Life between the Curfews in Indian-administered Kashmir

 

For much of the summer, Srinagar in Indian Kashmir has been a ghost town: all shops shut, streets deserted, and eerily silent, until the curfew is lifted for just a few hours.

Stalls selling fruit spring up on every corner, noisy traffic jams fill the lanes, and residents rush out to buy fresh food, medicines and toys for their children.

Srinagar is the summer capital of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region that has endured more than three months of deadly clashes between security forces and protesters who want Kashmir to be independent from India.

To thwart public unrest authorities impose curfews that can last for several days at a time. Anyone caught outside risks being beaten or shot by paramilitary troops and police.

Srinagar’s one million residents can still be found down back alleys, where men lean in doorways arguing about politics, while their families watch endless television or play cards inside.

“It's miserable because we are living under military occupation,” said Arif Jan, 40, a shopkeeper in Nowhatta district near the town's biggest mosque.

“My family stocks up on rice and lentils when we can. That is how we live.” For Showkat Ahmed, the curfew meant he could only get to his wedding with a special permit and a police escort.

Sitting nervously in the back of a red Maruti hatchback decked out in plastic flowers, Ahmed was driven at high speed through the empty town in the middle of the afternoon to meet his bride.

“The curfew means my sisters can't even make it to my wedding,” Ahmed, a 28-year-old shawlmaker, said. “I am worried about my relatives at home and want to get the marriage ceremony over so I can return to them.” Normally Kashmiri weddings are night-long affairs with hundreds of guests. But no celebrations had been organized for Ahmed and his new wife. “In the future, I just want a normal life,” he said.

Shops selling wedding decorations are among the first to open their doors when curfew restrictions are briefly lifted, but business is grim.

“I have waited 10 days for this place to open so I can buy pieces for my brother's costume,” said Ali Wangnoo, 23. “But I don't actually know whether his wedding is going to happen. Kashmir is a mess.” Mohammed Yunus, the shop owner, said he had been closed for three weeks until Tuesday when the curfew was relaxed for just four hours.

Such conditions for ordinary people mean the tourism industry has also been decimated.
Srinagar boasts Mughal gardens, a mild summer climate and elegant houseboats sitting on Lake Dal in front of mist-wreathed mountains.

Before the rebellion against Indian rule erupted in 1989, travelers from around the world were drawn to Kashmir's culture and scenery.

Many returned after India and Pakistan, who have fought two wars over control of the region, began peace talks in 2003 and as militant attacks dropped dramatically.

But any optimism has disappeared with more than 100 civilians killed since June 11 across Kashmir as security forces fire live rounds at stone-throwing anti-India protesters.

“On the 600-700 houseboats there is hardly one tourist. I haven't had a single guest since the violence broke out in June,” said Rashid Dongola, 55, owner of the Hilton Kashmir houseboat.

As soon as the curfew is lifted, a few hand-paddled boats cross the serene lake carrying vegetables to market. Scores of boats laden with shawls and colorful papier-mache boxes used to vie for tourists' attention.

Now there are none.

“This should be high season for us,” said Dongola, sitting in his houseboat's grand wood-paneled interior. “My boat is rotting here and I can't afford repairs.” With schools shut for months and hospitals running short of supplies, the price of living under the curfew is high. But few Kashmiris doubt their cause.

“We know what we want,” said Sajjad, who runs a convenience store in the old town. “In the cause of Azadi (freedom) we choose to face the bullets, and we give up the chance of living an easy life.”

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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