Kashmiri women shout slogans during a protest after the scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the Indian government, in Srinagar, August 11, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Kashmir women protest in Srinagar on Sunday about the loss of legal autonomy in Jammu and Kashmir © Reuters

With her wedding day less than two weeks away, Kashmiri lawyer Mehak Qadri should be in a cheerful frenzy of last-minute preparations. Instead, her nuptials are shrouded in uncertainty as the Kashmir Valley remains under a total security lockdown. Many weddings across the valley have already been cancelled or reduced to bare-bones ceremonies without any celebrations.

“We are caged here and our life has been made hell,” Ms Qadri said, inside a shuttered jewellery shop, where she anxiously examined a bridal necklace commissioned for the upcoming occasion. “This is wrong. This is so, so wrong.” 

A week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government abruptly revoked the legal autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, there is intense public anger in the Kashmir Valley at New Delhi’s nullification of the region’s longstanding rights to make its own laws. 

To many Kashmiris, the move — and the demotion of the region from a fully fledged state into a union territory firmly under New Delhi’s control — violates the core premise of the erstwhile kingdom’s controversial accession to India in 1947, months after the end of British colonial rule over the subcontinent. 

“I have hated militancy but I feel we have been stabbed in the back by the snatching of our rights,” said Raufiq Ahmed, a 70-year-old retired maths professor.

New Delhi has sent tens of thousands of extra troops to what is already one of the world’s most heavily militarised areas to prevent any public backlash against the change of the region’s status.

A telecommunications blackout and other restrictions mean there have been few reliable accounts of sporadic demonstrations that have occurred in Kashmir since the changes were announced or of any actions by the security forces.

New Delhi has not said how long the clampdown will last nor when communications will be restored. Most shops and all schools and other businesses remain closed. But residents of Kashmir, where the embers of a violent, Pakistani-backed separatist insurgency still smoulder, believe local fury over the changes will eventually lead to widespread unrest, despite the heavy military presence. 

“Modi thinks he gave us a surprise, we will give him a bigger surprise,” said one angry young man, standing with a handful of friends on an otherwise deserted street in Srinagar’s normally bustling Lal Chowk. 

Happymon Jacob, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for International Politics, warned that an upsurge in militancy was imminent in the conflict-scarred region, where people were already disillusioned with India. He said Islamabad was also likely to try to stoke trouble. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote on Twitter at the weekend that the revoking of Kashmir’s autonomy amounted to an “impending genocide”.

“So far, this is a well calibrated, and well strategised move to clamp down on any potential backlash from the valley,” Mr Jacob said. “You can do this for a few weeks, or a month or two or three. But this is materially, politically and reputationally unsustainable. Once you withdraw the currently existing militaristic policy, things will start going south.” 

Kashmiri economist Haseeb Drabu, a former finance minister of Jammu and Kashmir, said New Delhi had undermined the credibility of those Kashmiris who opposed separatism and believed that Kashmiri aspirations could be fulfilled within India. 

“Politically it’s very significant,” Mr Drabu said. “Now there is no middle ground left. You have converted the most empowered legislative assembly in India to something that has no power. You have disenfranchised the population. You have erased the state. These are big things in the life of a people who once lived in a sovereign state.” 

For Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party, revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s right to make its own state laws and to lift other restrictions, such as a ban on outsiders from buying property, was an article of faith. In a nationally televised address, Mr Modi argued the move would bring prosperity to a state that had so far been left out of India’s growth story. 

But many Kashmiris scoff at this. Prior to the constitutional changes, New Delhi ordered all the estimated 20,000 Indian and foreign visitors in Kashmir to leave on the pretext of an impending terror attack, threatening what locals say was the strongest summer tourist season in six years. 

“The money we make in just four months of the tourist season [from May to August] helps us get through the harsh winter months when life comes to a halt,” said a 65-year boat-owner on the picturesque Dal Lake, a popular tourist destination. “It is clear Modi wants Kashmir, not Kashmiri people.” 

Some Kashmiri Hindus who support closer integration within India expressed scepticism about Mr Modi’s promises of sudden inflows of investment. 

“I don’t think India Inc is going to jump in at the opportunity,” said one Srinagar hotel owner. “The government might try to bring in some infrastructure projects in Jammu and Ladakh region and showcase that to the Kashmiris but any thought of corporates rushing into Kashmir for business is quite far-fetched.” 

For now, Indian authorities appear braced for a long disruption. They are setting up 300 public phone booths at government offices, where Kashmiris can wait in long queues to make brief calls to relatives outside the region. Mobile vans are distributing rations in Srinagar, while food and other critical supplies have been stockpiled. 

Meanwhile, instead of her impending wedding, Ms Qadri is focused on “the cause of Kashmir”. For decades, Kashmir has endured what she describes as a de facto military occupation. She has little doubt that Kashmiris will fight the loss of their legal autonomy. “Kashmiris cannot be forced into silence,” she said.

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