Who Suffers Kashmir's Strikes and Curfews

02/28/2013 07:20 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2013

Each cycle of curfew and strikes in Kashmir takes a heavy toll on the livelihood of the majority of its six million inhabitants, and handicaps business especially in the transport and tourism industry.

The Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, also called India Administered Kashmir, is one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world. It continues to be a red line for India and Pakistan as both countries claim it.

For one week in February, the Kashmir Valley came to a grinding halt after the Indian government imposed a curfew to avert any unrest following the hanging of Muhammad Afzal Guru, a Muslim man convicted of conspiracy in the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001.

Guru, who hails from the town of Sopore in the valley, was sentenced to death in 2002, and he was secretly executed and buried on Feb. 9 at the Tihar Jail in New Delhi.

Even after the curfew was lifted on Feb. 15, the mostly Muslim valley remained paralyzed for another week because separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani called for a three-day strike to demand that Guru's body be returned to Kashmir.

Kashmiris believe that Guru was innocent and that he was not given a fair trial. But it was the secrecy behind his execution and hasty burial that has enraged them. There has been an outpouring of criticism at the Indian government's failure to inform Guru's family that his widow's mercy petition had been denied, and that he was to be hanged.

While analysts warn of long-term security repercussions of Guru's hangings, the state government, separatist leaders and the public are demanding for his body to be returned.

Experts, meanwhile, caution that Kashmir's economy is suffering under curfews and strikes. Noted economist Nisar Ali, the director of the Jammu and Kashmir Bank Limited, has calculated that each day of inactivity in the valley costs the Jammu and Kashmir State at least 5,500 million rupees ($100 million).

"For a small place, it is a big sum," he says, noting that the annual GDP for the state is 4,00,000 million rupees.

For those in the tourism industry, the shutdown in February, the longest period of tension since the 2010 mass agitation for independence, has dealt a heavy blow to business.

Nayeem Raja, who runs a hotel and houseboat, says that at least five tourist groups have canceled after the curfew was imposed. The 24-year-old estimates his losses to be around 1,00,000 rupees ($1,850) for cancelations in February and March.

"On one side our livelihood is being affected by the government and on the other side by the separatists," he says. "Our parents tell us to find another job but there is no other good source of income for the youth here."

These young businessmen fear that this unrest at the start of the year will stem the flow of tourists to Kashmir, which was rapidly increasing due to stability in the past two years. In 2012, the valley hosted a record 1.8 million visitors. "You see Kashmir is all about perception," says Raja.

Ali also points out that private investment and profitability in the transport sector is presently high in Kashmir. The economist, who is also a director of the J&K State Financial Corporation, which provides medium to micro-level loans, notes that the majority of borrowings are done by entrepreneurs looking to start transport operations. Long periods of inactivity leads to the problems in repaying these loans.

Local shopkeepers have incurred substantial losses in February. For them, each protracted strike triggers a personal battle between their political beliefs and their desire to make a good life.

A 22-year-old shopkeeper, who sells tablecloths called dastarkhan, which are spread on the ground while serving tea in Muslim households, estimates that he has suffered losses worth at least 50,000 rupees or $1000 since Feb. 9 to Feb 22.

"I don't want the curfew or a strike," he says the shopkeeper. His wholesale store is located in downtown Srinagar, a hub of stone pelting by protestors, where the strictest curfew is enforced. Acknowledging that larger political issues are at play, he adds, "But we have to think about our livelihood because we have lives of our own."

But there are also Kashmiris who place their cause for independence over economic considerations. A 39-year-old shopkeeper estimates a loss of about 7000 rupees ($128) for his homemade appliances retail store this month.

The shopkeeper wants Guru's body to be returned to Kashmir. "To win something, you have to lose something," he says.