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Kashmir: The complicated truth behind its ‘normality’

Published : Thursday, 19 September, 2019 at 12:00 AM  Count : 127

To escape the claustrophobic tension of living under siege, people in Srinagar have found ways to unwind.
Parks in the main city of Indian-administered Kashmir are seeing a surge of visitors. Anglers sit desultorily on the banks of the picturesque Dal Lake. Others drive around in their cars, meeting friends and relatives. Knots of people gather on empty streets and shoot the breeze.
Many of the stifling security barricades and coils of razor wire - potent symbols of the siege - have been removed. There are no blackouts or mass rationing. Small markets are opening for a few hours.
It seem as if life in the tense Muslim-dominated valley, home to some seven million people, is limping back to some kind of normalcy a month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP stripped the region of its autonomy, split it into two federally-run territories and imposed a lockdown.
But Asma Qurieshi, a government worker taking a stroll in a sprawling city park with her family, is not convinced. "Don't be fooled into believing everything is normal," she tells me.
On Monday, India's Supreme Court asked the government to restore normalcy in Kashmir "keeping in mind the national interest and internal security".
The government insists the situation is returning to normal. It says hospitals and clinics are functioning, pharmacies are open, there's ample stock of staples and medicines, cash machines are working, landline phones are being restored, schools are open and so on.
The government has even agreed to buy apple crops from farmers at a fair price. The local papers brim with adverts placed by the government promising people a rosy future of jobs and development.
Yet, the normalcy is deceptive - and surreal. Landline phones are returning to life, but most people are still not able to connect. Some government offices are open, but almost no one turns up.
Fearing violence, parents are not sending their children to schools. Private schools are asking parents to collect video lessons and study material on flash drives.
And the region's children, cooped up in homes and listening to TV news and parents, speak eloquently on the "injustice done by India" and play "stone-pelting" games in their gardens.
"Our lives are diminished. It feels like a siege of the mind," a school teacher told me.
On the sullen, empty streets, shops and businesses - apart from pharmacies - are shuttered. Strangled by the communications blockade and opacity of official information, local newspapers have been reduced to skeletons of their former selves.
About 3,000 people - including political leaders, businesspeople and activists - are reported to have been detained. Security forces have been accused of carrying out beatings and torture in the wake of the government's decision. India has called the allegations "baseless and unsubstantiated".
The extensive security blanket installed by authorities has ensured that there has been no large-scale violence. However, there have been conflicting accounts of the number of deaths due to action by security forces since the lockdown began, and frustrations continue to simmer beneath the surface.
"People are angry, humiliated and adrift. They have no leaders to take orders and cues from. And forget India. There's no trust left in India," a local police official, who preferred to remain unnamed, told me.
"This calm looks like a lull before the storm to me. But this time, we don't even know from where the next resistance will arise."
There is precedent for this: young Kashmiri men rose in revolt against the state in 2008, 2010 and 2016, leading to much violence and many deaths. During the agitation three years ago, following the killing of militant leader Burhan Wani, "public anger endorsed the new militancy", says David Devadas, author of The Generation of Rage in Kashmir.
This marked a sea change, he says from 2010, when the agitation was against the killing of "innocents". The 2016 agitations, says Mr Devadas, "represented a rejection of the state's legitimacy".
But this time, the only barely concealed agitation is emanating from Soura, a gritty neighbourhood in Srinagar, flanked by a lake and a multi-speciality hospital.
Days after the shutdown began, thousands of people took to its streets, and police opened fire and used tear gas to disperse them. A few weeks later, a procession in the area turned violent, as protestors threw stones at security forces, who retaliated with tear gas and pellets. At least two people were injured.

Soura has become an unlikely epicentre of resistance. Young men have dug trenches and all three main entrances to the neighbourhood have been blocked with stones, wires, wood, garbage vats, bricks, disused metal and wires. A famous Muslim shrine has become the gathering area for protestors. Drones fly over the warren of tiled homes and congested streets, keeping an eye on movements.     -BBC

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