Reluctant to travel away from their homes in Kashmir, businessmen in Srinagar fear situation will worsen two months since abrogation of Article 370

Saqib Mugloo

Srinagar: Ahead of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre's decision to abrogate Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, downgrading it to a Union Territory, the residents in Valley were concerned about a number of things as the administration issued plethora of orders leading people to believe that a "war-like" situation is in the offing. However, for 60-year-old Ghulam Mohammad of Srinagar's Lal Bazar area, feeding his family of four was a bigger concern.

A businessman who sells Kashmiri handicrafts during winters in Kolkata, Mohammad booked a flight on 2 August and went to Kolkata. On 4 August, a day before Home Minister Amit Shah announced the annulling of the special status of the state, all means of communication were snapped and restrictions were imposed in the Kashmir region.

Mohammad tried calling his relatives and friends from Kolkata hoping to contact someone from his family. When he couldn't reach anyone, Mohammad decided to return from Kolkata. On 7 August, he returned to his family and incurred a loss of over Rs 25,000.

"Kashmiris travel to West Bengal usually during winters, but some of us go there before the Durga Puja to sell saris and other things. It is very hot and humid (in Bengal), but one has no option but to do it," Mohammad said. He, along with others, returned to Kashmir only because the uncertainty made them anxious. "Many of us returned as the decision to revoke Article 370 broke our backs and not able to contact our families acted as a stimuli."

As Mohammad sits in his two-storey house in Srinagar, anxiety is clearly visible on his face. Usually during these days every year, he collects goods from various wholesalers and sends them to Kolkata. This time around, however, a number of questions cross his mind and he is yet to decide if he is going to Kolkata or not this season.

The ongoing situation in Kashmir has crippled businesses in the Valley in a way that traders are scared to leave their family behind till there is clarity on what is next for the Valley. Getty Images

The ongoing situation in Kashmir has crippled businesses in the Valley in a way that traders are scared to leave their family behind till there is clarity on what is next for the Valley. Getty Images

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Postpaid mobile phone connections in Jammu and Kashmir will be restored from noon Monday after 70 days of communication blackout since the Centre revoked Article 370 which accorded special status to the state, reports said. The announcement was made by state Principal Secretary Rohit Kansal at a press conference Saturday.

To assess the impact that communication disruption has had on the businesses, small and large, running in the Valley, this reporter travelled across districts, speaking to businessmen and workers from various sectors who travel out of Valley during winters. The ongoing situation in Kashmir has crippled businesses in the Valley in a way that traders are scared to leave their family behind till there is clarity on what is next for the Valley. According to reports, shops remain closed for hours. While migrant workers have left Jammu and Kashmir and local traders refuse to return to work as communication with clients/vendors have been stalled.

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During winter each year, thousands of local Kashmiris, from different parts of the Valley, travel to various parts of the country in a bid to look out for livelihood. Mohammad has been travelling to Kolkata for over 35 years now. But this year, he is reluctant to travel.

One of the main concerns of locals, following the abrogation of Article 370, is the "war" rhetoric playing out on the global scale between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed nations, and in the media. Concerns were exaggerated, especially, after Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he warned that there will be "bloodbath" when India lifts its curfew in Kashmir and that any all-out conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations would reverberate far beyond their borders.

"If this goes wrong, you hope for the best but be prepared for the worst," Khan said. "If a conventional 'war' starts between the two countries ... anything could happen. But supposing a country seven times smaller than its neighbor is faced with the choice €" either you surrender or you fight for your freedom till death? What will we do? I ask myself this question ... and we will fight. ... and when a nuclear-armed country fights to the end, it will have consequences far beyond the borders."

Admitting that he is afraid he will not be able to feed his family in case the situation worsens, Mohammad said, "If there is a 'war' between the two countries and I am in Kolkata, I am afraid that I won't be able to return, and this thought is killing me. I am not able to decide whether or not I should go to Kolkata this year or not."

Since 5 August, Kashmir has practically been under a siege-like situation, and even as the Centre assured that situation in Kashmir is "normal" and the people are "happy", lack of information coming from the Valley has added to the confusion.

Mohammad is not the only one who is reluctant to move out of Kashmir this year. This reporter spoke to, at least, a dozen locals who expressed similar fears and views and said that all those people who move out of Kashmir during winters are anxious and worried whether they should visit other Indian states.

A dozen locals expressed fears saying that all those who move out of Kashmir during winters are anxious and worried whether they should visit other Indian states. Getty Images

A dozen locals expressed fears saying that all those who move out of Kashmir during winters are anxious and worried whether they should visit other Indian states. Getty Images

Forty-two-year-old Syed Manzoor Shah, who resides in Srinagar, works as a salesman for a Kashmiri wholesaler in West Bengal's Purulia district. Shah is in two minds over whether he should take his family with him to Purulia. "Following my marriage in 2014, I take my wife along, but this year it does not look safe. India is no more safe now for Kashmiris."

For Shah, the biggest concern is a Pulwama-like attack. "If anything happens in Kashmir, we will have to bear the brunt. I am not willing to take risk, hence I am thinking of not taking my family along this year. I would not have gone either but I have no option but to go."

When asked IG Kashmir SP Pani said that there are no apprehensions. "We won't let it (war-like situation) happen. We are here. There is nothing to worry about," Pani added.

After the 14 February Pulwama attack, where at least 40 CRPF men were killed in a suicide blast, several Kashmiris alleged torture and harassment in the aftermath of the attack. Shah witnessed all of it on television. This time though, he feels that there is no guarantee that he won't be one of the victims. "They removed the Article (370), took away our identity. There is anger in Kashmir and there might be retaliation by militants. If God forbid anything like Pulwama happens then we are doomed. The government can get away with everything."

Following the abrogation of Article 370, the uncertainty and lack of information (or misinformation) added to the chaos and confusion in the Valley. Media did not help allay the fears, in fact, coverage of Kashmir situation was quite disparate. Commenting on the vitiating environment over the issue, Shah said that "minorities" feel unsafe everywhere. "West Bengal was secular, and there was no fear whatsoever even when we lived among Hindus. Now, everything has changed there. We witnessed riots in Asansol and Kashmiris who were almost lynched after the Pulwama attack. Something of that sort was unthinkable earlier. But getting killed for being Kashmiri in Bengal cannot be ruled out now." Shah has been going to Purulia since he was a teenager and claims that it's not the same.

Kashmir has been reeling under a communication clampdown for almost two months now €" landline phones remain the only means of communication in the region. Although people in Kashmir have come to the terms with the communication gag, for people who travel, this remains a cause of concern.

Thirty-nine-year-old Tariq Shiekh said, "Not all of us have landlines here, and once I am out of state my biggest concern is my ageing mother." A resident of South Kashmir, Shiekh sells furniture and saffron in Uttar Pradesh during winters, and that is his only source of income. This year though, he is uncertain about his travels. "The situation has not improved here, and things are in a limbo. With no form of communication, it will be difficult for me to spend three months there, let alone concentrate on work," he said.

A psychiatrist at the Institute of Medical Sciences and Neurosciences, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that anything that uncertainty causes anxiety. "There is uncertainty in the air; you don't know what is going to happen next. And those people who have no contact with their families while they are out are bound to get anxious," he said. The psychiatrist also warned of other mental issues that can crop because of long-periods of oppression.

This reporter tried reaching out to authorities and district officials for a comment, but due to restrictions imposed on communication, all them were incommunicado.

Fifty-three-year-old Fida Hussain was in his early twenties when Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. He vividly remembers the reaction of his customers and people in New Delhi. "It was scary, not only were you a Muslim but a Kashmiri Muslim," Hussain said. The Supreme Court has said it will wrap up the hearing in the politically-sensitive Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute at Ayodhya by 17 October. Ahead of the verdict, locals who travel to North India for work, fear rioting-like situation.

Hussain, who also suffers from kidney ailment, said, "I am advised by my doctors to spend winters in warm places. This year, however, I am not sure if I will be able to do so." Hussain is of the view that no matter what the verdict, Kashmiris will suffer at the end of it. "In any case, we fear right-wing extremists rioting (win or loss)," Hussain added, and lamented that he would prefer the winter chill than being lynched.

Activist Kavita Krishnan who was on a fact-finding mission to Kashmir believes the fear among Kashmiris is quite obvious given the propaganda against them by media. "There is a sense of fear among Kashmiris due to media and politicians and ofcourse due to the ruling party." Krishnan said.

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