Kashmiris worry about their future as Indian government relaxes lockdown

A man surrounded by pigeons in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

A man surrounded by pigeons in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

This story was updated as we heard from our local correspondent amid the communication lockdown.

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — More than 50,000 phone lines have been opened in Kashmir, the Indian government announced Aug. 17, allowing many to make calls for the first time in 13 days in an unprecedented lockdown.

Before Aug. 17, there was a massive surge in crowds going to Srinagar’s Deputy Commissioner office each day for the six helplines set up there for calls. There were only a total of 46 landlines in the city, mostly in police stations, and the wait time for a two-minute call could extend to days.

Internet, cable TV and mobile network have remained shut by the Indian government since Aug. 5. Schools and colleges are set to reopen next week Aug. 19, the government announced Aug. 17, but many families plan to keep their kids at home out of concern the streets patrolled by security officers are not safe.

It’s been unusually quiet around the picturesque Dal Lake in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. There are no tourists and no business. The rows of wooden house boats are empty.

50-year-old Ghulam Mohammad Mir lives nearby and has grown up watching Bollywood film shoots in the lush green Himalayan valley. He sat in silence looking over the lake’s vastness with his five- and six-year-old sons and hugged them. Mir is worried about their future, he says in a subdued tone.

“What will they do when they grow up?” he said.

Mir’s distress began Aug. 5, when a presidential decree of India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party put the state’s elected representatives on house arrest and broke a constitutional guarantee of special autonomy to Kashmir. The constitutional article was made shortly after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 with Muslim-majority Kashmir’s Hindu ruler, while Pakistan continues to claim part of northern Kashmir.  Kashmir’s accession to India allowed India rights over only defense, communication and foreign affairs in the state, but as of last week, the region is now two union territories with less rights than states.

“When we woke up to a curfew in the morning, it was a feeling of total shock and dejection because this has been done without the consent of the people,” Mir said. “Kashmiris are demanding a right to self-determination, but even the special powers which were granted within the Indian union have been snatched away without ratification by Kashmir’s assembly.”

Kashmiris worry that the move, which allows outsiders to own land there for the first time, is intended to change the demography of the region into a more Hindu, pro-government territory and ignores the spirit of secularism in India’s constitution.

More than half a million armed troops in Kashmir are enforcing a tight curfew with barbed wire checkpoints. The Internet, cable TV and phone lines had been shut since Aug. 5 at the time of this article.

Despite the restrictions, thousands protested on the streets after Friday prayers for Eid Aug. 9 and security officials responded by firing tear gas and live ammunition into the air, according to footage aired by Al Jazeera, BBC and others. A spokesperson for the Indian home affairs ministry initially said the information was fabricated and that no protest of more than 20 people occurred, then admitted Aug. 13 there had been “widespread unrest.”

There’s a ban on assemblies of more than four people in public, tight security around mosques, and the police have arrested hundreds of political workers.

All main roads in Kashmir are fenced in with wire gates to restrict traffic and pedestrian movement. In Srinagar’s city center Lal Chowk, gun-toting soldiers stopped journalists from filming.

Journalists are being restricted from traveling into much of Kashmir and have to send text by flying hardcopies out or waiting in lines to connect to Internet or phones in a government office. Al Jazeera reported that a group of boys who were not protesting were also injured by pellet fire by the army in Srinagar, and a teenage boy without knowledge of the curfew drowned while fleeing soldiers.

A report by four well-known Indian human rights activists claimed that though the Indian media largely claims normalcy in Kashmir, “nothing is further from the truth” and these reports from the city are “grossly misleading.” The activists are Jean Drèze, economist, Kavita Krishnan, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), Maimoona Mollah, All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) and Vimal Bhai, National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM).

“We spent five days moving around and talking to hundreds of ordinary people in Srinagar city, as well as villages and small towns of Kashmir,” the activists wrote, saying that the Kashmiri people they spoke to are anguished that they cannot safely protest, access the Internet or mobile networks, travel freely or post on social media.

The activists also claim that at least 600 civil society leaders have been arrested on unclear charges, and that in every village they visited, boys and teen boys have been removed from their homes to create fear while girls and women were sexually molested by security officers.

Government claims the “situation is under control”

Security agencies insist that Kashmir has remained nothing but calm, telling media that “the situation is under control.”

While the Indian government sent advisories on WhatsApp to people to stockpile food and medicine, there was no clarity on why truckloads of soldiers were arriving. At times, the government was denying sending those advisories. And then the Internet block prevented further communication.

Kashmir’s police Chief Dilbagh Singh said Kashmir hasn’t seen any incident of violence.

“Kashmir is absolutely peaceful after the scrapping of Article 370,” he said. “There hasn’t been any spontaneous violent reaction. Restrictions on communications will be lifted as and when the situation demands.”

The administration insists that efforts are on to ensure that the local Kashmiri population does not suffer inconveniences. Some phone lines in the Deputy Commissioners office in Srinagar have been activated for communication. The office reports that 1,200 phone calls were made in two days from their helpline, and food and fuel rations have been stocked for two months.

“Airport buses are taking people till the tourist reception center. Five lakh rupees have been given to each hospital in Kashmir for purchasing emergency medicine. Sixty chemist shops [pharmacies] have been opened up in the capital city,” Shahid Iqbal, the Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar, said.

Non-Kashmiris leaving their work and tourism

At the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar, hundreds of non-Kashmiris, mostly laborers, caught buses leaving Kashmir. The curfew and communication blackout in Kashmir, not uncommon for the past few decades, has created insecurity among non-locals who are unsure when the region will resume business normally.

Qasim and Khalid, from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, were among hundreds leaving Kashmir on short notice. The two friends come to Kashmir every year to make and sell mattresses and quilts. Unsure about their safety in Kashmir, they are not sure about their return.

“We are very worried,” Qasim said. “Leaving this juncture is a big business loss for us, but at least we will be safe when we go out of Kashmir.”

“We are unsure when we will return,” Khalid added. “We can only return when peace and normalcy returns to Kashmir.”

According to government figures, 50,000 non-Kashmiri migrant workers have left Kashmir.

Indian army soldiers in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Indian army soldiers in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Changing Kashmir with Hindu settlers

Despite the ban on gatherings, some Shikara walas or boatmen huddle together along the banks of Dal Lake, discussing their future. They are bitter about what has happened. The anger is not over losing business, but the way the Indian authorities have declared a new status for Kashmir without any consultation with Kashmiri leaders. The ruling party, the BJP, has campaigned on this promise since the 1950s, and became even more adamant after pro-separatist violence in the nineties forced Kashmiri Hindus to flee south. The pro-separatist movement was reinvigorated in 1989, when the Indian government removed Kashmir’s elected governor and replaced him with one chosen by New Delhi.

The worry is that there is an intent to change the demography of Muslim-dominated Kashmir and bring in Hindu settlers from mainland India. So far, only Kashmiris had the right to buy land in the region but now people from the rest of India can come in and buy land in Kashmir.

“They (India) brought an end to an issue of 70 years in a matter of just 15 minutes in the parliament,” said Abdul Hameed, a boatman in Dal Lake. “We fear that people from outside will come to Kashmir and buy land here, leaving nothing for the locals. India is adopting the policy of Israel, what Israel is doing in Palestine, India is doing in Kashmir, there could be a violent fallout after the restrictions are taken off.”

Analysts say while the move is directed to bring about demographic changes in Kashmir, this has also set in a precedent to break states which don’t fall in line with New Delhi and convert them into union territories with fewer rights to elect representatives.

“The intent is to change the demography of the only Muslim-majority state of India. It is undemocratic, completely illegal and amounts to betrayal of the people of Kashmir,” said a Kashmir-based political Analyst Sidiq Wahid.

“This could also happen to other states as well, they could be treated in the same way,” he said. “It also shows the contempt towards the people of Kashmir as they have not been consulted on this important issue.”

And while all politicians of Kashmir have been arrested, some who are out, like Congress Party leader Salman Soz, said that Kashmiri leaders must come together to chart a common course for future.

“Kashmiris should stay peaceful,” he said. “It is important that Kashmiris should live on to resist this betrayal. Unity is the need of the hour.”

Taha Zahoor is a pseudonym to protect the reporter’s identity. Meagan Clark contributed reporting from New York.