There is a deceptive calm, and no wishing away the azadi sentiment.

Sitting behind the counter of his textiles shop in Baramulla's crowded bazaar, Bashir Ahmed Kanroo made some quick calculations. Through the last 21 years of turmoil in the Valley, his shop has remained closed for a total of seven years. In the last five months, he managed to open on just 38 days. “My community, the traders, are the front row sufferers of this conflict. As small businessmen,” he said, inconsolable by a sunset view of the Pir Panjal range from his shop, “we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. We have always been losers.”

As the general secretary of the town traders' association, he estimates that the total daily losses for Baramulla market during this summer's agitation were to the tune of Rs. 3-4 crore.

November has been the first normal month since the summer, almost. Last week, the separatist Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who sets the “protest calendar” since assuming leadership of a stone-throwing agitation that gripped Kashmir in June and continued unabated until mid-October, called for two bandh days, on November 24 and November 27.

The octogenarian leader, who favours accession to Pakistan but has chosen to ride the “azadi” wave for now, has faced much criticism recently for subjecting the Kashmiri people to hardship and disruption of normal life by calling for a relentless agitation until the government responded to his demands, which include the release of all political detainees, the lifting of the Armed Forces Special Provisions Act, and India's recognition of Kashmir as a “dispute.”

Stone-throwing capital

The fading enthusiasm for the strike calls in October forced him to reduce the number of hartal days in successive weekly protest calendars. Despite some incidents of stone-throwing — on the day the moderate Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was punched in the face in Chandigarh, parts of Srinagar witnessed a few protests — by and large, there has been a dramatic improvement in the law and order situation.

But there is no optimism that the situation is back to normal. Baramulla was particularly hit during the agitation. So intense were the protests in the town that a bridge known as Cement Bridge — over the Jhelum, which flows through here on its journey west to Pakistan — is now called the “stone-throwing capital” of Kashmir.

The bridge connects the old and new sections of this dusty, rundown town close to the Line of Control, and pitched battles would take place during protest days between stone-pelting, “azadi” chanting youth massed at the Old Town end of the bridge and police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) deployed at the other end. Three youngsters died in just one incident on this bridge in police firing. Several others died in other incidents in Baramulla.

The valley-wide economic losses during this summer's agitation were estimated by business chambers at anywhere between Rs.8,000 crore and Rs.12,000 crore over five months. Businesses remained closed, schools and government offices were shut for days at a time, either due to the strikes or because of police-imposed curfew.

Kashmir could return to normal, said Mr. Kanroo, only when the “root cause” of the Kashmir problem was resolved politically. Almost everyone in the Valley — young or old — shares that view.

The weakening of the agitation should not be mistaken for an end of the problem, cautioned Nayeem Akhtar, bureaucrat-turned-politician and the chief spokesman of the People's Democratic Party.

Mainstream politicians like him and moderates fear that doing so could only lead to a further diminishing of the middle ground that had been so painstakingly created after the militancy of the 1990s ended.

‘New Delhi must move swiftly'

“You cannot expect Kashmiris to be in permanent agitation mode. People are exhausted, they have suffered deaths, injuries financial losses,” Mr. Akhtar said.

“New Delhi must use the lull to come up swiftly with a creative alternative to the widespread call for ‘azadi',” he said, “otherwise, as a Kashmiri, I am worried that stone-pelting should not lead to something worse.”

As it is, the “Azadi” slogan has drawn thousands of followers on a slew of pages on the social networking site Facebook. A recent post on the most moderate of the sites asks if the “Geelani calendars” have given the Kashmiris anything.

“‘Jazbaa Azadi (a passion for azadi)',” responded one person, while another said: “Update of azadi software in little children so Azadi vl run for next 60 years”.

With the anger still raw against the deaths caused in police action to disperse protestors, “khoon ka badla June mein (we will take our revenge in June)” is a slogan that every house seems to have heard.

In Srinagar, the signs of the summer agitation are still visible in the broken windows in every other house. As if in anticipation of more street violence, homeowners have not yet replaced the shattered glass. Instead, they have boarded up the windows with cardboard, plastic and even colourful strips of cloth to keep the winter out.

“Just because you don't see a protest today does not mean we are back to normalcy. People's anger, frustration and agony remained undiminished and it will remain as long as Kashmir remains an unresolved issue,” said Dr. Altaf Hussain, a paediatrician and civil society activist.

Police response

Law-enforcers in Kashmir are not complacent either about the weakening of the protests, but cite different reasons. They do not subscribe to the popularly held view that the protests were indigenous and spontaneous, and allege militant groups from across the border played a key role in instigating the protests. They expect that they will attempt to do so again. On November 26 (Friday) Srinagar police arrested a man alleged to be a Pakistani national and a militant of the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Aside from agitation fatigue, police said a crackdown on some “hard-core” organisers of the protests combined with the onset of winter had helped to dampen the protests. Over 3,000 people have been detained over the last few months, of whom about 200 have been arrested for serious offences including attempt to murder, arson and under the Public Safety Act.

But the arrests too appear to be creating another cycle of resentment in the Valley, adding to the volatility. People in Kashmir are resigned to protests of one kind or the other unless New Delhi acts quickly to address the political grievance, and most believe that consulting Pakistan is necessary for peace in Kashmir.

“I can say ‘No' to hartals, ‘No' to stones, ‘No' to guns, ‘No' to grenades, and ‘No' to a hundred other things. But for this,” said Mr. Kanroo, “the government of India has say just one ‘yes'. And that ‘yes' is to agree to settle the Kashmir problem once and for all between India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir.”

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