A year of turmoil and traumatic loss in Kashmir

Twelve months after India moved to annex the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, battered Kashmiris are living their worst fears of losing their land, rights and freedom.

A year after the Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi unilaterally revoked the longstanding autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), inhabitants of this disputed Himalayan region are still seething with rage and shock. A sense of loss and despair has gripped the people, whose collective as well as individual sovereignty remains under an existential assault.

As if striking down the autonomy was not enough to punish the “defiant” Kashmiris that have long challenged Delhi’s rule in the state, Modi’s government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has sought to hasten the process of the state’s “forceful integration” into the Indian dominion. It has pushed legislation that has left residents with not only a sense of humiliation but also an uncertain fate, which many say now mirrors the Palestinian nation.  

The Modi government scrapped a 70-year-old law of the Indian Constitution on 5 August last year, Article 370, which guaranteed the region autonomy in its internal affairs. The government also struck down another crucial legal protection, Article 35A, which forbade Indians from becoming domiciled in J&K and barred them from settling in the region. The Indian authorities imposed severe restrictions on people’s movement – ailing medical patients and schoolgoing children included – and blocked communication in the area, halting cellphone and internet service.

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Kashmiris were restricted to their homes and residents who were with relatives or outside the region for personal or professional reasons at the time were stuck with no news from their spouses, children, family or friends. It was an unprecedented clampdown that the people of the region had not witnessed before, despite decades of war and violence, and perhaps has no parallels in contemporary history. The clampdown continued for months with people living in fear, crisis and uncertainty.

Undeclared emergency

Twelve months after Article 370 was scrapped, Kashmir is still under an “undeclared state of emergency”. Restrictions remain in place, particularly on high-speed internet access. This means Kashmiris can only access the internet through obsolete 2G technology. It takes time to open websites and play videos, including on social media.

As the government moved to revoke this article of law – which was introduced as a condition for the Himalayan region’s controversial accession with the union of India, right after it gained independence from the British empire in 1947 – thousands of Kashmiri politicians, including three former chief ministers of J&K, were arrested. Although some of them were released after being detained for nine months, many remain incarcerated. The majority were forced to sign pledges that they would not speak publicly or hold political rallies again,  effectively silencing opposition to the government. 

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The Indian authorities arrested not only politicians, who are referred to as mainstream by virtue of being “pro-India”, but also lawyers, businesspeople, traders, activists, clerics and social representatives. Most importantly, they arrested those who represent anti-India sentiment on the ground, called “pro-freedom” leaders.

J&K High Court Bar Association president Mian Abdul Qayoom remains incarcerated despite suffering from multiple health ailments, including cardiac issues, hypertension and diabetes. The 70-year-old lawyer, who only has one kidney after surviving an assassination attempt in the 1990s, was shifted from Agra Jail in the state of Uttar Pradesh to Tihar Jail in New Delhi when his condition worsened in the absence of medical care.

A trial of torture and abuses

Following the abrogation of Article 370, the government carried out a massive crackdown on people in the urban centres and rural areas of Kashmir. Many were tortured heavily – subjected to waterboarding and electric shocks to their genitals – by the Indian army in areas of South Kashmir such as Shopian, Pulwama and Kulgam, to discourage people from speaking out against the government’s action. In the capital city of Srinagar, which has a population of around 1.2 million people, the J&K police illegally detained more than 500 children under the age of 18. Some of these children have alleged that officers tortured them inside the police stations.

Global human rights groups called out the actions of armed forces, in which the civilian administration was complicit, after the act was scrapped. Amnesty International India released a report in October 2019 documenting what it referred to as “a clear pattern” of security personnel using excessive force and intimidation to minimise reporting of the situation. “Almost every detained person interviewed described being beaten and threatened. In several instances … police officers appear to have ransacked homes and knowingly damaged public and private properties,” says the report.

As people in Kashmir were confined to their homes because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was no let-up in the armed forces’ counterinsurgency operations. According to J&K police data, as many as 120 militants were killed in the region between 1 January and 30 June, with most killed since the outbreak of the coronavirus. Indian forces continued operations against local militants in civilian and residential areas, which in almost all cases resulted in massive destruction of civilian properties. In one such operation at Nawakadal in the heart of Srinagar, the armed forces razed nearly two dozen houses to kill two lightly armed militants, leaving the families homeless in the middle of the pandemic.

Nearly two dozen civilians have also been killed since January.

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Earlier this month, a newly formed rights group called the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir released a report titled Jammu and Kashmir: The impact of Lockdowns on Human Rights August 2019 – July 2020. It says the Indian government has prioritised counterinsurgency operations over public, civilian and human concerns, leading to an “across-the-board violation of human rights”.

The forum, which is made up of a former Supreme Court of India justice, prominent Indian bureaucrats, defence personnel, rights activists, academicians and diplomats, says that “in the same manner, the 11 months of lockdown – comprising closures, barricades, checkpoints and restrictions on mobile telephones and internet connectivity – have enormously impacted public health, and caused trauma and stress among the people of Jammu and Kashmir, violating the rights to health and medical care under the Indian, and Jammu and Kashmir, Constitutions”.

1 September 1990: A group crossing the Jhelum River near the burning Ali Kadal bridge. The bridge was set alight in response to the actions of the police in downtown Kashmir. (Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg/ Getty Images)

A battered nation

The onslaught carried out by the Indian government in the wake of the enforced clampdown in Kashmir also battered the region’s economy. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, a leading traders’ body, has estimated economic losses of more than 40 000 crores INR (about $5.4 billion) since August last year.

Economic losses have been compounded by back-to-back lockdowns, which the region first faced because of the government-imposed clampdown and then, since March, owing to Covid-19. Lockdowns in cities and towns in the rest of India have gradually eased, but the Kashmir region continues to remain under strict lockdown with increased barricades, checkpoints and a military presence on the ground.

Scholars Ather Zia, Haley Duschinski and Mona Bhan highlight that the elimination of autonomy has impacted negatively on people’s ability to earn and their access to land and natural resources. These assets, which fell under the ownership of the J&K state government and private individuals and corporations, are being assigned to the Indian central government and newly allocated domiciles from India. 

“While India was already exploiting Kashmir’s rivers for hydropower, mining businesses from different parts of India have expanded into J&K for the first time, as companies from Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have participated in public auctions and won leases to mine the union territory’s reserves of coal, marble and limestone, among other things,” they say. “Kashmiris fear that India’s extractive infrastructure in Kashmir along with the fortification of military settlements will further the process of land and resource alienation and normalise the discriminatory systems of segregation and apartheid.”

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As people were grappling with the emerging situation of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Indian government introduced new domicile laws that allow Indian citizens to buy property and become permanent residents in the region. Many said that the change in domicile rules for Kashmir was effectively meant to force a demographic change of this Muslim-majority state, by allowing entry to outsiders in the style of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine. These fears, it seems, were not misplaced, as Indian authorities have already granted more than 370 000 domiciles certificates since June.

The number of Kashmiri representatives in the state’s civil administration is now extremely small, as more and more Indian officers are given positions to run the state. “Now, an alien bureaucracy, supported by powerless Kashmiri civil servants who have been reduced to rubber stamps, seems to be implementing orders from New Delhi, totally dismissive of local sentiment, bereft of sensitivity to civil rights and political morality, and determined to dismantle the ethos and erase the history of the territory,” writes prominent Kashmiri journalist Parvaiz Bukhari. “For the moment, unable to fathom the pace of the sweeping historical changes being foisted on them, the isolated people of Kashmir appear caught in a wilderness between numbness and a silent rage,” he concludes.

Wider significance 

Kashmir is a mountainous region claimed and governed in part by India, China and Pakistan, which also remains at the core of a rivalry between two nuclear-armed neighbours, India and Pakistan. The countries have fought three wars, in 1948, 1965 and 1999, over the territory. In 1989, an armed insurgency broke out in the region against Indian rule as tens of thousands of Kashmiris plunged into militancy to fight the government with the aim of either creating an independent state or a merger with Pakistan.

Since then, residents of the region have been caught in a brutal conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. Even though the number of armed rebels in Kashmir today remains at less than 200, there is widespread hostility among residents, who view the Indian state as a “foreign occupational force”.

Some say that scrapping Article 370 has opened doors for China to participate actively in the conflict since the Indian government split J&K into two union territories – Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh – that Delhi administers. The vast mountainous region of Ladakh that shares a border with China is a disputed territory, parts of which are claimed by China. And the abrogation and subsequent division of the territory was seen as an act of aggression by the Chinese on their sovereignty.

“India’s unilateral annexation of Kashmir has also had significant geopolitical consequences,” say Zia, Duschinski and Bhan, concluding that India’s actions have risked further militarisation and destabilisation of the contested region.

15 November 2016: An autumn day in Srinagar in India-administered Kashmir. (Photograph by Reuters/ Danish Ismail)
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