Inside Kashmir: Curbs Back With Vengeance in Kupwara as ‘Civil Curfew’ Proves Red Rag for Forces

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Vintage view of a village in Kupwara district. — Photo by Zafar Aafaq

Zafar Aafaq | Caravan Daily

KUPWARA — Fayaz Ahmad, who lives in Poshpora village of Kupwara, was planning to take his wife to Bone and Joint Hospital in Srinagar as she is suffering from slip disc. But he had to postpone his visit by a couple of days as Ashiq Bhat, the cap driver who lives in his neighbourhood, declined to join them citing “civil curfew”.

No association or political leader had given a call for such a curfew. But a grapevine went around in Kashmir about it with an advisory to observe the “civil curfew” even as the government was planning to ease restrictions.

The rumour came in handy to cab drivers like Ashiq who were inclined to take a break from the hectic routine and rest at home. Ever since the clampdown was imposed on Kashmir, Ashiq would leave home at dawn to ferry cab full of passengers to Srinagar and return late afternoon.

“This is how I make a living these days,” Ashiq said.

Kupwara is around 100 kilometre away from Srinagar city. The area ringed by line of control on three sides is one of the most militarised zones in Kashmir. Army camps located intermittently and access to certain areas is granted only after getting permission from the district magistrate.

Here, rumour mills are flourishing ever since the communication blockade has come into force. Fake news and fake updates are flying thick and fast. Many believe the news of clashes between Jammu and Kashmir Police and Central Reserve Police force (CRPF).

In this scenario, word spread that the government had decided to ease restrictions to “fake normalcy” as certain international human rights team and journalists are visiting rural areas including Kupwara on Monday to take stock of the situation. In this context, some people decided to defy the relaxation in curfew.

“We did not come to the market on Monday,” said a shopkeeper sitting at the pavement outside his closed shop in Kupwara town. No one from outside visited the town. But eventually the “civil curfew” turned out to be a rumour.

“But how could we have afforded to take the risk,” asked the shopkeeper.

Curbs back with a vengeance

Just a few days into the clampdown and Kashmir resorted to the age-old “strategy” — markets in townships and villages open in the mornings and evenings for a couple of hours. The day time is spent indoors with the police and paramilitary forces in huge numbers occupying streets and roads from morning till evening.

However, the restrictions were re-imposed the following day. “I think the government was irked by our defiance. Now, they want to teach us a lesson,” said Sheikh Salahuddin, a 23-year-old student who hails from Rawathpora village of the district.

Salahuddin left his home at 4:30 am on August 22 in a Tata Sumo, a cab popular with the passengers that operate between towns and villages in Kashmir. He had to reach Srinagar to catch his flight to Delhi from where he would fly to France. He is pursuing a degree in Neuroscience from a university in Paris.

On their way, at Kupwara town at around 5 am, they were stopped at a barricade of barbed wires by some paramilitary troopers asking them to return home. “A cop abused and asked us ‘Why you did not come out on Monday when we gave you a deal in restrictions.” However, they could be able to resume their journey thanks to the presence of mind of a fellow passenger who faked illness. “The trick worked and we were allowed go,” Salahuddin said.

After the “civil curfew” day, people are complaining that the attitude of the forces has changed. “Now, they don’t allow us to open shops even in mornings and evenings,” bemoaned a shopkeeper in Trehgam village.

Here, the forces’ presence has been reduced after 12 days of stringent restrictions on Public moment. However, the police and paramilitary were deployed in larger numbers on Tuesday morning.

“The cops manning the barricades started checking papers of car drivers and bikers and whosoever was found without mandatory documents was beaten and detained in the village police station,” a local said. “They have visibly become all the more hostile and aggressive towards the public.”

The next day commissioner of the district Anshul Garg visited the area and held a meeting with sarpanches of the area. They discussed the situation and updated the DC about the public issues. The visuals from the meeting were aired in next day’s bulletins on government-run channel DD Kashir. Some of the sarpanches places hands on their faces to avoid being recognised.

“They were afraid that they would be publicly shamed for meeting a government official,” said the local.

There are over 50 pharmacies outside sub-district hospital in Kupwara. Most are shut. Some are half open and some operate from the back door.  At one shop there is a crowd of costumers. Most of them have come for getting medicines for critical health issues. One person asks for medicine for epilepsy problem. Fortunately, he gets one strip. The seller at the counter tells him this was the last strip. “We will go to Srinagar tomorrow but we can’t promise you that we will be able get it from the dealer.”

The market is running short of life-saving drugs like insulin. Only over the counter drugs like antibiotics are available in abundance.  We have not been able to call our seller in Jammu to place orders,” Umar Malik, a leading dealer of life-saving drugs in Srinagar, said.

Communication Woes

Communication is a huge problem here and many families have not heard from their loved ones since August 05. There is a wedding scheduled in Mohammad Yasin’s family next month but they haven’t heard a word from groom’s side who live in a far off village.

“They haven’t been able to pay a visit to us. We don’t even know as yet whether the marriage ceremony is going to be conducted on schedule at all,” bemoaned Yasin.

While some landline connections were restored in parts of Srinagar, no one in Kupwara enjoys “the privilege”.  Many residents said they are fortunate that someone in their family is in the police department.

“My uncle who is a Munshi at a police station calls my brother every day to check in on him and we get updated regularly,” said Sajad Mir of Lolab area whose brother is currently in Delhi.

Though newspapers are published in Srinagar, only one newspaper reaches Kupwara, that too, occasionally. It is Tameel-e-Irshad, a widely circulated Urdu newspaper. Its owner originally hails from a village in Kupwara district. But its circulation remains confined to Kupwara town. The villages don’t get newspapers these days. The residents complain that Indian news channels do not show the truth. “They only show government propaganda only,” said Tahir Bhat, a student.

Under these circumstances, people have moved back to radio transistors in search of credible news. “I got my old transistor fixed and now l tune to BBC Urdu every evening,” said Gulzar Bhat in Poshpora. His neighbour Ali Mohammad, who unfortunately does not own a transistor, goes to Gulzar’s home every evening to hear BBC Urdu news bulletin. “Only international press is credible on Kashmir,” Ali said.

Mehraj Ahmad is a bicycle dealer from Rawathpora village. Earlier, he used to sell radio transistors. He says people have been asking him to help them buy transistors. “Now, I am planning to travel to Delhi and get a consignment of transistors and sell it here.” In fact a few days ago he had tried to leave for Delhi but he could not get a vehicle in Kupwara due to curfew.

Growing Resentment

Like rest of Kashmir, there is widespread resentment among the people in Kupwara over the decisions taken by the state. People observed Eid with simplicity. Fayaz’s family used to cook five to six delicacies on the festival, but this Eid they remained restricted to two. “It was chicken and vegetables only,” said Fayaz.

While people were performing Eid prayers at Eidgah grounds across villages, a helicopter hovered over them very low. They were conducting a survey on crowds that had assembled for prayers. Later, the government released numbers which were flashed across TV screens. “The government presented our participation in Eid prayers as a referendum in favour of their decisions and policies against us,” said a lawyer in Kupwara. “Sometimes I want to laugh at these absurdities.”

Though there have not been any major street protest, the anger is brewing among the young as well as old.

Thousands of young and old people are under detention since the clampdown was enforced. The police nab individuals randomly only to identify them as “potential mobilisers”. Every day people are still being arrested during overnight raids on neighborhoods. So much so that jails are running out of space. A hostel for the students of tribal community and a guest house located in Kupwara town has been turned into a detention centre.

On the second night of Eid ul Adha, police raided the home of a close associate of former minister and Peoples Conference leader Sajad Lone. Along with him, they arrested his son. Recounting the incident, Zarifa, a neighbour of the family, said, “The family put of a stiff resistance to prevent the arrest but failed. In the ensuing melee, a policeman hit his wife with a cane so hard that she collapsed on the ground.”

In Trehgam, Sheikh Afzal, a prominent worker of a Yasin Malik’s JKLF has been arrested. Locals guess he has been taken to Agra but there is no official word on his whereabouts.

Long-time workers of National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have been nabbed during the ongoing arrest spree. Their families are not allowed to meet them. The actions have drawn reactions from across the political spectrum.

“How could the Indian government revoke Article 370 unilaterally,” asked Shafqat, a young Ph.D. scholar.  “They hold elections here and say democracy operates in Kashmir and then they do this.”

He fears that in the next few years Kashmir will be entirely a different place. “You will see there will be an overhaul of how society operates.”

While debunking the development narrative being peddled by the state, Shafqat shared frightening apprehensions about the future of Kashmir. “Right now we are well off if not filthy rich, but India wants us to live a life of slums,” he said.

“Now big companies will come here and take control of our paddy fields and orchards. They will turn the green Kashmir into a vast cement factory,” he predicted.

Shafqat, who has spent half of his life outside Kashmir, says he understands the mentality of an “average Indian”. “It is difficult to make them understand what we actually want and why we want it.”

But he adds that Kashmir is into a long drawn fight with the enemy who has no compassion. “Now it is a kind of a war and you don’t complain to an enemy. Instead, you fight against him with bravery.”

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