Government forces patrolled much of Indian-controlled Kashmir and ordered shops and businesses to remain open Thursday to foil a planned strike by separatists on the second anniversary of India's revocation of the disputed region's semi-autonomy.
Government forces placed steel barricades and razor wire across many roads, bridges and intersections and set up additional checkpoints in anticipation of anti-India protests. Some shops and businesses remained shut in Srinagar, the region's main city, while police and soldiers checked vehicles and frisked pedestrians.
In Srinagar's main business center, men escorted by police used iron rods and bricks to break locks on some shuttered shops.
"They're forcing us to open our businesses to show normalcy," said shopkeeper Nazir Ahmed. "The paradox is that India has destroyed this place and are now forcing us to celebrate our subjugation and humiliation."
On Aug. 5, 2019, the Indian government led by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood, scrapped its separate constitution and revoked inherited protections of land and jobs, allowing more outsiders to settle in the Muslim-majority region.
The former state was split into two federal territories — Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir — deepening anti-India sentiment in the region, which is also claimed by Pakistan. Indian authorities also enforced a monthslong information blackout and security clampdown. Thousands of young people and political leaders — both anti- and pro-India — were arrested. Scores remain incarcerated.
As some of the restrictions were eased, India enforced another harsh lockdown to combat the coronavirus, deepening the economic crisis in the region.
Separatist groups who challenge India's sovereignty in Kashmir called for Thursday's strike to mark what they call "black day."
Some viral videos on social media Thursday showed police officers asking shopkeepers to open their shops in Srinagar. In one video, a police official carrying an assault rifle was seen breaking a lock on a shuttered shop.
Some shopkeepers told of similar incidents at least in three other towns in the Kashmir valley.
Meanwhile, suspected rebels fired bullets in the air in Srinagar's old neighborhood shortly after a small explosion occurred there, police and witnesses said. No one was reported injured.
Also, in northwestern Sopore town, suspected rebels fired at a police party who were asking shopkeepers to open their businesses in the main market, witnesses said. No one was injured. Police later said there was no shooting in the area.
The Modi government has maintained that the changes to Kashmir's autonomy are for the public good and national security to stop threats from Pakistan and "anti-national elements."
Kashmir's main separatist alliance, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said India's "unilateral" and "arbitrary" changes "only complicated the dispute" over Kashmir. It urged New Delhi to start a dialogue with Pakistan and with those who represent the political aspirations of the Kashmiri people.
"The government continues to assault the people ... by continuing to incarcerate political prisoners and youth, bringing in arbitrary and anti-people laws, media gags, gagging all voices of dissent and continued misrepresentation of the actual conditions" in the region, it said in a statement Thursday.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party hoisted India's flag at several places in the region in celebration. Tarun Chugh, the party's general secretary in Srinagar, told party workers that the 2019 decision "dealt a big blow to the divisive and terrorist forces," according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
The People's Democratic Party, a Kashmiri political group that favors union with India but with autonomy, held protests in Srinagar and southern Jammu city calling Aug. 5 a "day of mourning." The party's leader and former top elected official in the region, Mehbooba Mufti, led the protest in Srinagar and demanded that India "revoke black laws of the black day."
Police prevented the protesters from marching to the city center. Mufti and dozens of other party officials were detained for months during India's crackdown in 2019.
The status of Kashmir has been a key point of dispute between Pakistan and India since the two countries split after the end of British colonial rule. They each control part of Kashmir and have fought two wars over the region.
Since 1989, rebels have fought India's rule in the portion of Kashmir it controls. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal of uniting the territory, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.