At the Shopian District and Sessions Court in late August, the turmoil resulting from the Indian government’s latest decision on Kashmir was evident. On 5 August, the union government read down Article 370 of the Constitution, taking away the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir. Shortly before the move, the government had imposed a communication blackout in the Valley along with Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which prevents the assembly of five or more people in public. As a result, the lawyers I met at the court had a dearth of information and were struggling to make sense of the situation. The little they knew was not good news. One of the first things most of them asked me was: “How are the circumstances elsewhere in Kashmir?”
Fear has been palpable in Shopian even before the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status. Starting on 1 August, the union government had sent an unprecedented number of troops to the Valley, in anticipation of a backlash. A day before Article 370 was read down, Basit Ahmad Wani, a lawyer, said he heard that someone threw a stone at a vehicle of the Indian army on the road connecting the Hillaw and Imam Sahib villages in Shopian. Army personnel “deboarded the vehicle, and started beating up people and thrashing nearby civilian vehicles, windowpanes of shops and houses,” he said.
After the imposition of the communications blackout, newspapers did not circulate in Shopian until 28 August, Habeel Iqbal, a lawyer, told me. But newspapers in the Valley, which were mostly relying on government press releases and wire services based in Delhi, could hardly cover any area apart from the Srinagar city. Without access to reportage from Kashmir’s rural districts, which form the bulk of the Valley’s landscape, the lawyers exchanged notes of the cases of detention and torture in the areas they came from. Abdul Hamid Dar, a senior lawyer from the Heff-Shermal village, told me that the Indian army had tortured his cousin and broadcasted his shrieks on a loudspeaker “for all to hear.”
“We live in an area where even breathing is restricted,” Dar said. The sentiment resonated with all the lawyers I spoke to in the court as well as other locals in the district. It stemmed from an open tussle between the militants and the security forces in Shopian, apart from the fear of arbitrary detentions. While there has not been a violent clash between the two in Shopian since 5 August—a common occurrence earlier—the militants have been issuing writs and exhorting people to follow their orders in a more public manner. To retain the control of the streets, the security forces seem to be responding to these writs by threatening the citizens.
There is a mix of anxiety and defiance in Shopian. Shahid, a lawyer, said that “people have largely remained indoors,” before adding that some have also “shut their businesses.” Even after the union government relaxed the curfew to encourage people to return to public spaces, to substantiate its claim of normalcy, people refused to return to market places, schools and offices. Rasikh Ahmad, a stamp vendor at the court, said, “People are angry now and they will continue to protest this decision.”
It seemed that the militants were emboldened by this anger and sought to tap into the increased disdain for the union government. Within a week after 5 August, posters signed by people who said they were from militant organisations started appearing in over a dozen villages in Shopian. These posters detailed the dos and don’ts for citizens during the shutdown. They asked people to open their shops and business establishments only after 6 pm every day. “This irked the government’s security forces who do not want the militant’s dikats to be followed by people,” Rasikh said. He added that the posters asked people to organise protests against the “illegal occupation” of Kashmir by India.