Kashmir curfew takes heavy toll on everyday folk

Harsh Indian govt clampdown is disrupting lives and jobs, leaving some facing bleak futures
Kashmir curfew takes heavy toll on everyday folk

Catholics in Kashmir gather for Sunday Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in Srinagar on Aug. 25. Church attendances have come down substantially since the curfew was introduced on Aug. 5. (Photo by Umer Asif)

For the past three Sundays, Allen Francis has had only one prayer during Mass: Bring normalcy back to Kashmir, where an Indian government clampdown has been enforced for several weeks.

The continuing chaos in the state bordering Pakistan has now rendered the 35-year-old mason jobless for almost a month.

He has been without work since Aug. 5 when the government imposed a curfew to check possible protests by people in response to a law change which removed the Muslim-majority region’s autonomy.

Francis, a native of West Bengal, arrived in Kashmir to find work two years ago. He says he hasn’t had a single day of work since the curfew was introduced.

Thousands of daily-wage workers like him face a bleak future amid the ongoing stalemate.

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“I will have to move somewhere else for work,” he said, reflecting a widespread fear that the current impasse will continue indefinitely. 

“My heart goes out to see the desolated streets and perturbed people everywhere,” he said. “These are the scenes no one would ever want to watch.”

Father Roy Mathews, the parish priest at Holy Family Catholic Church in Kashmiri capital Srinagar, said the tiny Christian community in the state was already “economically weak and the present situation will only worsen their situation.”

A majority of the state’s 12.5 million people are Muslims — Christians form just a tiny share of 20,000 people, mostly Catholics, and most of them come from the socially poor Dalit caste, who are predominantly daily-wage workers.

Father Mathews said church attendance had already suffered. “No less than 200 people used to attend Mass every Sunday,” he said, “but it has since come down to a mere 40 or 50 people.”

Parishioners have no means to reach to the church as public transport has been halted, as have telecommunication systems for parishioners to speak to each other and share the available private transport. 

“Everyone is facing the brunt of this tumultuous time and so are the Catholics,” the priest added. 

On the 27th day of the curfew, Aug. 27, the roads were deserted while mobile and landline phone connections remained blocked, as did and internet services.  

Schools, offices and markets were also closed, while more than 4,000 people, including politicians of opposition groups, human rights activists and separatists, have been detained by the government.

Just like Francis, Harjinder Gill came to Kashmir from Punjab state a decade ago seeking work. The 33-year-old carpenter rented rooms in Srinagar, where he lives with his wife Mariyam and their two children, son Michael and daughter Iva.

“Neither I nor my family used to face any discrimination for being Christians,” recalled Gill. “I used to get a lot of work and my earnings were also enough to give us a good life.”

Harjinder Gill, his wife and children pray at Holy Family Catholic Church in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir,
where a curfew has been in place since Aug. 5. (Photo by Umer Asif)

 

Fearing for security

The government issued an advisory ahead of the curfew asking all non-locals to move out of Kashmir but Gill says that would be life-changing.

“My children have their school here. They grew up here. Where would I go?” he asks. He also says he has no place to live, nor hope of work, back in Punjab.

Nonetheless, fearing for the security of his family, he moved out of the Muslim area in the old part of the city to a place considered safer for non-Muslims. 

“I had no fear from the local people,” he told ucanews.com. “But what if a faceless mob attacked us in the middle of the night? It’s dreadful even to imagine.”

More urgently, he says, his failure to earn a single day’s salary since the curfew began means his savings will be exhausted in a day or two. He has no idea how he will feed his family if the curfew is not lifted.

Another parishioner, Rajesh Manji, a native of Maharashtra state and a painter, is anxious about his inability to contact his family back home. They have not spoken to each other for more than three weeks and “they know nothing about my situation.”

“My family in Mumbai doesn’t know whether I am alive or dead,” he said. “There couldn’t be worst days than this for Kashmir and the people who live here.”

The root of the problem

India allowed a certain amount of autonomy to Kashmir when it struck a deal with the Hindu king of the princely state for it to join India soon after Indian independence in 1947. 

Part of the concession was allowing a ban on Indians buying land in the region in order to allow it to maintain its religious and cultural identity.

Pakistan has always opposed this, however, and claimed the entire state, citing its Muslim-majority status. It claimed British India was partitioned based on religion — the Hindu majority area became India, while the Muslim-majority areas together formed Pakistan.

The dispute has resulted in three wars and numerous skirmishes between the archrivals, who now each control portions of Kashmir. 

An armed secessionist movement, which Muslim extremists call a freedom struggle, began 30 years ago to free the region from Indian rule. India accuses Pakistan of supporting the insurgency and secessionism, which Pakistan has consistently denied.

By removing Kashmir’s autonomy, it has been integrated into India, the government claims. But Kashmiri Muslims say it was merely a tactic to remove the ban on non-Kashmiris buying land in the area, thus helping Hindus to change the region’s Muslim-majority identity.

People like Allen Francis can only pray as the government shows no sign of lifting the curfew.

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