SRINAGAR: The nature of the ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Kashmir, to quote from a recent bill in the US Senate, has become a topic of tentative debate in India, with the big media still showing people and traffic on the streets of Srinagar to claim ‘normalcy’.

Initial reports of ‘happy people’ celebrating the decision are slowly giving way to accounts of violent night raids, the detention and torture of minors, widespread protests, and a crippled society and economy over the past two months.

On a four-day visit to Srinagar with other journalists I encountered stories of heartbreak, anger and agony, with ordinary people wondering whether the darkness of the communication blockade, and the military takeover of civilians’ lives, would ever lift.

The normally bustling Lal Chowk was deserted, its emptiness guarded closely by Central Reserve Police Force personnel. A couple of vehicles drive by. The roads are barricaded with barbed wire and heavily armed security.

In a corner two men sit outside a small grocery store, deep in intense discussion. “Why are all the shops closed?” we ask, and one of them responds, “Because we are all on hadtal (strike) against what the government of India is doing here.”

Kashmiris have by word of mouth set their own rules, and determined their protest. They open their shops from 6 to 9 in the morning, with people emerging from their homes to purchase food and other essential commodities. Around 9 am the shutters come down, and people disappear inside their homes.

“It has been 52 days since we were shut off from the world. Economy and business is down. They have removed Article 370 and broken our trust,” says Sheikh Raheem, the owner of the grocery store.

The government should have consulted Kashmiris, say the two men outside. “What is this government doing? It is trying to break our resolve. Just when everything was going so well, business was flourishing and more tourists were coming to Kashmir— they ended everything and locked us in our homes.”

Although Kashmir has periodically witnessed oppressive curfews for decades, the clampdown on communication this time has crippled not just the people but the economy. To take a crucial example, vegetable cultivators and vendors are not able to transport or sell their produce.

“The security forces are not letting people send their vegetables outside. The Indian media was blaming some militant groups for it, but truth be told, all of them are preventing us from doing our business,” says Amjad (name changed).

Meanwhile, only a few private vehicles are seen on the roads, while no public transport facility is available. The attendant at my hotel in Lal Chowk says vehicles are allowed to travel only if they are going to the hospital.

“People are taking out private vehicles to go to the hospital. There is no other choice. There is no other mode of communication. If somebody has to travel far away, either they don’t go, or if they take the risk of moving out then it’s mostly on foot,” he says.

People are clearly angry here, but they have no confidence left in the “Indian media.” They are unwilling to speak.

In Srinagar’s Downtown area, this hostility is visible. “The Indian media says everything is normal in Kashmir— tell me, is everything normal here?” asks a pharmacist who doesn’t want to be named.

“I don’t trust you, nor do I believe you. What the Indian media has done is nothing short of terrorism,” he says.

We persist in asking questions, so he tells us very clearly that we could be anyone, and speaking to us could create problems for him. “The security forces might detain me,” he says.

In Downtown’s Nawa Kadal area, we came across an even heavier security presence on September 26, with sombre looking groups of Kashmiris here and there on the streets.

We stop to speak to a few men sitting outside a shuttered shop. They tell us the military have detained a 13-year-old boy.

“There were clashes nearby between civilians and security forces, after which they detained the boy. This is an everyday affair for us now,” says Ahmad who lives in the vicinity. “They have detained children. They keep them in detention for weeks or months— only the very fortunate are released within the month.”

Recently a team of five women who visited the region estimated in their factfinding report that about 13,000 boys had been detained in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5.

But according to Ahmad, “More than 10,000 boys have been detained from Downtown itself. The reason security forces give while taking away the kids is that they are stone pelters.”

When we visited the area of Hazratbal in Srinagar, named for the famous dargah, it stood empty with only about a dozen people praying inside.

A woman sits outside the shrine, the afternoon sun bright and heavy on the marble. Najma (name changed) says the shrine was always full of people.

“People from faraway places would come and pay their respects here— now look, there is no one. This is such a hopeless situation. People sit idle and they have nothing to do, businesses are down, as you can see the shops are shut,” she adds.

A few people stand outside their shut shops, witnessing the street emptiness. One says, “Madam, I will tell you the real story. Kashmir has been occupied from both sides. The removal of Article 370 is wrong. They have taken away our only right.”

The anger and hostility of the people here shows how difficult the situation might become for the Indian government. With no businesses open and people shut inside their homes, with curfews still in place, people are getting restless and waiting for the government to lift the communication blackout.

“We are not going to sit back silently. They have caged the people of Kashmir and we are angry now. Our business has suffered. Many of us supported India, but now we doubt them,” says a shopkeeper at the shrine.

With nothing to do, people sit outside their houses and shops playing carrom. This is also the place to discuss the day’s news.

Visibily distressed, Shahid who drives an auto explains that the situation is “pretty bad” in Kashmir, contrary to what the world is being told.

“Half my friends are in detention. They were stone pelters. At night the police and security forces come and take away young boys who are stone pelters, or who may be,” he tells us.

He recalls that the situation was still tolerable in 2016, when security forces killed 21-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani in an encounter.

“We have been witnessing curfews for ages, so Kashmiris are used to this. But the current shutdown has been much worse. It is worse than 2016, when at least mobile phones and 2G was working.”

“Sometimes I feel why was I born in such a conflict, it has become difficult for us. We autowalas come out on our own accord. If something happens to us or our autos, no one will be held responsible,” he says.

Asked what might happen to him, he says his auto might be destroyed by stone pelters, or he might be fired upon by pellet guns.

People are out on the streets every day at 6.30 in the evening. There are regular clashes between civilians and the CRPF, due to which many people have been injured.

“We are mostly angry at the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Stone pelting starts the moment they come into the picture,” says Shahid.

“People feel the J&K Police has betrayed them. But look at the irony of the situation— the government has taken their weapons and given them dandas (sticks) instead. How will they protect themselves from the wrath of people with just a danda in their hands?” he asks.

With the erstwhile political leadership either in jail or under house arrest, the situation in Kashmir remains unstable. People here do not sympathise with the local leaders, who they say only ruined the situation.

“They always supported India, even when we poor people were suffering. Now see where they stand. At least we are caged with our family, but they are sitting in isolation,” says a resident of Lal Chowk who didn’t want to be named.

With news of daily raids in south Kashmir, where people’s agitation is more visible, those in Srinagar wait in apprehension for what will come next.

Some expect war, while a few say nothing will change. “There is going to be an increase in militancy, everything else is ruined as it is,” says a marble maker near Nawa Kadal.

Cover photograph Lal Chowk - Nikita Jain