Indian officials have ordered government employees in Kashmir to return to duty and some schools have reopened after a tense weekend of protests in the territory.
At least two dozen people were reportedly admitted to hospitals with pellet injuries after violent clashes on Saturday night, almost two weeks on from the Indian government’s abrupt decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status. Indian troops also used teargas, chilli grenades and pellets to disperse protesters. A 65-year-old man died after being admitted to the hospital with breathing difficulties, according to reports.
Jammu and Kashmir’s chief secretary had relaxed curfew rules on Friday, saying: “It is expected that over the next few days as the restrictions get eased, life in Jammu and Kashmir will become completely normal.”
Officials have downplayed the protests and maintain that the situation remains calm. Over the weekend, however, authorities reimposed heavy restrictions in some areas.
On Saturday and Sunday, small groups of teenage boys and young men blocked roads and forced commercial vehicles to turn around – a sign that restive and angry youth may not allow the administration to go ahead with its plan to open government offices.
The government of Jammu and Kashmir said 190 schools in the capital, Srinagar, would resume classes on Monday.
In Srinagar’s old city, a hub of protests, shops remained shut on Sunday, there was a heavy presence of armed paramilitary personnel, and few people walked the streets.
In the Chattabal neighbourhood, residents told the Guardian that police had detained a man, apparently a fellow policeman, who had stood and watched as a group of young people clashed with officers on Sunday afternoon.
“The police came in armoured vehicles from two sides and fired pellets and tear smoke shells. They then barged inside this house and detained a man,” a local resident said. “If that can be his fate, what will be our fate?” said one of the residents.
Tanveer Ahmad, who runs a shop in a neighbourhood on the western edge of
Srinagar city, said he pulled down his shop shutters whenever he saw a police vehicle approaching. “It [may] be normal for [the government] but it is not normal for Kashmiris any more,” he said. “They have locked down everything, so how can anything be normal overnight?
“They say there are few troublemongers. If that is the case, why have they locked [up] every Kashmiri, why have they arrested every political leader, even those who were their own?”
In the run-up to the revocation of Kashmir’s status, the region’s most prominent politicians were detained and an unprecedented communications blackout and curfew was imposed on millions of residents.
The government said on Friday that it it would restore landlines, but many residents rely on mobiles services and so remain cut off from relatives and friends.
“They [the government] are speaking lies to deceive the people and deceive the world,” said Ahmad. “Every aspect of our lives have been impacted. We are living a trauma. My mind is disturbed and everyone we meet at home or outside is tense.”
In Safa Kadal, the gateway to Srinagar’s volatile old city, Syed Shanawaz, 35, described life under lockdown as “hell”. “For 13 days now, I have done nothing. I have sat inside my room, ate food and went to bathroom – this is all I have done,” he said in his home. “Even though people could go out in the street and take a walk, I am so depressed that I did not even do that.”
Who controls Kashmir?
The region in the foothills of the Himalayas has been under dispute since India and Pakistan came into being in 1947.
Both claim it in full, but each controls a section of the territory, separated by one of the world's most heavily militarised borders: the ‘line of control’ based on a ceasefire border established after a 1947-48 war. China controls another part in the east.
India and Pakistan have gone to war a further two times over Kashmir, most recently in 1999. Artillery, mortar and small arms fire are still frequently exchanged.
How did the dispute start?
After the partition of colonial India in 1947, small, semi-autonomous ‘princely states’ across the subcontinent were being folded into India or Pakistan. The ruler of Kashmir dithered over which to join until tribal fighters entered from Pakistan intent on taking the region for Islamabad.
Kashmir asked Delhi for assistance, signing a treaty of accession in exchange for the intervention of Indian troops, who fought the Pakistanis to the modern-day line of control.
In 1948, the UN security council called for a referendum in Kashmir to determine which country the region would join or whether it would become an independent state. The referendum has never been held.
In its 1950 constitution, India granted Kashmir a large measure of independence. But since then it has eroded some of that autonomy and repeatedly intervened to rig elections and dismiss and jail democratically elected leaders.
What is Kashmir’s special status?
Kashmir’s special status, given in exchange for joining the Indian union, has been in place since 14 May 1954. Under article 370, the state was given a separate constitution, a flag, and autonomy over all matters except for foreign affairs and defence.
An additional provision, article 35a, prevented people from outside the state buying land in the territory. Many Kashmiris believed this was crucial to protecting the demography of the Muslim-majority state and its way of life.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata party repeatedly promised to scrap such rules, a long-term demand of its Hindu nationalist support base. But analysts warned doing so would almost certainly ignite unrest.
On Monday 5 August 2019, the government issued a presidential order to abolish Kashmir’s special status. The government argued that the provision was only intended to be temporary and that scrapping it would boost investment in Kashmir. Critics, however, said the move would escalate tensions with Pakistan – which quickly called India’s actions illegal – and fuel resentment in Kashmir, where there is an insurgency against Indian rule.
What do the militants want?
There has been an armed insurgency against Indian rule over its section of Kashmir for the past three decades. Indian soldiers and Pakistan-backed guerrillas fought a war rife with accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killing.
Until 2004, the militancy was made up largely of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. Since then, especially after protests were quashed with extreme force in 2016, locals have made up a growing share of the anti-India fighters.
For Indians, control of Kashmir – part of the country’s only Muslim-majority state – has been proof of its commitment to religious pluralism. For Pakistan, a state founded as a homeland for south Asian Muslims, it is the last occupied home of its co-religionists.
Michael Safi and Rebecca Ratcliffe
Two days ago he heard loud bangs of teargas shells and then bursts of aerial fire. “It continued for several hours. I shut the windows of my room and locked myself in the room. I don’t know what happened, if anyone was killed or if anyone was injured. But I am sure it was aerial firing because the sound was echoing in air,” he said.
At a shopping mall in Srinagar’s commercial neighbourhood of Lal Chowk, a staff manager said it seemed unlikely the situation would return to normal any time soon. “If we do nothing this time then we will be defeated,” he said. “I have heard people saying that they will not resume their business and will not open the shops.”
Shireen Makhdoomi, 21, an engineering student who was in the middle of an exam session when the lockdown began, said the situation was tense. “When the curfew is removed there will definitely be protests,” she said. “If [the government] thinks it was a positive step, why did they impose such restrictions and block communication?”
Reuters contributed to this report