“Mea gov kalas khabar kyah.” Something happened to my head. These were the last words 19-year-old Rafia Nazir said to her mother on March 6.

Moments earlier, a grenade had ripped through a crowded market in Srinagar’s Amira Kadal. Nazir had been shopping there with her mother, sister and a cousin.

“We were buying fruits when suddenly there was a loud bang. We walked a few steps towards safety,” recalled Hameeda Bano, Nazir’s mother. But her daughter was collapsing. She recalled Nazir asking her if she was alright before mentioning the pain in her head.

Seeing blood oozing from Nazir’s head, a young boy at the market had used his hand to cover her wound and rushed her to hospital. Her family members, also injured, followed in another car. She died in hospital the next morning. The doctors said grenade splinters had been embedded in her brain.

Last year, Nazir had graduated from school with a distinction. Had she not been at the market that day, she would have written her the national medical entrance tests in a few months.

The grenade that tore through the Amira Kadal market on March 6 also killed 55-year-old Mohammad Aslam Makhdoomi and injured at least 36 others.

On March 8, the police arrested two Srinagar youth for the blast. They had carried out the attack “on the directions of active terrorists operating in Kashmir valley,” a police statement said.

This is the fifth grenade attack to take place in Srinagar’s Amira Kadal area since August 5, 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir lost statehood and autonomy. Earlier, too, the busy market area was the site of several grenade blasts. What makes Amira Kadal such a target for attacks?

Security forces keep vigil after the attack on March 6. Picture credit: Umer Asif

The crowds of Amira Kadal

The Amira Kadal area is a market square with six arterial roads radiating out of it. It takes its name from the Amira Kadal bridge, which connects it to Lal Chowk in the heart of Srinagar.

It is arguably the busiest market area in the city. The Goni Khan area, where Nazir was killed, is lined with shops selling women’s garments and cosmetics. Close to that is the Hari Singh High Street, home to jewellery shops. Another area of the market is a hub for dry fruits and finery used in wedding functions.

There is a Muslim shrine at the far end of market, diagonally opposite a temple across the road. At the centre of all this are several hundred vendors who park their carts and spread out their wares on the road. On any given day, thousands of shoppers, including tourists, can be seen milling around the market.

The very business of the market has made it vulnerable to attacks for a number of reasons. “The terrorist is able to get a safe exit from the spot because of the crowd and chaos after the blast,” explained a senior police official in Srinagar. “The area has so many lanes to disappear [into] within seconds.”

An aerial view of Hari Singh High Street. Picture credit: Umer Asif

The market’s centrality to public life in Srinagar city means any attack here is immediately amplified. “Anything untoward happening here creates an atmosphere of fear across the city,” said the police official. “Terrorists choose this spot deliberately so that the impact and chaos can travel far and wide.”

Amira Kadal is also close to Srinagar’s press colony, which houses most of the newspaper offices in the Valley. Any attack here means immediate media attention.

The first militant attack after the August 2019 changes, which were widely resented in Kashmir, took place here. At least eight civilians were injured when a grenade exploded on Hari Singh High Street on October 12, 2019. In less than a month, another grenade attack in the market killed a balloon seller from Uttar Pradesh and injured 40 others. In August last year, a grenade aimed at a security bunker in the area missed its target and exploded on the main road, leaving 10 civilians with minor injuries.

Ahead of Republic Day this year, a grenade explosion at the Amira Kadal intersection injured four persons, including a policeman.

According to the Srinagar police official, the civilian hub in the heart of the city was a soft target – it demonstrated the diminishing capacities of militant groups. “Since they are unable to carry out big strikes, they are choosing such a place where the impact of fear can be maximum,” he claimed.

Attacking ‘outsiders’

There may be another reason why Amira Kadal has become a target since August 2019 – many of the stalls and establishments here are run by non-Kashmiris. In particular, many of the goldsmiths on Hari Singh High High Street are from outside the Valley and employ skilled workers from various states across India.

In Kashmir, the August 2019 changes have triggered resentment against those seen as outsiders to the Valley. The legislative changes had removed special protections for local residents and replaced the bureaucratic category of “permanent residents” with the much looser term, “domiciles”. Non-Kashmiris who had lived in the Valley for a certain number of years, had written board examinations there or were central government employees were eligible for domicile status. Locally, there was growing panic that the new laws were aimed at engineering “demographic change” in Kashmir.

Soon after the legislative changes were announced, a new militant group calling itself “The Resistance Front” emerged. While the police consider it to be a rebranded version of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group describes itself as an “indigenous resistance” and has claimed responsibility for most attacks on ethnic or religious minorities in Kashmir, including those not originally from the Valley.

On December 31, 2020, militants shot dead jeweller Satpal Nischal at his shop in Amira Kadal, just weeks after he was certified as a domicile of Jammu and Kashmir. Originally from Punjab, Nischal had run a jewellery shop in the market for 40 years. The Resistance Front called him an “agent of RSS” and part of the “settler-colonial project”.

After Nischal’s killing, there was round-the-clock deployment of security forces in the area, especially around shops run by minorities and non-Kashmiris.

According to Jammu and Kashmir police, militants wanted to target this security deployment when they struck on March 6. “As per their plan, the grenade was to be lobbed on the parked security vehicle but as the grenade was thrown from a moving two-wheeler, they missed the intended target and [the] grenade exploded in an adjacent crowded area where many road-side vendors and buyers were busy in routine activities,” said the police statement issued on March 8.

Security forces frisk civilians after the March 6 attack. Picture credit: Umer Asif

Watching the high street

After the latest attack on March 6, security measures have been intensified. For instance, there are hardly any roadside vendors left in the market. Security officials told them to move their carts to a different area designated for them.

But, according to vendors, the new market space assigned to them is not ready yet. “We don’t have any problem shifting to that market space but it’s still incomplete,” said Mohammad Shafi, a representative of the local cart vendors association of Hari Singh High Street. Shafi estimated that there were nearly 300 vendors or that stretch but the new space could only accommodate 200. “Where will the remaining 100 go?” he asked.

The police have also asked shopkeepers and business establishments to instal CCTV cameras inside and outside their shops to deter future attacks.

New checkpoints have been set up and frisking has been stepped up in the area. “Security personnel on the ground have been briefed to remain alert at checkpoints leading to the city in order to intercept any trouble,” the senior police officer explained. “Security forces are also aggressively carrying out counter-insurgency operations wherever we feel there’s information about the movement or presence of militants.”