In a night raid on 14 May, scores of police officers barged into the Padshahi Bagh neighbourhood in Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest city, arresting at least 21 people for chanting pro-Palestine slogans. Among those arrested was Mudasir Gul, 32, a mural artist who created a painting that read “We Are Palestine” and showed a sobbing woman with her head wrapped in a Palestanian flag.
A video of young people standing close to the mural with Palestine flags in their hands and chanting pro-Gaza slogans went viral. The act of solidarity with Palestine agitated the state apparatus to such an extent that it detained all the demonstrators.
The authorities are worried that these small mobilisations may foster larger anti-India agitation in the Himalayan Kashmir region, which is why New Delhi is suppressing what it figures might be the catalyst for a wider social movement.
“I have been painting portraits [and] landscapes for a long time. But lately I have realised that I could express the pain. When I painted a solidarity mural for Palestine, I assumed this wouldn’t be seen as an anti-state activity. But unfortunately it landed me in jail,” said Gul.
The public outcry over these arrests flooded social media, putting pressure on the government, which released 17 of the 21 detainees. Gul was among those released. But Sarjan Barkati, 51, a cleric who had been arrested on 15 May after giving a sermon that showed support for Palestine at a mosque in southern Kashmir, was not. He had said, “Oh, oppressed people of Palestine, we are with you.”
“A number of police vehicles came and took him away,” said Shabroza Jan, the cleric’s wife. “My husband has been arrested for speaking for Palestine.”
This is not the first time Barkati has been detained. He was arrested in July 2016 when Kashmir erupted in protest over the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani, 22, by government forces in Kokernag, a town 85km from Srinagar. Barkati led anti-India protests, chanting slogans in a style that earned him the nickname “Azadi Chacha [Freedom Uncle]”.
The protests lasted six months and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100 people at the hands of government forces. The cleric was booked under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA) in September 2016 and released four years later, on 28 October 2020. The act allows authorities to imprison any individual it deems suspicious for four years without trial.
“I was allowed to meet my husband for a brief moment after he was arrested two days after the Eid festival. Police told me categorically not to visit him anymore. We have a 13-year-old daughter who has hardly seen her father in the last five years. Every time I think about his release, I fear [that] they will book him [under] another PSA,” Shabroza said.
Pattern of intimidation
The militarised region has seen repeated communication blackouts, mass arrests, torture, surveillance, public harassment and repeated implementation of draconian laws to curb dissent.
On 10 May, police in the Kupwara district registered cases against 20 individuals for raising pro-freedom and “provocative slogans” during the funeral of Mohammad Sehrai, chairperson of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. He died in mysterious circumstances in a hospital in Jammu on 5 May, after being transferred from prison when his health deteriorated.
Before this, authorities in Kashmir charged Mushtaq Wani for organising a month-long peaceful protest campaign to demand the remains of his son, Athar Mushtaq. The teenager had been killed by security forces on 31 December. Along with Wani, six other protesters were booked under the stringent anti-terror law in southern Kashmir’s Pulwama early in February.
The PSA and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) has been frequently used against pro-freedom activists, journalists, protesters and against all voices that question the conduct of law enforcement agencies in Kashmir.
In a similar case, at least 10 youngsters were charged under the UAPA in south Kashmir’s Shopian for allegedly taking part in a cricket tournament organised in memory of slain militant commander Syed Ruban, 23, in September 2020.
Over the past two years, authorities have repeatedly invoked draconian laws against individuals they deem critical of the establishment. New legislation, including domicile laws and land policies, have also created an atmosphere of fear and resentment.
Authorities have justified the arrests by saying they want to stop the “cynical exploitation of public anger to trigger violence, lawlessness and disorder on Kashmir’s streets”. Kashmir’s police chief, Vijay Kumar, has stressed that police are keeping a close watch on “elements who are attempting to leverage the unfortunate situation in Palestine to disturb public peace and order in the Kashmir valley”.
Bond of solidarity
People in Kashmir have shown solidarity with Palestine for a long time. When an Australian Jew tried to burn the al-Aqsa mosque in 1969, a large procession filled the streets of Kashmir in anger, condemning the attack on the third holiest site for Muslims.
From 1970 to the 1990s, students spearheaded pro-Palestine campaigns and protests. With the advent of armed rebellion against Indian rule in the 1990s, and then the major shift towards peaceful demonstrations from 2010 onwards, street protests have amplified this sentiment.
A recent form of protest has been to create pro-Palestine murals, graffiti and slogans across the walls of Srinagar’s downtown and elsewhere in the region. Pro-freedom parties like the Hurriyat Conference, meanwhile, hold demonstrations on al-Quds Day, which takes place every year at the end of Ramadan. During one such pro-Gaza demonstration in 2014, Indian forces opened fire on protesters, killing grade 9 pupil Suhail Ahmad in Khudwani in southern Kashmir.
People in Kashmir believe they are able to better understand the marginalisation of settler colonialism and apartheid from their lived experiences, which draws them to Palestine and to strongly opposing the Israeli atrocities.
“Kashmiris may imbibe the Palestinian traits of resistance and puncture the balloon of enforced normalcy, which New Delhi tries to market desperately in the region,” said political analyst Sheikh Showkat Hussain, author of Kashmir: Palestine in the Making.
In response to Kashmiri sympathy towards the Palestinian struggle, the national committee of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has expressed its solidarity in being against the unilateral changes New Delhi is imposing on Kashmir.
As part of a global movement comprising unions, academic associations and grassroots collectives across the globe, the committee noted that Kashmir is often projected by the mainstream media as a contentious issue between India and Pakistan – the two nuclear-armed states – and “never as a people with their own aspirations and United Nations-stipulated rights”.
“As Palestinians, we deeply feel the suffering of the people in Kashmir under military repression that in so many cases is similar to Israeli forms of subjugation and control,” said the committee, adding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s moves against Kashmir and its people look a lot like how Israel unilaterally annexed Syria’s occupied Golan Heights and Palestine’s occupied East Jerusalem.
“Furthermore, the Israeli weapons that India uses to oppress Kashmiris have been ‘field-tested’ on Palestinian bodies … By calling for a military embargo on Israel, we also call for ending the ties that are facilitating the current siege and crackdown in Kashmir. That will be an effective way to truly stop the implementation of the Israeli model in Kashmir,” the coalition of Palestinians organisations stated.