Masked soldiers, barred mosques and constant surveillance: Inside Kashmir under lockdown

After weeks-long communications ban, residents say religious and human rights have been violated.

Suddaf Chaudry
12 September 2019, 11.02am
An Indian paramilitary trooper stops a man at a checkpoint in Srinagar, Kashmir.
PA Images

During Eid al-Adha, the biggest Muslim holiday of year, the streets in Srinagar, Kashmir are usually thronging with people making last-minute preparations for the festivities. This year, the state’s largest city was a ghost town. Shops were shuttered, and the markets, which should have been bustling with people buying meat for the feast, were deserted.

Most mosques were inaccessible to residents and the two largest in the city, Jamia Masjid and Alia Mosque, where tens of thousands gather to pray, were locked and chained.

“It was upsetting,” said Sajid, a student. “We were deprived of even our religious rights. It was my little sister’s first Eid and I was glad she was too young to understand what was going on.”

Days earlier, on 5 August, India’s Hindu nationalist government unilaterally stripped Kashmir of its autonomy. Thousands of troops were drafted into the region to quell potential unrest before the announcement and dozens of political leaders were detained. Since then, Kashmir has been almost completely cut off from communication with the outside world.

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We are effectively living in a cage

Kashmiris who experienced the lockdown first hand said that a “climate of fear” has left people feeling like prisoners in their own homes. In Srinagar, strict curfews have been imposed and roads blanketed with a “maze of barbed wire” that residents say has made it impossible to resume day-to-day life.

“We are effectively living in a cage, they arrest us to suppress our voice, we are battling one of the most sophisticated blockades. They are breaking us down psychologically,” said Sajid. “Men with black bandanas monitor our every move. We do not know how our brothers and sisters in the north or south are doing. We can only talk in Delhi but once we are back in the valley, only silence”.

Pepper spray and surveillance drones

Women in Kashmir lead a chant in a protest against India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy.
Women in Kashmir lead a chant in a protest against India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy.
PA Images

By revoking Kashmir’s special constitutional status, Prime Minister Narenda Modi has eliminated the degree of independence that was a condition of the state's agreement to join India in 1947. The question of Kashmir’s sovereignty was intended to be decided in a future referendum, but it never came to pass. Until now, Kashmir had the power to write its own constitution and laws. The government has removed those rights and brough the region under its direct control.

Thousands of people have protested the government’s actions, defying curfews to do so. As clashes between protesters and Indian security forces continued in the days after the announcement, Samia*, a Kashmiri student, recalls “a smell of pepper spray and burning tires” hanging over the valley.

In Bemina, a western neighbourhood of Srinagar, protesters blockaged a main road. A few men were trapped on either side by Indian police forces and tried to escape by jumping into the river. One man is reported to have drowned. “I understand why they plunged into the river,” said a bystander who witnessed the attack but did not want to be named. “If we don’t fight there will be nothing left, they [the Indian government] will have taken control of our land”.

Indian authorities have adopted advanced surveillance technology to monitor Kashmiris. Aliya, who was interrogated by police for participating in a protest in the southern district of Srinagar, said she was arrested after being identified from drone footage by the colour of her dress. She was eventually released, but says that her husband remains imprisoned.

The lockdown in Kashmir belongs to a ‘longstanding tradition of exceptional legal practices’

Adnan Naseemullah, senior lecturer at King's College London.

It has been reported that over 4,000 people have been arrested since the revocation of Article 370. The Indian Public Safety Act allows Indian security forces to hold people without sufficient evidence which has further inflamed tensions between the local populace and state authorities. Many residents said they plan to continue to protest despite the draconian measures implemented by the Modi government.

The lockdown in Kashmir belongs to a “longstanding tradition of exceptional legal practices,” according to Adnan Naseemullah, a senior Lecturer at King's College London. He added that these legal instruments can be used whenever the Indian state deems there is a security threat and they “do not to protect human rights”.

The region has had no access to mobile networks since the lockdown began, and in an unprecedented move, landlines and internet access have also been blocked. Kashmiris have been only able to contact their families under strict police supervision.

Samia explains that residents have to first register at a police station and share details of who they are contacting before they are allowed to make a phone call. “I would never want my family to go to a police station and wait for six hours to talk for 30 seconds where they are directed what to say,” she said. “I don’t want them to do that even though the silence is frustrating and punishing”.

Indian authorities were asked to comment, however, no response was given.

The communications blackout has prevented journalists within Kashmir from covering the crisis. Safwat Zargar, a journalist from Srinagar, said he was only able to communicate via an email exchange operated by the Indian authorities and could not answer questions. At least two journalists have been detained by police since the unrest began. The Indian government’s harassment of journalists is a “grave abuse of human rights," said Aliya Ifthikar from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

A smokescreen for targeting Muslims

There is much anxiety among residents that the Indian government is now planning to reconfigure the demography of India’s only Muslim-majority state. “Our main fear is Kashmiris will eventually be pushed out and Hindus take their place, consequently changing the very nature of the conflict,” said Samia, who lives and studies in Kashmir.

Previously, non-Kashmiris could not purchase land and permanently settle in the region. But those restrictions have been rescinded by India, along with the state’s law-making powers. The government claims the changes will open up Kashmir to development and fuel economic growth. But critics, like Indian author Siddhartha Deb, argue that this is a smokescreen.

"The BJP government led by Modi has, whenever convenient, disguised its violently sectarian and authoritarian agenda under the guise of economic development,” said Deb. “It is now into its second term of governance in India with little to show in the way of development but much to demonstrate on unending violence and, especially, the targeting of India's varied Muslim population.”

In the midst of the Kashmir crisis, Modi’s government has also deprived almost two million people living in Assam, most of them Muslims, of their citizenship. Authorities argue that illegal immigration necessitated the checks, but human rights groups say it has disenfranchised ethnic Bengalis who have lived in India their entire life.

[The Indian government] is sending a signal to Indian Muslims that they are second-class citizens

Priyamvada Gopal, reader at University of Cambridge

“It seems quite clear that this is the first formal step towards a Hindu Rashtra or Hindu nation,” said University of Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal. “It is also, as many have noted, a means of sending a signal to Indian Muslims that they are second-class citizens who may remain and exist only on terms dictated by the majority.”

Kashmiris worry that their religious freedom could be undermined if Hindu mass migration renders them a minority in the state. Many residents in the valley are scared that they will not be able to pray in the mosques. Manzoor, a researcher from Srinagar, recalls hearing the Muslim call to prayer on the night that the news broke and wondering if it might be silenced in the future.

The widespread fear and intimidation in Kashmir has altered how residents view themselves. “You look out at the valley and you think this is not your home anymore,” said Samia. “The intimate sense of knowing home no longer exists.”

*Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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