After months under curfew, downtown Srinagar lay deserted, with the occasional passerby hurrying away from the armed forces keeping watch. Officers at checkpoints stopped the few cars attempting to drive through, often turning them away.
Away from the streets, in a quiet home, a man in his 40s held up a book of missing persons and pointed out his brother.
“His only crime was that he went to offer prayers on Friday,” the man said, taking a long time to compose himself. Like many other locals, he did not want to be named because he feared repercussions.
“It’s been 14 years, and my mother asks every Friday if he is back yet from namaz [prayer]; if that bearded man who just passed is him. What am I to say?”
For 15 Fridays, no one has been allowed to offer prayers at the biggest mosque in Srinagar, the summer capital in the part of Kashmir controlled by India.
Officially, the curfew imposed by the armed forces in July has been mostly lifted this month. But tight restrictions on assembly remain — no more than four Kashmiris may congregate in public. Reports of arrests and door-to-door searches continue. A strike called by Kashmiri separatists in response to the curfew continues to paralyze normal life.
There has been no dialogue between the Indian government and the separatists. As shops begin to open sporadically and cars return to the streets, it is clear that the peace is only surface-deep.
“This routine needs to end"
Major protests in Kashmir began in July, after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani kicked off a civilian uprising. Wani was a member of the Hizbul Mujahideen, an armed separatist group that has carried out strikes against the Indian military. In Kashmir, he was widely admired as someone driven by the brutality of security forces to abandon a life of privilege and take up arms instead.
But Wani’s death is only the latest spark in a persistent low-level conflict that has lasted 26 years. The region is accustomed to living under siege, with separatists seeking the right to choose between India, Pakistan and total Kashmiri independence pushing back against the Indian government and security forces. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have fought wars over rights to the Himalayan territory for decades, with India also battling the separatist insurgency that began in 1989.
Separatists estimate 100,000 civilians have died in Kashmir since 1989, most of them killed by Indian armed forces. A local human rights organization says there have been 10,000 disappearances in the same time period. Most often, the army arrests young Kashmiri men who are never heard from again.
Kashmiris are tired of the cycle: violence, followed by uneasy peace, followed by more violence. This time, they had hoped for a real solution from the leaders who negotiate their fates — one that would last.
“This routine needs to end,” Mushtaq Ahmed, a sales coordinator for an Indian conglomerate in Srinagar, said in September. “If there is no dialogue and solution, it will happen again a few years later.”
Ahmed was suggesting negotiations between the Indian government and the Hurriyat conference, a popular coalition of separatist political parties widely followed across Kashmir.
Prospects for talks remain slim. India has typically ignored input from the Hurriyat, while the Hurriyat believes dialogue is pointless until the Indian government acknowledges the contested nature of Kashmir — which they won’t.
An elderly local in Srinagar agreed that substantive talks are crucial for moving toward peace. But he didn’t have a lot of faith that would happen.
“India needs to talk to the separatists face to face, but they just come to see the fireworks,” he said, standing by his empty shikara, a gondola-like Kashmiri boat.
“They aren’t asking us what the problem is,” said the man, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, “and meanwhile Kashmir is burnt.”
Shikaras are usually a hit in the tourist season, when Dal Lake brims with the boats, filled with visiting riders. But with the curfew ongoing, business has been hard to come by.
All local shops and businesses have remained closed during the strike, except during limited selling periods designated by a Hurriyat “protest calendar.”
The state government estimates that Kashmir’s tourism industry has suffered a loss of 40 billion rupees, equal to about $600 million, since July.
But Arshid, a taxi driver, said the cause of independence is worth the sacrifice.
He invoked a rallying cry that’s popular in the valley: “You ask my 3-year-old ‘What do we want?’ and he’ll say ‘Freedom!’”
“In a referendum, I’ll vote for India”
After decades of oppression without dialogue, only a fraction of Kashmiris remain committed to the Indian state. Many doubt a peaceful future with India, and favor being an independent state over the prospect of joining Pakistan.
Meanwhile, resentment among Indians outside Kashmir is on the rise. During a time of nationalistic fervor pushed by the Hindu right, Kashmiris have been branded by the most hostile as anti-India, pro-Pakistan supporters of terror.
Saba Reshi, a bank employee in Kashmir who wants to remain with India, says the climate makes her nervous.
“In a referendum I would vote for India, I love my country,” she said. “But the hostility that I sense now from Indians outside Kashmir is very uncomfortable.”
Reshi lives in uptown Srinagar, home to wealthier residents like government servants and business people. The official curfew wasn’t as strictly enforced in this part of town, yet things have been different here since early July, especially with the separatist-led strike.
“The shops are all shuttered, so we go in through the back to buy whatever they have at hand,” said Reshi. She couldn’t go to her bank job for most of the curfew. For a while Indian police blocked her way; then it was civilian stone-throwers who were enforcing the Hurriyat strike.
Hurriyat, protesting the abuse of Kashmiris, has extended its strike several times, most recently to Nov. 3.
Zahid Sikander, a businessman and Reshi’s husband, believes India is the rightful guardian of Kashmir. He contends that many in Kashmir do not think about the repercussions of leaving a rapidly developing country (India) for one that is unstable (Pakistan) — or worse, of being a tiny independent state in the midst of three nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, and China).
But he thinks dialogue with the separatists must begin immediately to prevent violence from boiling over.
“As a young man in Kashmir in the ‘90s, I was scared seeing the forces on the roads,” he said. “Today, we keep hearing that only 5 percent of the people are pelting stones, but I fear that if the problem of Kashmir continues to be ignored, you’ll find the other 90 percent on the streets as well.”
Clashes every day
Pelting rocks at security forces is a common act of resistance here.
At least 91 stone-throwers have died in clashes with Indian security forces since July, mostly from injuries after police fired pellet guns. Earlier this month, a 13-year-old boy succumbed to pellet injuries, leading to a fresh bout of protests.
The armed forces insist they only shoot pellets at protesters as a last resort. The Indian government has not issued any statement on the deaths.
Sajid Shah, a hotel owner who also supports Kashmir staying with India, feels the protesters exacerbate the violence.
“When the separatists and protesters destroy vehicles and prevent children from going to school, aren’t they violating human rights?” he said. He believes a sense of entitlement has allowed the youth of Kashmir to roam the streets demanding more instead of making an effort toward a better life. “I ask you, which army in the world will tolerate large stones being slung at them every day?”
A police commander who has worked in Kashmir for seven years says that protesters and separatists will pay children as young as 5 to throw stones on their behalf.
“A lad once hurt one of my men, and came back to apologize later,” said the commander. He adds that boys have told him they don’t throw stones on some days because the protesters’ “budget” has run out. Sometimes Indian forces will pay them not to throw rocks, he said.
The commander, who would only speak anonymously, said he resents the hatred that he faces every day from locals.
“My battalion slaved for days for free to rescue these people from the floods of 2014, and one of my soldiers was slashed open for his efforts,” he said.
Behind him, graffiti scrawled across shuttered shops call for India to get out of Kashmir.
“The media also twists the stories to make us look like monsters,” he said. “When will this end?”
The freedom struggle
The soldiers may not be monsters, but stories of atrocities abound. At the biggest government hospital in Srinagar, victims of pellet guns are a common sight. Outside, civilian volunteers in makeshift tents distribute free medicines and food, services which they claim the government fails to provide.
“Even when we are transporting these free medicines that we pay for ourselves, the forces harass us,” said a volunteer who asked not to be named. Every volunteer has video and photos of bloodied patients and X-rays of pellet victims ready on their phones.
“We don’t throw stones, but we play our part in the freedom struggle by volunteering,” said another young man. “If the Hurriyat reaches an agreement with the government, we’ll do whatever they say.”
Kashmiris say they’re the ones who get villified.
“Every Kashmiri has been branded a militant,” said the old man next to his boat.
“I’ll show you, 15 of us will walk down this boulevard with our arms crossed and raise pro-freedom slogans, and you watch what the forces do,” he said. “This needs to be solved now.”