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Until recently, droves of Indian tourists would stop by shops in Halmulla, where skilled craftsmen carve out bats of all sizes from locally grown willow. -File Photo

HALMULLA, India: In Indian-ruled Kashmir, few businesses have been spared in three months of violence and curfews, with the region's famed cricket bat manufacturers especially hard hit.

Until recently, droves of Indian tourists would stop by shops in Halmulla, one of 10 villages and hamlets where skilled craftsmen carve out bats of all sizes from locally grown willow.

Almost every family in the riverside district has a stake in the local industry, which began during British colonial rule on the subcontinent after willow was introduced to the Himalayan region.

Today, factory owners say daily anti-India protests that erupted on June 11 and have claimed 69 lives have been catastrophic for their businesses.

“We are still exporting bats to cities like Mumbai and New Delhi but the overall business has taken a nosedive due to the unrest,” said Mohammed Amin, who owns Good Luck Sports.

“Before the trouble, Indian traders used to visit us and order in bulk, but now no one comes,” said Amin, as he supervised his workers loading a consignment into a waiting truck.

“Some orders are made through telephone, but even if there are orders, we are finding it difficult to transport the goods outside as a majority of Indian truckers are avoiding Kashmir,” he said.

Inside his factory, a few workers add the finishing touches to the latest products, but huge piles of unfinished bat-sized blocks point to the collapse in sales.

“This village used to be abuzz with activities, but see what it looks like now,” said Amin, pointing to streets devoid of residents but full of Indian troops in full battle gear.

Kashmir's divided and violent modern history, like its cricket bat industry, has its roots in colonial rule on the subcontinent.

The Muslim-majority region has been fought over by India and Pakistan since the partition of British-ruled India in 1947, with the region now cut in two along a UN-monitored line of control.

Many on the Indian side reject rule from New Delhi and a violent insurgency that has claimed an estimated 47,000 lives has raged for much of the past 20 years.

The optimism generated from a lull in fighting last year has quickly dissipated in the face of the violent street protests led by unhappy and frustrated young Kashmiris.

Each death has spurred a new cycle of violence, curfews and strikes which have crippled businesses in the tourism-dependent region.

“Before the protests started we used to manufacture about 200 bats daily but the output has now fallen to 50 pieces,” said 60-year-old Abdul Ahad Dar, owner of New Sports Works, as he pointed to a huge stock of bats in his warehouse.

Even during the peak of the insurgency, the workers in Halmulla, 37 kilometres (23 miles) south of Kashmir's biggest town Srinagar, would work quietly at their craft using wood dried for seven months in local warehouses.

“Our villages were never affected by strikes and protests but this time the agitation is severe and our own sons and grandsons don't allow us to open the shops and factories,” added Dar.

The industry employs around 10,000 people and collectively manufactures nearly a million bats a year at prices ranging from 100 to 1,000 rupees (two to 20 dollars).

Most are sold to visiting Indian tourists, with the rest going directly to shops in the main cities of the cricket-obsessed country.

Willow arrived in Kashmir courtesy of the British, who imported the fast-growing tree to use as firewood and a material for bat manufacturing during colonial times.

The products today are widely used across the subcontinent by children and amateur players, though English willow remains the wood of choice for international big-hitters.

Public opinion in Kashmir is divided between a hardline faction who seek a merger of Indian Kashmir with Pakistan, others who want independence and a moderate group who seek meaningful autonomy.

A string of decades-old UN Security Council resolutions call for a referendum to allow the Kashmiri people to choose between India and Pakistan, but have never been implemented.

Despite the current hardship, factory owner Dar believes the protests will be worth it if they help resolve the deadlock over the status of the region.

One daily Indian newspaper reported Monday that the Indian government was considering partly repealing draconian laws that give security forces impunity in Kashmir, which would be a victory of sorts.

“If this agitation brings us permanent peace and resolution, it is worth it,” Dar said. “It is better to agitate than to live in a stalemate.” –AFP