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Getting by, with guile and local knowledge to skirt restrictions in Kashmir

For years, Mohamamd Irfan would wake up at 6.30am every day, travel to the villages of Tulmulla Ganderbal roughly 35km away, and return with pails of milk to sell in his neighbourhood in Srinagar’s old city, home to at least a third of the city’s 1.2 million population. But for the past eight days, he has changed his routine.

He now wakes up before 3am and leaves his home at 3.30am, well before the call for morning prayers reverberate around the centuries-old neighbourhood. And by 6.30am, he is done with his daily work and safely nestled inside his house.

The reason for his new system: An unprecedented clampdown on communications and restrictions on movement and assembly of four or more people that has locked Kashmir down for the past eight days. The curbs, which are the harshest in the old city area that is often called the epicentre of pro-“Azaadi” protests, are in place by daybreak. “The new routine means that the quantum of work is less but at least it manages to fulfil the basic needs of local people,” he said.

Irfan is one of several residents in Srinagar who are using guile, tact and dollops of knowledge of the local geography to skirt the restrictions that have made islands of many neighbourhoods and hobbled movement of people and wares alike. These include newspaper vendors taking back alleys to avoid curbs, vegetables seller using a wicker basket to informally sell his produce and family members using ambulances to deliver urgent messages.

The curfew-like restrictions were clamped early morning on August 5 as the Indian government prepared to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and tens of thousands of troops marched into the city, taking positions outside buildings and on roads. Hours later, Riyaz Ahmad was whizzing through the narrow bylanes of the Downtown area trying to deliver slim, four-page editions of the handful of English and Urdu dailies that were published under severe constraints.

A newspaper distributor by profession, Ahmad was conscious that his usual paper pick-up spot would be garrisoned, and therefore went directly to the press to pick up copies, and then used his knowledge of the intricate network of alleys and stone-paved pathways to avoid security personnel, who are usually stationed on major thoroughfares. By the next day, his colleagues had followed suit, changing their paper-vending spot overnight. “From the office, we have come to the footpath because of the restrictions; it is tough but we have to do it to feed our families,” said Yusuf Sikander, a vendor.

An official in the security establishment said on condition of anonymity that it was untrue that the restrictions were being skirted, and that the forces knew what was going on.

Because of a communications blockade, the first two days were a haze of confusion and rumours in the city, and many panicked residents stocked up on vegetables, fearing a slump in supply. Gulzar Ahmad, a seller who deals with Haakh (a green leafy vegetable), procured his supply from the floating vegetable market in the middle of Dal Lake, and used the waterway to reach his shop at a time most roads had curbs on movement. When he found it difficult to reach his shop, he put up a wicker basket outside his house, and used it to informally sell his produce.

Many city residents said a history of previous shutdowns – such as those during protests in 2008, 2010 and 2016 – taught Kashmiris enterprise to beat unrest and restrictions. For example, the concept of a night market was born to take advantage of relaxations on curfew and shutdowns after sundown.

“During 2016, people would travel during nights and even flash markets would be established the security deployments withdrew from roads. Similarly this time, people have been travelling late evenings or early mornings to go from one district to another,” said Manzoor Ahmad, a passenger vehicle driver.

The innovations are not just for business or commercial purposes.

Ashiq Lone, a 31-year-old shoe trader, was concerned about his father-in-law, who was recovering after an operation in Lolab, around 85 km from Srinagar. His worry dissipated when a cousin, an employee of Sheri Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences(SKIMS), landed with news of the convalescent using an ambulance, which helped him gain access to otherwise barricaded roads. “He came in an ambulance and rushed back,” Lone said.

A young transwoman, who refused to be named due to security concerns, said she identified a window between 3.30am and 4.30am when restrictions in her neighbourhood were lax and her family members were asleep. She used the time to take a stroll, dress as she liked, and meet some friends from the community who lived in nearby localities, before melting away and returning home. “It is my one hour of freedom,” she said.

First Published:
Aug 13, 2019 05:43 IST

Source: HindustanTimes