The Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry has called for a “Jammu bandh” on September 22 to protest against the “atrocities of the government on the business class” and the “discrimination” against traders in the region.

This is the first time that Jammu’s business community has made a show of their discontent since August 5, 2019, when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre split the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories and stripped it of autonomy and the protections guaranteed to it under Article 370 of the Constitution.

The traders’ body listed a number of “anti-Jammu” steps taken by the government: the e-auction of liquor shops earlier this year, which left local vendors in the lurch, the proposal to open 100 Reliance stores against which small traders will find it difficult to compete and the allocation of mining contracts to “outsiders”, which had cost thousands their livelihoods.

Among the list of grievances was the end of the 149-year-old practice called the “darbar move”, a leftover of the days when Jammu and Kashmir was ruled by the Dogra kings. Every winter, the government and the entire administrative machinery of the state would shift from the summer capital of Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley to the winter capital of Jammu in the plains.

This July, the Union Territory administration effectively ended the practice, citing the drain on the exchequer. Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha argued it would save the government Rs 200 crore annually.

But for the business community in Jammu, it means more losses. About 10,000 government employees and their families poured into Jammu from Kashmir every winter.

“They would spend money there and live there – it developed a bond of mutual brotherhood between the two regions,” explained Arun Gupta, president of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “It’s alright if the government wants to save money but is it also the work of the government to kill a source of revenue for ordinary people?”

Ties that bind

Politically, Muslim-majority Kashmir and Hindu-majority Jammu have usually been at odds. The interests of one region have been painted as damaging to the interests of the other. But the distress over the end of the darbar move also points to the quiet flows of trade and business that bind the two regions.

Shakeel Qalandar, who has headed several business bodies in the Valley, also acknowledged these ties. “During the darbar move, affluent Kashmiri families would shift to Jammu – they would take houses on rent and shop from local traders,” he explained.

In Jammu, Gupta agreed: “There’s hardly any sector which didn’t earn out of the darbar move. People would come here, go to parks, travel in public transport, buy medicines and groceries. It meant a continuous source of business for a small trader in Jammu.”

In the past, any discussion to end the Darbar Move had drawn protests from Jammu. In 1987, then Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was forced to reverse a decision to shift only a limited number of departments to Jammu in the darbar move.

Now, traders in Jammu fear the disruption of old economic ties once again. “If the idea is to create a distance between the two regions then it’s better to make Jammu a separate Union Territory,” said Gupta.

It was not just the darbar move – Qalandar described a deep economic “interdependence” between the two regions. “It’s a fact that Jammu is at an advantageous position when it comes to the manufacturing and processing of goods [compared to] Kashmir,” Qalandar said. “The climate is friendly, connectivity is good and labour is cheap. In addition, there are no frequent interruptions like curfews and shutdowns.”

But Jammu manufacturers, unable to compete with counterparts in Punjab, Haryana or Delhi, need local markets. “All the goods produced locally in Jammu are traded locally within Jammu or in Kashmir and Ladakh,” Qalandar explained.

Meanwhile, trademark Kashmiri goods such as shawls and carpets, walnuts and fruits, find a lucrative market in Jammu. “Since nearly one crore people visit the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu every year, you would see Kashmiri handicrafts piled on the shelves of shopkeepers in Jammu,” said Qalandar.

Kashmir also depends on Jammu for key supplies – the Srinagar-Jammu highway is the lifeline that connects the Valley to the rest of the country, bringing in consignments of rice and grain.

In this picture from 2007, a boy walks past trucks on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, the road that connects the Kashmir Valley to other regions. Picture credit: Tauseef Mustafa/ AFP

How dependent the Valley was on this road link became evident in 2008, when mass protests broke out in Kashmir against the allocation of land to the Amarnath shrine board. Hindu rightwing groups in Jammu enforced an economic blockade on Kashmir, stopping trucks on the highway carrying vital supplies into the Valley as well as Kashmiri goods moving towards markets in Jammu and beyond.

In August 2008, traders in Kashmir tried to march towards Muzaffarabad across the Line of Control, with thousands of trucks bearing fruit – a gesture of protest against the blockade. At least eight persons were killed as the police opened fire to stop the march.

Meanwhile in Jammu, local businessmen were also suffering losses because of the blockade. “Kashmir’s economy is not new to lockdowns and prolonged curfews – they have kind of adapted to it,” said a businessman from Kashmir who does trade across various states in India. “But for Jammu, the 2008 land agitation was something new. They couldn’t fathom its impact beforehand. That’s why the economic blockade fizzled out in no time.”

‘A widespread agitation’?

For over a decade now, voters in Jammu have gravitated towards the BJP. That may be changing, with resentments rising among the region’s influential business community. “After August 5, 2019, things have turned worse for the business community in Jammu,” said a Jammu-based businessman who wished to remain anonymous. “The people of Jammu supported BJP for development but they are snatching even the existing livelihoods of people.”

Ashok Koul, the BJP general secretary for Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, insisted “the government is working for the welfare of Jammu”. He also played down the Jammu bandh call. “There’s no anger,” Koul said. “In a democracy, everyone has a right to make their point. Some put it directly while others say it indirectly.”

But Jammu’s businessmen are already planning to intensify the stir if the government does not address its grievances. “If the government doesn’t listen to us, we will launch a widespread agitation which will involve the support of various other stakeholders like the bar association and transport association,” said Gupta. “We will sit down and frame a strategy. I don’t think that agitation will be for a single day. It can be prolonged and indefinite.”

The agitation, he added, may not be restricted to Jammu alone. “We will talk to our colleagues in Kashmir as well,” said Gupta.