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Thursday 17 October 2019

India and Pakistan

Losing Kashmir

Modi has gambled, and he may have lost

By Amit Sengupta

On Monday, for the first time in ten weeks, cell phones worked in Srinagar. Networks had been shut down as part of a full-scale communications blackout and military occupation of Kashmir ordered by India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.

In those ten weeks, thousands of Muslim Kashmiri activists and politicians have been detained. Hundreds have been moved to prisons far from Kashmir, while normal life in their towns and villages has been brought to a standstill by day and night curfews and razor wire.

Teenage boys have been taken from their homes at the dead of night. Stories of children shot by police with special pellet guns go largely unreported in India but are all too true.

There are two ways of looking at Kashmir’s latest emergency. The more charitable one is that Modi has sought to move the goalposts in a 70-year-old conflict with a view to ending it, creating two new federal territories – one Hindu, one Muslim – directly controlled by Delhi.

An injured Kashmir protester in hospital during the curfew in Srinagar

The worldlier view is that Modi is fanning the flames of Hindu nationalism with a manufactured crisis in which the news blackout has meant a widening gulf between mainstream Indian perceptions of what is happening, and a tense and lethal reality.

That reality includes running battles between Indian troops and Islamist militants across the disputed Line Of Control between India and Pakistan. Civilians are constantly at risk. Al Jazeera reported that three were killed, including two children, on Tuesday alone. Other sources say the militants are now targeting civilians to ensure the conflict is not stabilised on Modi’s terms.

Two of India’s three wars with Pakistan started in Kashmir. The question now is whether a fourth is avoidable.

I gained access to the region with the photographer Aritra Bhattacharya a month into the blackout. The military clampdown was evident on every street of Srinagar. Shops were shut, doctors were unable to open their clinics and the local economy was collapsing. Ripe apples, pears and walnuts waited to be packed as government hospitals and schools stood empty. People stayed at home protecting their food supplies while security forces in camouflage and armoured vehicles stalked the city.

“If this is not a military occupation, what is it?” a local journalist asked.

This state of suspended animation began on 4 August, when Modi’s government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution, stripping Kashmir of much of its autonomy.

Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard at a roadblock at Maisum, in Srinagar

In Muslim-majority areas this made non-Muslim Indians the enemy. “Please go back and write that all we want is azaadi (freedom),” one old man said to me.

Indian journalists are hated in Kashmir because their coverage tends to repeat the propaganda of the ruling nationalist party, the BJP. Its message is that everything is normal in Kashmir, but the truth is otherwise.

Anchaar and Saura, not far from Downtown Srinagar, is a “liberated zone”. No Kashmiris from Uptown go there for fear their cars will be smashed. Even local Kashmiri journalists are not invited and the army dare not enter.

The entire area has been barricaded by the locals. Huge holes have been dug in the streets and backstreets. Major roads are blocked. Most days are quiet, but young men in groups patrol the area all night. One Friday, early in the lockdown, protests erupted in which more than 200 people were hit by pellet guns. Reports said 80 children were among those hurt.

Pharmacies across Kashmir are open for a couple of hours a day. Most private hospitals are shut. The pregnant sister of a fellow reporter lost her baby because a gynaecologist could not be contacted by mobile or landline. An 85-year-old man died because he was hit by a car on the road. He was picked up by neighbours, but their vehicle was stopped so often that by the time it reached the hospital he was dead. There are so many similar stories that one Kashmiri woman accused the government of “organised murder”.

Kashmiri protesters burn the Indian Flag during protests after Friday prayers in Srinagar

We were told that at least 4,000 people have been arrested in the Valley, including mainstream politicians and former senior ministers, many of whom have been detained in the five-star Centaur Hotel near Srinagar’s Dal Lake – an eerie echo of the 2017 imprisonment of Saudi notables in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton.

Most disconcerting are the midnight-raids. Scores of young boys and men have been picked up by police and reportedly sent to jails in other states including Uttar Pradesh. Anyone can be picked up in the night and charged under the draconian Public Safety Act with no requirement for a trial or judicial accountability. The fear is palpable, but it is not necessarily driving Kashmiris towards Pakistan.

“We want to live in Indian democracy,” a local Shia leader told me in Lal Bazar during the festival of Moharram. “So why is India losing Kashmir with this mindless oppression? We are secular. We want dialogue and progress. We want good business and the local economy to flourish. We want our children in schools and our women safe on the streets. We want peace.”

There seems little chance of that, especially if the reopening of cellphone networks makes it easier to organise mass protests and resistance. Police are bracing for the worst. One senior officer told me bluntly: “India has lost Kashmir.”

All Photographs Getty Images