Muted Eid celebrations grim reminder of 2019 in Srinagar
Gulzar Ahmad Rather spent Eid-al-Adha like any other Saturday, mostly indoors. There were no mass prayers, no congregation in the local mosque, no visiting homes of relatives or ritual sacrifice of a goat. The morning prayers were offered in a small batch, the noon meal was simple and shorn of delicacies, and afternoon tea was without any cake or cookies. In the evening, his three children decided to not go out to meet friends and stay indoors. It was an early night for the family.
For Rather, a 48-year-old vegetable vendor in Srinagar, the muted celebration was a reminder of Eid-Ul-Adha on August 12 last year, when an unprecedented lockdown and a communications blackout was clamped on the Valley in the wake of the government’s decision to strip the region of its special status and bifurcate it.
But unlike last time, when passions ran high and tension was palpable in old Srinagar, the coronavirus pandemic and a depressed economy forced people to scale down celebrations this year.
“That time, we, as a community, were emotionally hurt. There was anger and frustration. This time it is universal and there is an understanding that it is from God. Everyone is involved this time,” he said.
With infection surging in the Valley – there are 2,700 cases in the 1.2 million-strong Srinagar alone – roads, markets and local shops were deserted on Saturday as no Eid prayers were offered in major mosques and shrines. To keep the virus at bay, people preferred to offer prayers at home -- either individually or in small groups of family members only.
The barricades were lower than last year, the barbed wire fencing cordoned off fewer roads and there were no troops marching through city streets, but fear of the virus kept most people indoors. Asim Jan, a 21-year-old engineering student, said he was confined to his room for the first time on Eid. “I am reading a book on Eid because there is nothing to do. We can’t even move out,” he said.
Eid, not a grand event anymore
In a city with no cinemas and few avenues for entertainment, Eid-al-Adha is easily the most grand event. Known locally as big or Badi Eid, the celebration involves the traditional Qurbani, or sacrifice of goat, people buy jewellery, clothes and an assortment of baked goods. Even the peak of the militancy in the 90s didn’t ebb the enthusiasm and long queues at overcrowded bakeries were a common sight.
But the turmoil of the past year has denied local residents any cheer. Last year, Eid-ul-Adha fell just a week after the effective nullification of Article 370, which accorded special status to Kashmir.
Then Eid-ul-Fitr this year was in May when the pandemic was fast spreading across the country. With Eid-ul-Adha celebrated a week before the one-year anniversary of the Article 370 move on Saturday, local residents said the anger over politics from last year was replaced by fear and hopelessness about the state of the economy and health care system.
“We took limited orders for Eid. The pandemic has changed everything. And for us, this is the third Eid when we are making below-average sales,” said Arshid Ahmad, manager of a prominent bakery at city’s Residency Road.
On the road, coils of barbed wire and iron barricades have been replaced by colorful road blocks. “I am in the city centre Lal chowk after a month only to get medicines. Who will celebrate Eid?” asked Saqib Mansoor, a local resident.
Even home kitchens are without the usual delicacies like Yakhni, Rogan Josh, Methimaaz.”This time we didn’t purchase anything because of the situation. We are taking precautions and have not ordered anything,” said Suhail Ahmad, a Srinagar resident.
Travel restrictions imposed to break the chain of infection stopped sheep traders from neighbouring states and the lack of tourism meant that people had no money to buy animals for the traditional qurbani. “This time, animals are not visible in the markets due to pandemic,” said Zahoor Ahmad, a resident of Lal Bazar. Local authorities threw open all markets three days before Eid but quickly rescinded the decision as cases piled up – only shops selling essential supplies were allowed.
Many residents said they felt trapped throughout the past year – first by political tensions, then the lockdown and communications blackout, and when finally some normalcy was returning to the streets, the pandemic. “It feels like for one year, I have been doing nothing. We have virtually been in the lockdown for the past one year,” said Danish Ahmad, a local school teacher.
Local economy hit hard
The virtual year-long lockdown has ravaged the local economy, hurt small traders and ensured that ordinary people have little money to spend. “Jobs have been lost in every sector. On Eid, sales used to go 200 to 300 percent up but from last three Eids, the situation is going from bad to worse,” said Sheikh Ashiq, president of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce.
A major generator of jobs – tourism – has been shuttered. Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, 35, a cab driver, hasn’t made a single trip to any tourist spot since August 5, 2019. “Before the restrictions last year, there were many tourists here and I used to make multiple trips in a month but since then I have not made a single penny for the whole year. How will I celebrate Eid when I don’t have anything to feed my wife?” Bhat asked.
Javaid Ahmad Mir, who owns a laundry business, said that mood among locals had shifted from anger about the political situation to despair about personal finance. “Article 370 was on the minds of people last year and every heart was bleeding, this time people are more worried about the economy,” he said.“It will take another 10 years for us to recover”.
Every Eid, Kashmir would welcome a large number of expatriates from West Asian countries who travelled home to celebrate the festival with their families. Bilal Ahmad, who works in a logistics firm in Dubai, travelled to old Srinagar with his wife and two young children last year, only to get trapped in the lockdown for months.
This year, he decided to not come – but regretted spending the festival in a foreign country without family. “Last year, Eid was very tense but was still better than this one in the UAE. But there were no flights and uncertainty is still prevalent in Kashmir, so I decided to not come,” he said over phone.
The uncertainty around the region’s political future, economy and the pandemic has left the local population drained. Mohammad Ramzan, 58, said that as a result of these three factors, people just fulfilled their religious obligations on Eid-Ul-Adha on Saturday, instead of a grand celebration. “Khushi kaha hai (Where is happiness?)” he asked.