By Anchal Vohra/Foreign Policy
Srinagar, September 28: The soldiers come out in strength at night, along the streets lined with apple orchards. In the village, they arrest and beat up young men; others are left alone but are scared. Indeed, that is the point of the exercise.
Kashmir has been in a panic since the Indian government decided to strip the valley of its autonomy. More than 2,000 Kashmiris have been arrested in the crackdown beginning Aug. 4. Parents stand in long lines outside police stations across the state of Jammu and Kashmir to get any news of sons who disappeared in the night.
There is calm in the valley, but it is deceptive. The Indian government has flown in thousands of troops to man every corner of the territory, arrested leading politicians, and cut off phone and internet communications, to hinder the ability of Kashmiris to organize mass demonstrations.
The one island of protest has been Anchar, a residential area in Srinagar. Residents have dug trenches, blocked entry points, and split up shifts to guard the district from the Indian Army’s arrest campaign. Ahmad, a political science student, said clashes were frequent. (Some names in this story, such as Ahmad’s, have been changed to protect the individuals mentioned.) “While soldiers fire tear gas shells and pellets, the boys pelt stones,” he said. “They have nothing else to stop the soldiers from entering our homes.” He pointed to a dozen men trying to rein in a yellow tarpaulin flapping in the wind to tie it to wooden poles planted on a lawn. He said this was to be their outpost, from which they would keep watch on soldiers patrolling the circumference of the neighborhood and issue warnings if they tried to come inside.
Elsewhere in Srinagar, Kashmiris say they remain determined not to accept India’s aggression as a fait accompli and have begun in their own way to resist. Kashmiris have shuttered their shops and businesses en masse. I witnessed one market after another across the valley close under self-imposed lockdowns. Only pharmacies and some general stores were open. The Kashmiris described it as a “silent protest.”
“The army is asking us to open our shops, but we will not—we are protesting,” said one shopkeeper in Moran in Pulwama district. Mohamad Altaf, a pro-separatist pharmacist in downtown Srinagar, said: “No one will give in. We want the world to see that we are resisting and help us.” Ahmad, a 70-year-old apple farmer in Shopian, said he would let the crop rot this harvest just to prove a point. “Nothing is good in Kashmir. Nothing is normal,” he said.
The apple harvest is the mainstay of the region’s economy and the livelihood of most farmers. But this season, many are refusing to pluck the fruit of their labor to sell in the domestic and international market. The sight of apples rotting across the valley has the potential to become a public relations nightmare for New Delhi. In an extraordinary move, the government is now threatening to take over the harvest itself.
The government says the economic boycott is not voluntary but being imposed by threats from separatist and Islamist militants who have been active in Kashmir for years. “We have reports of militants going around and forcing people not to resume normal business,” said Rohit Kansal, a principal secretary to the government of India-administered Jammu and Kashmir. “We are aware that a local shopkeeper was killed for opening his shop.” There is some truth to that; some Kashmiris have reported threats from militants. But most business owners I spoke with said they shut voluntarily.
Indian officials are banking on the fatigue factor, hoping to outlast the opposition in a battle of wills in the valley. It is not yet clear whether the Indian government or the protesting Kashmiris have the energy to last the longest.
Indian sources say the communications blackout was also part of the government’s strategy to keep the number of casualties low in the event of clashes. They worried that even relatively peaceful protests could turn violent, if soldiers fired back on young men throwing stones. No protests would mean no killings—and a corresponding limit to international condemnation. In the protests in 2010 and 2016, most casualties happened in the first few days, an official source told Foreign Policy. This time, the region’s communications were shut down immediately to stop any momentum from gathering force, in the hope that the mood would have dissipated by the time connectivity was restored.
It may work. But the government’s excesses are not winning it any friends in the disputed region and are just as likely to trigger more militancy, not less.