There was a fresh round of protests by civilians, and a crackdown by security forces in Soura in Srinagar, on Friday, 13 September. The protesters carried banners demanding an “immediate resolution” to the Kashmir dispute and an end be put to “encounters and raids”. A few banners also asked, “Why is the world silent?”
Soura, a northern suburb of Jammu and Kashmir’s capital city, has emerged as the epicentre of protests in Kashmir since the Narendra Modi-led government scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status as well as bifurcated the state into two Union Territories on 5 August.
Earlier in September, Soura got another ‘martyr’: 18-year-old Asrar Ahmed Khan.
Asrar is reported to have been injured when security forces fired pellets at protesters on 6 August, just a day after the Narendra Modi-led government decided to abrogate Article 370. He succumbed to his injuries on 4 September.
While Asrar’s family claims he sustained injuries in firing by security forces, the Commander of 15 Corps KJS Dhillon said he had been hit by a rock.
However, the death certificate issued by the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences belies the Army’s claims and puts forth “pellet injury with shell blast injury” as Asrar’s cause of death. According to reports, Asrar was playing cricket when he was hit by pellets.
Sheikh Abdullah’s Birthplace Now the Heart of Unrest
For many Kashmiris, Soura has gained significance as the symbol of resistance against the Government of India’s decision to abrogate Article 370. Many have begun referring to it as Kashmir’s ‘Gaza’.
Protests in Soura have often centred around the Janab Sahib Mosque.
The history of Janab Sahib is fascinating and is in many ways, emblematic of Kashmir’s composite history.
Scholar Navnita Chadha Behera says, “A marble stone with the imprint of a large footprint preserved as Asar-i-Sharif at Janab Sahib is claimed by all three major religious traditions: by the Muslims as Qadam-i-Rasul (the footprint of Prophet Muhammad), by Hindus as Vishnu Pada (footprint of Lord Vishnu), and by Buddhists as Sakyamuni-Pada (Buddha’s footprint).”
Other interesting aspects of Soura’s history make it important for Kashmiri nationalism. However, rather than as a hub of protests, it was previously known as the bastion of the National Conference.
Soura happens to be the birthplace of National Conference Founder Sheikh Abdullah, and from where the Abdullah family hails. Due to its association with the NC, it received a great deal of patronage from the state government in terms of infrastructure.
The Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, the only medical university in Jammu and Kashmir, was established in Soura in 1977. It celebrates 5 December, the Sheikh Abdullah’s birth anniversary, as its Foundation Day.
The 90-feet road that connects another erstwhile NC bastion, Ganderbal, also originates from Soura.
Incidentally, the 90-feet road is also where Asrar is said to have been hit by the pellets which cost him his life.
Srinagar-based journalist Azaan Javaid writes the separatist footprint grew in Soura in the mid-1990s, when Dr Qasim Faqtoo of the Hizbul Mujahideen and his wife Asiya Andrabi, founder of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, gained popularity in the area.
Soura, still, was not considered the hub of separatism. In fact, in 2010, the CRPF bunker near Janab Sahib Mosque in Soura was removed as a part of the Centre’s peace initiative.
Protests after Hizbul Mujahideen Commander Burhan Wani was killed in 2016 are said to have turned the area’s residents decisively against New Delhi.
Protests at Soura began on the same day when the government announced its decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. Yet, it was the massive protest of 9 August that proved most crucial.
The protest punctured a number of claims that the Government of India had been making:
- Contrary to the government’s claims, it showed that Kashmiris were not happy with the decision to abrogate Article 370.
- The large number of women protesters ran contrary to the government’s claims of its move having been welcomed by Kashmiri women.
- Videos of security forces firing on protestors were seen as proof of the government’s willingness to use force in order to impose its will.
When Reuters, BBC and Al Jazeera reported the protest, the government began by denying altogether that any such protest had taken place. It then admitted that there had been a protest but that not more than 20 people partook in it, even though the videos showed the number to be much higher. It also went from rebutting firing to admitting later that pellets had indeed been used.
At a time when Kashmiris are under lockdown and have very few ways to be heard, the visuals from Soura become a counter to the government’s narrative.
Women have played a key role in the protests since 5 August. Not only do they take part in demonstrations, they also warn residents about the movement of security forces and help out residents who are living under siege.
Some say Asiya Andrabi’s Dukhtaran-e-Millat has played a pivotal role in the political mobilisation of women in Soura.
However, many women who have been protesting actively in the last one month say they are not involved in any outfit.
“We protest because our rights have been taken away, not because of any outfit. The Government (of India) claims that these laws (Article 370 and Section 35a) led to injustice to Kashmiri women. Real injustice is when our children, husbands and brothers are taken away (by security forces),” says Shifa* (name changed), who has taken part in a few protests in Soura.
Living Under Siege
This has come at a great cost for the residents of Soura; the area has been living under a constant siege for over a month now.
Many of the injured and the unwell were not taken to the hospital for the fear that they would be picked up from there by the police.
The local youth keeps watch at night, fearing security forces carrying out raids and detaining people.
Residents have dug up many of the roads approaching Soura and placed makeshift barricades (such as logs) to make it difficult for security forces to enter.
On one side of Soura lies the Anchar Lake, which has been a civic nightmare for people as a lot of waste is dumped in it. However, the lake has become advantageous for the residents as it makes the area practically unapproachable from one side.
Though living in dire circumstances, people of Soura have a clear sense of why protests are important.
“We realise that we cannot stay this way indefinitely. But the resistance we have shown over the past month is important. It showed the world that Kashmiris won’t remain silent even as our rights are being taken away. Our protests have given strength to Kashmiris in other parts to also come out and be heard,” said Zahid, a resident of Soura.
Residents, meanwhile, live in the fear that Soura’s status as the ‘hub of protests’ might lead to a massive crackdown by security forces.
“Due to the coverage by BBC and others, Soura got international attention as the area which continues to resist the decision by the Government of India. This could lead to a massive crackdown on us,” said another resident, a graduate, who did not want to be named.