Security personnel patrol Indian Kashmir under curfew

Residents of Srinagar have been forced to remain in their homes as security personnel patrol the streets outside almost all day and all night, with assault rifles on the ready.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // Fahad Shah, a 19-year-old resident of Qamarwari, a violence-plagued neighbourhood of downtown Srinagar, is no stranger to curfews and shutdowns. He grew up in a troubled Indian-controlled Kashmir, where since the onset of a violent militant movement in 1989, government-imposed curfews, separatist-decreed shutdowns, and the familiar rattle of gunfire and explosions pushed people indoors.

But seldom before have curfews been this harsh - and this long. For the past eight days, Mr Shah, a student of mass communications at a college in Baramulla town in north Kashmir has been locked-in at home. Security personnel in green and khaki uniforms patrol the streets outside almost all day and all night, with assault rifles on the ready. Intermittently, they bellow stern warnings, telling people not to step out. Peeping through the window can invite stones flung via catapults, and often accompanied with another stern warning.

Mr Shah said he has seen residents facing medical emergencies crying and pleading with security personnel to let them pass through, but they are often unyielding. "We are living under siege," he said. "We have never seen a curfew like this before. It feels like an extended house arrest." In the past 101 days, secessionist violence has plagued a large swathe of the Kashmir valley, claiming at least 104 lives and injuring more than 250 people.

Three more protesters and a female bystander died yesterday in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Agence France-Presse reported. The 22-year-old woman died in northern Sopore town when paramilitary forces opened fire, said a police officer who declined to be named. Thirty-five civilians have been killed in the past week. As Kashmir's long, bloody summer of violence turns to autumn, around-the-clock curfews have been clamped on all major towns of the region.

For the past eight days, the endless cycle of protests and shutdowns called by hardline separatists and curfews imposed by the government have paralysed normal life and crippled local businesses, health care and education. With this de facto economic blockade, the state has lost 260 billion rupees (Dh20.8bn) of business over the past three months, the Press Trust of India reported. Today, an all-party delegation from New Delhi is to arrive in the volatile valley for three days to hold meetings with various alienated sections of Kashmiri society in an attemp to end this latest wave of separatist violence.

On the eve of this high-profile visit, the curfew was extended for 72 hours. This even though the hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani rescinded his potentially volatile decision to orchestrate public protests in front of army garrisons tomorrow, diminishing fears of an escalation in violence. As a part of his "Quit Kashmir Movement", launched in June against the presence of 700,000 security personnel in Indian Kashmir, Mr Geelani created "protest calendars", a monthly schedule for street protests, shutdowns and sit-ins.

Yesterday, Mr Geelani called for a break in protests and "allowed" a resumption of normal business in the valley. But the government extended its curfew to thwart Mr Geelani's protest calendar. Mehbooba Mufti, the leader of the state's opposition People's Democratic Party, said Kashmiris were stuck between separatists and the government. "They are themselves sabotaging the initiative," Ms Mufti said, referring to the all-party delegation's visit today, which she threatened to boycott if the curfew was not lifted. She acused the government of declaring "total war" against the people. The government said it is monitoring the situation. It did not say if it would extend the curfew for more than 72 hours.

Despite the fears of many local people, the government says it exercises "maximum restraint". But the persistent curfews and shutdowns have made it nearly impossible for Kashmiris to obtain such things as groceries and drugs. Schools and colleges have been shut for three months. Hospitals are reeling under an acute shortage of life-saving drugs. Some students from the Srinagar-based National Institute of Technology, which is affiliated with Kashmir University, have held a hunger strike since last Tuesday, demanding a resumption of regular classes. The students say they are willing to attend classes at night to make up for the time lost.

There were expectations that 400,000 tourists would visit the valley this summer, the peak tourist season. But hotels, guest houses and houses boats are largely vacant. As business has slumped, many have cut nearly 60,000 staff. The Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party, a regional political party, filed a petition in the Supreme Court last week, demanding that schools, colleges, drug stores and graveyards be kept out of the scope of the government curfew.

But many Kashmiri families who live under harsh shutdowns in the mountainous area that can be snowbound for months on end are accustomed to hoarding at least a few weeks' supply of rice, sugar, wheat and other staples. Ghulam Qadir, a 40-year-old fruit vendor in downtown Srinagar, said that is why his family did not starve during the curfew. In a temporary reprieve to residents of Srinagar, curfew was unexpectedly lifted for four hours on Saturday. Shutters of several closed shops were lifted as people swarmed and made serpentine queues outside in a bid to stock up provisions.

After six days indoors, Mr Qadir dashed out to retrieve boxes of limes and pears he had stocked up at a friend's shop four kilometres away from home. He had bought these perishable items just a day before the crippling curfew was imposed on Srinagar. More than half of them had rotted away.