#Article370: Curfew and curses in Srinagar’s Downtown area
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#Article370: Curfew and curses in Srinagar’s Downtown area

To locals, the abrogation of Article 370 is a ‘sentimental murder’.

By Ayush Tiwari

Published on :

Most reports coming out of Kashmir, specifically Srinagar, have described and distilled the desolate, still and sieged state of the region as “curfew-like”. However, while all of Srinagar remains desolate, parts of it are more desolate than others.

In the area of the Kashmiri capital known as Downtown, the quietude can get so deafening that the morning breeze starts whistling in one’s ears. Here, old and shabby houses with sloped roofs line the lifeless road populated by CRPF personnel and the J&K police and their silver hoops of concertina wire. At regular distances, men, old and young, can be seen sitting by the road and chatting away the afternoon. Some take to a game of carrom outside shuttered shops that sell everyday consumer goods in times of normalcy. Many buildings have windows shattered—“We broke this one when Pakistan lost to India in the World Cup,” one local told me—and lazy dogs loiter outside and pick fights among themselves. 

A road leading to the Downtown area.

There’s an important factor that separates this part of Srinagar from the rest. Outside, people would tell you that they’re deeply unhappy with the abrogation of Article 370, the fleeing tourists and the absent state of communications. This discontent is palpable in Downtown too. But people here say that they’ll do something about it.

***

Adil Amin has a timber business that’s currently in limbo. He finds me outside the only store that is open in the Downtown area. “Indian media?” he asks, perhaps after noticing several men complaining to me about the Indian state.  Yes, I respond. A ritual rant on the Indian media follows. 

After duly digesting the polemic, I inquire about his age. “Everyone here will tell you I’m 57,” he smiles. “But I’m actually just 27. Thirty years of my life has been eaten up by this conflict.” 

Amin speaks with a drawl and is the patriarch of one of the affluent families in the locality. And he has a lot to say about the gulaami of Kashmir. “The Mughals came and subjected us. The Pathans came and subjected us. The British and the Dogras did the same. And what India is doing now is worse than subjection. It was also an August in 1953 when Sheikh Abdullah was arrested on Panditji’s orders. It was the first of India’s three betrayals. Then they rigged the elections in 1987, and now they’ve taken away Article 370.”

Amin’s family—brothers, cousins, sons—gather around and listen intently. They clearly accord much respect to him as there is minimal interruption. When Amin pauses, his brother Waseem takes over: “Whatever you say or write, you Indians, Hindus or Muslims, you can never be our friend. Pakistan is not our friend either. We have no friends.”

“You are from the Hindustan that sent a man like Ram into exile for 14 years,” Amin resumes, “this is the Hindustan that killed Gandhi. These BJP leaders who are running a government today in India, they think they have avenged us for 1953, when Syama Prasad Mukherjee came here and died. They removed 370 to avenge his death.”

After a long and animated lecture on the themes of injustice, betrayal and loss, Amin cools down. He seems to realise that he and his relatives had talked at me more than they had talked to me. The creases on his forehead soften. “Why don’t you come inside, son?” he asks. I gladly accepted the offer.   

Inside Amin’s house, tea and biscuits are laid on the table. After inquiring about my personal findings in Srinagar, the conversation shifts from the wrongs of the Indian state to that of the Kashmiri leadership. “Humein toh apno ne loota, gairon mein kaha dum tha? We were looted by our own, what might did others have? Sheikh Abdullah toed the Indian line. Ghulam Bakshi was India’s lackey. Omar Abdullah cornered his riches. Mufti was Delhi’s man. The brothers running Kashmir today, Baseer and Muneer Khan, are corrupt and compromised. Shah Faesal is the latest Delhi prop. Who was really ours?”

This is a recurring view among Kashmiris in Downtown Srinagar. Everyone I spoke to believes that Modi went one step too far. He should have only jailed the local leaders and not abrogated 370. 

A lane in Downtown.

Waseem adds: “All these floods wreaking havoc in Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra, they’re the sins of the ruler visiting the subjects. Modi has a lot to answer for.” He points to the sky. “We Kashmiris do not have to seek reason for our victimhood from anyone in this world,” says Amin. “For that, we only have Him. Aur Usko ko hum chhodenge nahi. Chhodenge nahi. We won’t leave Him alone.”

In the family living room with a large carpet and soft cushions, one of Amin’s sons, Hakeem, switches to a Pakistani news channel. Why has the channel not been banned by the authorities, I ask. “They have categorised this channel under ‘Music’ and not ‘News’. There must be rebels within the broadcasting department. The authorities did not notice,” Hakeem smirks.

Hakeem is about 20 years old. He speaks fluent English and is pursuing a B. Tech. degree. In fact, everyone in the family has a degree. Unlike his father, Hakeem has a beard. A kernel of anger in his eyes is unmistakable. His speech is rapid but clear, and he keeps digressing as if every subject he touches upon must be detailed. Over half an hour, he tells me about the teachings of “Salafi Islam”, the virtues of Islamic preacher Zakir Naik, the effeminacy of the Sufis and the greed of the Jews. Compared to his father, the young man is a study in contrast.

He says: “The sentiment among Kashmiri Muslims is this: they want an independent Kashmir. If not that, they want a Kashmir with Pakistan, but not with India. Why? One, because they believe that secularism is bullshit. Two, because our brothers and sisters are shot by Indian forces. Three, because our religious practices are impeded—we weren’t allowed to read namaz in our mosques during Eid.”

As we speak, Amin’s elder son Mushtaq brings his seven-year-old son into the room. After Hakeem’s discursive spiel, the child’s entrance lightens the mood. “This little one keeps saying, Pakistan humaari shaan hai. Pakistan is our pride,” Mushtaq laughs as the kid rolls around the room on a small tricycle.

In a pentagram of family allegiances, Hakeem and doomsayer uncle Waseem fall into the pro-independence box. Mushtaq is pro-Pakistan. Amin says he had been pro-India till the morning of August 5, when the abrogation of Article 370 was announced, but no longer.

Amin was a young man when militancy rocked the valley in the 1990s. He had been kidnapped and tortured at Papa-II, a notorious torture facility of the Indian government in Srinagar. After three days, he had been let off by a “good Indian officer”. Every year, after finishing six months of business-related work in the Valley, Amin spends a month in “mainland India”. He likes Kolkata and Mumbai, dislikes Lucknow and Delhi, and has plans to visit Kochi this year.

While seeing me off, Amin asks me not to venture around Downtown after 4 pm. “Avoid the young men,” he says. “And listen,” he clutches my arm as his tone turns grim. “Son, I’ve never been in favour of the gun. That is what my parents taught me and it is what I teach my children. But I no longer believe this. If my people take to the gun, I’m on their side.”

***

The story is a familiar one. Fahad was 15 when he was first detained by the J&K police. It was 2016. The Valley was ablaze after the encounter of militant commander Burhan Wani. An FIR was lodged against Fahad. When he self-righteously marched to the police station to confront the police about the “false charges” levied against him, they slapped a second FIR on him. In 2017, he was detained again in January before Republic Day. Then again before Independence Day in August and during Eid in early 2018.

When Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had FIRs against young men retracted, Fahad’s remained. The police said Fahad was a suspect in the murder of Rising Kashmir editor Shujaat Bukhari. 

In early 2018, Fahad, now 17, went missing. Days later, after an appeal by his parents to return, he declared on Facebook that he had joined the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terror group. In October, he was killed in an encounter in Downtown.

The picture Fahad posted online when announcing he had joined the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Unlike the Amins, Fahad’s family is not affluent. Unlike the Amins, the abrogation of 370 is not so much an issue of regional autonomy for this family. It’s a matter of economy and livelihood. They live in a small house in Downtown’s Fatehkadal: 10×10 living room with an adjoined kitchen and an equally small backyard. The house walls bear cracks and the floor is uneven. “It happened during the 2014 floods,” says 24-year-old Umar, Fahad’s brother. “They paid us ₹3,000 as repair aid.”

Fahad’s 55-year-old father, who prepares delicacies in local weddings, is going through a rough patch. Anyone who has glanced through the local newspapers since August 5 knows that most weddings in the Kashmiri capital have been cancelled. There is no delicacy to prepare.

More than a dozen notifications crowd the local papers: “Invitation cancelled: Due to prevailing situation in the Valley the marriage ceremony of my son Azaan Qayoom Khan which was scheduled on 20th and 21st of August, 2019 is cancelled. However Nikah ceremony will be held with simplicity. Inconvenience is deeply regretted. Faizal Qayoom Khan, Rawalpora.”

“Simplicity” here stands for minimum guests and no professional cooks. As a consequence, the father has been home dribbling with household matters and a hookah. The family is sustaining on borrowed money and food from friends in the neighbourhood.

Fahad’s mother, who speaks of her son in the present tense (“he sleeps here, he studies here”), says that 10-15 boys in the neighbourhood have been taken away by the police since restrictions were imposed in the region in the first week of August. Umar adds that there has been no stone-pelting in Fatehkadal since then.  

Yahan tabahi mach jayegi. There will be destruction here,” says the father, who speaks the language of livelihood. “The migrants from Hindustan who were sent back by the government face a crisis. The employers who employ them in Kashmir face a crisis. We, who earn some money by renting rooms to these migrants, also face a crisis.”  

Umar and his 19-year-old brother Daanish contribute a considerable sum to the household by driving autos. But with movement restrictions in place, this income avenue remains shut. Umar hasn’t been moving about on his own in any case. Two days ago, while he was taking his ill mother to a hospital, he was stopped by armed forces near Nawa Bazaar and asked to turn back. When he tried to reason with them, he was thrashed. He shows me his fist, which bears a purple hue because of the assault. To exacerbate this, he says, the armed forces barged into his backyard the next day and damaged his bike.

Umar’s bike that was allegedly damaged by security forces.

Kashmir ke log na Hindustan chahte na Pakistan. Bas humein azaad chhod do. The people of Kashmir neither want India or Pakistan. Just let us be independent,” says Umar. The father agrees. “But both Pakistan and India get support here. More for India than Pakistan. And things might change.”

***

While the main road in Downtown Srinagar remains deserted, life bubbles in the bylanes. The streets here are often converted into makeshift cricket pitches occupied by young men and their wickets, bats and bowls. A few shops are open and the smell of tea-leaves lingers in the air. 

Here, in Maharajganj, I met Farooq Akhzer, a plump 33-year-old textile businessman ruing the collapse of his enterprise. Like everywhere in Kashmir, I’m invited inside the house; tea, biscuits and a polite request for lunch follows. It’s August 15 today and people here tell me that it’s a “Black Day” in Kashmir. “On most days they force us to shut our shops, but today we shut them ourselves,” says a 25-year-old squatting by the road who works as a marketing assistant at Reliance Jio.

Inside Akhzer’s roomy workplace-cum-home, I’m joined by his 29-year-old brother Muzammil Khan and 55-year-old uncle Mohammad Zulfiqar. “Our industry, our business, our shops, they are the target of the Indian government,” says Akhzer’s father, whose anxious frown outlasts our conversation. “They know we make the most amount of money during Eid, and yet they time their curfews like this. And what’s the reason for all this injustice? Development of Kashmir. It’s laughable. Awaam nahi bachega toh kya development hoga? If the people don’t survive then how will they develop?”

The Akhzer family’s textile workshop. It is currently not functioning.

“In 2016, we would run our business at night,” says Zulfiqar, “we can’t do that this time. There’s no network or landline services. Agle mahine guzaara mushkil hoga. Life will be tough next month.”

Akhzer junior, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture, adds that it is in the time of curfews that radicalisation finds fertile ground in the Valley, especially among those of his generation. “We just sit inside our homes all day doing nothing. We’re trapped. No school, college and work. That’s when all kinds of ideas come into people’s minds. In normal times we’re occupied by our business and our studies.”

Zulfiqar chooses to speak for his generation. The Indian government’s decision to bar people from reading namaz during Eid, he says, did not sit well with the elders. “And when it comes to restraining the youth, it is us old ones who cast influence. We tell them to not pick up the gun. Will we restrain them now?” He lets the question hang in the air. Or it could have been rhetorical.    

But then Akhzer senior resolves any doubts. “Rich and poor will flow into the street once the armed forces leave. How long will they stay here anyway? We will fight for azaadi from India’s autocratic rule.”

Khan, who wants to leave for Kerala if things become violent, also nods his head. “I couldn’t imagine a life like this a few years ago. Now I’m being forced to live it,” he hums, almost to himself.

Pandit Nehru ne Kashmir ko dil se lagaane ki koshish ki thi. Ab wo daur nahi raha. Pandit Nehru tried to bring Kashmir closer to his heart. That era is bygone,” remarks old Zulfiqar, shifting in his chair. “Nothing good happened in these 70 years. 370 was a promise of freedom for us. We were never free anyway. Its abrogation is not so much a political murder, it is a sentimental murder.”

***

In Downtown Srinagar, it is rather obvious that the “nationalism” of Delhi’s political-speak translates to “conquest” in Kashmiri. For the demographically-dominant Kashmiri Muslims, promises of “development” and “social justice” are the devious fig leaves of a fundamentally devious Indian state. The reason for their shock and fury, they say, lies in three things: the abrogation of Article 370, the deceit of its method, and the consequences it brought in its wake. To them, it is not only the opening but also the flogging of old wounds. 

Multiple names in the story have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees.

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