The month of Ramadan has significance beyond the physical rigour of depriving oneself of food and drink, being punctual in prayer, and offering alms. For many, the regimen is a school for disciplining body and spirit, and besides experiencing the pangs of the underprivileged, an exercise in discovering the reserves of spiritual and mental strength within one’s self, training oneself to limit one’s needs and wants, and imbuing life with simplicity, thrift and austerity.
Again, the virtues of generosity and sharing symbolised in the month take practical shape in many Muslim societies where the trading community slashes rates of their merchandise, which not only boosts sales but also brings hitherto out-of-reach commodities within the range of modest and low incomes. Certainly a good way to earn goodwill in this world and the next.
But despite the hype associated with the holy month in Kashmir, practical life here turns into a negation of almost all ethical values linked to the concept of fasting and Ramadan. Far from easing their profit margins, traders hike prices, and instead of ensuring smooth and unfettered supplies, stash essentials away to create artificial scarcities, and fuel a roaring black market.
Government departments supposed to monitor prices and check profiteering – otherwise in hibernation – come to life, but only to the extent of issuing press releases. Market checking squads have increasingly curtailed even their symbolic appearances in busy commercial centres.
And shops do not display their official rate-lists even as a festival decoration.
Even as the power of consumer resistance cannot be denied (Kashmir rarely opts for such achievable goals), shoppers cannot be expected to turn themselves into haggling hordes at every step when not protected by the arms of authority. Even a good natured appeal for a fair price invites contemptuous and peremptory retorts if not summary physical eviction from the premises of a store or shop.
There is another side to the story too. Traders often claim that government officials extract money to allow them to remain in business. The customary hafta has to be dutifully paid to ensure a hassle-free day at the shop. The recipients include those tasked with preventing profiteering and hoarding. A classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.