily I knew an ambulance guy who was going that way and requested him. Because of the blockade, my parents left at 4am to get here safely,” he said.
As the move to nullify Article 370, and bifurcate the state into two Union Territories formally passed the Lok Sabha last Tuesday, Ahmed’s wife gave birth to a daughter. For the business family, a birth before Bakr-i-Eid should have been an auspicious sign, but not this time.
“New life brings us hope; but I am not optimistic for Kashmir’s future. I think Eid will see a turn for the worse,” Ahmed said on Saturday, his left hand clutching three slices of bread – the only food the overwhelmed hospital canteen could spare.
Ahmed’s sentiment was seen reflected across Kashmir, where large sections of the Muslim community reported being angry, disappointed and betrayed by the central government’s unprecedented move.
Shuttered shops, barricaded roads, security personnel marching through deserted streets, announcing restrictions on loudspeakers and asking people to stay indoors and a complete lockdown in sensitive pockets reflected how drastically things had changed over the past week.
Many perceived the communications blackout as an insult and a violation of citizenship rights, and while some people -- especially in the capital Srinagar – said they would wait to see the fallout of the move, most agreed that it had robbed Eid, celebrated exactly a week after the decision, of its festive cheer.
“Would you enforce this kind of blackout in any other state? Yes, we will celebrate Eid, but it will be a dark Eid. Our identity has been taken away,” said Safia, a resident of central Srinagar.
In her words, as with the 35-odd Kashmiri Muslim residents HT interviewed over three days across three districts of Kashmir, there was alienation from India, concerns of a cultural and demographic change and apprehension about the future.
An Eid like no other
In a city starved of festivities and entertainment -- the last cinema to open, Neelam, shut shop after a grenade attack in the late 2000s, and old favourites such as Broadway and Regal have been shuttered for a decade -- Bakr-i-Eid is a spectacular annual show and easily Srinagar’s biggest event.
Known locally as big or Badi Eid, the celebration involves the traditional Qurbani, or sacrifice of sheep, and often runs for three days. Most of Srinagar’s 1.2 million residents are usually out on the roads, buying traditional jewellery, clothes for the family and children and an assortment of baked goods from bakeries that crowd every corner of the city.
The streets and markets are especially packed in the old part of the city, called Downtown, which is home to roughly a third of Srinagar’s population, where merchants sell their wares from carts, shops and makeshift tents. Families prepare lavish meals of Rogan josh, Yakhni, Korma and gosht. It is also boom time for the local economy – the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce estimated that roughly R600 crore was withdrawn from ATMs during Eid last year.
But this year, city residents say the enthusiasm has ebbed. For the first three days of the clampdown, most roads and shops were shut. People would step out of their neighbourhoods only after sundown, when security deployment would thin, and street corners after dark sported clots of young men and women, some of them on bikes, playing suddenly popular games like snakes and ladders on their phones.
Even after the administration relaxed curbs on movement on August 10 and 11 and traffic flow swelled in some parts of the city – the Downtown area remained under heavy security and residents said they had faced numerous roadblocks to get out of homes for essentials – locals said celebrations would remain low key.
“I picked up cake and some cookies for my kids as a token celebration of Eid. We can’t pretend to be happy when our hearts are broken,” said Mohammad Ashraf, a medical representative who lives near Srinagar’s Residency Road.
Driving into south Kashmir, everything seemed normal at first glance. A heavily secured highway abutted by lush acres of paddy that give way to saffron fields, young boys playing cricket with bricks for wickets under the watchful eyes of security men. On Saturday, with restrictions relaxed, people were out on the streets in moderate numbers in the militancy hotbed. In Bijbehara, Anantnag district, large crowds excitedly discussed the news. In Anantnag city, neighbours hugged each other on street corners and young women rushed to fruit stalls after withdrawing money from ATMs. In Islamabad, there were crowds outside shops selling oil, wares and vegetables and in Pulwama, bakeries made brisk last-minute sales.
But underneath the surface, the anger was apparent, and local residents said – in voices far more strident than those in Srinagar – their Eid was far from festive, and that this move will fuel militancy. “We have nothing left to celebrate. Article 370 was our pride that has been snatched by the government,” said 40-year-old Shiraz Ahmed, a garment trader in Bijbehara.
In Pulwama, some 50 km away from Srinagar off National Highway 44, Shahid Shafi was selling baked goods at less than half the regular price at his Shahzada Bakery.
“People are demoralised and even Eid has failed to lift their spirits. We spent more than R10 lakh on products. If we don’t sell, we will have to throw the goods away and that’s why we are open,” said Shafi.
Outside his shop, Amir Ahmad and Mukammal Wani were engrossed in conversation. Wani said he refused to open his salon as a mark of protest even as some friends rib Ahmad for his Virat Kohli-esque sideburns. “That we were kept in the dark about this move has taken away 99% of the enthusiasm for Eid,” said Ahmad, a student at Kashmir University.
On Eid, tradition dictates that the meat is divided into three portions – one for family, one for friends and relatives, and one for the locality and the poor. Not this time.
“The affluent ones who sacrificed up to six sheep on previous Eids have bought one or two. The poorer lot has skipped the custom altogether to save money in these uncertain times. Also, there is no way to distribute the traditional meat offering because of the curbs,” said Khalid Gojwari, a Srinagar-based dealer in dairy products.
The subdued Eid has hurt traders such as Maqbool Khan who travelled from Rajasthan with a truck full of sheep.
“Last year, I sold all the sheep I brought from Bikaner in just two days. That response encouraged me to invest more. This time I brought animals worth R40 lakh but haven’t sold any. Dozens of other traders from Rajasthan are staring at a bleak future,” said Khan.
Another trader, Saddam Khan, was so impressed with Maqbool’s business last year that he took a loan to buy and transport the animals to Srinagar ahead of Eid. He said he didn’t know about the lockdown. “Transporting the sheep back to Rajasthan will cost a lot of money. Had we known what was happening here, we would have never come here,” he said.
Prominent bakeries and sweet shops were also hurting. “We had cancelled almost all our orders as after August 5 we were not able to prepare items for Eid,” said the manager of a prominent bakery on Srinagar’s Residency road on condition of anonymity. Nawhatta market, a must-go destination in the courtyard of the Jamia Masjid in the old city, also reported depressed sales.
“We don’t know for how long the restrictions will stretch. We need to save money,” said Abdul Majeed, a grocery shop owner.
The fears of the residents -- and migrants
There are three things that Kashmiri Muslims say they are worried about.
The first is the loss of culture and identity because of an anticipated influx of people from outside the Valley. “We have a distinct culture that is different from everyone else in India, Hindus and Muslims. Removing Article 370 through the power of the gun can change that,” said Bashir Ahmed, a shopkeeper in Bijbehara.
The second is an influx of people from outside who will take up their land and property, and put into motion a change in religious demographics in what was India’s only Muslim-majority province in the country. “A political game is being played with Kashmiri lives. It’s a conspiracy to convert the majority into a minority,” said Muzaffar Wani, a marketing executive from Anantnag.
The third apprehension – contrary to the narrative of rapid development and industry that the government has proposed – is that people from outside will corner whatever new jobs are created. Many Kashmiris admit that the long years of militancy have hobbled their education system and industry, and a sudden ask to compete on an even keel with the rest of India would spell disaster for local aspirants.
“There is no Article 370 in Odisha and Bihar. Please show us what development has taken place there. People will come from outside and they will take our jobs and our businesses,” said Riaz Ahmed, a Pulwama resident who is pursuing a post-graduate degree in political science from Indira Gandhi National Open University.
Irshad Mohammad from West Bengal’s Murshidabad district thought he could ride out the initial days of disturbance but soon realised that hostility was rising in his neighbourhood on the outskirts of Srinagar, forcing him to quit his daily wage job and join the thousands of migrant labourers at Srinagar’s Tourist Reception Centre looking to get out of the Valley. “If more jobs come, it will be good for everyone; but local boys threatened me for two straight days and called me slurs for being an ‘outsider’ and I thought it is best to get out safe.”
There are some in Srinagar who think the government’s decision, while sudden, will have beneficial long-term implications. “I see nothing wrong in what the government has done. But yes, there could have been better communication and no need for a blackout, and the government can announce some safeguards for locals,” said a 42-year-old Srinagar resident from the Kashmiri Pandit community. Another Kashmiri Pandit, a shopkeeper, said he thought it was unlikely that his brethren would return after Article 370’s nullification.
Information and disinformation
For the security establishment, the biggest achievement has been what it calls the absence of large-scale violence. The government has repeatedly stressed that the situation in Kashmir is easing gradually and “completely normal” and that ordinary citizens are abiding by the orders. “The citizens are cooperating with us, we will not let any mischievous element cause problems,” said inspector general SP Pani.
A top army official said all actions were pre-emptive and aimed at ensuring the safety of people. “To their credit, they are abiding by the restrictions and the situation is under control. The removal of Article 370 is a huge step to integrate J&K with the rest of the country,” this official added on condition of anonymity.
A second senior official in the security establishment said fears of a demographic change were unfounded and exaggerated. “It’s time to clean the slate and make a fresh start. It’s time to leave the ghosts of the past behind and trust the Centre’s intentions,” said the second official.
Some local English and Urdu newspapers continue to bring out editions but their distribution is severely hobbled, and editors admit that most content on the slim four or six-page editions are copied from television broadcasts. And in the restive Downtown and Maisuma areas of old Srinagar, roadblocks and a phalanx of security men control the flow of information.
This peculiar blockade has produced a fog of rumours and scraps of information gleaned from friends and strangers alike – almost all of which is denied by the government.
Locals say stocks of food and cash are dwindling. The administration says there is food stock for 67 days and more than R200 crore rupees filled in ATMs.
Locals point to a thousands-strong protest in old Srinagar’s Soura on Friday to underline that the anger is growing, the government points at the relative lack of violence to prove that things are under control.
Locals said in the melee of anti-India slogans and flag waiving, the forces fired shot. Pani has categorically said that the forces have not fired.
Locals say militancy is bound to rise, and with space for moderates and mainstream politicians fast eroding, there is no bulwark to stop young disillusioned men from picking up the gun. The government says a flood of industrial development will ensure that Kashmir will bloom like never before.
There is no telling which way Kashmir will turn, and when. But in the words of a senior Kashmiri professor, “Our protests will not adhere to India’s calendar.”
First Published: Aug 12, 2019 23:57 IST