On the night of November 13, Ahmed, who owns a mobile phone store in North Kashmir’s Kupwara town, received a frantic call. His shop, in the busy Iqbal Market, was on fire.

“By the time I got there, the building was on fire from end to end,” said Ahmed, who lives in a village a few kilometres from the town. “One storey was finished and the second was also ablaze.”

Thirty-two shops, all housed in the same complex, were burnt that night. The fire started at around 8.15 pm and made short work of the building, largely made of wood. A poster had been left behind. It read: “A final warning to respected shopkeepers. These shops have been burnt down as punishment for staying open during the hartal.”

It was signed “Save Kashmir Movement”.

Punishment for staying open, reads the poster left behind at the scene of the fire.

Protest calendar

The hartal – which has been on in Kashmir for five months now – was devised in the drawing rooms of Srinagar by the joint separatist leadership, headed by Hurriyat leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and Yasin Malik of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. According to the Hurriyat, it was meant to give direction to the frenzied rage that broke out after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani by security forces on July 8.

The separatists issue a weekly calendar of protest. This features a general strike that can be lifted only for a few hours of dheel (relaxation) every day. For five months now, different parts of the Valley have followed this schedule with varying degrees of intensity.

The separatist leadership now plans to turn the weekly protest calendar into a year-long plan of programmes and initiatives, according to a joint statement released by Geelani, Mirwaiz and Malik on Wednesday.

Medicine shops are reportedly exempt from the strike, and Iqbal Market, which is on the way to Kupwara District Hospital, has several of these. The building that was burnt down on Tuesday also had medicine stores and clinics along with shops selling mobile phones and accessories, groceries and toys. During the first few weeks of the hartal, eight medical stores were allowed to stay open at a time, said one shop owner. Eventually, they all stayed open, and the other shops followed suit. “We had to open, we had no money,” said Ahmed.

Across Kashmir, the practice of baitulmaal – communities pooling in resources and distributing them through mosques and charitable organisations – is said to have sustained the needy through months of hartal. “But baitulmaal is for mohallas and not for markets,” added Ahmed.

Even as the unrest waned and businesses gradually started re-opening, the pressure to stay closed never went away. Ahmed said that in August and September, shop shutters in the market were smeared with excrement for staying open. Notices appeared at mosques exhorting shops to follow the hartal. Then came the fire.

The shopping complex that was burnt down on Tuesday night has now been dismantled. Photo: Rayan Naqash

Fire still a mystery

Nobody quite knows how the blaze started. Some of the town’s people say it was an accident. In Srinagar, Yasin Malik and Hurriyat spokesperson Shahid ul-Islam blamed it on the dry weather. But the traders who lost their shops in the fire are sure it was no accident. “There is no question of a short circuit,” said Ahmed. “It [the building] was set on fire, that is confirmed.” The police have filed a first information report in the case but the traders complained that no investigation is being conducted.

As for the group calling itself the Save Kashmir Movement, both the traders and Hurriyat leaders have no idea about its identity. A cursory internet search throws up information about a small militant group formed in 2002 and responsible for a series of assassinations, but there is no telling whether this is the same organisation.

But its message has had the effect it wanted in Kupwara. “After the fire, everyone is following the calendar,” said a medical shop owner at the market. “Half of them are doing it out of fear, and half of their own free will.”

The hartal

The Hurriyat leadership has called the hartal a “moral victory”, a symbol of resilience against the government crackdown on protestors. Spokesperson Shahid ul-Islam, who has been under house arrest since the protests started, defended the shutdown as a means of protest. “There are two alternatives,” he said. “One is direct violence, which we do not want. We have limited means, and hartal is one of them. Shutting down shops is a very decent way [to protest].”

Kashmir has a long history of hartals. They were used by Sheikh Abdullah and his Muslim Conference – which later became the National Conference – against Dogra rule in the years leading up to 1947. After militancy erupted in the Valley in the 1990s, they were a quiet counterpart to the armed uprising, steered by the Hurriyat Conference, a political platform formed in 1993 by bringing together a motley crew of separatist parties.

A section of the Hurriyat leadership today draws from militant groups that operated in those years, most notably Yasin Malik’s Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which gave up arms in favour of political mobilisation. Some of the violent energies of that decade seem to have been absorbed into the Hurriyat and the hartal. Today, all the groups that make up the Hurriyat Conference – from Geelani’s hardline faction to Mirwaiz’s moderate one, from Malik’s avowedly secular Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front to Shabir Shah’s Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party – favour the hartal as a political tool.

In 1991, the Valley remained shut for 207 days – the highest number of hartals reportedly observed in the state. The mass uprising against the government’s decision to transfer land to the Amarnath Shrine Board in 2008 saw 33 days of shutdown. And during the summer protests in 2010 over alleged extrajudicial killings by the Army, Kashmir remained under lockdown for 132 days. This year, it has already pushed past 150 days.

“A handful of people are locking horns with a country like India,” said Abdul Ghani Bhat of the Muslim Conference, which joined the Hurriyat Conference in the 1990s. “It is an extraordinary achievement in terms of politics.”

Losing steam

However, the hartal may be losing its power. In fact, questions about its effectiveness had started appearing after the 2008 unrest, when residents had to go without work and pay, and no political gains were seen to have been made. It is being questioned again, as fatigue sets in after months of shutdown.

“Strike for what?” asked Younis Shah, who teaches history at Kashmir University. “This hartal on schools, education, offices, whom is it impacting? Have we boycotted a single thing from India that will hurt its economy? The only achievement is to make our economy suffer.”

The Hurriyat leadership is quick to defend its shutdown strategy. “It is not a matter of being successful,” Malik said on Wednesday. “A freedom movement is not a business. We have to invest blood, life, sacrifice. This is a people’s movement, the agitation will go on with the people’s mandate.”

Indeed, the joint separatist leadership has been anxious to project that the hartal has the people’s mandate. In November, it held a “stakeholders’ meet” at Geelani’s residence in Srinagar to which chosen representatives from trade, transport and civil society were invited. It was concluded that the programme of protests would continue since it had the “full mandate” of the stakeholders.

Despite this, there has been a gradual scaling down in its weekly protest calendars, first calling for two full days of relaxation every week and then three. The latest calendar, issued on Wednesday, prescribed only two days of shutdown. People have also been encouraged to use public transport, which took a hit after protests broke out.

After five months, the hartal seems to have reached its limit as a peaceful means of protest, buffeted by pressures on both sides. While a section of the Valley’s population is unhappy with the loss of business, others use force to keep it in place. In several instances, protestors are believed to have set fire to public transport vehicles and shops for not following the calendar.

Ask the Hurriyat leaders about these acts of arson and they bring up the Chauri Chaura incident of 1922, when protestors had set fire to a police station, forcing Gandhi to call off the Non-Cooperation Movement. “There are gaps in our strategy, I agree,” conceded Bhat. “But if you expect everyone in spate to listen to you, you are wrong.”

Islam, however, called the arson the actions of vandals. “In any mass uprising, there are miscreants,” he said. “The Hurriyat leadership is categorical, any violence is condemned. Neither Islam nor politics allows this.”

Many voices, one direction?

The Hurriyat leadership’s contentions may well be true. But it cannot deny that there are energies beyond its command. This year’s uprising spread from the traditional urban hubs into the most remote rural areas, finding local centres of gravity revolving around neighbourhood mosques and religious leaders.

“Even during dheel, some places would not allow shops to open – Kralpora, Tral, Kulgam, Pulwama main town,” said Shah, naming some areas in South Kashmir. On Saturday, parts of South Kashmir observed a complete shutdown to mourn the killing of two Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, even though the Hurriyat had prescribed a relaxation in the protest schedule.

In the south, the Ittehad-e-Millat – a new coalition of socio-religious groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, Ahle-e-Hadith and the Deobandi and Barelvi organisations – became the face of the protests, even though the Hurriyat claimed to be working in tandem with them. Here, the language of the protests was far removed from the drawing rooms of Srinagar – it was religious rather than political, an articulation of azadi.

On the face of it, the Srinagar leadership is not troubled by this new breed of atomised protests. “We want it to be localised, and then have a power centre,” said Islam. According to him, the movement has drawn strength from these local energies, which gave rise to baitulmaal committees, kept curfew schools going so students could prepare for their exams, and brought people out on the streets during night raids conducted by security forces. “What will the leadership do at that time of the night?” asked Islam.

Malik, for his part, pointed out that no organisation had issued a parallel calendar of protest. And while his group claims to fight for a secular freedom, he was expansive about the various iterations of azadi. “In every society, there are different shades of opinion and ideology,” he said. “After self-determination, every party has the right to their own agenda, left-wing, right-wing, moderate. Everybody has the right to express what kind of system they want. The agitation is going in one direction.”

As of now, claimed leaders from across the Hurriyat factions, all differences are subsumed by a common demand – a permanent settlement of the Kashmir dispute. “The voice is identical, the words may be different, it doesn’t matter,” said Bhat.