Kashmir and the darkest days of Indian democracy

Srinagar in 2010.
Srinagar in 2010. Author: Flickr user Kashmir Global. CC BY 2.0.
In the streets of Srinagar, phones have not been ringing for seven weeks now. Since the Indian government decided, 5 August, to dissolve the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and withdraw its special autonomy status, the most militarized region in the world is living under an “emergency closure.” The closure of educational centres, restrictions on public transport and vehicle movement, and the ban on street meetings of more than four people, are some of the restrictions which, although relaxed over the course of the days, continue to be imposed on the territory. While the Kashmir Valley cries ‘azadi’ freedom—, New Delhi celebrates annexation as a pending victory since 1947.

Days before the decision, New Delhi was displacing an additional 45,000 troops into Kashmir under the pretext of a terrorist threat against the Amarnath Yatra, an annual pilgrimage by thousands of Hindus to a Himalayan cave, and urged all devotees and tourists to leave the valley. On the eve of 5 August, three of J&K’s top political leaders were placed under house arrest, and telecommunications of 7 million Kashmiris were disrupted. A few hours later, the region’s former chief minister Mehboob Mufti referred to the events to come as “the darkest day of Indian democracy.”

The only Muslim-majority Indian state, Jammu and Kashmir has been a disputed territory between India and Pakistan since decolonization. In May 2019, ultra-nationalist Hindu government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi secured a historic re-election with a promise to suspend the region’s special status, an initiative it launched 5 August when Interior Minister Amit Shah announced in Parliament that the Executive had signed the decree abolishing Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. That stripped Jammu and Kashmir from privileges such as the right to a Constitution and a flag of its own, while dividing the region into two parts under the direct control of New Delhi.

The loss of the special status also entailed the abolition of article 35A, which granted special rights and privileges to residents of Jammu and Kashmir. From now on, citizens of the rest of India can buy property in the region and live there permanently. The move has been criticised by many human rights activists as the first of many steps to come by the Modi government to alter demographics and ultimately replace the Muslim majority in the Kashmir Valley the epicentre of the independence movement with a Hindu one. Writer Arundhati Roy, one of Modi’s harshest critics, pointed to the illegal Israeli settlements and the Chinese occupation of Tibet as referents of a Delhi assimilation policy that has been going on for decades, not only in Kashmir but also in other Indian states where Hindus are not in the majority.

The ghosts of partition

While the Modi government’s unilateral decision was described by regionalist parties as an “aggression against the people,” and Pakistan strongly condemned what it defined as an “illegal decision” contrary to UN resolutions, Hindu nationalism welcomed the news as a pending victory since the partition of British India into two states according to religious criteria: India and Pakistan.

The armed conflict in Jammu and Kashmir —now one of the longest in history— began in 1947 when Maharaja Hari Singh, the Hindu ruler of the then Muslim-majority princely state, decided to remain neutral, and not to join either of the two newborn countries. In order to force a decision, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan sent armed men to Jammu and Kashmir, seeking to trigger a popular uprising. Those events led Hari Singh to request military aid from Jawaharlal Nehru’s India. The clash gave way to the First Indo-Pakistani War (1947-1948). The agreement between Hari Singh and Nehru would become the so-called Instrument of Accession, which incorporated the region into India and gave the Indian Parliament powers to legislate in the fields of defense, foreign affairs and communications.

India, in turn, soon raised the Kashmir issue within the United Nations Security Council, which called on Pakistan to withdraw its troops and on India to reduce its military presence in the region as much as possible, while calling for a referendum on self-determination in Kashmir. Neither the referendum ever materialised —despite the promise of then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru— nor did Pakistan completely withdraw from a region that has ended up divided between three powers: Muslim Kashmir Valley, Hindu Jammu and Buddhist Ladakh taken by India, the western and northern parts by Pakistan, and the virtually unpopulated areas of Demchok, Shaksgam and Aksai Chin by China.

Belittled in the midst of a struggle between regional powers, mostly non-violent demands for self-determination by the Kashmiri people became a bloody freedom struggle in 1989, with the emergence of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) armed group.

Life in the time of intifada

With an estimated half a million Indian soldiers, Kashmir is the most densely militarized area in the world. Not only the army, but a network of national intelligence agencies have woven a network of informants, double and triple agents, that constrain normal life in the valley. Tension, fear and insurgency are usual there. The emergence of JKLF —fighting for independence or annexation to Pakistan— and other guerrilla organisations, such as Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, which are suspected of receiving support from Islamabad, led to decades of violent clashes and repression in the valley. It is estimated that, since 1989, more than 70,000 Kashmiris have been killed, tens of thousands have been tortured, and thousands have gone missing.

The Pandits, a Hindu minority in the region, were among the first victims of the armed insurgency. Although no exact figure on the number of Pandits that migrated or exiled from the valley is available, consensus varies between 150,000 to 300,000 individuals. The Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti Association decries insecurity with which the 800 remaining Pandit families live there, forgotten by the Indian government which at the same time exploits their pain and losses to justify violence against Muslim Kashmiri communities.

During Narendra Modi’s first term as prime minister of India, human rights violations in the valley intensified in brutality and frequency. Arbitrary and systematic use of the Public Security Act (PSA), which allows for pretrial detention of people without charge or trial for a period of up to two years, was reported by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations. According to UN data, more than 1,000 Kashmiris —including minors— were detained between March 2016 and August 2017 under the PSA. New Delhi replied by calling the complaint a “fallacy” and a “violation of India’s sovereignty and integrity.”

Another law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), gives legal immunity to the Indian armed forces for their actions in Jammu and Kashmir. It has prevented any member of the security forces from being tried by a civilian court since its implementation in 1990, thus creating a climate of impunity for human rights violations.

“Walking in front of an armed Indian soldier is a constant source of fear and physical insecurity, as it represents part of the state machinery that uses sexual violence as a weapon against Kashmiri women,” says Samreen Mushtaq, a researcher specializing in gender and armed conflict. In 2013, some 50 women filed a joint petition to the Indian Supreme Court to reopen the rape cases of Kunan and Poshpora villages. In February 1991, the Indian army allegedly raped there between 23 and 100 women. Despite an order from the High Court of Kashmir that the victims receive compensation, AFSPA continues to protect the perpetrators. Sexual violence is also employed by militants against women they suspect are police informants.

“Kashmiri women are hit twice by conflict, not only by violence against their bodies but also by the disappearance of their husbands or children, by emotional trauma linked to losses and to be left without the family’s main source of income,” contextualizes Ather Zia, poet and professor of Anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado. Zia has been studying for years the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), which organizes a protest on the 10th of each month to ask the Indian authorities for an answer on the whereabouts of 8,000 to 10,000 Kashmiris who have been victims of enforced disappearances. Most of them were young men who had little in common beyond having no connection with paramilitaries or armed groups operating in Kashmir.

Between 2000 and 2008 there was a substantial change in the nature of Kashmiri resistance to occupation, as it chose civil disobedience in the face of armed struggle. However, the Indian government maintained the same response, at least by increasing its strength. “The death of Burhan Wani in July 2016 gave way to a new era where New Delhi not only hunts armed militancy, but all kinds of ideological dissent,” explains Zia. The impact of Wani’s death was the most significant one in the region since 1989, not only because of the civilian uprising that preceded it —with more than 120 civilians killed by the army— but because it embodied a new wave of armed struggle in Kashmir.

“Youths are today divided into two halves. One believes in armed struggle; the other supports peaceful resistance,” adds Zia. A member of the Hizbul Mujahideen with lots of followers in social networks, Wani was an example of a part of a generation of upper-middle class youths who have joined an armed insurgency that, years before, had been reduced to almost a hundred guerrillas.

In response to protests over Wani’s death, New Delhi decreed a curfew in all ten districts of the Kashmir Valley and suspended internet access for five months. Protests also brought about a change in the strategy of the Indian authorities, which went on to use air pistols to control demonstrators, giving way to what some point to as the world’s first case of mass blindness. Two years later, the Jammu and Kashmir Civil Society Coalition (JKCCS) warned that 586 people had died in 2018 as a result of the conflict —including 267 members of armed groups, 159 members of security forces and 160 civilians—, the largest number of victims since 2008.

A war of narratives

Seven weeks after the loss of special status, Jammu and Kashmir is going through an unprecedented suspension of telecommunications. “With the exception of some fixed telephones, all other forms of communication remain banned. Thus, no one has a clear understanding of the situation in the rest of the districts, or even in their town,” explains journalist Aakash Hassan. Broadcasters like the BBC are talking about 3,000 people arrested, including Farooq Abdullah, president of the pro-Indian National Conference. The figures are denied by both the army and the Indian government. “The conditions are such that the government has had to set up guest houses as prisons,” he adds.

“Some journalists have been interrogated by the authorities to reveal their sources, others have been arrested and/or assaulted while covering news,” says Hassan, who has been covering events on the ground for weeks. Their movements limited by barricades and checkpoints, reporters need to queue up to get access to an internet connection which they can use a mere 15 minutes a day. For decades, Kashmiri journalists have faced threats, intimidation and interrogation, but conditions had never been as disheartening as they are now.

Haris Zargar, a journalist and researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, was in Kashmir for the first two weeks of August. He explains how the situation in the valley’s hospitals is critical: “Hospitals have sent patients home, as many machines have stopped working and medication is missing, while ambulances no longer pick up sick people because there is no way to communicate with them,” he explains. Many tertiary care centres are located in Srinagar, the capital, but it is virtually impossible to reach there from some rural areas.

With access to communications being restricted, the Kashmiri people have been relegated to the category of a voiceless actor in a conflict presented by the media as an antagonism between regional powers. “Modi is an extension of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh —a Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation— and of its conception of India as the nation of Hindus, a project that he wants to implement in Kashmir,” Haris Zargar argues. “Now, this time it seems that New Delhi’s main motivation has been geostrategic,” he adds. According to Zargar, the rapprochement of Imran Khan’s Pakistani government to the US as a facilitator of recently cancelled peace negotiations in Afghanistan, added to the offer of US President Donald Trump to Khan to mediate in the Kashmir conflict, could have motivated Delhi to act.

“With regard to China, Delhi hoped that a bad management of the Kashmir conflict by Islamabad would generate mistrust in the former and stop the Asian giant’s investments in Pakistan”, Zargar concludes. India and China have a border dispute over China-occupied Aksai Chin and a small part of Pakistani Kashmir. The Chinese Foreign Affairs spokesman has described the suspension of the region’s autonomy as “unacceptable and non-binding.”

Incidents such as that of Pulwama —a suicide attack that killed 40 Indian soldiers in February 2019— and the subsequent Indian bombing of an alleged Jaish-e-Muhammed insurgent training camp in Balakot (Pakistan) moved the focus of Kashmir towards a conflict between India and Pakistan. A narrative turnaround that allowed Modi to consolidate a large majority in the May general election, helped by Indian media that, when talking about the idyllic landscapes of the region and the existence of terrorist groups, do not mention the strong militarization of the valley and the demands for self-determination. Aware of the anger and disappointment with which the Kashmiri people have lived the last few weeks, Modi knows that the real challenge will come when the streets of Srinagar speak again.