How conflict-riven Indian Kashmir is coping with virus lockdown

By Shah Abbas

Srinagar, India, Apr 29 (efe-epa).- Lockdowns have become a way of life for people in Kashmir – a disputed region in India’s extreme north that has recorded months of shutdowns and curfews in the last three decades of armed conflict.

When the government on the midnight of Mar.25 imposed a sudden strict nationwide lockdown, now extended until May 17, residents of the region generally experienced nothing new.

While the rest of India plunged into a crisis of millions of migrant laborers trapped without work in cities hundreds of miles away from their homes, Kashmiris quickly activated their aid networks to help outsiders stranded in the valley.

“Hunger was visible on the faces of poor laborers,” Zahoor Ahmad Dar, a south Kashmir villager, told EFE.

Dar said residents of his area spotted a group of hungry non-local laborers who had been sheltered by the government in a school building in Arambagh village of Shopian, some 50 km (over 30 miles) from the main city of Srinagar.

The migrant laborers from different parts of India were gathered in the school as the government imposed strict social distancing measures and restricted movement to curb contain the outbreak of the virus, which according to Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker, has claimed over 1,150 lives and infected more than 35,000 people in India.

The village elders chose a group of volunteers to arrange food for them as people usually do in times of trouble across the Muslim-majority region where armed rebels have been fighting a three-decade-long war against Indian rule.

The Himalayan region witnessed similar restrictions and months of blockades, albeit for political reasons, in 2008, 2010, 2016, and more recently last year when the in a controversial move stripped Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status and later divided it into federally administered territories.

Shahid Ahmad, another villager, said that this time around it was slightly different because “we had not only to arrange food but also maintain social distance” while feeding the hungry. “So it was a little tougher but we managed till the authorities made arrangements for them.”

Frequent curfews imposed by the government to prevent demonstrations and riots have taught Kashmiris how to keep supply lines open and assist the most vulnerable.

Maqbool Mir, a Srinagar resident, told EFE that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown on Mar.24 within a four-hour ultimatum, residents of his neighborhood quickly assembled to reactivate a local group of young and elderly volunteers.

The residents have formed the relief committee to look into social and economic issues in the neighborhood with its members keeping a tab on those whose livelihoods are disrupted by frequent troubles in Kashmir.

Such committees formed in almost every neighborhood collect monthly donations from the residents to be ready for any eventuality due to social, political, or natural reasons.

“The conflict has taught us how to remain ready,” Abdul Gani, who heads one such group in a south Kashmir village, told EFE.

He said the government relief is always delayed and such committees are usually the first responders to any crisis at the local level.

Abdul Hameed, who is a member of one such committee in the Shopian district, said the concept had existed throughout history. “It is a sense of social responsibility.”

The idyllic valley is disputed between India and Pakistan since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. The two nuclear neighbors rule parts of the divided territory but claim it in entirety.

Kashmir has seen a bloody separatist campaign since the 1990s that has claimed thousands of lives.

The raging conflict has devastated the region’s limited economic development of the region that once was one of the most sought after tourist destinations in the world.

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