SRINAGAR, India — Sheikh Naseer Ahmed is getting married, yet his home looks like anyone else’s. There are no floral or light decorations, no hustle and bustle. Only close relatives are invited to the modest meal that is being prepared.
His unusually humble nuptials reflect how ordinary life is muted in Srinagar, the urban heart of Indian-controlled Kashmir, as authorities attempt to quash protests against Indian rule.
An eerie silence engulfs downtown, home to half a million people. Shortly after dawn, police and paramilitary soldiers, in full riot gear and armed with automatic rifles, swiftly occupy the roads and streets. They set up checkpoints, and lay steel barricades and razor wire at all the entry and exit points.
Like much of the rest of Kashmir, the sprawling, densely populated neighborhoods have been under curfew since July 9, a day after Indian government forces killed a popular leader of the region’s largest rebel group. Yet public defiance has persisted, sparking deadly clashes between Kashmiris and Indian government forces that left dozens dead and hundreds injured. Separatist leaders have called general strikes.
Shops are shuttered and public movement restricted. Getting food and medicine is a struggle. Dozens of feasts and celebrations have been canceled.
Ahmed’s marriage date was fixed months back, with elaborate celebration plans. He intended to have more than 500 guests fed by 20 chefs cooking more than 500 kilograms of mutton and chicken for the multi-course Kashmiri meal known as wazwan. A principal part of Kashmiri marriage, the wazwan consists of seven to 20 dishes, and is accompanied by a religious ritual solemnizing the nuptial knot.
Those invitations, as well as mutton and chicken orders, have been canceled. The atmosphere is quite subdued. About two dozen women circled inside a hall to sing few traditional folk songs.
“How can we feast and celebrate when so many people are being killed?” Ahmed said in downtown neighborhood of Nowhatta, which houses the city’s historic main mosque of Jamia Masjid. “I’m just managing to solemnize my nuptial knot.”
At a nearby community hall, few hundred meters away from Ahmed’s modest three-story house, there are just two chefs at an open-air kitchen cooking 30 kilograms of mutton. The meal will be an ordinary, single meat dish and a vegetable.
“The entire population is undergoing a grind,” said Mohammed Munnawar, the head chef. “It feels sinful to pound and grind meat for rista,” or minced mutton balls.
“This is a peak marriage season here. But this how we’ve been doing it in these conditions,” Munnawar said.
After the Thursday’s wazwan, Ahmed, accompanied by four relatives, traveled 5 kilometers (3 miles) to another neighborhood in Srinagar to bring his bride home late Thursday night, after government troops had withdrawn from the pitch-dark streets. Under normal circumstances, the feasting would continue after the bride has been brought home, but this, as Ahmed said, was a “curfewed marriage.”
Restrictions and security lockdowns are nothing new for Kashmiris. The region witnessed months of clampdown during massive public uprisings against Indian rule in 2008 and 2010. Frequent separatist calls for shutdown and protests too are routinely met with security lockdowns.
Residents say they’ve figured out ways to mitigate the hardships of being prisoners inside their homes.
For fresh vegetables and milk, they must leave home before dawn and walk a few kilometers to reach farmers; they can be home by 6 a.m. They buy other essentials, and smokers can get cigarettes, at the home of a neighborhood grocery store owner who had stockpiled goods there.
But communication and information blackout has added to the hardships. Authorities suspended most cellular and internet services and temporarily banned newspaper publication to stop activists from organizing protests.
Life may be toughest for the sick. Not far from Ahmed, cancer patient Haleema Bano twice ran short of her medicine, but managed to get it.
Now, however, she’s due for her follow-up examinations. To get to the hospital, she will need her son’s help to walk a long distance, through a network of interior alleys away from police and paramilitary soldiers. She’s fearful.
“I don’t know how long this will go on,” said Bano as she wiped sweat from her 3-year-old granddaughter, sleeping next to her. “I don’t want my son to be in harm’s way.”
Her son, Reyaz Ahmed Bhat, said a cousin in a neighboring locality ran out of prescription medicine for chronic depression. Living on a roadside in the gaze of patrolling soldiers, his condition worsened as he could not even venture out of his home to take strolls.
“Sometimes he would become violent, hitting his head against the wall. Then he would go quiet for hours. His wife and parents and two little kids were so terrified,” Bhat said. “For three days he and his family suffered before his medicine could be organized.”
Kashmir’s fury at Indian rule is not something new. Its roots lie in a broken promise of referendum guaranteed shortly after India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain. The two countries were unable to resolve their competing claims on the stunning mountain territory divided between the archrivals.
The Indian side has seen several separatist movements since then, including a bloody armed rebellion launched in 1989 to demand independence or a merger with Pakistan. More than 68,000 people were killed in that uprising and the subsequent brutal military crackdown by hundreds of thousands of Indian forces deployed across the region.
But the latest rage surprised authorities, who did not expect rebel killings to be a trigger for a renewed public insurrection. The state administration has so far done little more than let the police and paramilitary quell the deadly unrest.
Yet every new killing has further enraged residents, sparking more protests and clashes. Separatist politicians, most of them under house arrest or inside police lockups, have channelized the uprising by repeatedly calling for protest demonstrations and strikes.
On Wednesday night, separatist politicians appealed to residents to stock up for a long struggle. The strike was relaxed Thursday and resumed Friday.
Earlier in the week at sunset, as soldiers in Nowhatta began to withdraw for the day, a group mostly of young men barraged them with stones and bricks. Soldiers responded with pepper gas and, tear gas, and threw stones as well.
The muezzin call for evening prayer from the nearby mosque established a sort of ceasefire. Both sides withdrew.
The next day is the same routine: Soldiers patrolling silent, deserted streets, and residents caged in their homes.
Story by: Ajhaz Hussain