An eerie calm engulfs south Kashmir’s Shopian district, an erstwhile militant stronghold where security forces face stiff resistance from local residents.
The stillness of the streets and people toiling in the orchards in the day could be mistaken for peace but “it is a completely different place after the sun sets”, says Zubair (name changed to protect his identity) leaning against a downed shutter in a long line of closed shops in the Turkwangam village.
Turkwangam and its adjoining villages are no strangers to the all-encompassing grasp of the conflict, bearing the brunt of the battles between separatist militants and the security forces. “We have been living with the fear of the army for a long time now,” Zubair had said last August.
“But they have gotten even more aggressive in the last few days when they say that some shops remained shut during the day but opened for a few hours after sunset,” he said.
“They warned us against opening shops or using our vehicles after sunset, hoping that we would open (shops) during the day. Now we neither remain open during the day nor in the evening,” he adds.
The abrogation of the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and its bifurcation into two Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, has led to renewed tensions and a series of diplomatic skirmishes between India and Pakistan — both of which claim the state in its entirety and have fought three wars since independence in 1947, in attempts to wrest control of the region — at various international forums.
Shortly after the Government of Indian announced its decision on 5 August, Pakistan had reiterated “political, diplomatic and moral support” to Kashmiris before embarking on a diplomatic offensive against India. It is believed to have motivated its close ally China, which also controls a portion of Jammu and Kashmir, to call for “closed consultations” over the situation Kashmir at the UNSC that was held on 16 August.
Pakistan's prime minister Imran Khan has also declared that he would raise Kashmir at every international forum where he would “act as Kashmir’s ambassador” but has so far failed to bring about any substantial diplomatic pressure on India.
India has, however, faced flak over the lockdown in the Valley enforced by an unannounced curfew imposed by thousands of armed soldiers, a blanket ban on communication, and the detention of scores civil society activists and political leaders, both unionist and separatist.
On its part, India has responded with a diplomatic counter-offensive, reaching out to member nations of the United Nations while taking coordinated internal measures to enforce normalcy in Kashmir and turn the tables on Pakistan.
Just hours before the 16 August UNSC meeting, the Jammu and Kashmir administration’s chief secretary BVR Subrahmanyam addressed a press conference in Srinagar stating that the lockdown had prevented serious injuries or loss of lives “during the course of maintaining peace and order” and despite “continuing efforts by Pakistan to destabilise the situation”.
Subrahmanyam added that measures were being taken to “ease the restrictions in a gradual manner” and schools would be reopened the following week. “It is expected that over the next few days, as the restrictions get eased, life in Jammu and Kashmir will become completely normal,” he said.
The government’s move to reopen schools amidst uncertainty and a communication blockade was seen by many in the Valley as strong-arming Kashmiris into resuming normal life. According to a journalist with two school-going children, the opening of schools, despite the uncertainty in the Valley, was an attempt by the government to “use children to alter the political mood in Kashmir and enforce normalcy”.
On its part, the government has lifted restrictions on the movement of people and placed them back depending on the situation. It has also restored landline communications in the Valley. However, the Valley still has neither erupted against the Centre’s move nor has it accepted it and moved on with life.
Soon after word spread that government officials were coercing the business community into resuming business, the administration’s spokesperson, Rohit Kansal, while responding to one such question at a press conference, said that there were “no constraints to any kind on opening shops”. He said that only limitations that were placed were by the militants who are forcing people to not open their shops.
The uneasy calm that currently prevails in the Valley doesn't suit the political interests of either India or Pakistan. While the situation is not good enough for India to project peace and claim the people’s confidence in its rule, it's not bad enough for Pakistan to corner India diplomatically and highlight popular resistance to Indian rule.
As the state government directed employees to resume work in offices and the Valley saw a subsequent increase in traffic on the streets, posters bearing the names of various militant outfits emerged in different parts of the Valley warning people against, among other things, from resuming official work and private businesses, some of which had begun to operate at half capacity.
The warnings came true on the evening of 29 August when some gunmen shot and killed a businessman in the Parimpora area on the outskirts of Srinagar. According to locals in the area, the wealthy businessman had a reputation for not heeding to shutdown calls in the past as well.
"In the initial days (after the abrogation of Article 370) when people in our area noticed that his shop was open, we thought he would be shot this time," a local from the area said.
On 7 September, another incident was reported from north Kashmir’s Sopore. This time three fruit merchants and a child were shot and injured by gunmen suspected to be separatist militants. On 11 September, the police said that it had killed a Kashmiri recruit of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba who was responsible for the attack.
The posters and the killing of the businessman have instilled fear in the Valley already rife with rumours of spotting large groups of foreign militants armed with automatic rifles. The Indian government has long accused Pakistan of backing separatist militants in Kashmir.
Neither the posters warning Kashmiris nor the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s claims of making several arrests of militant affiliates involved in intimidating locals through posters could be verified independently. However, while militant outfits have neither officially claimed any action, they have not rebutted the police’s accusations either.
As the spontaneous shutdown in Kashmir — sponsored and guided by no established political entity, unionist or separatist — stretches for more than a month, a final exchange between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is expected at the United Nation’s General Assembly (UNGA), which began its session on 17 September.
The prime ministers of both India and Pakistan are scheduled to speak on 27 September.
In the tussles already, Khan has failed to bring any substantial bearing on India over Kashmir and has subsequently postponed a planned march in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir till after his speech at the UNGA. Already, India has countered Pakistan's efforts at the United Nation's Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to "politicise" the United Nation's forum with "hysterical statements with false narratives".
In what gives an estimate of the importance Pakistan has given to the speech, Khan blamed an attack on the country's Hindu minority in its Sindh province as an attempt to "sabotage" his speech at the UNGA. India has been consistently pointing out the ill-treatment of minorities in Pakistan.
In an interview to Al Jazeera, Khan warned of the possibilities of a nuclear war between the two countries. As Khan is expected to once again raise Kashmir in his speech, there is increasing pressure on the Indian government to further ease restrictions and prevent any escalation.
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Updated Date: Sep 19, 2019 17:07:15 IST