By Tariq Ahmed
For decades, Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution have been the only remaining signifiers of Kashmir’s occupation by India. For decades, these constitutional guarantees tethered a dangling Kashmir to India through corruptible proxies. Together these two legal provisions granted the people of the occupied state an autonomous status, which allowed for a separate constitution, a distinct flag, and political autonomy in citizenship and legislative matters.
Since the beginning, however, the provisions have been an eyesore to Hindutva forces. During their decades in opposition, they had been clamouring to dissolve these agreements to complete Kashmir’s annexation. Meanwhile, for decades, the ruling elites of the Congress Party had preferred a more devious path to render these covenants toothless through slow erosion without formally declaring them void.
Nearly a year ago, on August 5, 2019, the Indian state finally blew the lid off its pretensions on Kashmir, putting an end to these shenanigans, and leaving Indian intentions exposed. With troops marching into Kashmir with warlike ferocity, hinting their thirst for blood, India abrogated these articles through abrupt constitutional changes under the shadow of the gun.
Since then, the Indian state has been unfolding a continuum of the three steps in the colonial settler project: changes in the domicile laws, demographic alterations by settling the Indians in the state, and readjustment of the electoral boundaries.
The purpose of these changes is to systematically reduce Kashmiris to nothingness and erase their reality, identity, ethos, and culture. And, in doing so, denying them agency in their own social, cultural and political matters. The policy gurus in New Delhi had believed that Kashmir could be quickly subdued, and Pakistan just ignored. The elephant even dared the dragon in the freezing mountains of Ladakh. It turns out that the Chinese had some ideas of their own.
A year after that day of epiphany, India finds itself in the middle of a mess of its creation. India’s domestic and foreign policy nightmare is palpable. Kashmir is still burning, and Kashmiris have shown no signs of the hoped-for surrender. The standoff with Pakistan continues. Chinese have crossed the Rubicon and positioned their forces across the Galwan river. Add to these self-inflicted wounds the total alienation of India’s fearful and angry 200-million strong Muslim population.
The overall situation in South Asia is fragile and fraught. In an unexpected turn of events, some of India’s usually pliant neighbours have had a sudden transformation. They have grown increasingly suspicious and started looking toward China. Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are distrustful. For Russia, Pakistan is no longer a pariah. Afghan policy is in the doldrums. The Iranians have finally figured what serves their national interest better. And, the much-desired strategic encirclement of Pakistan has come asunder. Instead, New Delhi finds itself surrounded by suspicious, and resentful neighbours. While currently there is a strong appetite in Washington to use India as a proxy against China, the self-serving and isolationist America has lost its erstwhile trustworthiness as a reliable partner. It is India’s ‘neighborhood first’ cliché unravelling at supersonic speed.
Meanwhile, owing to BJP’s domestic belligerence, Kashmir and its inhabitants continue to bleed literally and figuratively. With their daily lives in jeopardy, economic wellbeing and prosperity ruined, culture and ethos under threat, and, their very existence fragile, Kashmir is a pressure cooker. Kashmiri people have always viewed Indian occupation of their land as illegal and worthy of resistance. And, resist they do with their limbs and lives! The alienation from the Indian rule is complete.
The intensity of the resistance has recently increased even under the most unprecedented repression. Even those who have been fence-sitting have felt dishonoured and dehumanized because of what they perceive as existential threats. Masses have taken to streets to voice their anger and courageously defied curfews and restrictions. Internationally the Kashmiri diaspora is galvanized.
Given the widespread international condemnations, the flow of information in and out of Kashmir has been curtailed through internet communication blockade, digital surveillance, and unprecedented media gags. The brutal shutdowns, marked by crippling curfews and ruthless crackdown on business activities, have resulted in an estimated USD 5.3 billion losses to the trading communities.
Under the Covid-19 emergency, the scale of military action against civilians has been intensified away from the international media’s glare. Under the garb of the pandemic’s shutdown, the state has found a new reason to derogate from civilized behaviour, creating a more harrowing lived experience in what is already a garrison state. Free assembly is proscribed, and the regular movement restricted. Thousands have been incarcerated. This regimen of harsh treatment does not even begin to capture the daily inconveniences and indignities faced by the citizens in the police state.
This distressing daily living has taken a heavy toll on the psychology and wellness of ordinary citizens. A detailed report released this month by the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu & Kashmir (FHR J&K) paints a grim picture of Kashmir’s shackled citizens’ plight. The report notes that India’s repressive tactics “have enormously impacted public health and caused trauma and stress amongst the people of Jammu and Kashmir, violating the rights to health and medical care under the Indian, and Jammu and Kashmir constitutions. The rights of children to a trauma-free environment have been arbitrarily ignored.”
A slew of draconian laws – for example, Public Safety Act (PSA) and Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – have been in place as swords against the people and as a shield to protect the armed forces. PSA, for example, allows the state to detain anyone without formal trial for two years. People from all walks of life– politicians, human rights activists, journalists, and religious and student leaders – have faced the PSA’s dragnet. The state need not furnish any reason for detentions, and the detainees have no right to legal representation. They can be rearrested within hours under a new set of excuses if they somehow obtain a court reprieve.
The military authorities resort to the blasting of the dwellings and shoot and kill anyone who poses resistance. They vandalize and blow up citizens’ homes as retribution for people’s support for the protesters and fighters. They molest, harass, and even take hostage, the family members of protesters. The devious provisions of AFSPA shield the military personnel from prosecution in the civilian courts. The impunity pervades the entire spectrum of militaristic governance.
In addition to 900,000 heavily armed personnel, a network of intelligence officials, spies, moles, mercenaries, digital and cybersecurity experts, etc. maintains a tab on the unrest, which has shown no signs of abating. They disappear, deport, incarcerate, molest, injure and kill protesting civilians and tout them as foreign militants.
The dead bodies of the civilians are secretly ferried to and buried under fictitious identities at faraway uninhabited prairies on Srinagar- Kargil highway. This tactic circumvents public mobilization -which is commonplace in densely populated areas. The ploy makes it impossible for the families to trace their loved ones when buried in mass graves. It thus affords the state a plausible deniability.
Often, those disappeared and killed during fictitious encounters are buried under false foreign identifies, giving them non-Kashmiri sounding surnames. Cache of arms, ammunition, and other incriminating ‘evidence’ of guilt, including a Pakistani phone number, a passport, and other identity cards, are then ‘recovered’ from the deceased. These cynical tactics provide legitimacy for the killings and readily flammable fuel for the media anchors for their incendiary prime-time news analyses.
It is no exaggeration that the India- Pakistan dispute over Kashmir will be resolved only when the Indian media chooses to do so. Until then, the saffronized media will continue to shape public perception under the pretext of superficial patriotism without being burdened with the need for sensible journalism. It has been widely acknowledged now that ethical reporting in India has ceded place to ‘war-crazy’ journalism.
Once the onslaught of lies has turned the public opinion against Kashmiris and Pakistan, the army violence against Kashmiris is perceived by the Indian public as justified and even eagerly celebrated. Any Indian voices against human rights violations are trolled into silence by the netizens, publicly shamed or physically abused by the vigilantes, and invaded in their personal and private spaces by the police.
Willfully enraged, the BJP vigilantes across India take on Kashmiri students, travelers, and tradespeople, contributing to a hostile living environment, impacting their education and trade activities. They become the targets of verbal abuse and physical violence, often causing grievous injuries and sometimes even death. Invariably some of the outspoken Kashmiri students are terminated from the educational institutions, jailed, or sent back home.
While the unrestrained national media spews poison on the national television, the local electronic and print media in Kashmir has been placed on life support through a new media policy. The above-cited FHR J&K report notes: “The local media has been one of the worst sufferers…The new media policy, which introduces censorship by the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) in coordination with security agencies, is a death blow to the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression.”
As it stands today, no end is in sight for Kashmir’s prolonged suffering. Far too much blood has been spilled, and the repressive methodologies to quell peoples’ political dissent has not worked. Among the many competing national security narratives operating in South Asia, the dreadful tales of Kashmiri people’s pain and suffering must be foregrounded. Kashmiri voices must be centered. The time for historical animus, rabid nationalism, ideological intransigence, and constant strife is over. The time for reconciliation through justice is now. The peace will not come at a gunpoint. It will come when justice served.
Ah! When will Kashmir’s agony end!
Tariq Ahmed is a North America based freelance writer