By initiating gunfights with guerrilla fighters, jailing people for going to buy food and medicine, bringing charges against journalists, and beating doctors, paramedics and municipal workers, India is tightening its grip on Kashmir, seizing on pandemic measures to prevent a surge of resistance to its rule.
In August of last year, the nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked a special status for Kashmir that gave it greater autonomy as India’s only majority-Muslim state.
The residents of Kashmir are no strangers to life under restrictions. But today we are under siege. The streets and alleys of the capital, Srinagar, have been barricaded with coils of concertina wire and stone-filled oil drums, a crushing reminder of the long loss of freedom and dignity for the people of Kashmir. The trademark machismo of armed troopers in the street has given the pandemic lockdown a peculiarly surreal feel. It’s as if the virus is a tangible being and there is a hunt underway to catch it. Once they catch it, perhaps they would haul it to one of the torture chambers and make it disappear there, as the authorities have done with many locals.
India is used to responding with brutal force in Kashmir. Last year, after the government stripped it of its special status, the region came under a strict clampdown and the authorities cut off phone and Internet services (the longest Internet shutdown in the world’s largest so-called democracy), closed businesses, schools and universities, and left Kashmiris in limbo, confined to their homes. By changing the status, the Hindu right-wing government enabled Indian citizens to purchase property and settle down in the Himalayan region. The native inhabitants of Kashmir see an insidious plan in the annexation. They fear India seeks to alter the demographic makeup and turn Kashmir from being the Muslim-dominated state to the one where Hinduism could become the predominant faith.
Now the pandemic is compounding the fear, despair and oppression felt by many.
In early April, the Indian army hauled artillery guns into villages along the border with Pakistan after five soldiers were killed in an attack by guerrilla fighters. The terrified villagers watched from their homes the bombardment of positions across the border in Pakistan. The Pakistani army fired back and in the attacks at least eight people were killed, including children on both sides of the border. A picture of a mother mourning her young son on her lap generated a storm of anguish and anger. The bloodshed only brought home the high human cost of India’s refusal to begin a process of negotiation with Pakistan and the people of Kashmir for the eventual resolution of the dispute.
Down in the valley, the repressive actions of the Indian state are only adding more fuel to that large pool of misery and recrimination out of which resistance to India emerges. Nearly 2,500 people have been arrested, a thousand vehicles impounded and scores of grocery stores “sealed” for “defying government orders.”
Now, to crush dissent and criticism, India is bringing its heavy weight to bear on journalists. Three colleagues — Masrat Zahra, Peerzada Ashiq and Gowhar Geelani — are currently under investigation, with two of them booked under a draconian anti-terrorism law that could result in imprisonment for up to seven years. At least a dozen reporters have been summoned recently to a notorious detention center in Srinagar, where they were told in chilling terms that there would be repercussions for criticizing the government. As a journalist, I fear this attempt to silence us. But I also feel the helplessness and anxiety of my fellow citizens.
Last week I went out to buy groceries and medicine for my family in Srinagar. I bought food from a small store in a back alley. The man at the counter was jumpy, with eyes darting around, on guard for the police. While driving back home, I was stopped at a checkpoint. I pointed the policeman to the grocery bags in the car. He said I couldn’t return home because they had blocked off the street. I protested and his eyes flashed with anger from above his black face mask. I had no desire to endure a beating because there lingered in my mind the memory of the beating I had received as a reporter for the Indian Express newspaper some 16 years ago. Nothing much has changed; I turned back and took a five-mile detour to reach home.