‘Nothing is Normal in Kashmir’
A ground report from Kashmir
SRINAGAR: “This delegation is just for show. We all know it. They want to show the world everything is normal in Kashmir. But they won't interact with the people,” said the receptionist of a hotel at Lal Chowk in Srinagar. He was referring to a delegation of foreign envoys who had arrived in Jammu and Kashmir early January, as New Delhi claimed everything was ‘normal’ in the state.
The delegation sat in cozy drawing rooms and spoke of ‘normalcy’, while people in the Valley were struggling with rampant unemployment and a dead end economy. There was no interaction with the people of the valley, who have been cut off from the world for almost six months as internet restrictions remain.
“Nothing is normal in Kashmir. This is a fact. We are struggling mentally, physically, financially, politically, basically from all realms,” said a shopkeeper at Lal Chowk. The market at Lal Chowk used to be teeming with people, but now, CRPF personnel are stationed at every corner.
As a few people sit hurdled at a small shop at Lal Chowk area, discussing the current scenario in full swing. The discussion goes thus: The foreign delegation is here and people think this is another fake group sold at the behest of the government, who wants to show the world “everything is normal”.
“We knew this team is sold to the government, so there was no point even demonstrating. They should have talked to us and ask us what happened with us. However instead they talk to the authorities and the army,” said Ahmed (name changed).
The people said that in winter, the shops will remain open, but will be shut again in March. Almost everyone this correspondent spoke to said they were distressed and are “not happy”.
Even the businessmen in the Valley have stopped counting the amount of loss they have incurred post the August-5 decision to abrogate Article 370.
“Earlier we used to have a sale of Rs. 10,000 to 15,000 per day, now it doesn’t even reach Rs. 1000. The condition is so bad; we don’t know what to do,” said Bilal, who owns a fabric shop near Jamia Masjid in Srinagar’s downtown.
The son and father duo, who own this modest shop in the area, spoke over tea about how people have stopped speaking despite still struggling to survive. “They have jailed children. And if any of us raise our voices, we will be slapped with the Public Safety Act, which is a minimum of five years jail. We are just disturbed,” said Bilal’s father’s Sheikh Mohammed.
The Public Safety Act (PSA), 1978, of Jammu & Kashmir is an administrative detention law that allows detention of any individual for up to two years without a trial or charge. The Public Safety Act allows for the arrest and detention of people without a warrant or the framing of specific charges, and often for an unspecified period of time.
Father and son both said that people are in fear as anyone who raises their voice can be jailed. “So many protests used to take place once, now people are afraid to even speak out loud. There is so much pressure from the government that no one is protesting. People can’t raise their voices for something that is wrong here. If we need water and are protesting for it, then also we will be jailed. It doesn’t matter that the protest are just peaceful,” said Mohammed.
A Kashmiri student studying peace and conflict calls this the “fear psychosis”. “They don’t want people to have any hope or will. They are breaking us from within. From detention to snatching away our rights, all this has made the people in the valley skeptical about everything,” he said, requesting anonymity.
Nearby, at Dal Lake -- one of the most popular tourist destinations in Srinagar -- shops were open, but there were no customers.
At the gates there, shikara walas sit, waiting in anticipation for a tourist. “This government has ruined our lives. They have snatched away our rights and taken away our business. Is this how they want to make us a part of them?” said Gulzar (name changed).
Gulzar is a 40-year-old man with five daughters. “We hardly are able to manage food two times a day,” he said visibly distressed. “Tourism was the only way for us to sustain ourselves. This is peak season for tourists, but there is no one here,” he added. According to the people familiar with the tourism industry, this year there have been only 5 percent of the regular number of tourists visiting the valley in its peak season.
The shikaras are rowed either by the canoe-owners themselves or rented out to rowers for around Rs. 30,000 a season. A person can expect to make Rs. 2 lakhs to Rs. 2.5 lakhs over the six-month tourism season. After rent and other costs, he is left with around Rs. 180,000. However, that income has to be spread across 12 months. In off-season, the shikarawalas have no work, or they do odd jobs. This year, they haven’t managed to make a fraction of the expected income on which they rely year round. “What are we to do? What is our future? What is the future of our kids?” he asked no one in particular.
In Kashmir’s south district of Pulwama, two businessmen are trying to figure out how to pay their loans and survive with no sales at all this. Requesting anonymity, the two businessmen speak of how business is low and people are scared. “I am scared to talk to the media. I can be picked up if they see us talking to you,” said the 30-year-old who owns a fabric shop near Pulwama’s district office.
“This is a seasonal shop. During Eid and marriage we sell most of the stuff. Now, all our summer stuff is sitting as it is. We couldn’t sell it and it is just withering away in a corner. Now winter is here, but when summer comes new fashion will come, and all this stuff will be wasted,” said the young shopkeeper. He said that all the fabric comes from Punjab and he has to pay his dealer every month. “Even though we haven’t done sales in five months, as there was a bandh for about three months, I still had to pay him,” he said.
Speaking about the current situation, the other shopkeeper who owns a furniture shop in the area, said, “The shops were shut in resistance to show the government how we have rejected their decision. We are hopeful people and this was our way of protesting, but we had to open shops to survive.”
“We are hurt, but due to fear no one has come out. I feel as if there will be only one spark that will ignite the people, because they have taken down so much frustration,” he added.
They asked us a question that almost every person in the Valley has asked before them – “If the situation is normal, why hasn’t the internet been restored?”
Back in Srinagar, outside Jamia Masjid, which just opens for jummah ki namaz and is then shut, two young girls talk to us about the situation of students in the Valley. Mariam is a PhD student, who hasn’t been able to do any research due to the internet shutdown. “Will you tell the world the truth about us? How we are suffering and it feels as if nothing is left for us?” she asks.
“I am pursuing my PhD from Kashmir University, but for more than five months, I am in a distressed condition. We can’t get access to journals or the internet, it is so important today. I missed a deadline for filling forms for some examinations I wanted to take,” said Mariam.
A masters student, who had come to attend the prayers, looked perplexed. “We had to go to Kargil to access the internet. I had to fill forms for an important exam and had no other choice,” she said.
“Was this the development they were talking about in Kashmir?” asked Mariam. The young woman added that everyone is distressed and no one is happy with the government’s decision. “The communication blockage is another humiliation that comes on top of Article 370,” she said.
Students in Kashmir University made similar points. In a country where students are heading a political movement against Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens (NRC), students in Kashmir are barred from protesting or raising a voice. An engineering student at the university said they somehow managed to give their entrance exams. “I had to apply for a masters course I am interested in and had to fill the forms, for that I visited Kargil. I recently had my exam, and to be frank, books are not enough. We need extra material to study and we could not access it,” she said. Most of the students were not comfortable discussing the situation.
In Kashmir’s northern district of Bandipora, a masters student of political science is concerned about what the future holds for them. “There are PhD scholars here, who are driving rickshaws or just sitting at home, because there are no jobs,” she said.
She said that Bandipora has some of the brightest minds, which is why many of them move out of the Valley to pursue their career. “There is nothing left, especially for students here. No jobs, no opportunities. This government has taken away everything and to sustain ourselves and make our future better, we have to move out of our homes.”
Unemployment is a major issue in the Valley at the moment. “I don’t want to stay in Kashmir and study, there is no future here,” said a student of Kashmir University.
2G internet facilities have been restored in Jammu and Kashmir as of now. However, people can only access limited websites, while social media is still not accessible. The decision was taken a day before January 26.
Meanwhile, thousands are still detained, including almost all mainstream political leaders. Such is ‘normalcy’ in the valley.
Cover Photo: On Republic Day in Srinagar. BASIT ZARGAR