Kashmir simmers under India’s siege
Maria Tavernini 28 August 2019

Weeks after India revoked the constitutional provisions that granted a certain degree of autonomy to the part of Kashmir under its control, the first confirmed figures are slowly emerging from the valley, besieged under a strict curfew and a complete telecommunication lockdown since past August 4th. India’s decision to abolish the state’s nominal autonomy is the most far-reaching move in the region in the last 70 years and has been pushed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a development-focused action to “mainstream” the only Muslim-majority state in the subcontinent. While the government —which justified the shutdown as “preventive” — and the leading Indian media outlets are propagating an image of the region as slowly returning to “normalcy”, the reality on the ground, as documented by the New York Times, is very different. Kashmir is simmering under the siege.

Ever since the BJP government imposed the massive lockdown, the first confirmed figures are starting to leak out of the valley. Government sources told AP that at least 2300 people have been imprisoned in Indian-administered Kashmir over fears of violent outbreaks. They are being held under the controversial Public Safety Act, which allows people to be detained for two years without charge or trial. A fact-finding team also revealed that children and adolescents have been taken from their houses and detained for no reason. Authorities have only confirmed a total of 100 people — among them, local politicians and activists — have been detained. Even as the government claims that no manifestations of dissent have occurred whatsoever, some 300 low-intensity protests have reportedly erupted across the valley in the past weeks, especially in Soura and Baramulla, where locals erected barricades and police shelled tear gas and shot pellets at protesters, injuring hundreds.

 

Intractable dispute

Nestled in the Himalayas, the historical region of Kashmir — today divided into the Indian-administered territory (two-thirds of the total area), the Pakistani-administered territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, and some small Chinese-administered areas — is at the centre of a 70-year territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, who have fought two of their three wars over it. The part administered by New Delhi, until now part of India’s northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir, has been marked by a 30-year-long separatist insurgency that has legitimised the oppressive presence of Indian military and paramilitary forces in the disputed region, considered the world’s most militarised area. In an attempt to extinguish the armed insurgency that has gripped the valley, civilians have since the early 1990s been under a de facto occupation: abuses, torture, abductions, rapes and mass blinding have become so common they seldom make news.

 

A sudden coup

In an unprecedented move, on August 5th , the Minister of Home Affairs, Amit Shah — the number two in the BJP’s leadership team — announced a rushed decree abolishing Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution. Art. 370 guarantees the region its own constitution, flag and legislative freedom (except for defence, communications and foreign affairs) while Art. 35A extends special rights to its residents. On the same day, speaking to the upper House of the parliament, Shah introduced a “reorganisational bill” for Jammu and Kashmir — the state has been under direct presidential rule since December 2018 when its assembly was dissolved — splitting the state in two and downgrading it into two Union Territories directly administered by the central government. A step likely to further deteriorate already turbulent relations with Pakistan, destabilising the entire region.

Widely regarded as a constitutional coup (raising questions about its constitutionality), the move has sparked a range of feelings in India, where the ruling BJP — the political expression of the Hindu nationalist far-right that won a resounding mandate at the latest general elections — has deployed aggressive rhetoric about communal issues and a narrow idea of a Hindu-only India. The abrogation of the state’s special status came as no surprise, though, being one of the key points of the party’s 2019 election manifesto. Yet, due to the total shutdown of all means of communication (internet, landlines, mobiles, TVs, post), it has been hard to assess how Kashmiris have been reacting to the news in the first place. The lockdown has also made no space for challenges to the official narrative manufactured by the BJP, depicting a calm, peaceful Kashmir. Journalists have been struggling to bring news out of the valley amid the lockdown. Their reports from the ground depict a situation very different from the official narrative: namely, people living in fear (and anger), besieged by the army with barbed wire on the streets, and drones and helicopters in sky.

In the run-up to the constitutional coup, early in August, the Indian government issued an alert inviting all tourist and pilgrims visiting the state for the annual Hindu pilgrimage of Amarnath to leave the region for safety reasons. The government cited a terror threat, reportedly from Pakistan, which India has long accused of supporting pro-independence terrorist organisations in Kashmir. This prompted Delhi to sent 40,000 additional troops to the valley, adding to the 700,000 already stationed in the disputed region. Following the massive deployment of force, tension gripped the valley, with locals rushing to stock up on essentials. The day after, people woke up to an indefinite curfew and a massive lockdown imposed in the region, with local politicians placed under house arrest.

 

Voices from the siege

For three weeks now, Kashmir has been buried under a thick silence. Local newspapers’ websites were last updated on August 4th while reporters had to transport their articles and photos out of the state on USBs, and many got their footages deleted. The government claims everything is under control and going back to “normal”, while pharmacies are running out of medicines due to the curfew and ban on movements. After some restrictions were lifted in some parts of the region last week, security measures were again tightened when a protest was called after last Friday’s payers to oppose the decision of stripping the disputed region of its special status. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged India to lift all restriction, saying “the blackout is a form of collective punishment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, without even a pretext of a precipitating offence”. Following the growing tension between the two nuclear neighbours — both of which fully claim the region — on August 16th the UN Security Council held its first meeting on Kashmir in decades, yet failed to come up with a concerted statement. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, said his government would take the Kashmir dispute to the International Court of Justice.

 

Fuelling violence

With an entire political class (not only the separatist leaders but also those who have sided with India) torn out of the scene and a population forced into silence, the fear is that the simmering resentment in the valley could fuel violent unrest, radicalize also the most peaceful civilians and bring the two nuclear rivals again to the brink of war. Just like last February, when a separatist militant rammed into a convoy of Indian paramilitaries killing over 40 troops. The attack — the worse on Indian security personnel ever recorded — triggered an irresponsible military stand-off between India and Pakistan. The few voices that have managed to overcome the isolation in which India has thrown the region in the past weeks, speak of betrayal. Kashmiris feel betrayed by India. Its constitution granted the former princely state a certain degree of autonomy that acted as a guarantee against the fear of assimilation. But India’s democracy has failed Kashmiris, over and over again.

During the Partition of British India, when a Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority (yet secular) India were created from the ashes of the British Empire, Kashmir was an autonomous princely state called to decide on which side to adhere, amid the massive migration of millions of people from one side to the other of the newly created, yet disputed, border. The state, on the fault lines between the two new nations and with its mainly Muslim population, was then ruled by a Hindu regnant, Maharaj Hari Singh of the Dogra dynasty, who had sided for independence. In the stormy circumstances that followed the Partition, after the invasion of Pakistani irregulars into Kashmir, Hari Singh asked India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for military support. The “instrument of accession” that was signed with India in 1948 allowing Indian troops to enter Kashmir, contained constitutional guarantees for the region’s special status and planted the seeds of the long-standing controversy. It was meant to be ratified through a referendum: but the people of Kashmir were never given a say in the matter. The referendum was also among the points recommended by the UN Resolution 47 to solve the Kashmir dispute, but this also went unheeded.

“The architecture of the separatist ideology, like the disputed status of Jammu and Kashmir itself, rests on two pillars: the first, on the international level, is the UN resolution that envisaged the population of Kashmir being able to choose, through a referendum, whether to join India or Pakistan. The second, on the national scale, was substantiated by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which established, from the legislative, administrative and demographic point of view, a protection of the former principality’s autonomy”, explains to Reset Doc Simone Mestroni, a visual anthropologist who has studied the Kashmiri dispute and separatist struggle, author of the book Linee di Controllo (2018, Meltemi Ed) and the documentary After Prayers (2018). “At the base of these two pillars — now eroded by the oblivion of international politics and Delhi’s inference — there are thousands of stories of martyrs who sacrificed their lives for independence that still permeate the collective memory. A surrender before Modi’s recent move, in this perspective, would coincide with an impossible betrayal of the deepest feelings, for which the respect of the ancestors and an anti-India sentiment have now become one”.

India’s abrogation of the state’s autonomy was a body blow to the independence aspirations of Kashmir’s population, yet it is unlikely it will have them bow down to this unilateral act of force.

 

Photo: Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP


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