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Kashmir and a Second Modi Government: Press Freedoms Under Siege

 
 

Earlier this month, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) summoned Fayaz Ahmad Kaloo, the editor of Greater Kashmir, one of the leading English newspapers in the valley, for questioning. In June, Ghulam Jeelani, the 62-year-old editor and publisher of the Urdu daily Aafaq, was arrested in a midnight raid. These threats to press freedoms may be harbingers of an intensified campaign of Hinduization under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s freshly re-elected and emboldened Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Today’s troubles reflect the special – and at times contentious – status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir since its accession to the Indian Union in 1947. Rulers of the mountainous and sparsely populated princely state, who had insisted on remaining independent from India or Pakistan, agreed to join the Indian Union after a series of attacks from Pakistan’s tribal regions.

This accession agreement held that a plebiscite on independence would be conducted after normalcy was restored to the state and gave India domain over only three areas of law: defense, foreign affairs, and communications. These conditions, imposed to ensure a degree of legal and cultural autonomy for the people of Kashmir, were reflected in Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

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Over the intervening decades, Kashmir’s autonomy has diminished as subsequent Indian governments have slowly eroded the provisions of Article 370. Today, a surging BJP wants to do away with the article, while also scrapping article 35A, which confers upon the government of Jammu and Kashmir the power to define permanent residents in regard to buying immovable assets and employment in the region. Across the border, some Kashmiris see Chinese efforts to promote ethnic Han migration to Tibet and fear a similar state-led demographic reshaping of culturally distinct Kashmir.

This May, Modi’s BJP was re-elected with a resounding majority. Since the BJP gained power in 2014, the Kashmir Valley has witnessed a steep rise in violence. Hundreds of local militants and civilian protesters have been killed during anti-insurgency operations. The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a local human rights organization, claims that 586 people were killed in the conflict in 2018, the highest number of deaths in nearly a decade of relative peace. At least 160 of those killed were civilians. These deaths continue, with 271 reported in the first half of 2019, according to the JKCCS. Hundreds more have been visually impaired, some permanently blinded, by Indian security forces’ widespread use of pellet guns on civilian protesters.

This rise in violence has not gone unnoticed on the world stage. This July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released its second report this year highlighting violations of human rights and killing of civilians by state authorities. The report raised concerns over the “systematic patterns of impunity” the Indian security forces enjoy under draconian laws in effect in Kashmir.

The report cites the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, enacted under previous governments and which prohibits the prosecution of security forces for most crimes committed by security personnel in conflict areas. “In nearly three decades that the law has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir,” the report states, “there has not been a single prosecution of armed forces personnel granted by the central government.”

Despite condemnation from the international body, the BJP draws electoral strength from its rigid stand on the region, instrumentalizing religious conflict to inflame the party’s fundamentalist Hindu base. Valley-based political observer Noor Ahmed Baba believes the BJP will now be emboldened to execute the long-time vision of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing religious and social organization considered to be the ideological parent of the BJP.

“The RSS,” Baba says, “has a 70-year-old agenda to completely assimilate Kashmir with India … [T]he BJP has kept that in check when it has been in power previously. However, it may not remain the same now that they have no opposition, not just in the parliament, but also across India.”

Modi’s first term has launched an aggressive crackdown on dissent against its rule in the Valley. Many separatist leaders in the region have been arrested and the region’s press has met with publishing bans and withdrawal of government advertising.

Journalists in the valley increasing view these developments, and arrests of prominent journalists, as an effort to compel the press to echo government talking points. “The valley based media always have had to work under pressure from the government. But now, attempts are being made to suppress us into complete submission,” a senior journalist in Kashmir said, under the condition of anonymity.

Civil society groups with Muslim missions have also come under increased scrutiny. Following a suicide attack on a convoy of Indian paramilitary troops in Pulwama in February, which killed 40 Indian soldiers, the government banned socio-religious group Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) for five years under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The government also jailed scores of its members under the provisions of the Act that allow for detention of up to 180 days without charge. Other members of JeI have been booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows preventive custody without charge for a period of six months.

In a statement, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs said the JeI had been banned for “close touch with militant outfits and is supporting extremism and militancy in J&K and elsewhere” and for “supporting claims for secession”.

Faheem, 30, is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Kashmir, and wants us to use only his first name to preserve his safety. He says that the BJP’s current approach in Kashmir could lead to more violent and sustained armed conflict in the region. He believes that Muslims in the Valley are taking a new view of their place in the eyes of the Indian mainland today. “The impunity with which Muslims are being targeted in India has brought a new dimension to Kashmiri people’s relations with India,” Faheem says. “Earlier, Kashmiris used to think most Indians don’t know how harshly they were being treated by the Indian state. Now they believe that most Indians support that.”

Faheem has witnessed growing extremism among Kashmiri youth in the last few years, which he credits to New Delhi’s approach to the Valley. “The rise of ISIS and Al Qaeda in Kashmir,” he says, “is a by-product of BJP’s policies, among other things.”

The day following the BJP’s retention of power, Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired Indian army general who has served in Kashmir, wrote a column for First Post, an Indian news site. Lieutenant General Hasnain advocated for increased mass surveillance in Kashmir “to nip in the bud any fledgling leaders”. He wrote that “…while physical domination is as much necessary, the priority should be intelligence, not the variety which fetches terrorist kills, but the one which focuses on emerging personalities and preventing them from becoming larger than life.”

Past government incursions against Kashmiri autonomy have led to sustained protests. In 2008, the Indian government announced its intention to transfer hundreds of acres of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, a government body that facilitates Hindu pilgrimage to the state. After large scale protests, resulting in the death of 80 civilian protesters, the transfer plan was abandoned. In 2019, however, with many separatist leaders held in indefinite detention, the BJP may succeed in quickly quashing large-scale dissent.

Amit Shah, the Minister of Home Affairs in the new BJP government, told the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of the parliament, that Article 370 was a temporary measure. In response to a query by Kashmiri Member of Parliament Husnain Masoodi of the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference party, Shah said, “Yes, there is a provision of Article 370 … but it’s … not a permanent part of the Constitution.” Although Jammu and Kashmir-based parties strongly oppose any further dilution of the Article, many in the Valley fear that the BJP’s second government may attempt to rejig the state’s electoral map to generate a majority government.

Because the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly has 87 seats, 44 are needed to form a majority government. The Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley elects 47 Members of Parliament. Hindu-majority Jammu, which registers strong support for the BJP, elects only 37. Many in the valley fear that the BJP may attempt to increase the number of assembly seats in Jammu, allowing them to win the election without contesting seats in the Kashmir Valley.

Tanvir Sadiq, political advisor to former J&K Chief Minister and National Conference Party leader, says that New Delhi’s policies of the day are driving towards further conflict in the Valley. “Since the BJP took over, there has been a growing alienation among people in Kashmir. … [N]ow, … Modi’s government has another chance to look at Kashmir in a different light. But if they do tinker with the state’s special status or try to undermine democracy by unilaterally revoking it, we’ll fight it in the parliament and the court.”

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