In town after town in Kashmir, whether in the militancy-hit south, or in the north, people have been observing a near total market and transport shutdown over the last few days against the government’s decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and its bifurcation into two Union Territories. This, even as the authorities have announced relaxation of prohibitory orders in phases across the Valley.
Everywhere, all shops except chemists are shut. Meat shops half open their shutters in the evening. In villages, small grocery shops are open, but everything else is shut. Only private cars are seen on the roads. Public transport is at standstill. The Tata Sumos, the ubiquitous public transport on all Kashmir highways, are off the roads and the non-availability of public transport has hit attendance in government offices.
“There’s no call from any separatist leader, no transport or traders’ association has ordered a shutdown, but still people are not opening their shops. We have been asking them to open the markets, but people don’t want to do it,” a senior government official said. Several hundred people — there is no official count — have been detained, among them separatist leaders, politicians, other potential crowd mobilisers such as the head of market associations, even an RTI activist, and well known stone-pelters.
“People are observing this on their own,” said a chemist in Handwara who had opened his shop. On Friday, always a sensitive day in the Valley because of the weekly prayers, authorities tightened movement restrictions once again, but the curbs are expected to be relaxed Saturday.
Days before announcing its J&K move, the government poured tens of thousands of additional troops into the Valley, expecting an eruption of violent protests similar to the ones that took place in 2016 after the killing of militant Burhan Wani, effectively shutting down Kashmir for six months.
This time, since August 5, there have been street protests, especially in Srinagar, including stone-pelting, but nowhere near the scale of the 2016 protests. Instead, what Kashmir has been witnessing over the last two weeks is what people are calling a silent and sullen “civil curfew” against the recent decisions.
A government official said it is hard to judge if this means it is spontaneous or the shutdown is “out of fear” of militants. District officials said they have been trying to get traders to reopen shops and get public transport back on the roads, but their efforts are finding few takers. “Shop owners are saying they cannot reopen without telephones to connect them to their suppliers,” one district official said.
With the near total shutdown of communications, officials said they have been finding it hard to get public feedback to the measures, and only when phones and Internet are restored will a picture emerge. As to what it will be, an official said, “your guess is as good as mine”. But, he said, the Valley shutdown “could be one indication of what people are thinking”.
Among the people everywhere, the common refrain is: “We are angry, our identity has been snatched”. The absence of communication and the restrictions on movement has angered them more. With few landlines and no mobile networks, the government’s gambit of reopening schools has failed.
“No parent wants to send a child to school in such circumstances. What if something happens, and we cannot contact our kids or the school,” said one parent in Srinagar. No school buses have come out on the roads. Mushtaq Khan, a dentist and RTI activist in Srinagar’s Old City, who describes himself as a “liberal” and one who has been “as far away from separatism as anyone could imagine”, said the events of the last 20 days have made him rethink his politics.
In Lalhar village in Pulwama, a woman said: “This is a civil curfew. First, there was a curfew (from the government’s side), now this curfew is from our side. They want us to open shops and send our children to school, we are not going to do that.” In north Kashmir, CRPF personnel patrolled a deserted market place in Pattan. “We have not imposed any restriction on people opening their shops. Rather, we are telling them to open the shops, but they don’t want to come out,” said one of them.
Security forces have become more visible than before, with patrols and pickets every few hundred metres on the highway. In Kupwara in north Kashmir, just 50 km from the LoC, the town is shut. In Drugmulla model village, men returning from the afternoon namaz said there was a “curfew” from the government’s side, and one from the people’s side as well. A boy selling roasted bhuttas on the Sopore-Srinagar highway said he wasn’t going to school because of the hartal.
The government is hoping that the hartal will fizzle out, but people say they are preparing for a long haul. “People have learnt from the 2016 agitation that the government wants to tire us out. This time, people have decided to tire out the government,” a Pampore resident said.
In Mughalpora village in Pulwama, a student said: “We want to stretch this as long as we can, draw attention to what is happening in Kashmir.”