Around 4 pm on November 20, the shops around Lal Chowk suddenly snapped shut.
It was not clear what had happened. At the stationer’s on Polo View Road, the shopkeeper said unknown men had ransacked a store on Hari Singh High Street. A cosmetic store owner in Ghoni Khan market said the police had paid a visit. At Makka Market, advertised as the “Valley’s first flea market”, stall owners said nothing had happened at all.
November 20 was a rare day in three-and-a half months that the markets had actually stayed open since the morning. Since August 5, when the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and split the state into two Union Territories, shops had been shut in protest for much of the day. In most parts of the Valley, they opened for about an hour or two in the morning so that people could buy supplies. It was only in November that they started staying open for longer, sometimes furtively, half shuttered.
Late evening on November 20, four shops were set alight in Bohri Kadal, in downtown Srinagar. Local residents believe they were targeted because they had surreptitiously been doing business despite the shutdown.
Violence has been simmering around the Srinagar markets for weeks now. In October, two shops had already been burned in downtown Srinagar. On November 4, a grenade blast at Ghoni Khan, where the shops had opened for a while, killed a vendor from Uttar Pradesh and injured around 40 others.
Ask shopkeepers who they think is behind the blasts and the arson and they all have the same answer: “agencies”. “There are so many government agencies working here,” said an angry old cloth merchant in downtown Srinagar. “They come and burn shops in the evening to defame militants.”
A quiet defiance
Since August 5, summer has turned to autumn and autumn to bitter winter. Almost every resident you speak to in the Valley is angry and hurt by the Centre’s decision. In the early weeks, there were scattered street protests. But the sustained mass protests of 2008, 2010 and 2016 have been missing. Residents of the Valley offer two reasons for this.
The Centre’s announcement did not come without warning, they say. The massive deployment of troops, travel advisories warning tourists to leave Valley and leaked circulars instructing security forces to stock up for an emergency had created panic. The unprecedented lockdown, the mass arrests and the security presence made it clear that you protested at your own peril.
“The streets meant death,” said an MTech graduate from South Kashmir’s Shopian district. And this time, the youth in Kashmir – those who had not been rounded up and clapped into jails or police lock-ups – were not prepared to offer themselves up to bullets and shotguns.
In some parts of the Valley, the reasons for protest are important. In 2016, crowds had burst into the streets after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. But this was different. “This is the Constitution, that was azadi, it was a kind of jihad,” said a trader selling readymade garments in Wani’s hometown, Tral, in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. “Article 370 was our basic right, but if you die for the Constitution, you are not a martyr. If you die for azadi, you are considered a martyr.”
This time, the Valley showed its anger not by pouring out into the streets but by staying in. In the first couple of months after August 5, there were reports of a new “civil disobedience” against the government. If the government imposed a curfew, residents of the Valley said they would observe a “civil curfew”, where all daily activities would be suspended.
Nearly four months later, cars are back on the streets and even public transport like shared Sumo taxis are picking up passengers. Students have been forced back into school because of examinations. Government offices are up and running. The only signs of anger, apart from the ubiquitous graffiti asking India to “go back”, are the shuttered shops.
Civil disobedience has been whittled down to that old mode of defiance in the Valley – “hartal” or strike. In earlier seasons of protest, the separatist leadership of the Hurriyat regulated hartals, issuing a weekly “calendar” that prescribed when shops would be closed and public vehicles would stay off the streets, when there would be a “dheel” or relaxation in the shutdown. But this time, there were no Hurriyat leaders to call for hartals. Almost the entire separatist leadership is locked up.
Besides, a deep contempt for the Hurriyat seems to have set in. It is second only to the popular distaste for the Valley’s pro-India leadership, most of whom are also incarcerated. “The Hurriyat gave us hartal politics but then sent their own children abroad,” said a trader selling shawls and linens in the northern town of Bandipora. “The Hurriyat gave us nothing but calendar.”
Across the Valley, three words recur in conversations about the hartal. “Paanaiy”, ourselves – traders assure you that the strike was launched on their own steam, a spontaneous collective response to the Centre’s decision.
“Majboori”, compulsion – the compulsion to open shops because of economic distress and the compulsion to keep them closed because it was the only way to register protest. Some traders alluded vaguely to other compulsions that kept shops closed. “They’ve been burning shops in Srinagar,” said Zahoor Ahmed, who owns a hardware store in South Kashmir’s Shopian town. “We have to stay closed out of fear.”
Finally, all traders speak of “uncertainty”. With no formal calendar, the hartal inhabits the Valley like a living thing. It is transmitted by word of mouth and a dense rumour network. It changes from day to day, spreading like a flash at the slightest alarm, then gradually retreating. “My shop is open now, but if at any point it looks as though the hartal will set in again, I have to close,” said a trader selling samovars and copper vessels in Hajin in Bandipora district. Every morning, he journeys from his home, several kilometres away, to see if other shops are open and it is safe to do business. The moment it looks like they are closing, he says, he is one of the first to shut shop.
In most places, the hartal started easing up in October. But the patterns of shutdown vary from district to district, town to town or even within different markets in the same city. In the northern district of Bandipora, the shutdown has worn thin. In Srinagar, Lal Chowk and downtown markets were firmly shut on November 21 but other markets were doing business. On November 22, shops in the main market of Shopian town were showing signs of life but Pulwama town was closed for business.
Death of a salesman
On the afternoon of November 13, Mehraj-ud-Din Zargar was shot in the Tral market, just yards away from Fancy Garments, the shop where he worked as a salesman. The 32-year-old was the father of two children. His brothers say he was kind. They think he got shot for keeping the shop open for brief periods of time.
“He was ok with the shutdown, he was against the removal of Article 370,” said Zargar’s teenage nephew, Sahil Yousuf. But his uncle had been forced to open shop at times – “what to do, there was no income”. Zargar earned a salary of Rs 6,000, a mainstay for the joint family of 12 people.
Till October, residents say, shops had been shut all the time. They started opening from November. That’s when the fires started, they say. By late November, four to five shops had been burned – as in Srinagar, residents speculate about the role of “agencies”. Posters had also appeared repeatedly in the town warning traders to keep their shops shut. When the markets closed again, there was no agreed dheel, no window of time when the stores could open. Trades open stores at their own discretion. Often, customers buy supplies directly from the homes of wholesalers.
They were ready to keep up the shutdown until a solution to the current situation was found, said the trader in readymade garments from Tral. As far as they were concerned, this could even take the shape of Article 371, a constitutional provision that ensures special protection to states of the North East, among others. “People in Jammu are talking of 371,” said the garment trader. “Here also people are speaking of 371.”
In Burhan Wani’s hometown, constitutional protections are only needed to secure certain material rights for the residents of Jammu and Kashmir, such as the exclusive right to own land in the region. The larger fight is azadi. Wani’s grave still presides over the small town and militant groups have overwhelming support here.
While Zargar’s relatives say they do not know who killed him, other residents of Tral seem to believe he was killed by militants. “To be honest, there is not much anger here because there is open support for the rebels,” said the garment trader.
A senior police official in Awantipora subdivision, under which Tral falls, said they could “could confirm that it was carried out by militants”. They had not been able to establish a motive but an investigation had been launched.
Zargar’s family say the police had not yet visited them for questioning. The family did not approach the police either. “What will the police do?” asked Riyaz Ahmed, Zargar’s brother.
No one from the local trader’s association had offered support either, he said. Yet, in spite of their grief, the murdered man’s family do not question the hartal or its enforcement.
Apples in the snow
In neighbouring Shopian district, the economic pressures of the hartal have been compounded by a disastrous apple season, marred by killings, boycott and snow. With miles of orchard, Shopian is one of the Valley’s main apple-producing districts. Apart from full-time apple growers, most of the district’s inhabitants, from shopkeepers to lawyers, have a few boxes of fruit to sell every year. This year, that extra income has also vanished.
As the government tried to project normalcy in the Valley post August 5, it took a keen interest in the smooth functioning of the apple industry. Curfews and a communication blockade had cut off access to regular buyers across the Valley, so the government stepped in. Early in September the National Agricultural Marketing Federation of India was tasked with buying apples directly from the fruit mandis in Kashmir. Procurement was to be completed by mid-December. This was not received well.
In October, four truck drivers from outside the Valley were killed and their vehicles burned in Shopian. They had driven up to Kashmir to ferry the annual load of apples to markets outside. This sent other drivers fleeing the Valley. Migrant workers, who were already beginning to leave as local anger against outsiders mounted, also fled. This meant the orchards lost their main source of labour.
In the third week of November, icy winds swept across the vacant lot of the government fruit mandi in Shopian district. Traders and fruit growers had stayed away, despite the government’s encouragement. There had been rumours that if you wanted to trade at the government fruit mandis, you had to sign a bond that you did not object to the revocation of special status under Article 370.
After two and a half months, a few solitary traders were wending their way back to the mandi. “We could stand till a certain level of losses,” said Khaled Mushtaq, who sells apples and also runs a hardware business. “I’ve drawn on my earnings from last year, I have to take a loan from the bank. All my payments have also been disrupted. Despite losses, if we could get something for our cause, we would not have minded.” But he is doubtful that the government will relent anytime soon.
What the curfew, the killings and the boycott did not finish, the early snow in November did. “I had plucked and kept 200 boxes of apples – the snow ruined them,” said Zahoor Ahmed, who also owns a hardware store in Shopian. Income from his shop had also dried up and he had heard rumours that the shutdown would continue for another three months.
The battle of normalcy
The shadowplay of normalcy also unfolds in the markets of Srinagar. Take the poor vendors of Makka Market, who usually operate inside a walled enclosure in Lal Chowk. When the streets were still deserted, the vendors claim, the administration not only forced them to open for business but to move to the footpaths of Polo View road nearby, so that the streets looked more busy. They were even provided with security.
Police officials deny coercing vendors. “What does the police have to do with these cart vendors?” said a senior police officer in Srinagar. “If they want to open shops or keep them shut, we can’t stop them. But I must say, as police, we have to ensure the safety and security of public property. So if some shopkeeper wants to open his shop, it’s our duty to ensure his safety and security,”
In November, when the streets looked busy enough, the vendors were back in the enclosure with no security. “If things get bad again, they’ll push us back to the footpath to show the world everything is alright,” said one garment seller at Makka Market.
Yet, in downtown Srinagar, the government’s insistence on normalcy has become its own reason for keeping shops closed. “If shops are open from 6-10 am, Amit Shah will say things have returned to normal in Kashmir,” said the angry cloth merchant.
The shutdown is more tightly enforced here than in other parts of the city and does not rely on the vagaries of the whisper network. Traders say they decide on small windows of dheel among themselves and put up notices in mosques.
Everywhere, keeping shops open is seen as complaisance with the new status quo. “We were the first to open, and we got a lot of curses for it – people called us ‘Modipura’. But why should it fall only on shopkeepers?” asked the trader selling shawls and linens in Bandipora town. “We have our bank balances, our families, our children to think of. Why are government employees drawing a salary?”
As early as August 8, when heavy restrictions were still in place, the administration asked government employees to join work immediately. “Our reaction was, how is it possible to reach?” explained a government employee in Srinagar. They complied with the orders, he said, because they felt threatened after the way political leaders had been jailed. “But there is something inside – maybe I am not doing right by my people,” he said.
His colleague put it more bluntly. “The only beneficiaries of this whole process are government employees,” he declared. “They wanted others to make sacrifices while they did their duties. If only they had given a serious thought to civil disobedience, the situation might have been different today. They hitched rides and reached office for perks and incentives. They did not even resist the Durbar move [the shifting of the administration from Srinagar to Jammu for the winter] because their allowances were hiked from Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000. It is a hypocrisy.”
Across the board, there are functionaries of the administration who are conflicted by the job they must do, from government employees tasked with executing the details of Jammu and Kashmir’s transition from state with special status to Union Territory, to local policemen. In the aftermath of August 5, anecdotal evidence suggests, the constabulary was disarmed as the Centre feared a police rebellion.
The rebellion did not happen but the Kashmiri constabulary may still be viewed as part of a suspect population. A young policeman from Ajas in Bandipora district said he was picked up from the streets in an army sweep, taken to a camp and then kept in a police lock up for two days. “I told the police to investigate [his detention], I’m in the police myself. But there is no law here now,” said the policeman, was dressed in plain clothes and drinking tea with his friends, both traders on strike.
One professional community has kept traders company in the hartal. Along with markets, courts in Kashmir are also half deserted. Early on, the High Court Bar Association of Kashmir had called for a hartal to protest against the Centre’s decision and the arrest of lawyers, including the bar association’s president and former president. The district bar associations followed suit.
“Only a few junior lawyers attend court to make sure no adverse judgments are passed,” said Rafie Ahmed, an advocate at the Shopian district court. Late November, the court complex was deserted except for a few petitioners who wanted to find out the status of their cases.
All regular work has stopped at district courts except for bail applications, lawyers say. With mass detentions since August 5, there would presumably be a thicket of bail applications. But that is not the case. “Most of them were illegal detentions, there were no FIRs” said another lawyer at the Shopian court. “So they don’t approach the courts. If they do, the police will name them in an FIR and a chargesheet will follow.” Families of the detained had realised that the courts cannot do much, the lawyer said, “it’s all the sweet will of the SHO [station house officer]”.
Lawyers in Shopian say they do not know how long the shutdown will continue. “We had a meeting with the judges where they asked us when we were going to attend court,” said Ahmed. “We confirmed with Anantnag and Pulwama bar associations and said the status quo would continue.”
In previous years, the Hurriyat would issue calendars phasing out the hartal, first widening the dheel to several hours a day, then several days a week, until the restrictions disappeared altogether. In the new era of do it yourself hartals, the only status quo is uncertainty.
After nearly four months, there is exhaustion and distress. But most residents of the Valley say they are prepared for the long haul. Over the years of protest and curfew, they have developed a pride in the resources they have and the strategies devised to beat scarcity. Resilience itself is seen as a challenge to the government. “It is god given,” said the trader in Bandipora town. “Kashmiris are very clever. Even if you keep us locked up for 10 years, we will still be eating meat.”
This story first appeared in Scroll.in on November 29, 2019 here