On the edge of the Old Town in Srinagar, the largest city in Kashmir, is a narrow street, lined with shops on either side. It is lunchtime, but every store is closed.
Bravely, given the simmering tension in the Old Town, my guide stops to have his shoes fixed. He explains that the cobbler, a man of perhaps twenty-five sat on a little carpet by the side of the road with a few basic tools, has been given special dispensation by the Boys to continue offering his services because he is so poor and needs to earn every Rupee he can.
The Boys are the young rebels against the Indian State — freedom fighters to their supporters, Pakistan-sponsored terrorists according to some politicians. They are fighting running battles against the Indian security forces in the Old Town and in villages across the Kashmir Valley. At the same time, the political leaders of the separatist movement have called for a general strike across Srinagar and the Kashmir valley; many Kashmiris support the strike while others stick to it for fear of what the Boys will do if they see them opening a shop or taking a fare. Between the violence, the strike and a curfew imposed by the security forces, the economy has been brought to a standstill, and there is a lot of fear around.
As the guide speaks to the cobbler, I speak to the owner of a closed electric goods shop. He wears at t-shirt: ‘don’t count the days, make the days count’, it reads. He invites me into the shop for a cup of chai and some cake.
I ask if it is frightening. He doesn’t seem to hear. I rephrase the question “Are you scared, say for example at night?”
“Anytime,” he says.
“The situation is very bad,” he continues, “this matter is not freedom, it is politics. I want peace. Kashmir — somebody wants Pakistan, somebody wants India, somebody wants independence.”
Kashmir is one of the most beautiful places on earth, a lush valley leading into snow-capped peaks of the western Himalayas. The question of who it belongs to — India, Pakistan or the Kashmiri people themselves — has haunted it for generations. The global fear has always been war between the two nuclear states over Kashmir, but everyone I meet tells me that the current uprising has nothing to do with Pakistan and is all about the desire of the people in this part of Kashmir to be independent from India. Religion seems to play a part but this is also about language and culture, a sense that Kashmir is a separate place from India.
The shopkeeper must sense my tension at being stuck on the edge of a volatile part of town.
“Tourists it is fine,” he reassures me, but then goes on, “at fighting time, it is dangerous.”
“The Boys make too much problems,” he adds, “and the security forces just catches anyone. They are in prison for 20 days and then they will take up the guns.”
Our guide comes over and suggests the Boys don’t use guns.
“They mainly throw rocks,” he says “same as Palestinian.”
I ask how old they are.
“10 to 30,” he says, “some are less than ten.”
They are just children, I say.
“Yes,” he says.
He tells me about the Calendar, an edict from the political leaders of the separatist movement issued every few days outlining what ordinary Kashmiris should do to support the independence movement. The current Calendar requires that all shops — apart from pharmacies — should be closed until evening. The Calendar also tells people to go on protest marches but explicitly says not to take up arms; sometimes, however, the Boys ignore this.
I ask the shop owner when he will be able to open again.
“I don’t know,” he says.
“Every business is collapse,” he goes on “Everyone is worried. Small children as well. I want it to go back to normal.”
I ask if he would consider leaving.
“No,” he says, “I live here.”
He returns to work, rearranging the stock in the store.
I think of the words his t-shirt, ‘don’t count the days, make the days count’. What he has told me seems to belie this message. He is scared and is waiting to see what happens — what the security forces will do, what the Boys will do, what the next Calendar will say.
I thank him and return to the street.
On the street, many of the shop-owners have gathered on the step outside one of the shops. Down the road is a security force checkpoint.
A noise comes from the direction of the checkpoint. All the heads turn. It is nothing, and the men return to their conversation.
A truck comes through and is stopped at a checkpoint. All heads turn again and there is quiet. The truck is full of rations, they explain, not from the state but from the Kashmiri community in other parts of Srinagar — supplies to their ‘brothers’ in the Old Town. The truck is checked and eventually the driver is allowed to pass; he is made to remove the checkpoint barrier himself and then replace it once he has driven through.
A cow walks down the street; behind us, two children, perhaps eight and ten, play cricket on the street, lines of parked lorries beside them and a burnt-out car just up the road. We see a few women and girls but they do not stop.
The guide is considerably less tense than I am.
“It’s the forefront of the uprising, the Old Town,” he tells me with a smile, “Srinagar is the epicentre of the revolt, right from 1931, the first rebellion against the Maharajah. It has the history, the tradition — this has always been the flashpoint.”
A boy comes past with a Marvel Avengers t-shirt and then a man in his mid-twenties in a smart short-sleeved shirt. He takes a look at my sunglasses, and asks to wear them.
“24 days continuous curfew,” he tells me as he tries them on, “60 killed, 200 blinded, 5,000 injured.”
He explains that so many people have been blinded because the security forces are using guns which fire bullets that split into hundreds of small pellets which scatter indiscriminately.
“For twenty-six years it is like this,” he goes on, “first of all in 1989. It continues until freedom.”
Lots more people are likely to die, I suggest.
“Yes,” he says, “continue.”
He says he has two sons, aged 1 and 2. I ask if he is worried about them.
“Yes,” he says “but continue.”
The guide’s shoes are finished so we thank those we have spoken to and walk down towards the blockade. On the other side is a shrine the guide wants to visit. As we walk up towards the blockade, a young man on a scooter approaches us, driving his scooter right next to us. He is one of the Boys.
He said something to the guide, aggressively, and he and the guide exchange a few words.
“You support Kashmir?” He says in English.
“You support Kashmir?” He asks again.
He is well-dressed and has gel in his hair.
If in trouble, I have been told to claim to be a journalist, so I say I want to tell the story of what is happening here to people back home.
“Palestine, Kashmir is the same,” he says. He indicates that we should look at his t-shirt
‘I am not a hater’, it reads. I nod.
He seems content, shakes hands with us and scoots off.
We pass through the barrier without comment from the security forces, maybe five or six men with guns and khaki uniform. I am getting used to the blockades and smile as I pass through — many of the security barriers carry advertising from OneTel, the mobile phone network. I smile because the security forces have blocked mobile internet signal in the city, presumably to stop the Boys from organising on social media.
We look briefly at the shrine, but it is clear that we can’t go in. The guide seems a little tense and suggests we leave by another road. The side streets are closed off by armoured vehicles and the atmosphere changes quickly. The security forces have a blockade further up the main street and a local resident in a car shouts at an officer, demanding to be let through. A young man on a scooter makes a similarly aggressive demand.
The guide moves more quickly. It is the first time he has seemed scared. As we walk away from the security forces’ blockade, a pair of the Boys — perhaps 12 and 16 — are making their own blockade using long pipes and bins. Another four or five Boys, perhaps aged 18 or 20, stand by the side of the road, directing the younger boys.
And they are putting the blockade up, the call to prayer goes out. Three cars come through and the drivers get out and confront the boys, as do some elders watching by the side of the road.
“The boys are preparing for a ding-dong after prayers,” the guide says. He tells us that during the skirmishes, the security forces are indiscriminate in their response. It is clear time to go.
As we walk out of the old town, I see another police barrier, unused by the side of the road.
‘Our ultimate aim is your wellbeing’, it reads.
As we cross the bridge towards the safer part of town, we see a man walking the other way wearing a t-shirt which reads ‘Being Human’. I wonder what that means.
Over lunch, in the quiet, well-manicured gardens of a nice hotel a few miles from the Old Town, the guide talks more about the politics of the situation: the emergence of China as a player as it seeks to build a new Silk Road through Kashmir, the allegation that the Boys are supported by ISIS. He says the security forces have infiltrated the Boys and suggests that security forces might pose as the Boys and attack foreigners to try to discredit the independence campaign. Human life has little value to the security forces, he says.
I don’t reply but he must sense how tense this makes me.
“Life is not worth living without a little risk,” he says, “it’s like curry without the spice — plain.”
I smile and he continues to tell us the vexed history of this place: the promise of a referendum on independence when the British withdrew in 1947, the protests against the Maharajahs, the more recent uprisings, the Indian “puppets” in the state government and the lies he says they tell about the uprising. He says people in Mumbai and Delhi and elsewhere pay little attention to what is happening here, let alone people in other parts of the world.
I ask him how it will end. He shakes his head and tells me about a term Kashmiri people use to describe impossible problems in their personal lives. “Masli Kashmir”, they say, which translates to “it’s like Kashmir.”
As we drive to the airport, I look back on my time in Kashmir. I had started in the western Himalayas, the most beautiful mountains I had ever seen, before coming into the lush green valley of Srinagar. In spite of the tension and fear, everyone I met had been incredibly warm and friendly.
On the side of the road to the airport, there is graffiti on a wall. ‘Conflict paradise’, it reads.