‘Every Kashmiri is suffocated’: Crackdown dealt fatal blow to rights’ voices

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Shafqat Nazir faced a difficult choice last month when an aged mother came to his office, in Srinagar, weeping. She believed that Jammu and Kashmir police had brutally tortured her son in custody before killing him. 

“I thought I shouldn’t take it,” Nazir, a human rights lawyer at Jammu and Kashmir High Court, recalled.

“It is natural. I’m scared of everything … of force that may be used against me. I’m scared like a common man walking on the road,” he said, sitting desolated in a corner of his room. “I’ve to be scared.”

The mother had been denied representation by other lawyers. Nazir flipped over the case details — again, and took a call: “Somebody has to fight. If not fight, at least we need to resist.”

This was not the only instance when Nazir had tripped before taking such calls while he struggles to keep his profession afloat, he said. “Lesser people are coming to the courts now,” said Nazir. “People don’t have faith in any institution. The foundation of Indian democracy is at stake.”

Since the last two years, an uneasy silence — perhaps easily mistaken for peace — has taken over Kashmir. Since 5 August 2019, when New Delhi clamped down on Kashmir Valley, several detentions and raids later, many institutions — voice by voice — have come down crumbling to pressure. 

Rule of ‘fear psychosis’

Among over 7,000 persons detained during the clampdown, the government locked up students, politicians, journalists, rights activists, and lawyers. Though the restrictions were gradually lifted, the crackdown only got worse. 

In October 2020, India’s premier investigating agency raided residences and offices of prominent regional human rights defenders, including Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). 

The National Investigation Agency registered a case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) alleging that certain non-profits were collecting funds in the name of welfare activities but using the money to “sustain secessionist and terrorist activities”. 

To many others, it was a clear indication of intimidating the government’s critics. Julie Verhaar, acting secretary-general of Amnesty International, saw the raids as “an alarming reminder that India’s government is determined to suppress all dissenting voices in Jammu and Kashmir”. Amnesty’s Indian unit had been forced to shut down a month ago in a “witch hunt” by New Delhi. Several other international rights groups came in to condemn the raids. 

One prominent activist, whose identity has been withheld, denied talking for this story as well. “I’ll not be able to speak about any stories. Not yet,” the activist told The Kashmir Walla

On the same day, the NIA also searched the residence of Parvaiz Bukhari, the Agence France Presse’s correspondent in Kashmir. It took the state’s tactics of intimidating journalists a step further. 

Earlier in the year, over a dozen journalists were booked — a few under draconian anti-terror laws — for their writings; beaten up and harassed by the government forces on the field; and more than two dozens summoned, questioned, and threatened with dire consequences. It has, undeniably, led to self-censorship among local journalists. 

Outside the echo chambers of social media solidarity, a little has changed for many voices that represented Kashmir and amplified a native narrative on international platforms — now silenced.

It has to come to a point where people are not even protesting for basic facilities like electricity or roads, said Nazir. “It is a fear psychosis where people think even talking for their basic rights would land them in jails.”

On social media, the millennial Kashmiris had found a platform to express their politics without a bias. The crackdown didn’t halt at the activists; the state bodies came after social media users, posting their opinions critiquing the government. At least two users were detained by the police in August 2020, several others were questioned and threatened. 

In March 2021, the government made it mandatory for all the government posts’ holders to disclose their social media handles. The administration runs this mechanism to bar the salaries and allowances to “dubious character antecedents and conduct” in sync with the Criminal Investigation Department.

Eventually, the social media space fell silent too. 

Most of the prominent politicians have been released from the detentions. They forged an alliance — the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, a reference to the joint meeting convened a day before New Delhi clamped down on 5 August 2019 — and took a strong stand against India’s actions on Kashmir. Demanding a pre-August 2019 position, the Alliance claimed it represented the political aspirations of Kashmiris.

Barely a year on, the Alliance is not only broken in parts, with Sajad Lone-led People’s Conference parting its way, but the politicians have eased on their lines, propelling mostly New Delhi’s ideas, rewritten to suit better to their local audiences. 

Accumulated together: Kashmir is reeling under a grave sense of lack of representation as the populace fights several battles altogether.

‘Someone needs to speak’

While the crackdown silenced many veteran voices, it has simultaneously discovered fresh faces too. Among them is Habeel Iqbal, a south Kashmir based lawyer. He was summoned by the Srinagar Police for “investigation” into Kashmiris expressing their views on a judgement by the High Court on continuing the detention of senior advocate and Bar Association President, Mian Abdul Qayoom. “There is a sense that anybody can be silenced,” said Iqbal. “All these names: Khurram, Parvaiz, Parveena [referring to the JKCCS and APDP members] are big names … the raids on them were the final nail in the coffin.”

Though his fear is rooted in the falling democratic values of India at large. However, he didn’t shut up and continued to question the government and its policies. “I have censored myself too, honestly. I’m policing my thoughts,” he said over a phone interview. “The state is powerful and can do anything … [but] someone needs to speak when you see injustice around you,” he added. 

This urgent sense of representation also led a Rajouri-based social activist, Guftar Ahmad Choudhary, to raise his voice for three of his neighbours, who went to Kashmir’s Shopian to find a job and were subsequently killed by the army in a staged gunfight

A 26-year-old lawyer by qualification, the fight for justice was personal for Choudhary. “I wasn’t afraid of raising my voice for justice,” he said. “Local activists in Kashmir didn’t speak up. They feared that if they talk against the system, they will face repression from the government.”

Since the reports came out initially in August 2020, Choudhary stayed with family from moving to the local police station in Rajouri to taking on the army to the court. These small victories have kept the hope alive for not only Choudhary but many others in Jammu and Kashmir. 

But the laws are changing at a fast pace. Since the abrogation of the limited-autonomy of the erstwhile state in August 2019, a lot if not everything has changed. “Nobody is standing up against the new laws like domicile, [acquisition and dealings of] lands, property taxes,” Choudhary said. “If we are not talking, then we are siding with the oppressor.”

On the ground, the government suggests from a cursory view at the data that the violence has dipped in Kashmir to a record low. New Delhi has propagated this as a success too. India’s Home Minister Amit Shah claimed that “during the last six years of [Narendra] Modi’s rule from 2014 to 2020, Kashmir witnessed the most peaceful period since 1990 and it will be remembered in the history of J-K.” 

Nazir, the human rights lawyer, recalled an example of this: “A person pickpocket me in the bus; he wants no resentment. He wants peace. If the bus remains silent out of fear, is that peace?” 

“If India believes that they have won hearts [of Kashmiris] hence people are not protesting, instead they have made Kashmiris feel more annihilated, more distanced,” he added. “The silence is a temporary phase.” Iqbal and Choudhary commented similarly.

“As a Kashmiri, I feel suffocated, there is no second answer to that. Every Kashmiri is suffocated,” said Nazir. “People will raise their voice — if not today then tomorrow people will be back on the streets demanding their rights.”

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