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Curfews mean a life of limbo for Indians in Kashmir

Residents of the violence-plagued region have had to cope with work stoppages for decades. That can mean no shopping, no schooling, sometimes even no text messaging, for days on end.

By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

2:32 PM PDT, July 20, 2010

Reporting from Srinagar, India

Imagine being cooped up in your house for a day, or maybe even a week, unable to work, attend school, buy groceries, visit a doctor. Then imagine months of this, year after year, going back to 1990.

That's the reality for residents of the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, who have been forced for decades to navigate work stoppages, curfews, militant incursions and crackdowns.

Even as politicians, bureaucrats and bedecked commanders argue, seemingly endlessly, over the future of a divided region that has sparked two wars between India and Pakistan since 1947, it's the ordinary people who have suffered the most.

"I can't buy anything," said Jalah, 50, a day laborer who uses one name, clutching her few grubby bank notes. "I've gone to the market four times, but nothing's open. And when you find something, the prices are jacked way up."

Constant work disruptions — 1,560 days over the last two decades by some estimates, at $50 million in lost output a day — force Kashmiris to find unique, sometimes ingenious, ways of coping.

Because they never know when government or separatist demands will force another shutdown, many families keep at least a month's supply of rice, flour, sugar and other staples on hand.

Such stockpiling also dovetails with a history of self-sufficiency, born of living in a mile-high valley where snow blocks the passes for months, and with a tradition of hospitality that dictates preparation of a lavish feast on short notice for any visitors who might arrive.

"It's the Kashmiri culture," said Usman Ahmad, an aid worker in Kashmir with Mercy Corps, a charity group. "We're kind of like squirrels."

For the 20% of the population living hand to mouth, however, such a luxury is impossible.

"Stockpiling, that's for rich people," said Mohammad Yusef Mir, 75, a tea-wallah, boiling a vat of sweet milk tea over a gritty Bunsen burner. His strategy: Skirt the shutdowns whenever possible.

When a work stoppage is called, he'll wait a few hours, then cautiously lift his metal gate and start serving tea. Sometimes he pays the price. Last week, police beat the septuagenarian with long sticks, leaving a foot-long bruise on his back, when he didn't close fast enough for their liking.

"What can we do?" he asked, smoking a hookah beside a heap of fried potatoes with an unnatural, near-psychedelic yellow tint. "If we don't work, we can't eat."

Other shop owners, particularly those selling perishables such as milk and vegetables, might open at midnight and close at dawn, while most police and protesters are asleep — part of a longstanding game of cat and mouse. Elsewhere, community and religious charities in the Muslim-majority valley organize food kitchens during periods of relative calm.

But these are stop-gap measures, leaving day-worker Jalah's family and others with little choice but to eat less. "We're getting by on rice and salt," she said.

When the violence ebbs, residents race to ATMs and shops, as happened July 4. After a tight curfew was reimposed the next day, however, Srinagar once again looked as though it had been hit by a neutron bomb, its buildings intact but its streets largely devoid of people, except for an occasional figure scampering rodent-like along shuttered storefronts.

When children are sick or lack milk, residents say, people have little choice but to break curfew. But they're often helped by strangers at a moment's notice.

In Srinagar's Batmaloo neighborhood on a recent sunny morning, a paramilitary patrol crept along an alley. A few hours earlier, its high-powered weapons had killed a government worker walking past protesters on his way to work, according to family and residents. Almost seamlessly, three women in the path of the patrol melted into a walled-off courtyard, out of danger.

"If there's trouble, all Kashmiris let you in," said Mir, the tea-wallah. "It's only human."

Not surprisingly, children cooped up for days grow frustrated and stressed. "They inevitably start going crazy," said Javed Ahmed Rather, 45, a pharmacist.

Faced with frequent school closures, some families hire tutors, others home-school. Some students thrive, such as Faesal Shah, 26, the son of a man killed by militants. Shah earned the top score in India's civil service exam this year. But most parents say their children don't get a good education despite all they shell out.

"We still have to pay the school fees, whether they go or not," said Bashir Ahmed Dar, 52, a hotel worker and father of three teenagers. "It's difficult."

Kashmir's social fabric is also affected by the turmoil, with fewer family visits and more last-minute cancellations of weddings or graduation parties. "Due to prevailing circumstances, the invitation for the marriage ceremony of my daughter scheduled on 7th and 8th July 2010 stands canceled," read a recent notice — one of many —in the Greater Kashmir newspaper. "Inconvenience caused is regretted."

This month, a wedding party was forced to spend the night outdoors at a checkpoint near Baramulla, 30 miles from Srinagar, after soldiers blocked their way despite their reportedly having a curfew pass.

Families say it would be much easier and cheaper to announce such cancellations by text message, but local authorities have sometimes blocked the service as a security precaution. When the Indian prime minister visited Kashmir recently, all 6 million residents of the region had their cellphone service cut, and few homes in India have land lines.

"We couldn't call anyone, even in an emergency," said Saquib Nazeer, 25, a Srinagar resident. "What kind of a life is this? I pay for the service but only get it when the government wants me to have it."

Getting cash can be another challenge. Wary of police restrictions and angry mobs if it used armored cars, J&K Bank bought two ambulances to fill its ATMs. Once filled, machines meant to dispense for a couple of days sometimes empty in an hour.

"If you get hit by a stone, or a bullet, go to the hospital and don't have cash, you'll get nowhere," said the bank's chairman, Haseeb Drabu.