The Debate | Politics | South Asia

Life Under Siege in Kashmir

Kashmir remains an open air prison, leaving people with no control over their lives.

By Riyaz Wani for
Life Under Siege in Kashmir
Credit: AP Photo/Dar Yasin

This is one of the darkest times to be a Kashmiri. We are being reminded of this fact every minute since the August 5 abrogation of Article 370 of India’s Constitution, which had granted Jammu and Kashmir partial autonomy as an Indian state. We encounter it in our minds, in the anxious look on the faces of fellow Kashmiris, in the listless markets that have only recently reopened after three and a half months of shutdown, and in the street-side huddles that invariably veer into discussions about an uncertain future and the specter of looming demographic change. We feel it every time we pick up our phones, knowing they won’t connect to the internet – even more than five months after the communication blackout began. Or for that matter when our prepaid phone SIMs can’t make a call.

True, under pressure from the international community and the country’s highest court’s direction, the government has selectively restored the internet connectivity to some “essential services” in the central parts of Kashmir, but service is still not available to the 8 million people of the region. And it is unlikely they will get it anytime soon, as the federal government’s plan to set up 400 internet kiosks across the valley would make you believe. These fewer kiosks will be there to enable access to the internet for the common people who are not being trusted with a connection of their own.

The Kashmir siege, however, goes well beyond indefinite denial of the internet and encompasses every aspect of life. It is about so many things done to the people simultaneously: in its external manifestation it is, of course, about a blanket security lockdown and a communication blockade, partially eased since, which between them have brought to bear almost the entire might of the Indian state on Kashmir to suppress all forms of dissent. So much so that Iltija Mufti, daughter of the detained former Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) state’s Chief Minister (CM) Mehbooba Mufti, was stopped from visiting the grave of her grandfather Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, also a former CM, on his death anniversary on January 7.

Earlier, around a dozen elderly women, most of them from elite political and business families, were arrested and sent to Srinagar’s central jail the moment they started gathering in a city park to peacefully protest against the revocation of Article 370. They were released the following day only after signing a bond that they wouldn’t engage in a fresh protest.

So, while protests have erupted in the rest of India against the new Citizenship Amendment Act, which offers citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, Kashmir is being denied any space to protest. In fact, what is happening in Kashmir goes beyond the denial of a space for protest: the region is being deprived of anything remotely resembling a working political and social organization that can either articulate the sentiments of their people or formulate a response to the current crisis. All major leaders or influential voices across the region’s separatist-establishment divide who are in a position to do so are under detention. This includes the three former chief ministers: Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. Leaders who have since been released have stayed short of challenging government’s move to revoke autonomy, making people infer they have signed a bond swearing off political activity.

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And given New Delhi’s fear about an organized mass movement to its August 5 decision at a time when the world’s attention is focused on Kashmir, it looks unlikely that the erstwhile state will be allowed to have a normal political and civil society activity in the near future.

All this is on the outside. On a subliminal level, the Kashmir lockdown is about a deep sense of political disempowerment as a Muslim-state-turned-federally-administered area where Muslims are in a comfortable majority otherwise. Currently, Muslims constitute around 68.3 percent of the around 13 million population of J&K, according to the 2011 census.

It is also about being reduced to a vehicle for political power by the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the federal level, which seems to have concluded that cruelty to people of Kashmir is electorally useful for it at the pan-India level. Years of choreographed demonization on sundry television channels have made Kashmiris fair game for retribution in the eyes of a significant section of the population across the country – so much so that they not only happily sanction oppression against Kashmiris but also politically reward the party doing it. The BJP can thus use all its power as a ruling party to suppress endlessly hapless people of the region to demonstrate to the rest of India how strong and decisive it is.

The many electoral victories of the BJP over the past six years, discounting some recent reversals, have only made the party more hawkish on Kashmir. It has become numb and contemptuous to even routine demands of the region’s people, say for restoration of the internet. In fact, when people in Kashmir press for any demand or protest against any indignity being heaped on them, the party’s answer is not to listen, engage or reach out in a democratic spirit but to hoist more of the same indignity on to them.

Journalists have learned it to their detriment by repeatedly protesting for restoration of the Internet for themselves. But while the government has selectively released the service for some institutions and businesses, around 300 journalists have to make do with just nine computers at an official facility in Srinagar. The time they get on a computer is barely enough to check and send a couple of emails.

The persisting Kashmir siege has acquired a larger instrumental dimension. The country’s only Muslim-majority region has become a sacrificial goat at the altar of the BJP’s ideological agenda to remake India into a Hindu nation. This agenda is gratuitously and forcibly imposed on the erstwhile state of J&K despite the resolute opposition of its people and gotten legitimized by the deadly political consensus over Kashmir in the rest of country whereby even a secular politician like Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi, became the first to support the nullification of Article 370 and downgrading of J&K into an administrative unit to be ruled from New Delhi. And, of course, it is legitimized by roping in the mob that was shown across television screens welcoming the August-5 move by distributing sweets and  beating drums.

It is an unenviable situation to be as a community, being at the receiving end of a cruel logic of democracy: if you don’t make a difference to the electability of any party, you don’t exist. Your opinion and aspirations don’t count. But then suddenly a party like the BJP comes along and finds a way to cynically exploit your plight to its electoral advantage. It finds out that if currying favor with you as a community doesn’t matter, alienating you does, and so does conjuring you up into an overarching larger than life enemy who has to be ruthlessly suppressed.

What is more depressing is that there seems to be no imminent escape from this state of affairs. The structural nature of the situation is such. Obsession with an engineered pacification of Kashmir and paranoia about a mass protest guarantees a lingering siege in its myriad visible and invisible forms. It is an Orwellian world through and through, minutely controlling each and every aspect of life. Kashmir is thus unlikely to be allowed an autonomous political, social and media space to give voice to the situation on the ground. Nor does it appear that the Internet, which is an enabler of this space alongside being the warp and woof of the modern life, will be restored fully for now.

This has created a suffocating environment for people in the region. It is as if every person living in the region has been imprisoned. People have no control over their lives: everything seems monitored and guided. This even so when Kashmir has largely been normal in last three months.  The government acts on its apprehension of what might happen if curbs are lifted, and so it continues to prolong the misery. And the people in Kashmir have little option but to endure it.

Riyaz Wani is a journalist with StoriesAsia.