Srinagar: A common Kashmiri shopkeeper is in a dilemma. To open or not. And if yes, when! In the war of wits between separatists and the government, small business owners are suffering hugely in the deadliest unrest the valley has seen in years.
Separatits leaders, whose writ apparently runs large in the valley these days, have asked the people to go about their routines from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. after observing a dawn-to-dusk pro-freedom shutdown. But the government, struggling to restore some semblance of normalcy in the restive Kashmir, seemingly doesn’t want that.
Shops, schools and offices in the valley have remained closed since violence erupted after the July 8 killing of popular rebel commander Burhan Wani. Widespread anti-government demonstrations and clashes between security forces and protesters have so far left at least 56 people dead and thousands injured.
During the weeks of unrest, markets have marginally opened at some places in the evenings when the shutdown was relaxed.
But many shopkeepers allege that the government is not happy with separatists diktat being followed. At many such places when stores are opened, authorities impose restrictions as a pretext for stopping miscreants creating any trouble.
“For example, the separatists had earlier relaxed the shutdown for some hours in the afternoon. But we were not allowed to open and restrictions were enforced,” said an owner of a garment store in the upscale Lambert Lane near the main business hub of Lal Chowk here.
Acting Director General of Police S.K. Mishra in a recent news conference assured that the security forces would provide protection to shopkeepers if they open businesses during the “day time”.
The police chief’s remarks had an understated message. Shopkeepers should start routine activities during the normal day time hours, and not go by the separatist directive.
Various market associations allege that the authorities have asked them not to open businesses in the evenings in areas where curfew and restrictions have been imposed.
A few days ago, shopkeepers in Lal Chowk alleged they caught hold of a “government agent” who was hurling stones when they opened their stores in the evening.
The man was thrashed for “sabotaging the (separatist) protest schedule and relaxation period”, said Ali Mohammed, a salesman at a confectionery store near Regal Lane.
“He was not handed over to police because he belonged to them. We strongly advised him against what he was doing,” Mohammed told IANS.
The identity of the “agent” could not be verified independently and police denied they had anything to do with the incident.
In this melee, the common Kashmiri is in a quandary. The only respite for him to buy essentials has ironically come in the evenings. But it is also fraught with unseen danger.
“The problem is that in this war between the administration and separatists, it is the common man who suffers,” a Srinagar resident, requesting anonymity, told IANS.
“Opening of some markets in the evenings has at least enabled us to buy the essentials of life. If the authorities disallow opening of markets in the evenings also, where does the common man go?”
In the last more than five weeks, traffic on the strategic Jammu-Srinagar and Srinagar-Leh highway has also mostly moved during the night as protesters on all essential road arteries have damaged vehicles and injured commuters during the day.
After losing its grip on the ground situation, the state administration appears to have decided to enforce its writ.
But the real challenge has been to create an atmosphere wherein life would return to normal on its own terms. Disallowing the small breathers the separatists have been providing is unlikely to help usher in normalcy.