On July 8, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, bringing a new regime of curfews to the Valley. As protests against Wani’s killing intensified, the authorities ordered people to stay in their homes. As if that wasn't enough, the separatist Hurriyat group also issued a calendar of strikes and shutdowns to protest the killing. Life has settled into a new pattern in these parts, weaving between government curfews and separatist shutdowns.
Parts of north and central Kashmir have had periods of reprieve from curfew. But the four districts of South Kashmir – Anantnag, Shopian, Kulgam and Pulwama – have seen a month of almost unbroken curfew. On Monday, a police press release claimed that curfew had been lifted from all of Kashmir except parts of Srinagar and Anantnag town, though restrictions remained under Section 144 banning gatherings of more than ten people.
On the ground in South Kashmir, residents hardly felt the difference. Cooped up indoors, with limited access to phone services and the internet, they say the shutdown is beginning to take a psychological toll.
“I work as a psycho-social counsellor and in 2008-2010, approximately 60% Kashmiris were going through depression or anxiety,” said Nasir Patigaru, who lives in in Anantnag. “Now you are keeping the same people behind closed doors. This is going to be disastrous.”
Both 2008 and 2010 were years when mass protests broke out in the streets of Kashmir and security forces opened fire, killing a large number of demonstrators.
“The curfew has made people more extreme,” said Imtiyaz Karim, who works with the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office in Bijbehara. “People who were not politically affiliated before are now getting involved, defying curfews.”
A new normal
The days are quiet. In the evenings, the troop deployments are withdrawn and protesters appear on the streets. Prayers are offered on the roads instead of in mosques, demonstrations and stone throwing also take place.
It’s also time to catch up with the outside world – outgoing calls are still blocked on prepaid connections, mobile internet is still restricted and most areas have gone without newspapers because of the curfew.
In Anantnag’s old trading hub, Cheeni Chowk, two or three establishments have broadband connections and tthe owners have unlocked the password keys so that residents can gather there to check their phones, said Patigaru.
Food is not scarce at the moment. Residents across towns said they had stores to last two or three months – the long, harsh winter of the Valley has taught people to stock up. Families in each locality also share rations with each other. Moreover, supplies of rice and vegetables come from rural areas, where mobility is easier, and are often distributed free of cost among daily wage labourers and others who have no money to buy food.
“Mosques have announcements asking people to gather rice and those who need it take it," said Jaleel Ahsan Zargar, a resident of Salia village in Anantnag and an assistant professor at the women’s college in the town. Mohalla committees have also identified the needy and tried to get rice and other supplies to them.
Said Jasif Ahmed, who runs a billiards room in Anantnag town, “Till now, at least, people have food to eat. When the food finishes, they will come out to protest even more.”
In most places, shops are shut all day and open only the evening. That is when the Hurriyat allows a dheel, or relaxation, in the shutdown for an hour or two, to permit residents to buy essential supplies. That is also when the trouble begins.
“We convince shopkeepers to open the shops around nine in the evening so that we can buy supplies,” said Hilal Ahmad, a resident of Shopian and a social activist involved with the Global Youth Foundation. “Now that is becoming difficult as security forces conduct raids at the same time.”
In parts of Anantnag town, groups of boys force shops to stay shut. “It is possible they are government plants, since the dheel is allowed by the Hurriyat,” said Patigaru.
Only the Tral area of Pulwama district remains an exception. This was Wani’s home and the site of his funeral, where tens of thousands had gathered the day after his death. Even now, residents say, security forces maintain a distance. The curfew is barely enforced and shops are closed but only because local youths have enforced a separatist shutdown.
“The special operations group police tried to conduct raids but villagers came out on the streets and chased them away,” said one resident, who asked to remain unidentified. “Groups of young men have stake outs at night. They patrol the streets with knives, spades, axes, any household tool they can find. When they spot the police coming, they warn neighbouring villages using village loudspeakers and banging on tin sheets. Villagers have chased away forces to prevent arrests.”
In Anantnag, shops are encouraged to remain open at night so that there residents have a reason to stay on the streets. When there are people outside, the logic goes, there will be fewer raids and arrests by the police. “Now they are saying there will be a night curfew for two or three days,” said Karim.
A long break
Days are slow in the new routine imposed by curfews and hartals. Nobody has gone to work in a month. Jasif Ahmad, whose billiards room normally has a turnover of Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000 a month, has made no money in the last 30 days. In Bijbehara, Karim at the CAG office said his salary had not been released by the government. “Only those working in the health department and the police got their salaries this month,” he said.
But the worst casualty is education. “We can manage food and other things but how will we manage education?” asked a resident of Anantnag. “Ring leaders have indoctrinated 10- and 15-year-olds, telling them about mass promotions and half-syllabus exams to motivate them to stay out of school.”
Since the protests of 2010, a new practice has taken birth. Educated people in each mohalla get together to give tuitions to small children. But people have voiced their doubts about this system. Some parents will not send their children out, braving the bullets and pellet guns of security forces. Others say that volunteers cannot cut through the curfew and the violence to reach their pupils.
No red line
In some places, residents have started to protest feebly against the separatist shutdown as well as the official curfew. “People are just following [the hartals] out of fear,” said one Anantnag resident. “The fear of the gun is there.”
But this year’s civilian killings have drawn out an anger that has changed the shape of protests in the Valley. “The anger levels are very high,” said Patigaru. “It has spread to every corner. Earlier, the protests were restricted to towns and cities. Take a place like Nowhatta [in downtown Srinagar], there are protests there every Friday, both people and security forces know the red line.”
Now, he says, most of the killings have taken place in rural areas. Mobility is easier here as you cannot enforce a curfew on open fields.
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