Features | Security | South Asia

Silence in Kashmir on India’s Republic Day

In Kashmir, the holiday means internet blackouts and pre-emptive detentions amid heightened security protocols.

Silence in Kashmir on India’s Republic Day

Indian policemen check a vehicle at a checkpoint ahead of India’s 72nd Republic Day in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir on January 25, 2021.

Credit: Bhat Burhan for The Diplomat

On a chilly Sunday morning in Kashmir, Obaid Mir and his friend were walking toward a school playground to have a smoke when his cell phone rang. It was a phone call from a local police station. The police were looking for him to present himself at the station on Tuesday, January 26, India’s Republic Day. “It has been happening for four years now,” he said.

Nineteen-year-old Obaid was one of the thousands of Kashmiris who protested in the streets after the killing of rebel commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani in a gun battle between Indian forces and local rebels in southern Kashmir on July 8, 2016. Since then, Obaid has to be present at the police station on Republic Day to ensure he doesn’t participate in any protests.

Two days after the phone call, India commemorated its 72nd Republic Day across the country. But most of the people in Indian-administered Kashmir observed a shutdown. Paramilitary forces sealed the roads in the region. They installed checkpoints and stopped and frisked locals who believe the day is not one to be celebrated.

On the morning of January 26, Obaid went to the police station as instructed. He was kept in detention until the evening to prevent any law and order problem.

January 26, 2021 was the second Republic Day in Kashmir since the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A on August 5, 2019, which annulled Jammu and Kashmir’s long-time autonomy and downgraded its status to a union territory. In advance of the announcement, which sparked widespread anger among Kashmiris, many prominent political leaders were detained and kept under arrest for months, including three former chief ministers.

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Previously, separatist groups would call for a general strike on days celebrated by India. But this time, the call was given only by a representative of the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The leaders who would generally greet the people on Republic Day chose not to speak this year and remained mute.

On the morning of the day, a local auto rickshaw driver who was carrying a passenger in the summer capital, Srinagar, was stopped at various checkpoints. He expressed his anger. “The authorities, by stopping and installing checkpoints, want us to remember that we are under siege” the driver fumed. “They get pleasure in irritating us.”

Kashmiris have always been disappointed by the authorities, who have now taken hard stand against those expressing or even suspected of having anti-India sentiments. The region has witnessed a number of civil uprisings and killings of hundreds of protesters. Now many Kashmiris prefer to remain quiet after seeing the authorities detain around 4,000 in the region following the August 2019 move.

Before the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status and the ensuing crackdown, young protestors used to come out to demonstrate regularly. There were also incidents of stone throwing targeting the Indian paramilitary forces guarding the area. But most Kashmiris avoid such activities now out of fear of getting arrested – or killed.

Obaid said that it is obvious now that the authorities don’t want to listen to or understand Kashmiri sentiments against India’s harsh rule. “There are laws against us now that can end our whole life sitting behind bars [jailed]. It is better to stay quiet and accept what they say,” he said.

Kashmiris have been observing Republic Day with a shutdown since the 1990s, after the armed struggle began against the Indian authorities following a series of protests and attacks in the region. The day is celebrated in India to commemorate when the Constitution of India became effective on January 26, 1950.

“It is the day of celebration for the people of India and not for Kashmiris,” said Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a social activist and a prominent Kashmiri poet. He added that the Constitution of India has given Kashmiris nothing but “sorrow and pain.”

Ahead of Republic Day, the authorities in the region recently stated that hoisting the tri-color (the Indian flag) was mandatory for all government, semi-government, and Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) across the region on January 26.

Zareef rejected the order, saying, “Kashmiris are not with India and don’t have [positive] sentiments with this day. So why should we hoist their flag?”

The region had a separate constitution and flag until the move of August 2019, when its special status was scrapped, taking away what little autonomy Kashmiris had. At the same time, the region was bifurcated into two federal union territories, Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh.

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A few days before Republic Day, Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police Dilbag Singh said that terrorists were desperate to carry out “some mischief” to disturb “communal harmony” and “peace” in the region. He said that the year 2021 would have its own challenges as new strategies have been adopted by Pakistan, along with new terror operatives emerging on the ground. Pakistan and India both claim the region and Pakistan is often accused of fomenting unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Dilbag was speaking at a high-level security meeting to review the security scenario and arrangements for Republic Day.

The Indian authorities have long blamed Pakistan for the violence in the region. To counter any terror attacks on Republic Day, the authorities blocked mobile internet services. It’s worth mentioning that high-speed mobile internet has been continuously blocked since mid-2019, following the August changes to Kashmir’s status.

After the shutdown of mobile internet services prior to Republic Day, Kashmiris who are outside the region or have wired internet connections took a dig at the authorities for its blackout. One Kashmiri wrote on Twitter, “Mobile Internet blockade. Communication services snapped. Kashmiris put under curfew. That’s rEpuBliC dAy in kashmir for you.”

A prominent activist, Shehla Rashid also lashed the authorities on her Twitter handle, writing, “Mobile internet in Kashmir is gone. Happy Republic Day.”

The suspension of mobile phone services and mobile internet services on January 26 and August 15 – the India’s Independence Day –  has been a normal part of the security protocol in the region. However, this year the mobile phone services remained unaffected on Republic Day.

January 26 marked the second shutdown of the year 2021 in the region. The first shutdown was imposed on New Year’s Day after the killing of three local rebels in a alleged “fake encounter” – a staged gun battle – on the outskirts of Srinagar on December 30, 2020.

Besides the internet blackout, many Kashmiri protestors were, like Obaid, called to be present at their local police stations to prevent any protests on the day. The Diplomat spoke to several people who had received similar instructions.

On the frequent detentions of the protestors, Zareef said, “The government knows that they have wronged the people of Kashmir. Hence, they want to detain them on this day so that they don’t raise their voice.”

Meanwhile at a few places in the region, the day was celebrated by Indian officials and workers amid tight security, including air surveillance by drones, with the main event held at Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket Stadium. The stadium, however, had a deserted look, as few Kashmiris showed up to celebrate.