SRINAGAR, India – After some persuasion, Mufti Waqar, a shy groom wearing a fancy fawn-colored turban and an embroidered long coat-like garment, reluctantly joined his friends and relatives to shake a leg the night before he was to marry his bride in Indian Kashmir.
As the boys and girls in colorful attire grooved through the “mehndi raat,” or the night of henna, Waqar’s uncle stepped in to sound caution.
He requested they keep the celebrations quiet so that people don’t think “we have forgotten what is happening” in Kashmir – the troubled Himalayan region battling renewed turmoil on the top of a three-decade-old armed rebellion against Indian rule.
Waqar’s parents had planned for a grand wedding for their firstborn, but their year-long preparations came to be an abrupt end on Aug. 4.
That was the day before the Indian government stripped the disputed region of its semi-autonomous status after deploying tens of thousands of troops in an unprecedented security lockdown and imposing a strict communications blackout, preempting possible protests against the move seen as a step to change the demographic makeup of the Muslim-majority state.
The security crackdown and subsequent political unrest threw the troubled state into fresh chaos in the thick of Kashmir’s marriage and tourism seasons – two of the main drivers of the economy of the impoverished region, which, according to the official data, has a per-capita income of $900, half of the national average of $1,800.
Restrictions on movement may have been eased in parts of Kashmir, but people are refusing to resume their normal lives and open their businesses as tensions run high amid a complete shutdown in protest against the government’s move to revoke the state’s special status.
The Muftis, like thousands of other Kashmiri families preparing for weddings, decided to cut short their three-day extravaganza that would have seen over 800 guests invited for a traditional 20-30 course Kashmiri feast called a “wazwan,” which involves rice eaten with varieties of lamb prepared in various sauces.
The guest list was trimmed to around 100 and the three-day affair was cut short to one. Wazwan dishes were also reduced to below the average for a normal Kashmiri wedding.
Waqar was still luckier than many other grooms-to-be, whose weddings were postponed until the next summer, which follows the snowy and harsh winter season (November-March) and a month of fasting in April-May.
Mohammed Yaseen, a Kashmiri business leader, said 8,000-10,000 wedding ceremonies are held in the region each year. A wedding costs anything between $10,000-40,000.
But this year has been different, with most of the celebrations either canceled or slashed “like a wartime austerity, which means a huge loss to an economy already in shatters,” Yaseen told EFE.
This has severely hit the businesses that rely on the wedding sector.
The Muftis had planned to cook more than one ton of meat to be prepared and served by a team of wedding chefs, known as wazas, who wear white smock garments and pointed caps.
The hosts ended up cooking only 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of lamb and served only seven or eight dishes instead of the 25 that had been planned.
The head chef, Nazeer Ahmed, told EFE that his business has crashed this year by about 75 percent.
“Thousands of laborers (who would work as temporary chefs with wazas) have lost their employment,” Ahmed said, as he rolled meatballs bigger than the size of a cricket ball with his bare hands before cooking them in yogurt.
Waqar’s father Fayaz, a well-known businessman in Kashmir, said it was “indeed tough” to decide on an austere wedding for his 30-year-old son.
“But no regrets as such,” he clarified. “The situation is so uncertain that we don’t know where it will stop.”
Waqar sounded grateful despite having dreamed of a grand event for his arranged marriage after his parents chose his bride – a tradition still in vogue in Kashmir.
“Alhamdulillah (thanks to Allah),” the groom said after the “nikah” ritual was performed and his uncle – acting as his solicitor – and two other witnesses signed the “nikah nammah” marriage contract on his behalf.
In the evening, Waqar and his 30 male relatives and close friends left in a cavalcade of about 10 cars to the bride’s home in a Srinagar neighborhood, located some 5 kilometers (3 miles) away from his house in an upscale enclave.
They drove through the deserted streets dotted by a heavy presence of security forces wearing anti-riot gear and carrying assault rifles.
The “baraat,” as the groom’s procession is called, feared that they would be stopped, frisked and questioned because the government has imposed restrictions on the assembly of four or more people.
But the procession led by the groom in a white sedan decorated with fresh flowers passed peacefully.
After having a lavish dinner at Waqar’s in-laws, the bride and groom returned home to a shower of almonds, chocolates and 10- and 20-rupee bills thrown by their female relatives, who sang traditional wedding songs.
“May you two and all of Kashmiris live long and in peace,” Waqar’s mother prayed, her eyes glistening and a hint of glee crossing her face.
“Where is peace? We have spent our lifetimes searching for it,” the groom replied.