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Pre-dawn food run then rush home: Kashmir under curfew

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Navigating through narrow, winding streets, Reyaz Ahmed embarks upon a daily drill under an indefinite 24-hour curfew in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The 35-year-old trader gets up around 5 a.m. and meets his neighborhood friend in the main city of Srinagar. They walk a few kilometers (miles) to reach farmers selling fresh vegetables and milk. On the way they also get essential groceries and medicines stockpiled by neighborhood shopkeepers and pharmacists inside their homes.

The routine has one important element: They must be back by 6. Shortly after dawn, police and paramilitary soldiers, in full riot gear and armed with automatic rifles, swiftly occupy the roads and streets in Srinagar and its old quarters where Ahmed and his friend Adil Bhat live. Government forces set up checkpoints, lay steel barricades and razor wire at all entry and exit points in the urban heart of anti-India protests and clashes.

"Then the day goes in watching television, some sleep and waiting for the evening when soldiers withdraw from the streets," Ahmed said. Bhat doesn't have TV at home and keeps himself informed with whatever news he gets from radio.

An unprecedented security lockdown and near-total communication blockade has continued since Sunday night in Muslim-majority Kashmir, a day before the Hindu nationalist-led government in New Delhi scrapped the disputed Himalayan region's autonomous status. New Delhi rushed tens of thousands of additional soldiers to one of the world's most militarized regions to stave off more unrest from rebels who have been fighting Indian rule for decades.

Tens of thousands of police and soldiers have fanned out across Kashmir to impose the curfew as authorities suspended all telephone and internet services as part of the massive security lockdown, energizing Kashmir's powerful grapevine.

On Friday, the strict curfew was eased for weekly prayers at local mosques in Srinagar. Ahmed said he walked about 7 kilometers (4 miles) on Wednesday to check on his ailing aunt. "It's so frustrating to walk more than double the mileage to dodge checkpoints and barricades," he said.

Such restrictions on movement are nothing new for Kashmiris. They endured months of clampdowns during massive public uprisings against Indian rule in 2008, 2010 and 2016. However, landline phone service has never been cut before.

Frequent separatist calls for general strikes and protests are routinely met with security lockdowns. So Kashmiris have learned by experience to figure out ways to survive incarceration inside their homes. Residents are also used to stockpiling essentials, a practice they've turned to during harsh winter months when roads and communications lines often remain snapped.

Over a million people live inside the security siege of Srinagar. The hardships, residents say, are slowly unfolding. They have begun to face shortages of food and other necessities as shops remain shuttered and public movement limited. With schools closed, parents have struggled to entertain children at home. Patients have faced shortages of prescription drugs. ATMs are cashless and banks shut.

"Time and again an entire population has been incarcerated. We will never forgive India for this brazen collective punishment," said Mohammed Akbar, a woodwork artisan in Srinagar. Residents fear that the move to abrogate Kashmir's autonomy will open a floodgate of Hindus settling in the region and alter the demographics in India's only Muslim-majority region.

"They (India) may say it's for development and corruption-free governance, but these are all lies," said Akbar. "This is an assault on our identity, culture and a plan in the long run to change demography here."

The reaction to India's action has so far been largely subdued. People are still dealing with the stringent lockdown that has forced an eerie calm on the region. Despite this, anti-India protests and clashes have occurred daily, mostly when soldiers begin to withdraw just as the sun begins to set. Young Kashmiri men have barraged police and soldiers with stones and abuse with slogans seeking an end to Indian rule.

One person has been killed and at least two dozen others wounded, including one critically, as troops responded by firing shotguns and tear gas and launched counter stone attacks, police and doctors said.

India's national security adviser, Ajit Doval, has camped in Srinagar to monitor the situation, officials said. Hundreds, including top pro-India Kashmiri leaders, have either been put under house arrest or formally arrested.

The crisis also led to tensions between Indian soldiers and Kashmiri police officials, who say they were kept in the dark about the Indian plans. In at least three places, scuffles were reported between Indian paramilitary soldiers and local police officials leading to injuries on both sides, according to three police and two paramilitary officers. They all spoke on condition of anonymity because government forces have been strictly barred from briefing reporters.

Local police have increasingly come under pressure from rebels fighting against Indian rule since 1989, who have warned them to stay away from India's counterinsurgency operations. The status of Kashmir has been a key dispute between Pakistan and India since the two split after the end of British colonial rule in 1947. They each control part of Kashmir and have fought two wars over their rival claims. Initially, the anti-India movement in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir was largely peaceful, but after a series of political blunders, broken promises and a crackdown on dissent, Kashmiris launched a full-blown armed revolt in 1989.

After ordering Indian and foreign tourists as well as Hindu pilgrims to leave Kashmir last week, police have quietly been asking hundreds of thousands of Indian migrant laborers to leave as well. "Every Indian tourist will be seen with suspicion that they're here as part of an ethnic flooding plan," said Bashir Ahmed, a tour operator whose family also runs houseboats on the famed Dal Lake in Srinagar. "This is something we will have to deal with and can dampen the tourism industry now."

Months earlier, the largest indigenous rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen, warned that "every Indian would become a legitimate target if India scrapped the region's special status." Meanwhile, Ahmed the trader, said "no matter what, we've a job to do to help our families and neighbors right now."

"If we're not hitting the streets (to protest,) that doesn't mean we've accepted India's decision. We will respond and we know when to do that," he said.

Follow Aijaz Hussain on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/hussain_aijaz

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