It began with fake news. Authorities in Kashmir briefed the media that the massive movement of troops into what was already the most militarised place on the planet was necessary to counter an unspecified threat to the annual Amarnath Yatra. Yet it was not the Hindu pilgrimage at risk, but the very existence of Jammu and Kashmir itself.
Arguably, the abrogation of J-K’s semi-autonomous status, enshrined by the decades-old Article 370 of the Indian constitution, had been telegraphed in advance by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto. Yet the scale of deception required for its implementation was equalled only by rejection from most Kashmiris.
And so it came to pass. The state of J-K, subjected to years of political suppression, enforced by an overwhelming military presence within the public realm, disappeared overnight, only to be replaced with a status quo under a different name. For the reality is that democracy had been alien to Kashmir for some time. Changing the state’s description to a “Union Territory” meant that Kashmiris experienced yet further curbs on their basic freedoms of assembly and information, anathema to any democracy, let alone the world’s largest.
On 6 August 2019, the day following India’s move, Indian Express Deputy Editor, Muzamil Jaleel, wrote on Facebook: “Srinagar is a city of soldiers and spools of concertina wire. Phones – mobiles and landlines – have been disconnected. Internet is off. There is no money in ATMs. A very strict curfew has been imposed across Kashmir.”
He also described how he was prevented from doing his job, “I could only move around with a lot of difficulty. Everyone I met is in shock. There is a strange numbness. We heard about killing of two protestors but there is no way to confirm. Kashmir has been turned invisible even inside Kashmir. The forces on checkpoints have specific instructions to disallow journalists to cross the barrier. I saw a TV crew from Delhi inside a hotel outside a hotel outside Rajbagh Police station – they were saying Kashmir is calm.”
The Government of India had moved quickly. Government forces wasted no time snuffing out what little remained of Kashmir’s fledgling democracy by abolishing the erstwhile state’s legislative assembly, imprisoning political leaders and their party’s members. The comprehensive nature of the crackdown confirmed the worst fears of the Kashmiri political elite. Only the night before mainstream leaders had gathered at former chief minister Omar Abdullah’s Gupkar Road residence to sign an eponymous declaration stating their commitment to J-K’s continued constitutional integrity.
Recounting his own experience of August last year, he told the Indian Express: “Two days before all this happened, we had one last meeting in the party office…by then disinformation had been conveyed that there’s a serious threat to the yatra and that completely misleading, untruthful bit of news they planted everywhere, to get all the yatris [pilgrimage visitors] and the tourists out.”
A gigantic security sweep followed. On 11 March, this year, the Union Minister of State for Home, G. Kishan Reddy, informed the Rajya Sabha the J-K authorities had taken 7,357 persons into preventive custody since August 5.
Some were luckier than others. ‘I went to Hari Niwas and the staff very kindly were putting me in this very nice big room with a view of the lake’, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said. He was arrested under the state’s draconian Public Safety Act, which permits detention without trial. An Amnesty International report described it as a ‘lawless law’. “If there is one regret I have, it is that I did not revoke the PSA from the statute books when I was in power”, he told The Wire, in a separate interview.
Kashmiris without a dynastic background – Omar is the grandson of Sheikh Abdullah and Farooq is his father, both also previous J-K Chief Ministers – found themselves flown to various jails across India, facing squalid conditions far from their families. Those who remained faced total lockdown, denied freedom of movement, assembly, speech and access to the internet. At the time of writing the Kashmir Valley remains without 4G services.
Since 5 August 2019, the indomitable Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) – the brightest of spots amid an ever-darkening paradise – has diligently documented myriad human rights abuses and counted the dead on all sides. In the first six months of this year the group recorded extrajudicial executions of at least 32 civilians in J&K, 143 militants and 54 government forces personnel.
While it is difficult to get accurate figures for the number of jobs lost, exams deferred, nor essential education interrupted, there can be no doubt about the harm done by depriving children of their future.
Meanwhile, the media has been eviscerated. Hilal Mir, the former editor of Kashmir Reader – a publication forced to cease publication in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s death in 2016 – has written a majestic overview of the difficulties faced in reporting Kashmir. International journalists are now prevented from visiting the Valley by a visa system designed to frustrate their efforts. And indigenous journalists are forced to practice self-censorship, as those bold enough to follow the most basic journalistic principle and write what they see have been questioned by police.
Long before abrogation, Kashmir had been deadly for journalists. Earlier this summer marked the second anniversary Rising Kashmir editor Shujaat Bukhari’s assassination. He was shot along with his bodyguards by unknown gunmen outside his office on 14 June 2016 – his murder remains unsolved.
In an exchange of emails with renowned Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, Mirza Waheed, himself a celebrated Kashmiri author and journalist, expressed anguish regarding the lack of backbone among India’s media. “Why did the press in India, barring a few exceptions, crumble as if it were a house of cards? How come the press in the world’s largest democracy turned out to be the weakest?”, he exclaimed.
The answer, it seems, is that Indian media has been hollowed out from the inside. In 2014, shortly before Narendra Modi was first elected, a BBC World Service portrait of India’s media landscape said ‘the business of news is killing the profession of journalism’. It seems little has changed.
“In India, a country with thousands of newspapers and hundreds of television channels dedicated to exclusively to news, there is, with some notable exceptions, a strange absence of dissenting voices…Outliers have found themselves relentlessly harried and harassed”, writes Kapil Komireddi, in his recent polemic ‘Malevolent Republic – A Short History of the New India’ (Hurst, 2019),
Self-censorship is not exclusive to Kashmir, he adds, noting ‘four hundred pairs of eyes and ears’ listening into every news channel from the offices of the government’s Information & Broadcasting Ministry.
Some Indian voices have spoken out. Acclaimed author Arundhati Roy has been withering about the level of scrutiny applied to the activities of the ruling BJP government, which returned to power with a massive majority in May 2019. “The Indian media told us what the government wanted us to hear’, she wrote in The Nation, in a piece titled ‘India: Intimations of an Ending: the rise of Modi and the Hindu far right’.
“Heavily censored Kashmiri papers carried pages and pages of news about cancelled weddings, the effects of climate change, the conservation of lakes and wildlife sanctuaries, tips on how to live with diabetes and front page advertisements about the benefits that Kashmir’s new, downgraded legal status would bring to the Kashmiri people.”
Status change: what is it good for?
“Kashmir Valley politics have been stale for years”, respected South Asia specialist and former Reuters’ India Bureau Chief, Myra Macdonald, told The Kashmir Walla. “That’s not necessarily the fault of Kashmiri politicians – Delhi has always tried to pre-determine the outcome of the Kashmiri political process either with blatant interference or more subtle forms of managed democracy by encouraging one party or another in state elections.”
“The absence of a vibrant political process helped create an entire eco-system that relied on the politics of grievance while serious problems that affect people’s day-to-day life, like corruption, went unaddressed”, added Ms. Macdonald.
Intriguingly, Ms. Macdonald also addressed how self-determination for J-K could work in practice. “Personally, I would have liked to have seen Delhi open up the political process more, let politicians talk freely about independence, and about what they mean by “azadi”. Everyone knows that the Kashmir Valley alone could not survive as an independent entity, yet somehow that idea has been allowed to take root. With the abrogation of Article 370, and the house arrest of politicians, Delhi has gone in the other direction, narrowing the political process. However, I recognise there was a need to break the stalemate.”
Another noted expert on South Asian affairs, Paul Staniland, a political scientist at University of Chicago and non-resident fellow of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, concurred with Macdonald on the need to eradicate rampant corruption, and questioned the supposed benefits of abolishing Article 370. “The claimed benefits of amending 370 were numerous – integrating Kashmiris more fully into India, breaking the back of corrupt local parties, undermining Pakistani claims, and spurring economic development, among others,” he said. “So far, the Indian government can point to a lack of mass protests and what seems to be somewhat lower violence than during the first half of 2019, including a much heavier imbalance of militant vs. security force fatalities in favour of the latter.
“Beyond that, it remains unclear that meaningful economic development has been spurred, that Pakistan is no longer relevant, or that fundamental changes in Kashmiris’ political allegiances have occurred. India still has a very large security footprint in the region, so the costs remain high,” Mr. Staniland told The Kashmir Walla.
Questions remain on how local representation might return to J-K, currently ruled directly by New Delhi’s appointed Lieutenant–Governor GC Murmu, previously a senior official in Gujarat during Narendra Modi’s administration as the state’s chief minister.
In an email exchange with The Kashmir Walla, Mr. Staniland said he could envision inducements, possibly including a return to statehood and the promise power and patronage, aimed at encouraging electoral participation by existing and new parties.
Given the depth of distrust following the events of last August, it seems unlikely that the return of any form of local democracy would be widely well received by Kashmiris, argues Dr Ayesha Ray, associate professor of political science at King’s College, Pennsylvania.
“Which Kashmiri is going to trust the Indian state when the government has broken the very foundations of trust? In the long-term, this poses a major governance challenge. A government that holds little credibility among the people and which has lost their trust by depriving them of their rights and civil liberties will find it very hard to maintain effective control of the region”, she wrote in The Wire.
What happens now?
Last week Kashmiris began yet another Eid festival under strict curfew. COVID-19 continues to claim lives and deplete the minimal resources of the Valley’s brittle health infrastructure. Remdesivir, a drug proven to alleviate symptoms of pandemic patients, is in short supply and largely unaffordable for most citizens. Chinese and Indian recently had their most deadly confrontation in decades. And demographic changes haunt Kashmiris who fear for the future of their proud culture and language.
India, meanwhile, is at pains to paint a picture of ‘paradise’, Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s famous description of Kashmir. Shortly after last year’s status change Indian authorities invited foreign politicians to tour Dal Lake, overlooked by overlooked by the magisterial Pir Panjal mountain range. Images of them being ferried by shikaras duly reached the world’s media, and they were even granted a photo opportunity by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, all the better to project the image of ‘normalcy’.
Yet the reality, as so often with Kashmir, was different. Among the visitors were right-wing Members of the European Parliament, including representatives from parties such as Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) and Marine le Pen’s National Rally in France, the newly rebranded ‘National Front’. Both are infamous for their anti-Muslim views. As used to happen with Durbar moves – when the previous J-K administration moved from its winter capital in Jammu to Srinagar, its summer seat, parts of Dal Lake were cleansed of weeds. But the water is stagnant, with weeds choking the life from the Lake, harming vegetable and fish stocks. Pollution, alleged corruption through over-development also threaten its very existence. A huge amount of work is needed to restore the lake. The same can be said of democracy in Kashmir.
The story was first published in our 3-9 August 2020 print edition.