Shopkeepers and passers-by in the main city centre of Srinagar accused the police of breaking locks and hauling them over through phone calls to open their shops on August 5, the day that marks the second anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370. They said the forced measure was a follow-up to police warning to keep shops open and not to carry on strike over the last few days.
The government in Kashmir seemed to be in no mood to allow anyone to spoil “celebrations” of doing away with the special status of Jammu and Kashmir two years ago, the shopkeepers added.
The forced opening of market squares in Residency Road, Regal Chowk, and Ghantaghar corresponded with police officials calling the traders to lift the shutters immediately, witnesses told News 18.
“Three shops had their locks broken. Men in civvies used crowbars and rods to break locks. They were accompanied by cops,” a pedestrian who put a mask before speaking to a television channel said angrily. He did not give his name or occupation to reporters who had converged to the spot to cover the incident but showed his disgust over the police action.
A shopkeeper said he was called over the phone to come within minutes to throw his shop open. “I rushed to the square and here am I,” he said, sounding angry.
His neighboring shopkeeper showed a broken lock lying on a ledge of his shop, looking partly surprised and shocked. “Tell me where does this happen?” he asked. The shopkeepers said police officials had been calling the traders association leaders of the Lal Chowk area in the last few days, warning them to keep markets open and not observe shutdown or strike on August 5, the day Centre had ended Article 370 two years ago.
But despite the order, major markets in Srinagar chose to remain shut. Even the Lal Chowk markets remained shuttered in the morning but opened gradually when police teams started to make rounds. “Not only officers from the local thanas but top officials made rounds to see their directive was complied with,” said a shopkeeper.
The police action in Lal Chowk was caught on camera and many reporters and passersby posted videos on social media platforms. One viral video showed a middle rung police officer instructing shopkeepers to open the shops. In another video, he was directing his subordinates to get a blade.
A few panicked shopkeepers told News 18 that they were in no mood to work today but were forced to after they were called up on phones. “I was thinking of taking kids out for a drive but my bad luck. Had to stall the program,” he said, adding “I was anticipating there won’t be many buyers today because of the tension on the anniversary of the repeal of two articles.
A reporter who writes for an international publication and was one of the first to reach the spot said initially cops told them to “turn off their cameras and not to report” the incident.
He said he saw locks of many shops being broken by the police and shopkeepers forced to open shops. “When I confronted the cops on what was going on, he was told by an officer that they were providing security to the shopping arcade.”
“But I was surprised to see them use blades and rods,” he said. Senior police officers refused to comment but an officer told: “they were carrying orders from the top.” “We are there to help people and see things run normally, without fear or threat,” the officer said.
No separatist or mainstream party has given a strike call through Valley political parties had called to mark August 5 as a “black day in the history of Jammu of Kashmir.” The Gupkar Alliance – a conglomerate of six unionist parties – had ridiculed BJP’s claim of a naya Kashmir as a ‘hoax’. Other parties have hit out at the government saying on August 5, 2019, Jammu and Kashmir were pushed back to the dark ages and an assault was perpetrated on its history, constitution, and identity.
Meanwhile, partial traffic plied in Srinagar in the morning which picked up by the afternoon. There were a lot of rallies taken out in the Valley and Jammu region. People’s Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti-led a protest march not far away from the shops calling for an end to the ‘repressive measures adopted by the government. She reiterated that political prisoners should be released forthwith and the dialogue process should be strengthened.
Two Congress workers were detained in Kishtwar for carrying out a protest against the repeal of Article 370 while a few more rallies were taken in Jammu were stopped.
The BJP supporters, however, held rallies across many districts of Jammu and Kashmir to celebrate the anniversary. In Srinagar, they danced to the tunes of popular Bollywood numbers besides cutting a mega cake. At many places, they sang the national anthem.
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 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 the 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 the 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.