BARAMULLA: My car moved within a column of Indian army vehicles and a cloud of dust. On a normal day, it would have been a smooth journey from the airport in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, to my family home in the northern town of Baramulla.
But life is very different in the Kashmir Valley these days. The part that India controls is now under an unprecedented security crackdown to prevent an uprising after the central government in New Delhi unexpectedly stripped the region’s special constitutional status, the last vestige of real autonomy for the predominantly Muslim region that is claimed by both India and Pakistan.
Hundreds of Indian soldiers, armed with automatic rifles, patrol the Srinagar-Baramulla highway, a 35-mile (56-kilometre) -long road that connects the region’s main city with its northern towns. Civilian traffic is sporadic. Shops are shuttered. Army trucks gather speed along the road. And spools of concertina wire block the streets that branch off the highway, forcing residents to remain indoors.
The Indian-controlled part of Kashmir is under lockdown. I first returned to Kashmir last week on a reporting trip when Parliament revoked the region’s special status. My second trip was more personal. I was going home to see my relatives after not having talked to them for days amid a shutdown of phone and internet service.
The trip from Srinagar airport to Baramulla was filled with fear and a strange sense of homecoming. There was hardly any traffic on the highway. Every 10-15 minutes, Indian soldiers stopped vehicles and frisked travellers.
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Most of the roads I crossed were strewn with debris – a sign of the population’s anger. The streets were almost deserted and the mood among the people sombre. Under the simmering crisis, ordinary Kashmiris were caught in tumult and waiting to see what happens.
“We will fight India,” said Firdous Ahmad Naqash, 19, on a road that leads to Sopore, a northern town where anti-India feelings run deep. Muzaffar Teli, a 56-year-old man sitting next to him, echoed his words. “Him and me, we will together fight India now,” he said.
Kashmiris fear the move to put their region under greater control from New Delhi will change its demographics and cultural identity. India said its decision would free the troubled region from separatism.
Rebels have been fighting Indian rule for decades. Some 70,000 people have died in clashes between militants and civilian protesters and Indian security forces since 1989. Most Kashmiris want either independence or a merger with Pakistan. The nuclear-armed rivals have fought two wars over Kashmir. The first ended in 1948 with the region divided and a promise of a U.N.-sponsored referendum that was never held.