Fearing protests over the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru in Delhi’s Tihar jail could snowball into a major uprising drawing parallels with the agitations of 2008 and 2010, a strict and indefinite curfew continues to remain in place across the Kashmir Valley for the fourth day today.
Three people have already died after police and paramilitary forces fired guns to quell demonstrations in Wateragam Sopore (Guru’s native place) and Sumbal in North Kashmir’s Ganderbal district – which incidentally is the constituency of the state’s chief minister Omar Abdullah.
Policemen and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in riot gear have been deployed in strength, and rolls of concertina wires and barricades block entry to roads and streets in the summer capital Srinagar.
Gowhar Bhat, a resident of Khanyar in downtown Srinagar, had to plead before police and paramilitary force personnel deployed outside his house to shift his aunt, who suffered stomach pain in the wee hours, to a hospital located less than a mile away. “My aunt was writhing in pain and we were helplessly watching while my uncle tried to arrange an auto rickshaw,” says Bhat. “Only when we showed them (policemen) some of the medicines lying around the house, that they let us pass the barricade,” adds Bhat.
But that didn’t end the trauma for Bhat and his aunt who has been admitted in the hospital. “The hospital runs short on medicines and they have asked me to buy it from a chemist shop outside the hospital. Thank God the shop is open, but I’m not sure whether they have this medicine,” says Bhat.
Ashiq Hussain, a reporter with a reputed national daily, finds himself in a curious position. “Normally, I would apprise people of the situation, but this information blackout has handicapped me and I have been forced to rely on my friends about the happenings in my neighbourhood,” Hussain says.
Curfews have been a major tool of the administration to prevent people from protesting in the last two decades of the bloody conflict in the Valley, which has left more than sixty thousand people dead.
But this time around, according to Hussain, the government is taking people to “ransom”. “We would normally prepare ourselves for the curfew and stockpile essential commodities in advance, but this time it was abrupt. My doctor has prescribed me some medicines for ten days. But they will last for only seven days. How can I buy them when I am not allowed to venture out of my home?” Hussain asks, adding, “There is no baby food for my baby girl and we are forced to feed her rice, which we had not included in her diet so far.”
‘Psy-ops’ to create fear
Calling the government action as “psy-ops,” Hussain says that the measures will fail to break down people who have been hurt, both physically and psychologically. “They are trying to spread fear-psychosis. Only a while ago, a friend called saying that CRPF men had broken the glasses of cars parked on the road in their locality in Srinagar,” informs Hussain.
There is rage, according to Hussain, even among saner sections of the society who would normally worry only about their routine work. “Everything was going fine and this decision (to hang Guru) has forced these people to think about the treatment they are getting at the hands of their rulers,” Hussain cautions.
There is a general feeling in the Valley that Guru didn’t get a fair representation in the trial court when the charges were established against him. Right or wrong, everybody on the street, irrespective of political affiliations, feels that Guru was implicated in the case.
Calling the curfew “unprecedented” and an “extreme step”, Faheem Aslam, a university employee, fears that the measure will “backfire”. “A room should be given for expressing dissent; otherwise this clampdown on people will backfire with serious repercussions,” claims Aslam.
Aslam would normally meet friends over a cup of coffee after office, but his daily routine has been broken. “I feel caged and these excessive measures have made me sick psychologically. How is it possible to live normally when you are not even allowed to venture out of your house?” asks Aslam.
Police have stopped the publication of newspapers. On the night of February 9, policemen visited newspaper offices in Srinagar and asked the owners to stop printing for Sunday. Copies of English daily Kashmir Reader were seized by policemen. Except for the state-owned Doordarshan, cable operators have been warned against beaming news channels.
“There is a total information blackout; there are no news channels, no Internet. It is like martial law, an undeclared emergency,” says Aslam, adding, “This (curfew) is an experiment that proved counter-productive both during 2008 and 2010 protests. It only doubles the outrage among people.”
“At a time when we talk of information boom, global village, Indian government is clamping down on media which is a major pillar of democracy,” Hussain rues.
Even if people don’t protest after restrictions are lifted, Aslam believes that the sudden hanging and the stringent measures that the government is taking will widen the gulf between New Delhi and Kashmir. “There is a feeling that Afzal was implicated and the timing of the execution, even if we assume there was any forward movement between the state and New Delhi, points to the fact that the clock has been turned back to twenty years between Delhi and the Valley,” Aslam feels.
After two years of calm, tourists were visiting the Valley in large numbers. Only last month, the state’s tourism minister went to Spain in a bid to attract more foreign tourists. Travel advisories to the region were also lifted by several countries including the UK. There are reports that tourists present in the Valley have started departing owing to the restrictions.
When asked how curfew would affect the tourism sector, Azim Toman, president of Houseboat Owner’s Association, says, “Whatever has been happening over the last twenty years, same thing will happen again,” referring to the massive beating the tourism sector took in the two-decade-old violence.
“People have taken huge bank loans; the banks have issued notices. How can you expect us to repay the loans when there is nothing other than hope to revive the tourism sector in the Valley,” asks Toman.
Asking what difference it could have made if Guru was imprisoned for life, Toman says the hanging has come at the “worst time. “There are so many murderers (referring to killers of Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh) who have been sentenced to death. Why single out Guru?” he asks.
“As of now we don’t have much information about the arrivals and departures. But if the situation continues like this, it will obviously hit us hard,” fears Toman.
Bilal Nazki, general manager of a recently-opened hotel in Srinagar, meanwhile, is planning to make it to the office tomorrow morning “come what may”. “It is a private job and I can’t afford to remain away from work for many days. I will leave early morning tomorrow for the office. Otherwise, how can I make sure that I feed my family,” says Nazki, father of a four-year-old girl.
The banning of newspapers and Internet has already started to backfire, as people are getting calls about the deaths of youth. “I got a call from my dad who said that a Kashmir boy has been killed in Delhi. He wanted to check whether I was alright,” says Sameer Ashraf, a Delhi-based Kashmiri researcher.
“I have been getting calls from acquaintances enquiring about deaths of youngsters. This is bound to happen when you clamp down on all sources of information such as newspapers, news channels and social media,” maintains Aslam.