SRINAGAR, India (AP) — The main city in the India-administered part of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir has turned into a vast maze of razor wire coils and steel barricades as drones and helicopters hover overhead.
Wearing flak jackets and riot gear, paramilitary soldiers carry automatic rifles and shotguns to control the network of checkpoints and barricades across roads, lanes and intersections in Srinagar. The few vehicles and pedestrians allowed through are regulated through this maze.
Although the 4 million residents of the Kashmir Valley, where an insurgency has simmered for decades, are used to blockades, the one imposed after the Indian government’s surprise move last week to strip the region of constitutional privileges is something residents say they’ve never seen before. Amid the labyrinth whose entry and exit points are changed frequently, people find themselves disoriented in their own city, and struggle to memorize its frequently changing street map.
"This is so vast, so expansive,” resident Zameer Ahmed said as he prepared to enter one barbed passageway. "The entire Srinagar city has been knitted in razor wire to seek our silence and obedience.”
The lockdown in the Muslim-majority valley, the restive heart of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, has been in place since last week, when New Delhi scrapped the disputed Himalayan region’s special constitutional status, taking away the final vestige of the political autonomy and privileged rights to land ownership and public sector jobs it was granted when the region joined the newly formed republic of India after independence from the British in 1947.
Since then, India and Pakistan have fought two wars over rival claims to Kashmir, with each left controlling a part of the region.
The Indian side has seen several uprisings, including a bloody armed rebellion launched in 1989 to demand independence or a merger with Pakistan. About 70,000 people have been killed in that uprising and the subsequent Indian military crackdown that left Kashmiris exhausted, traumatized and broken.
Even before India’s Parliament voted Aug. 5 to strip Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and split it into two union territories, the central government imposed a curfew, suspended telephone and internet services and deployed tens of thousands of additional soldiers to the region — already one of the world’s most militarized zones.
Razor wire divides neighborhoods, discouraging people from assembling. Some roads are blocked by perpendicularly parked armored vehicles or private buses. Because of the complexity of the security forces’ one-way system, it is impossible to use the same route and return home from any particular destination, even if it is within sight.
"They’ve changed the road map of our city, trying to make us like strangers in our own neighborhoods,” said Bashir Ahmed, a resident of downtown Srinagar.
"This is a drill about disciplining and regulating people’s movement. This is to psychologically break people and teach them that they’re not in control of their own bodies,” said Saiba Varma of the University of California, San Diego, who is in Srinagar for post-doctoral research in medical anthropology.
"In Palestine, the (Israeli) blockade has restricted food and medicine. But here it’s different. They’re letting people eat but trying to control Kashmiri bodies, minds and spirits,” Varma said.