Kashmir cut off from the world as India strips its autonomy

Indian military forces keeping guard in Kashmir after Article 370 was scrapped. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Indian military forces keeping guard in Kashmir after Article 370 was scrapped. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

DELHI — Hanan Zaffar, a young research scholar from Kashmir studying in Delhi, lost contact Aug. 5 with his father in Srinagar who usually calls Zaffar every day. Zaffar will probably not hear his father’s voice anytime in the near future.

“My family had told me that something bad was coming,” he said.

The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has turned Kashmir into an information blackhole this week. Late Sunday night, the government put Kashmir’s elected representatives, including former chief ministers who cooperated with Delhi to rule the region, on house arrest. By Monday morning, the government had stopped most phone lines, cable TV and Internet across the region and imposed a curfew in the valley. Then later Monday morning, a presidential order from Delhi erased Kashmir’s autonomy from Article 370 of the Indian constitution – the key statute Kashmir agreed to in order to join India after its independence. 

In late July, 35,000 new troops were trucked and flown into Kashmir, already the world’s most militarized zone. Locals suspected trouble, and many people began staying inside their homes and stocking up on gas, food and medical supplies, leading to shortages in some areas. Monday’s announcement that the region would fall under Delhi’s direct federal rule, and an additional 8,000 troops sent in, didn’t come as a complete surprise.

“In Kashmir, we can anticipate if the situation is going to worsen,” Zaffar said. “A day before the shutdown, I spoke to all my family members on a video call fearing that I might not be able to see them for some time.”

After India’s independence and partition from Pakistan in 1947, when many Muslims migrated to the Pakistan side and many Hindus migrated to India, Kashmir acceded to India on conditions of special autonomy. It’s now India’s only region with a clear Muslim majority, and many Kashmiris don’t identify as Indian.  

“It’s an attack on our identity and an attempt to change demographics,” said Zaffar. “There is no moral claim left with the Indian government to call Kashmir an integral part of India. We have been betrayed once again.”

Tourists and migrant workers packed up and left Kashmir this week while thousands of Indian troops moved in. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Tourists and migrant workers packed up and left Kashmir this week while thousands of Indian troops moved in. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Under the scrapped Article 370, India only had rights over foreign affairs, communication and defence in Jammu and Kashmir but gave the state rights over everything else. The article also prevented Indians from buying land in Kashmir.

An additional bill passed Tuesday evening in Delhi changes Jammu and Kashmir to a union territory ruled by the central government, and a part of Jammu and Kashmir state, Ladakh, will become a second union territory and have a Delhi-appointed governor but no legislature. Union territories have less rights than states and some have no elected representation or less in the national parliament.

Not surprisingly, Kashmir’s capital registered only 13 percent voter turnout in the recent election that kept Modi in power. Kashmiris are disillusioned with the Indian government and would have had to go through high security to reach polls, analysts said. Many separatists were under house arrest and unable to vote or contest elections.

India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir, and separatist movements on the Indian side are common, wanting either complete independence or bidding to join Pakistan. Analysts say the Indian government’s move will likely add local support to separatists who have been calling for independence for decades and clash sometimes violently with Indian security officials.

The BJP has been campaigning against the special status of Kashmir since the days of its inception in 1952, when the party was called “Jan Sangh.” It has remained one of their poll promises in all the elections they have fought. They often promise to resettle Kashmiri Hindus who fled the valley in the 1990’s when militant separatists targeted them with violence with government housing and jobs in Kashmir, and also offer welfare to Sikh and Hindu refugees from Pakistan to settle there.

After the decision, celebrations erupted across the country. Members of Shiv Sena, a BJP ally in the government, distributed sweets in Mumbai after the resolution.

"Historic day for India. 370 scrapped and Jammu & Kashmir now truly a part of India. The path to a safer, progressive and an open J&K determined by citizens, and not anti-national separatists has been paved," tweeted Aditya Thackeray, leader of the Shiv Sena.

“What a glorious day,” the BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav tweeted after the announcement.

Rajeev Tuly, media convenor of the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP, told media, “It was a longstanding demand of the people of India which has been fulfilled by the government of India, so the people are rejoicing. RSS welcomes the celebrations in the country.”

The state of Jammu and Kashmir is divided on the issue. The Hindu-majority Jammu and Buddhist-majority Ladakh support the government’s stand, while the Muslim-majority Kashmir region opposes it.

Foreshadowing of a big change

Before Monday, the government gave no explanation for the surge in troops to Kashmir and then the state government cancelled a large annual Hindu pilgrimage, Amarnath Yatra, that winds into the Himalayas to a cave believed to be holy. The order asked non-Kashmiris and tourists to leave Kashmir “immediately”.

The sudden calling off of the pilgrimage was a tipping point that fuelled speculations of a possible government clamp down.

A Kashmiri politician Shah Faesal tweeted about the state government’s order for tourists to leave Kashmir.

Tourists on Dal Lake, a major attraction in Srinagar, were evicted and sent home on Monday. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Tourists on Dal Lake, a major attraction in Srinagar, were evicted and sent home on Monday. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

“Is the government considering any such advisory for locals also?” he asked. “Should Kashmiris also migrate to other places or is it that our lives do not matter?”

38-year-old Sumaira living in upscale Hyderpora in Srinagar has stocked up milk food for her two-year-old son, but she is worried about what could happen if her baby falls ill. A curfew will prevent her from being able to take the child to the doctor.

“My baby suffers from infections frequently, and if a health emergency arises, I may not be able to show him to the doctor,” Sumaira said.

Omar Abdullah, one of Kashmir’s former chief ministers placed under house arrest late Aug. 4, asked Kashmiris to stay calm before communications were blocked on Aug. 5.

“To the people of Kashmir, we don’t know what is in store for us but I am a firm believer that whatever Almighty Allah has planned it is always for the better, we may not see it now but we must never doubt his ways,” Abdullah tweeted. “God [sic] luck to everyone, stay safe and above all PLEASE STAY CALM.”

Former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, describes the government’s move as unconstitutional and called Monday “the darkest day in Indian democracy.”

Ghulam Nabi a houseboat owner on Dal Lake in Srinagar said that the policemen came knocking on his houseboat in the morning and asked tourists from Mumbai to leave immediately.

“It was an absolute panic, never in the years of turmoil in Kashmir have the tourists been forcibly evicted like this,” Nabi said.

Critics say tensions will rise

The move is expected to escalate tensions between India and Pakistan. In its first statement, Pakistan said it “will exercise all possible options to counter the illegal steps.”

“The Indian State wishes to change the demography of Kashmir,” Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a statement Tuesday. “It is anathema to the Geneva Convention, and to the Indian Constitution itself. The current BJP Government in India is involved in mob lynching on the mere supposition of having eaten beef. It's part and parcel of their racist ideology. This ideology has continued in ‘Indian Occupied Kashmir’ yesterday.”

On Monday, Khan vowed to take the Kashmir crisis to the United Nations for the international community to address the BJP’s treatment of minorities in India.

Critics of the BJP have also raised concerns over the government’s decision to put the state leaders under house arrest before unilaterally deciding the fate of the region they represent. 

Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Congress Party leader of the Upper House, called Rajya Sabha, said that the BJP has “murdered the constitution of India.”

Rahul Gandhi, member of parliament and former president of the Congress Party, tweeted, “National integration isn’t furthered by unilaterally tearing apart J&K, imprisoning elected representatives and violating our Constitution. This nation is made by its people, not plots of land. This abuse of executive power has grave implications for our national security.”

For now, Kashmiris are staying inside, but Kashmir observers say the people of Kashmir are likely to protest against the decision on the streets despite the massive and dense security deployment across the region and a history of state-sanctioned violence against unarmed protesters. 

And while Kashmir remained locked down Tuesday, celebrations continued in many parts of India.

 Taha Zahoor is a pseudonym to protect the reporter’s identity.