Traders in Indian-administered Kashmir have accused police of forcing them to open their shops in the capital, Srinagar, to “portray normalcy” on the anniversary of the revocation of the region’s special autonomy status.
Residents of the disputed region were observing a spontaneous shutdown Thursday to protest the Indian government’s decision to revoke its special status on August 5, 2019 — a move that converted the area from a full-fledged state into two union territories.
Police had warned shopkeepers to refrain from observing a strike on the second anniversary of the scrapping of Indian Kashmir’s limited autonomy.
A shopkeeper who identified himself as Mohammad Ashraf told VOA that he was at his home when one of his neighboring shopkeepers and a friend called him saying that police had cut the locks on his shop and opened it.
Police 'did not care'
“I came running and found my shop open,” Ashraf said, while displaying the broken locks on the floor. “Policemen did not care about the safety of our goods as thieves could have easily emptied the products of the shopkeepers in their absence.”
Three men in civilian clothes were seen cutting and breaking the locks in the Budshah-Chowk area of Srinagar, under the supervision of a large caravan of police. The incident was recorded in a video that went viral on social media.
For the first time in history, Ashraf said, the Kashmir shops were "forcefully thrown open by cutting and tearing down the locks. Police work to ensure the safety of the public, but here they have turned into burglars.”
Several shopkeepers who spoke to VOA said they opened their shops under the extreme pressure from police. “I would have never come, but I feared my shop, too, would be thrown open forcefully. Trust me, I have not even changed my clothes after I heard police were cutting and breaking the locks,” a shopkeeper on Court Road told VOA, wishing not to be named.
Zubair Ahmad, president of the Budshah-Chowk traders association, condemned the incident. He said he spoke to the officer in charge at the scene, but instead of apologizing, the officer began to threaten shopkeepers with arrest under the Public Safety Act — a draconian law that allows police in Kashmir to book anyone for two years without a court hearing.
Who can help?
“Had this incident been a normal case, we would have approached police, but in this case police themselves opened our shops illegally, like thieves. I wonder: to whom shall we approach?” he asked.
Ahmad said shopkeepers are worried about their safety and wonder who will guard them in case of a militant attack. “Police did their work and left," he said, "but I have a question to everyone, and that is: Who will guarantee our safety in case a militant comes and attacks us?”
VOA contacted Senior Superintendent of Srinagar Police Sandeep Choudhary for comment but he disconnected the call.
Senior Police Officer Tanushree of east Srinagar city, who uses one name, said in an interview with local magazine The Kashmir Walla that the government would not support any strike. “We want everything to be normal. As it is today, it should be [like that] tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow,” she said.
"It is a policy now that hartal [a strike] would not be supported. All people should go toward normalcy … whether it is August 5, 13 July or other anniversaries. ... Everything is normal now. We also want Kashmir to be normal now,” she added.
Call for dialogue
Members of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Deceleration, an amalgam of pro-India political parties that vow to fight for the revival of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, continued to protest the police action.
Mehbooba Mufti, a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, called for India and Pakistan to enter into a dialogue to resolve the long-standing question of sovereignty over Kashmir.
“This day when the [ruling] BJP [party] is celebrating the annulment of Article 370 across India, people of Kashmir are mourning,” she said in reference to the revocation of Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status.
"The BJP destroyed Jammu and Kashmir through its erring policies. In 2019, our rights were snatched by the BJP government, and we will take those rights back,” Mufti said. “Shopkeepers were threatened with losing their lease deeds in case they don’t open up shops. The auto drivers were asked to ply the roads. We have to resist this oppression.”
Meanwhile, the Union Territory wing of the BJP celebrated the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status by setting off firecrackers and conducting rallies at locations in the Kashmir Valley. Members also distributed sweets.
The Indian government has said scrapping Kashmir’s autonomy was necessary to spur development in the region and end a three-decade armed rebellion by Muslim separatist groups that has killed thousands. But the move is deeply unpopular in India’s only majority Muslim region.