SRINAGAR: Residents of Indian-controlled Kashmir hope speeches by Indian and Pakistani leaders at the U.N. General Assembly on Friday will turn world attention to an unprecedented lockdown in the disputed Himalayan region.
Simmering tensions in Kashmir are threatening to erupt into open conflict between India and Pakistan after New Delhi imposed heavy restrictions in the area it controls and stripped it of its statehood and semi-autonomy on Aug. 5.
“We really hope these leaders will do something to rid us of conflict and suppression,” said Nazir Ahmed, a schoolteacher on the outskirts of Srinagar, the main city in Indian-held Kashmir. “Conflict is like a cancer hitting every aspect of life. And Kashmiris have been living inside this cancer for decades now.”
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has warned in recent days that war is possible over India’s crackdown. Residents of the region will be watching Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to see if they use the U.N. stage to ratchet up or down the temperature.
Khan has already promised to use his speech to describe what he says is years of Indian oppression and human rights violations in the region.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan. Both nuclear-armed rivals claim it in its entirety, and have fought two wars over its control.
In August, Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government sent in thousands of additional troops, imposed a sweeping curfew, arrested thousands, and cut virtually all communications in the Muslim-majority region.
Authorities have since eased some restrictions and encouraged students to return to school and businesses to reopen, but Kashmiris have largely stayed indoors to show their defiance of Indian rule.
India’s government says the abrogation of the region’s semi-autonomy under the national constitution was necessary for development and eradication of “terrorism” in the region.
It has arrested anti-India as well as pro-India activists, including some top Kashmiri leaders who have historically accepted Indian rule over the region.
Some residents hoped the U.N. speeches would help ease the harsh restrictions on their lives.
“People have suffered a lot,” said Mansoor Badyari, a Srinagar shopkeeper. “We want a resolution (of the Kashmir dispute) once and for all.”
Others were skeptical of any positive outcome, citing past experiences with such speeches at the United Nations.
“We’ve been hearing about these speeches since 1947. Nothing has come out of them,” said Riyaz Ahmad, a local resident.
On Friday, a group of activists and students protested in New Delhi to demand that the lockdown in Kashmir end. The group also urged the withdrawal of Indian troops from civilian areas in Kashmir “so that the population can move freely.”
“We urge the leaders of India and Pakistan to solve the dispute so that peace returns to the region and stop any warmongering. We don’t want war,” said Pankhuri Zaheer of Citizens Against War, a solidarity group in New Delhi.
Despite the arrests of many political and social leaders, Kashmiris have launched a campaign of refusal to resume their normal lives, confounding India at the cost of economic losses for themselves.
Shops have adopted new, limited hours of operation in the early morning and evening.
“We keep our shops and business establishments shut during the day to express our anger over what we have been robbed of by New Delhi,” said Ahsan Bhat, a grocer in Srinagar.
Even that doesn’t satisfy Jahangir Ahmed Mir. “I only come to my shop to ventilate it and keep the rats and other harmful creatures away,” he said. “I’m not doing any business.”
On Thursday, dozens of Kashmiris protested in Srinagar against Indian rule, chanting “Go India, go back” and “We want freedom.”
The conflict over Kashmir began in the late 1940s when India and Pakistan won independence from the British empire and began fighting over their rival claims.
Since 1989, a full-blown armed rebellion has raged in Indian-controlled Kashmir seeking a united Kashmir — either under Pakistani rule or independent of both countries. About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and an Indian military crackdown. India accuses Pakistan of training and arming the rebels, a charge Islamabad denies.
Most Kashmiris resent the heavy Indian troop presence and back the rebels’ demands.