Streets are silent, police and paramilitary troopers patrolled the deserted roads and residents remained caged inside their homes on Saturday — the 15th day of a ceaseless curfew in this densely populated old city of Srinagar.
The region, once called the “Venice of the East” because of the now virtually non-existent network of fresh water canals, has always been politically volatile and a hub of separatist politics and war.
But surprisingly, downtown Srinagar, home to large Muslim shrines, Hindu temples and bridges on Jhelum river, has been relatively peaceful in the days of deadly unrest that gripped almost the entire Kashmir Valley following the July 8 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani and two of his aides by security forces.
In the past, the region has always given a security headache to authorities in Jammu and Kashmir, in view of its vulnerability to violent protests even at the drop of a hat. Any local or international issue can provoke street anger here.
America’s invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan, a whiff of a scandal, a rumour or report of molestation or rights abuse by security forces, killing of a militant by the army or police or even a roadside row between a paramilitary trooper and a pedestrian is enough to incite violent trouble in Srinagar’s old city.
From a security point of view, the area – spread over six police stations – is “ultra-sensitive” and is one of the first to come under curfew whenever there is a challenge to security in Jammu and Kashmir, including when there is a VIP visit from Delhi.
The roots of separatist insurgency lie in this “politically impulsive” region of Srinagar that has time and again “lived and re-lived” a familiar Kashmir story of violent protests, recalled Bashir Manzar, editor of Srinagar-based daily Kashmir Images.
“Militants fired the first bullet in Naid Kadal (in the heart of the Downtown) to declare their separatist war in the late 1980s.
“In fact, if you go back in history, Downtown of Srinagar has mostly shaped the political narrative of Kashmir. The 1931 agitation against the Dogra autocratic rule started from here. The state still remembers the July 13 martyrs killed in firing by Maharaja’s police (that year),” Manzar told IANS.
The 2008 and 2010 summer unrest — in which nearly 60 and 120 civilian protesters were killed — had also their roots in Srinagar’s old city, mostly a maze of byzantine lanes flanked on either side by two to three-floored houses many of which date back to the early 20th century.
In fact, the weekly stone-pelting protests occur near Jamia Masjid – the main mosque in this summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir also in Downtown — with young men angry over just about anything throwing rocks at police and security forces.
But not in the current unrest that has left some 45 people dead in days of violence in the valley.
Police officers, IANS spoke with, said they had their fingers crossed. Not a single killing in the series of recent violent deaths has occurred even as stone-throwing protests – with lesser intensity – have been put down by security forces. And none of them spun out of control.
“We have islands of peace in Srinagar’s old city. That is an achievement,” said a police officer.
Maybe, the sense of satisfaction is not completely off the mark. Because even a single killing in this urban centre of the valley can spin the situation further beyond control in the times when the valley is staring at another summer of discontent.