It has been one year since India, led by Narendra Modi’s right-wing government, has stripped the northern State of Jammu and Kashmir of its last vestiges of autonomy and statehood, splitting it into two Union territories directly administered by the Centre. A move that is seen as the coronation of New Delhi’s will to annihilate a territory longing for self-determination. It has been one year since the Muslim–majority state, disputed between India and Pakistan, was put under a strict military lockdown: shops and schools were shut, movement was banned. Section 144, which prohibits unlawful assembly, was imposed in many areas while the internet and telephone lines were cut. Kashmir was left dazed, besieged by 38,000 troops in addition to those already patrolling what is considered the world’s most militarized area. “To put it mildly, the August 5 decision was a blow to Kashmir’s collective sense of pride”, wrote journalist Gowhar Geelani, who is among the three Kashmiri journalists arrested this year for “unlawful activities”.
In the aftermath of the unilateral abrogation of autonomy, thousands of people have been arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Public Safety Act – often used to silence dissent – including Kashmir’s top political leaders. A strict curfew impeded basic daily activities and few independent news outlets challenged the official narrative depicting “normalcy” in the valley. When article 370 was scrapped on August 5th of last year, the government claimed the move would usher development in the valley, yet nothing could be farther from the truth. The Kashmiri economy suffered a heavy blow: 4.5 million euros were lost; an estimated half a million people lost their jobs as business closed. After months of lockdown with roadblocks, barricades and internet blackouts – one of the longest ever imposed in a democracy – another lockdown, this time due to the Covid-19 emergency, was enforced at the end of March, all over India, in an attempt to curb the spread of the disease.
The only difference with the previous months for Kashmiris – besides the scope, of course – was that the internet had been partially reactivated in the valley. Early in March, connectivity was finally restored; though only 2G networks were available, and only for a list of whitewashed websites. Kashmir has been under a permanent state of emergency for 12 months now. “Kashmiris are morally, physically and economically crushed, we have lost hope. After 70 years of occupation, 30 years of repression, last year came the final blow, not even the United Nations has taken up the matter”, a Srinagar resident tells Reset DOC on condition of anonymity out of fear of backlash, “It’s a dictatorship now in the valley, we have no voice”. He says that people have managed to survive during these long months of lockdown only due the Islamic donation system, Bait-ul-Maal: people who are better-off, donate whatever they can to the mosques, that redistribute it to families in need. “We have created a group of NGOs, volunteers and donors: we get informed about families in need and reach out to them. But this self-help network cannot go on forever, it is our emergency mechanism to sustain each other. Even on Eid-ul-Adha (an Islamic festival celebrating sacrifice) people were not allowed to move, anyways there is little to celebrate here. We live under siege” he says in a whisper.
“Ever since August 4th, 2019, when section 144 was imposed, you do not see anyone being able to speak out and criticize government actions. Security forces’ operations against militants [the separatist armed guerrilla that has gripped the valley since the late 80s] have continued to rise, from August right through the pandemic. True, there has been a fall in the number of casualties in this period, but incidents of violence and the number of casualties have begun to increase since April”, Radha Kumar explains, a former interlocutor for Jammu and Kashmir and co-head of a civil society group that has published a report on the human rights violations perpetrated toward civilians in the past year. Civil and political rights are being trampled on in the valley. “There have been no elections in Kashmir since the imposition of the governor’s rule in 2016. It is absolutely outrageous, a blow to democracy. The state was divided, so was the police, a new domicile law was implemented, which takes away the right to permanent residence, mining contracts were opened to anyone. A new media policy was introduced, which implies a high level of censorship for local papers: security agencies now have the authority to decide which outlet is allowed. All these major steps have been taken in a situation where there is absolutely no consultation with any representative of the people, let alone with the people directly. The fundamental pillars of democracy are being removed”, Kumar adds.
Together with article 370 of the Constitution, which granted Kashmir a certain degree of autonomy within the Indian Union besides issues relating to foreign affairs, defense, and communications – which was crucial for Kashmir’s Accession to India in 1947 – article 35A prevented anyone who is not a permanent resident of Kashmir from purchasing property and settling in the state, hence granting special rights and privileges to its residents. It was widely perceived as a safeguard for the autonomy of the valley to preserve the distinctive culture of its people. After India passed a new law in May that allows non–locals to become permanent residents of the Muslim-majority territory with the aim of encouraging investment in the region, fears are rising among the population of cultural and demographic assimilation. Last week, the local administration also withdrew a 1971 circular that made it mandatory for security forces to obtain a “no objection certificate” to acquire land in the region.
August 5, this year, will mark another significant event in India: the first stone of the Ram Mandir is to be laid in Ayodhya. The place has become a symbol of Hindu extremism and revanchism against India’s Muslim past since 1992, when a Hindu mob destroyed a 16th-century mosque believed to be located on the very birthplace of Hindu deity Rama. Last year, the Supreme Court gave the green light for the construction of the Hindu temple, despite the unlawful demolition of the mosque by Hindu fanatics. August 5th will thus mark the annexation of Kashmir and the building of the Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid, both at the core of Hindutva (hardline–Hindu supremacist ideology) forces’ agenda. “Inaugurating a temple on a site were a criminal act took place that led to a carnage, and to time it with the anniversary of revoking the special status of Kashmir, when you reopened the old wounds of an eight million forgotten population – this is the ugly dance of fascism”, wrote journalist Rana Ayyub on social media.
Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP
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