[ Civilians in the Srinagar suburb of Anchar say they are engaged in a fight for existence ]
Prayers had barely finished when the teargas was fired and a trail of smoke arched in the sky. Security forces had launched another assault on Anchar, the only major pocket of resistance in Kashmir.
“Others have only heard the word doomsday, we have lived a doomsday,” said Fazi, a grandmother who lives in Anchar, a suburb of Kashmir’s main city, Srinagar, situated on the banks of a lake of the same name.
Teargas and pellets were fired into a park near to the shrine where crowds were attending prayers, she said. Residents rushed to the frontline on Anchar’s outskirts, barely 500 metres away, to push back against security forces. She said the assault, on 30 August, lasted five hours.
“It was like rain. There were pellets everywhere, smoke everywhere,” she said. “We have no weapons. We have only God’s name and God will do justice with us.”
It is now more than five weeks since the Indian government revoked the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and placed the state under strict lockdown. Many Kashmiris fear that their way of life in India’s only Muslim-majority state is at risk. A heavy troop presence, a communication blackout and widespread detentions have mostly prevented large protests.
Paramilitaries control every inch of Srinagar, except Anchar. Residents, mostly creative artisans who weave pashmina shawls, have used JCBs to dig trenches around the neighbourhood. Tin sheets, waste containers, mesh wires and logs have been placed as barricades. At night, teams keep watch to spot if security forces are approaching.
It is thought to be the first time in recent decades that civilians in Kashmir have prevented Indian paramilitaries and local police from entering an area. Entire families join in with the efforts. “When we throw a stone, our women are always there to give us a stone,” said one man.
“We do it for three reasons,” said Mohammad Subhan, in his early 50s, who was among those who took part in the night watch. “One, so the youth are not detained. Two, so our homes are not ransacked. Three, so the honour of our daughters and women is not violated.”
Subhan’s wife and four daughters were at the shrine of Jenab Sahab when the assault began. Like many women, Saima, 22, the eldest daughter, ran to help those defending Anchar.
“It is the women who do all the logistics work: they gather the stones, they bring us the water, they bring us salt,” said one man. “It would be impossible to fight without their support.” Saltwater is used to counter the effect of teargas.
Saima and two of her sisters – 14-year-old Maysara and 12-year-old Qurat – were wounded by pellets during the assault. A metal pellet pierced Maysara’s eye. She was smuggled to her aunt’s home elsewhere in Srinagar and underwent treatment in hospital.
Qurat was wounded in the head. Saima was hit on the neck and arms. “First I felt like hot sand was thrown on me and then I felt my neck is burning,” said Saima.
She was treated at the shrine late in the evening by doctors who had been smuggled into the neighbourhood. They administered painkillers and injections to prevent infections.
“I don’t know how [Maysara] is, whether she is still admitted or she has been discharged,” said Subhan. The communications blackout means people have no idea if their relatives are safe.
Fazi’s 22-year-old grandson, Bilal, was blinded in his right eye by a pellet. “The bleeding was not stopping, so we sent him to the hospital but doctors said they cannot save his eye,” said Bilal’s father, Mohammad Ramzan. “The doctors recommended that we should take him to a specialised eye hospital outside Kashmir.”
He was smuggled out of the city. Ramzan has no idea where his son is or if he is safe.
Phone and internet services were suspended last month when the government in Delhi made its revocation announcement. Some landlines have since been restored but these remain unreliable. Few in Kashmir know about the scale of events in Anchar, and few in Anchar dare to leave their neighbourhood.
Elsewhere in Srinagar, markets remain shut – an act of defiance on the part of workers, who refuse to comply with the Delhi government’s claim that everything in the region is returning to normal. Public transport also remains shut.
The revocation of Kashmir’s special status stripped the region of its constitution and flag. Rules that prevented outsiders from buying land in the territory also disappeared.
In Anchar, posters of fighters are pasted across shuttered shops. “Don’t call them militants,” a young man said. “They are mujahideen, they fight for our cause.” Many believe these fighters are their only source of hope in the wake of Delhi’s decision.
The Indian government has said its actions will rid the state of terrorism and bring development. It maintains that the situation remains calm.
“They say things are normal. What normalcy is this?” said Subhan. “They have shut our main mosques. Jamia Masjid is locked. If this is just the beginning, what will they do afterwards?”
He said he would continue to take part in the night watch. “Anchar is fighting for all of Kashmir,” he said.
At night-time, groups of youths are stationed along routes into the city. “When the alarm is raised, everyone comes to defend this place,” a college student said at his home where he was recovering from pellet injuries.
More than 100 pellets were lodged in his body, neck and head, he said. “It was very painful. When I was hit it was like a hundred needles had pricked me.”
Khatija, his mother, said her heart trembled every night as she feared another raid. “God should now have mercy on us,” she said.
Khatija’s elder son, a 24-year-old shawl weaver who regularly attends the night guard, said people came out of their houses “like bees” when the alarm of an incoming raid was raised. “We are like one family here, like a folded hand,” he said.
He described Anchar’s resistance as a “fight for existence”, adding: “We are fighting for haqq [truth], we are fighting for azadi [freedom].”
He added: “They want to erase us, they want to erase our history. We will not let that happen.”