India’s Kashmir clampdown: ‘What will they get by jailing a population?’

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Shafaqna Pakistan: The Indian government’s taxing military crackdown in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region is pushing its eight-million-strong besieged population toward disease and starvation.

“I am going to see if my friend is alive or not,” said a young Kashmiri who refused to share his name fearing police reprisal. He drives an auto-rickshaw to earn a living. Since the crackdown has paralysed the region, he’s been confined to his home. As curfew eased in some urban parts of Kashmir on Wednesday, he stepped out to see his friend in a local hospital. Earlier in the day, he said, his friend received pellet injuries while protesting India’s latest move to unilaterally scrap the semi-autonomous status of India-administered Kashmir and its neighbouring provinces Jammu and Ladakh.

To many Kashmiris, the loss of autonomy, however limited and eroded it was, exposes them to systematic demographic shifts and ethnic assaults emanating from mainland India.

Last week, Kashmir was rife with rumours. They were fuelled by a series of rushed decrees passed by India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party.  First, a reinforcement of at least 38,000 troops was sent to add strength to over five million Indian soldiers and police who are already stationed in India-held part of Kashmir. Then ‘evacuations’ of tourists, Hindu pilgrims and labourers from various Indian states began. Soon after, schools and colleges were shut down by the orders of the local administration. Indian newspapers and television channels reported that such radical decisions were being made to deter a ‘terror threat’.

Kashmir’s drawing rooms, barber shops, cafes, barbecue joints and even picnic spots were filled with conversations full of fears and assumptions ranging from the outbreak of war between India and Pakistan to the removal of Article 370. The lingering uneasiness that the Indian state was up to something unprecedented began to touch the Kashmiri diaspora across the world, until Kashmir disappeared from the communication grid.

On August 4 in the afternoon, the Indian government blocked the internet, landline phones, cable television, and every other mode of communication except for a few hundred satellite phones doled out to government officials. Over a hundred political leaders, including former chief ministers of the state who championed India’s democracy to counter Kashmir’s pro-Independence leadership, were detained either in their homes or elsewhere.

The following day, the Indian parliament approved the presidential order of ending Kashmir’s limited autonomy or in constitutional terms the Article 370, a law that acts as a cornerstone of a treaty named Instrument of Accession signed by India and the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947. The Instrument of Accession allowed the Indian government to send its troops to Kashmir to repel a Pakistani tribal attack and guard the de-facto border of the majority Muslim region until the UN-sanctioned plebiscite was held. The plebiscite — on whether Kashmiris should merge with India or Pakistan — was never held, however, but decades later Kashmir earned a reputation of being “the most dangerous place on earth”.

As the end of Article 370 has brought the conversation back to 1947, triggering several legal questions in India and beyond, Kashmiris have been under lockdown for four consecutive days.

With each passing day, people’s anger and frustration is growing. From auto-drivers to vegetable vendors, daily work is lost.

“They don’t allow anyone to even cross the bridge,” said an elderly man in his 60s, pointing toward a bridge in Srinagar’s Rajbagh area. “So many of us have gathered there but they are brutal. What will they get by jailing a population?,” he added, as he parked his bicycle on the road.

Some Kashmiris anticipate full-blown conflict between India and Pakistan, some expect the global powers to take a strong note and intervene as mediators.

“Now there is only one way, that is war,” said a shopkeeper in the Nawab Bazar area of Srinagar city, on Monday morning, when he announced to his neighbours the abrogation of the special status. “I just watched on TV [Satellite dish TV], they announced it. Everything is gone.”

Reports of protests are coming in from various areas but with the communication blockade every piece of news sounds like a rumour and every rumour news. So far one casualty has been confirmed: a teenage boy who drowned in a river while running away from the charging paramilitary forces in Srinagar, and another boy is in critical condition after sustaining pellet injuries on the outskirts of Srinagar. According to some local accounts, a few dozen pellet-injured youths have been referred to Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital in the heart of Srinagar but officials aren’t confirming it yet. They have been maintaining that the region is peaceful.

At the Tourist Reception Center (TRC) in Srinagar, buses and SUV vehicles are ferrying the non-Kashmiri labour force out of Kashmir. Many of them are running away in the absence of any work.

“We can’t go home,” said a non-Kashmiri mosque preacher, who had been in the valley for five years. “My children are studying here in local schools and what will happen to their education? We are leaving and then coming back is also not easy in this situation. With this one step the government has caused us the suffering.”

Slowly the frustration is seeping in among residents, who are expecting a massive backlash against the government’s decision.

Essential supplies are fast drying up in homes, adding to the worries of people who are staring at an uncertain future. “The problems are growing,” said Abdul Hameed, 40, a grocery store owner in Srinagar’s Hawal neighbourhood. “Vegetable prices are shooting up every day and it is getting difficult to find fresh stock.”

Hameed said he had stocked up his shop with goods worth $3,500 as the Muslim festival Eid is underway. “Now all of it is lying at home. What will I do with it now? I neither have money nor can I earn. All my material was for summer and it will be of no use after a few weeks,” he said.

With the empty streets of Srinagar, and with no information coming out of other districts, Kashmiris feel they have been pushed into oblivion.