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August 17, 2019

Drowning under curfew


August 17, 2019

“We’re inside the fire, looking for the dark," writes Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali in 'The Country Without A Post Office'.

As lost Kashmiris “bribe the air for dawn,” per Ali, the world says this and that, and does nothing much at all. Hindutva celebrations and the Amit Shahs of India’s parliament drown out the few Kashmiri voices that make it through the curfew. Three days into the curfew, I heard one old man in Srinagar cautiously tell an NDTV anchor, “They say we’re happy with their decision, right? Then why silence us?”

When Modi’s government announced its revocation of limited Kashmiri privileges -- their somewhat special constitutional status under Articles 370 and 35-A, and New Delhi's occasional lip service to Srinagar’s wishes -- Kashmiris found themselves cut off from the world and surrounded by newly bussed-in military contingents.

I could write at length about how they were deprived of access to the internet, TV and phones, largely arrested within the confines of their homes, unsure of the news, unable to contact friends and relatives, and how that violated what we know about international law, liberal democracy and basic human decency, but I leave that for another day.

For those interested, successive damning reports from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2018 and 2019 detail Indian security forces’ responsibility for enforced disappearances, pellet gun-induced blindness, unlawful killings and use of torture.

I could engage in an academic discussion of Pakistan’s case against India’s recent actions, particularly in light of the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in Occupied the Palestinian Territories (2004). In that case, the court considered Israel’s Wall “de facto annexation” and concluded that “Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (including East Jerusalem) have been established in breach of international law.” But I also leave that discussion on strengths and weaknesses of legal cases for another day.

My friends on both sides of the border lament the loss of something deeper, more intrinsic: the Kashmiri identity. With settlement plans appearing on Modi’s playbook, they fear the potential for Kashmiris losing their cultural identity. Others express concern about maintaining the status quo for the long-promised UN plebiscite. A friend from Srinagar, whom I know through Columbia Law School and Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, wrote about the creeping colonization of his homeland, decried the Modi government’s existential hatred of Pakistanis and Muslims, and warned against setting a devastating precedent for occupied or oppressed people the world over.

Over the cacophony of hate-mongering politicians, listening carefully to the voices of the Kashmiris and those conflict afflicted, I found myself focusing on this: Osaib Altaf, all of seventeen years of age, hailing from Srinagar’s Palpora area, became the first reported casualty of last week's curfew. According to Osaib’s father, Osaib was playing cricket with friends on Monday afternoon when the curfew was announced. The police chased Osaib and his friends, cornering them over a footbridge. Surrounded by police on both sides, the boys jumped in the Jhelum River. He didn’t know how to swim and so he drowned. The Press Trust of India released a report quoting unnamed officials confirming that a boy drowned after being chased “because of confusion over curfew.”

I’m reminded again of Agha Shahid Ali’s 'Country Without A Post Office', “Fire runs in waves. Should I cross that river? Each post office is boarded up. Who will deliver parchment cut in paisleys, my news to prisons?”

The writer teaches on the Law Faculty of IBA Karachi and is a graduate of Cambridge, Columbia and Georgetown universities.

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