After India Revoked Its Autonomy, Kashmir Sees Repression and Militancy Rise

SRINAGAR, India—In July, I joined a group of young men plodding glumly through verdant paddy fields in Bijbehara, a picturesque town tucked inside a network of lofty mountains in the Kashmir Valley. It was the middle of the monsoon season. One of the men was recounting a midnight raid conducted by the Indian Army in a nearby village, Arwani, in August last year.

“They were bloodthirsty,” he said, in a wobbling voice. “We live in the shadow of violence,” another man replied. There have been similar raids recently, he said. “They pick up boys without provocation.”

The young men were discussing all that has changed in Kashmir since Aug. 5, 2019, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked Article 370 of India’s constitution, and with it, the region’s special status as a semiautonomous state. The move divided the former state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories: a smaller Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. India’s Hindu nationalist government presented it as a patriotic project to bring economic development to the Kashmir Valley, the mountainous, restive area along the border with Pakistan that is also claimed by Islamabad. But to these young men, and many Kashmiris, the change in the region’s status is part of an attempt by Modi’s administration to “flood outside settlers into Kashmir”⎯one of the only Muslim-majority regions in India⎯“and realign its demographics.”

Although the change in Kashmir’s status took place without consulting local political leaders, it was widely supported within India and backed by most of Parliament. On Aug. 5 and for days after, Indian TV channels were flooded with images from across India that showed men and women distributing candy, beating drums and dancing to celebrate Kashmir’s so-called “integration.” But more than a year later, Kashmiris feel more alienated than ever before.

In the days surrounding Article 370’s abrogation, the Indian government deployed tens of thousands of additional troops to Kashmir and imposed strict security measures, locking the region down, enforcing curfews, cutting phone lines and shutting down the internet. The restrictions made it nearly impossible for journalists to carry out their work, and some local papers were unable to publish at all, turning Kashmir into an “information black hole” at a critical point in its history, as Reporters Without Borders put it. Many of these restrictions remain in place today, and some have even expanded. And despite⎯or more likely because of⎯the show of force, both state-sponsored violence and separatist militancy are on the rise.

Kashmir has been a disputed territory for more than seven decades. The region enjoyed just 73 days of independence between Aug. 15, 1947, when India secured independence from British colonial rule, and Oct. 26, 1947, when Kashmir’s king, Maharajah Hari Singh, acceded to the Indian government to protect the region from tribal raiders who were crossing over its border with Pakistan. Since then, parts of the Kashmir Valley have been administered by India, Pakistan and China, though both India and Pakistan claim the region in its entirety.

Since 1990, the Indian-administered side of the Kashmir Valley has been home to militant groups⎯some of which receive training, arms and funds from Pakistan⎯that oppose the Indian state with force and seek either independence for Kashmir, or want the entire valley to become part of Pakistan. These separatist aspirations resonate with many Kashmiris, though residents of Jammu and Ladakh, where Muslims are a minority, have largely been loyal to India.

The overwhelming belief among Kashmiris is that a solution to this conflict is no longer possible within the ambits of India’s constitution.

Walking with the young men in Bijbehara’s paddy fields, their anguish at the uncertainty that faces Kashmir, and their families and communities, is palpable. The region’s political elites, who were nearly all arrested and detained at the Hotel Centaur in the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar, the night before Article 370 was revoked, have struggled to offer any leadership on how Kashmiris can move forward. Bijbehara native Mehbooba Mufti, Kashmir’s former chief minister and one of the leaders of its moderate political camp, was detained elsewhere that night; she remains under house arrest in Srinagar today.

Minutes before her arrest last year, Mufti had tweeted that the Article 370 decision would “make India an occupational force” in Kashmir. It is difficult to deny that view today. The overwhelming belief among Kashmiris is that a solution to this conflict is no longer possible within the ambits of India’s constitution.

Another Bijbehara local, who only identified himself as Parvaiz, and whose father owns a bakery shop in town, worries what all this will mean for the future. “If they can huddle the entire leadership of Kashmir into dingy rooms in a hostel, how can we expect to be treated with dignity?”

‘Hindu Majoritarianism at Its Core’

Modi’s government has projected an image of normalcy in Kashmir, capitalizing on the well-oiled PR machinery of the prime minister and his Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. In the weeks after the Article 370 abrogation, BJP politicians and much of the Indian press bent over backward to reassure Indian viewers that calm had returned to Kashmir, with one politician even accusing the BBC and Reuters of publishing “fake news” when they reported that protests had broken out in Srinagar in response to the change in its status.

Modi has repeatedly claimed that Article 370 itself was causing secessionist sentiment and terrorism in Kashmir. By revoking it, he said, his government can restore stability and safety to the region. This narrative has been broadly echoed by his BJP colleagues, who insist that Kashmir is more peaceful now than ever before.

But the reality on the ground is unremitting civilian repression. From Aug. 5 to the end of 2019, all of Kashmir was under a stringent civilian curfew with everything, it seemed, wrapped in barbed wire. Markets were completely shut down. Schools were closed for more than a year, first as a security measure, and then due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though government schools reopened last month in Jammu and Kashmir, most parents have kept their children at home given a recent surge in coronavirus cases in the region.

Locals throughout the Kashmir Valley allege that Indian forces resorted to everything in their armory of repression to try to break them: nocturnal raids, illegal detentions, even vandalizing people’s houses—all of which continue today. On May 19, at least 15 houses were razed and allegedly looted by Indian security forces during a raid aimed at rooting out separatist militants in Nawakadal, a locality in Srinagar. On June 26, a six-year-old boy was killed in the crossfire during a shootout between an Indian police force and separatists in Bijbehara. In September, protests erupted after two violent incidents⎯one in Sopore, where a 23-year-old shopkeeper was allegedly tortured and killed in custody by Kashmiri police, and another in Srinagar, where a woman was killed during a shootout between Indian security forces and suspected militants.

The media has not been spared. A new policy, announced in early June, empowers the government of Jammu and Kashmir to take punitive action against editors, reporters, media owners and publishers over any content that it deems “fake,” “anti-national” or “unethical.” None have been charged under this policy yet, but two journalists have been booked by police for violating the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, an anti-terrorism law passed in 1967. Beyond legal persecution, many journalists have been summoned by police, without any written orders, for publishing stories that criticize the Indian government. With some notable exceptions, few dare to talk about these experiences publicly, as self-censorship has taken hold among the region’s press.

A Kashmiri man douses a fire in a house which was damaged in a gun-battle.

A Kashmiri man douses a fire in a house that was damaged during a raid, Srinagar, India, May 19, 2020 (AP photo by Dar Yasin).

The Indian government’s aim in Kashmir appears to be the extinction of independent thought, a mission that extends to ordinary citizens’ online activities, as well. After Aug. 5, the authorities shut down internet access throughout Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, and temporarily banned social media sites. Slower, 2G internet was restored in January 2020, but high-speed internet is still restricted. In addition to obstructing access to information in the area, the slow speeds have significantly disrupted online schooling during the coronavirus pandemic.

Though the degree and duration of the repression are new, Kashmiris are used to harsh treatment and political meddling by India. Article 370 guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir a high degree of autonomy⎯allowing it to have its own constitution and flag, and to legislate on certain issues independent from New Delhi⎯but Indian politicians have often intervened in the region’s internal affairs. In 1953, the prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah, was unlawfully dismissed from his seat by the region’s head of state, Karan Singh, a close friend of then-Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Abdullah was imprisoned for the greater part of the next 22 years. India is also widely believed to have rigged the provincial elections in 1987, which incited a Pakistan-backed armed uprising in January 1990. Modi’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status took away the last vestiges of its autonomy, which had allowed locals the exclusive right to own land and property in the region.

For decades, the Hindu nationalist BJP has made persistent claims that Article 370 was an impediment to the development of Kashmir, and that revoking it would open the floodgates to economic opportunity, to the benefit of locals. But voices on the ground say otherwise. Last August, traders in Lal Chowk, a historic city square in Srinagar, told me that Article 370 had not seemed to prevent private players from investing in Kashmir, pointing to “seven-star” hotels owned by the Indian franchises Taj and Lalit as examples.

Indeed, the government’s various promises about development have proved empty. For some time after Article 370’s abrogation, there was buzz about a Global Investors’ Summit in Srinagar, but it was postponed indefinitely in October 2019, while the local economy still suffers. According to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the valley economy lost a whopping $2.4 billion between August 2019 and December 2019 due to the lockdowns and information blackout. The lieutenant governor of Jammu and Kashmir, G.C. Murmu, responded to concerns with reassurances that his administration is utilizing more funds for Kashmir than regional governments have in the past, and putting the final touches on a new policy to promote industrial development and woo investors.

Many Kashmiris are not convinced, saying that the economic decline proves development was never the true goal of changing the region’s status. Instead, they say, Modi and the BJP hoped to provoke demographic change to dilute Kashmiris’ culture and deny them their political voice. “The Modi government is pursuing a program that has Hindu majoritarianism at its core,” said a 20-something resident of the village of Marhama in the southern Kashmir Valley, who asked only to be identified by his first name, Tassaduq. “They want to infiltrate a large number of Hindus here, but we will not let that happen. Insha’Allah.”

But change is on its way. In March, the Indian government amended a decades-old law to allow anyone who has lived in Jammu and Kashmir for 15 years, or who has studied at one of its registered educational institutions for seven years and taken secondary school exams there, to be treated as a “domicile.” That status would entitle them to buy land and other assets in the new union territory. As of September, nearly 1.9 million people had already been granted domicile status, including Indian bureaucrats and other officials.

Stoking More Militancy

Across the Kashmir Valley, many locals say that any attempt to alter Kashmir’s demographics would give a boost to militancy. In early June, a newly emerged extremist outfit, the Resistance Front, which is reportedly backed by Pakistan, posted a statement online warning that “any Indian who comes with the intention to settle in Kashmir will be treated as an agent of RSS”⎯Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization⎯“and not as a civilian and will be dealt with appropriately.”

There have been steady attacks by militants on non-locals in Kashmir since Article 370 was revoked. A particularly horrific one occurred in a village south of Srinagar last October, when militants pulled six laborers out of their shared apartment, lined them up outside and shot them; only one of the workers survived. They were all from West Bengal, an Indian state along the border with Bangladesh. Bomb blasts and grenade attacks have also been common. In May, state security averted a major suicide bombing when they intercepted an explosive-laden car in the town of Rajpora in the southern Kashmir Valley.

How do you expect us to accept Indian rule, Kashmiris often ask, when there is no semblance of rights and justice?

To many observers, the Indian army’s use of brute force is not reining in militancy, but fueling it. A report last year by the Concerned Citizens’ Group, an independent organization led by former Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha that has arranged informal talks in Kashmir in recent years, warned that unless New Delhi recalibrated its policy there, it may end up igniting “a new phase of militancy.” Kashmir was already seeing a resurgence of home-grown militancy under Modi before its special status was revoked, with every militant attack greeted with an ever-harsher response from Indian authorities.

At the same time, Modi and his fellow BJP leaders, including Home Minister Amit Shah, have stepped up rhetoric vilifying “Muslim Kashmiris,” to depict the BJP as the sole protector of what it sees as a strictly Hindu national interest. The killing of more Indian soldiers and security forces in Kashmir by militants only feeds the anger of Hindu nationalists.

Close to the Chowdhry Gund army camp, in the militant hotbed of Shopian in southern Kashmir, a group of boys told me that Modi and Shah have thoroughly alienated Kashmiris. “In the past year, the army men often summoned us into their barracks,” one of them said—where they confiscated their identification cards, beat them and checked their mobile phones “for seditious content.”

“Modi uses optics to sell ‘normalcy’ to the world, while we face the worst form of repression,” said another. He called Modi’s handling of Kashmir “Islamophobic,” claiming that locals were prevented from gathering for congregational prayers on Eid al-Adha last year, which fell on Aug. 12, when strict curfews were still in place. How do you expect us to accept Indian rule, Kashmiris often ask, when there is no semblance of rights and justice?

‘This Is a Military Occupation’

Although there has been international criticism of India’s treatment of Kashmiris since August 2019, many world leaders have hesitated to demand that India restore Kashmir’s special status. At a congressional hearing in Washington a year ago, U.S. State Department officials criticized Modi’s government for violating the human rights of Kashmiris after revoking Article 370, but conceded that the region’s legal status was an “internal matter.” In January, the European Parliament delayed voting on resolutions that would have criticized India’s actions in Kashmir, a decision New Delhi considered a diplomatic victory.

Meanwhile, in Kashmir, the harsh political restrictions have all but stamped out local political leadership. Take the status of the region’s two most prominent political families, the Abdullahs and the Muftis, and their parties, which have seen their credibility wane in recent years. The Abdullahs’ National Conference and the Muftis’ People’s Democratic Party had long advocated for more autonomy for the state of Jammu and Kashmir, but were ultimately pro-India politically and willing to engage with New Delhi. Mehbooba Mufti was Kashmir’s chief minister until she was removed in 2018, in a move that put the region under the control of a BJP-appointed governor. Former chief ministers Farooq and Omar Abdullah were also detained, like Mufti, the night before Article 370’s abrogation, along with more than 3,000 other Kashmiris, including other political leaders, lawyers, businessmen, government workers, and suspected dissenters or separatists.

Though Mufti remains in custody, New Delhi has released other political detainees in phases, including Farooq and Omar Abdullah, who walked free in February. But trust is low in Kashmir, with unsubstantiated rumors that the released leaders were forced to first make a deal with the Indian government to oppose any political activity it considers contrary to the “national interest.”

Kashmiri men protest against New Delhi.

Kashmiri men protest New Delhi’s tightened grip on the disputed region, Srinagar, India, Aug. 23, 2019 (AP photo by Dar Yasin).

The young men from Bijbehara expressed their frustration that the Abdullahs have failed to display definitive resolve to push back against Modi. In a July 27 column for The Indian Express, an English daily, Omar Abdullah wrote that he wouldn’t contest elections if Jammu and Kashmir remained a union territory. Many Kashmiris saw this as a failure, because it centered the debate on Kashmir around the restoration of its statehood, so it would be like any other Indian state, rather than on restoring its partial autonomy.

Since then, after young Kashmiris took to social media to roundly criticize party leaders, mainstream politicians have taken a somewhat stronger approach. In August, Abdullah’s National Conference joined with five other parties to reiterate their promise to reject and oppose the change in Kashmir’s status, a pledge they first made on Aug. 4 last year in an agreement known as the Gupkar Declaration. Some see the agreement as a promising sign of unity in the face of a common threat, but others point out that it was largely symbolic, and won’t on its own increase Kashmir’s political power.

But some Kashmiris don’t see the point in participating in the political process at all. “Why shall I vote for them now?” asked Yasar, an orchard owner in the village of Patushay in northern Kashmir. He has voted for the Abdullahs since 1996, believing that the family would one day be able to negotiate greater autonomy for Kashmir. The strain of Modi’s “toxic politics” has collapsed that hope, he said. “When you are putting the Abdullahs in jail, you’re admitting this is a military occupation.”

Other Kashmiris, who view the Abdullahs and Muftis as puppets of New Delhi, saw their detentions as a form of justice. “Both Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti presided over the killing of civilian protesters during their stints as chief ministers. They put hundreds of people in jail under the Public Safety Act. They are getting a taste of their own medicine,” said a government official in Rajbagh, a swanky neighborhood in the heart of Srinagar, who asked to be identified only as Syed, in order to speak frankly.

Longtime observers fear that if moderate politicians betray the fight for Kashmir’s autonomy, it would push the region to the edge of an anti-India cliff.

At the same time, these mainstream politicians and officials are under attack by militants, too. On June 8, a local elected leader, Ajay Pandita, who was affiliated with the liberal Congress party, was shot and killed in Anantnag. On July 8, a BJP leader, Sheikh Waseem Bari, and two members of his family met the same fate in Bandipore. Police say both attacks were likely carried out by Hizbul Mujahideen, a home-grown militant group. National Conference and People’s Democracy Party members have long been targeted by insurgents for upholding Indian rule; the attacks on them continue unabated.

If Modi’s government is attempting to browbeat Kashmiri politicians into accepting the new status quo, and giving up the struggle for greater autonomy or self-rule, it may be working. Atlaf Bukhari, who founded the new Apni Party in March, reportedly with the blessings of New Delhi, has hinted that he will abide by India’s wishes and limit his ambitions. “Life goes on,” he said in a January interview with the Indian news agency IANS. “We must try for things that we can get.” To the region’s moderate politicians, the Apni Party is a signal that if they do not toe the line, Modi’s government will find new, pro-India leaders to replace them.

If the Abdullahs, Muftis and other leaders give in to this pressure, Indian’s central government may gain more influence over local politics in Kashmir. But many longtime observers fear that if moderate politicians betray the fight for Kashmir’s autonomy, it would push the region deeper into militancy and to the edge of an anti-India cliff.

In the meantime, in Srinagar, Syed’s two young children spend their days playing in the kitchen garden of their two-story house. “The older one hasn’t been to school since Aug. 5,” Syed’s wife said. “Is this the development Mr. Modi wants to gift us?”


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