The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voices from Kashmir: Inside India’s year-long crackdown

An Indian paramilitary soldier stands guard near a barricade during curfew in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, on Aug. 4. (Farooq Khan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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NEW DELHI — In Kashmir, they speak of feeling humiliated and silenced, of crippled businesses and shuttered schools — and the fear of never knowing when deadly violence may strike again.

A year ago, Kashmiris watched as India’s leaders unilaterally changed the constitutional status of their strife-torn territory.

India revoked a provision granting a degree of autonomy to Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority region, and took away its statehood.

The government pledged that the move would bring a “new dawn” of peace and prosperity by jettisoning decades of what it described as failed policies toward Kashmir and bringing it politically closer to the rest of India.

Instead, it’s been a year of upheaval and repression.

Kashmir is no stranger to strife. India and Pakistan both claim the territory and have fought two wars and a smaller conflict over its borders. An armed insurgency against Indian rule has continued for more than three decades.

Last August, the Indian government launched a massive crackdown. It restricted all movement, detained thousands of people — including Kashmir’s political leaders — and cut off all communications.

The steps were necessary, it said, to prevent violent protests and avert possible attacks by militant groups it accuses Pakistan of supporting. Pakistan denies the allegations.

The Internet ban lasted more than 200 days, the longest such shutdown by a democracy. Even now, high-speed Internet has not been restored in the Kashmir Valley, home to more than 8 million people.

Hundreds of Kashmiris have been imprisoned under a draconian public safety law or face legally murky forms of house arrest. Schools in Kashmir have barely functioned since last August. They were ordered shut as part of India’s crackdown and then again during the pandemic.

Business losses through June are estimated at more than $5 billion, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Attacks by anti-India militants continue, as does cross-border shelling between India and Pakistan.

The impact of India’s policies has been “disastrous,” a group of retired Indian judges and civil servants wrote in a recent report. They alleged “systematic violations of human rights” in the region since Aug. 5, 2019.

 Three Kashmiris described their experiences over the past year in interviews with The Washington Post. Their accounts have been condensed and edited for clarity.

The politician

Waheed ur Rehman Para, 32, a leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, a pro-India political party, who was detained last year and remains under house arrest:

I was arrested on Aug. 5. From the police station I was sent to a detention center. About 30 other people from mainstream political parties were brought in. We stayed there for almost three months.

Then we were shifted to a hostel for members of the state legislature and kept there for the next three months. I have been under house arrest ever since.

On the first day back home, lots of people came to meet me. Five cops arrived and told me I am not allowed to leave the house. When I tried to leave, they threatened to take me back to detention. They are outside my home 24 hours a day.

The intent behind our illegal detention was to not allow us to speak and to create an illusion of peace. It was also to send a message to Kashmiris: “We can do what we want. If we can detain the mainstream leaders and the three [former] chief ministers, we can detain anyone.” That tells you a lot.

At the detention center, there were two people to a room. Our families could meet us once a week after asking permission. We were not allowed to step outside on the grass. We used to walk the corridors for hours. That was our space. We had only the freedom of being able to walk in a corridor.

Everything was being heard. Cameras and microphones were very visible. It was all under surveillance. Mobile phones were not working, no one [except family members] was allowed to meet us. We felt helpless.

What has Delhi actually achieved with this decision? The whole democratic space has been diminished. Have they achieved development? Have they achieved peace? Have they achieved normalcy? Have they achieved anything, other than polarizing people in the country?

We feel a sense of suffocation at the personal level and political level. I think that has been the worst part of it. You could not talk, you could not speak. You can see and watch things going on — things happening to you — and you are not being consulted anywhere. Leaders are actually scared to talk. It’s too risky.

 The government thinks silence is a victory. But in a democracy, if people are silent, then that is the biggest protest.

The entrepreneur

Adil Sathu, 35, founder of an online travel portal, TripShope:

I run a business-to-business travel portal. I started it in 2015. We had a thousand travel agents in Kashmir working with us. They would come to our website to book airline tickets and hotel rooms. We provide them with credit and pay a commission. It was the first such portal in Kashmir.

On Aug. 5, I watched in horror as my years of hard work disappeared. I had built my company bit by bit, against the odds in a place like Kashmir. That day changed it completely.

Our work is entirely based on the Internet, and without it, we became completely dysfunctional.

After a month without Internet, we moved our office from Kashmir to Delhi. We moved to Jammu at the end of October. I was so fed up of shifting my staff that I almost called it a day. Just for a basic facility like Internet, me and my staff were traveling thousands of kilometers like refugees. It was really humiliating.

I was totally depressed at that time. I could not see my future. I didn’t know what to do.

We suffered financial losses of over $65,000. I had to lay off staff. I had taken bank loans to start this travel portal. We are going backward day by day. Now because of covid we are suffering again.

 The irony is that now India-based travel agents don’t find us a reliable partner. They say Kashmir is unpredictable and there can be another communication blackout anytime, which is not good for business. But Indians are the ones who hailed Aug. 5 as a moment of a new dawn for Kashmir. When is the new dawn?

The daughter

Iram Khan, 37, whose father was killed in a shootout between security forces and militants:

All I know is that over the past year, the situation has turned bad in Kashmir. We all have grown up with memories of violence. When I was in seventh grade, there was a small get-together at a relative’s house. We were expecting some guests, including a woman who was seven months pregnant. There was some tension in the area. Paramilitary forces shot her. She died on the spot.

I never thought that my family would go through a similar tragedy.

I was at home in Srinagar [on July 1] when I received a call from my mother. She told me Papa has died in a car accident. She was sobbing.

I knew my youngest son, Iyaad, had accompanied my father, Bashir Ahmad Khan. I was sure that he must have died along with my father.

When I reached my parents’ home, the neighbors told me instead that my father had been shot. Then one showed me a picture of Iyaad, which had gone viral by that time. He was sitting on my father’s dead body, crying.

The cops told my brother that our father was killed in the crossfire after militants attacked a vehicle of the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force]. But we were suspicious of the police version of events. Our father’s car did not have a single scratch on it.

The inspector general of police has assured us they will conduct an inquiry, but nothing has happened so far. I have little hope. There is no possibility of justice in Kashmir.

I have been to the spot where my father was killed and talked to people living nearby. All they said was that they had heard a child crying. Even if they had seen something, they wouldn’t say it. I know they are afraid.

Iyaad doesn’t understand what death is. He still asks for Papa. Yesterday, I went out to do some work, and he asked me, “Are you going to bring Papa home?” He asks everyone when Papa will come back.

I won’t blame any side. But people are sad. There is no happiness anywhere in Kashmir. Every household has a painful story.

Irfan reported from Srinagar, India.

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