A year of siege

August 2, 2020

August 5 marks a whole year under curfew and internet blackout for Indian Occupied Kashmir

Indian forces enforced a strict curfew in Srinagar and the rest of the Valley, starting August 5, 2019.

It has been almost a year since Muhammad Ishtiaq, a Kashmiri who lives in Pakistan, last talked to his ailing mother living in Anantnag, in the Indian Occupied Kashmir.

“They were seeing a lot of unusual movement of troops. When I talked to her over the internet on August 4, 2019, my mother said she was worried. She was afraid that something big was about to happen,” recalls Ishtiaq, who migrated to Pakistan two decades ago. The rest of his family still resides in IOK.

August 5 will mark the passage of a year of curfew and internet blackout in the Valley.

On that day in 2019, the BJP government abrogated Articles 35-A and 370 of the Indian constitution, revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir through a presidential order. Later, the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act (2019) divided the former princely state into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The new law changes the definition of ‘permanent resident’ and allows Indians residing or studying in Jammu and Kashmir to claim permanent residency. Government officials and migrants, as well as their children, will also be provided domicile status. The law will also allow people with a domicile status to apply for local jobs.

To deal with the expected reaction from Kashmiris, the Modi government raised the number of soldiers in the area to 1.1 million. It also imposed a curfew and blocked all internet and cellular phone services. The situation continued to worsen as Indian authorities arrested most Kashmiri leaders, including those regarded pro-India.

Critics say the new laws are a pretext to change the demography of the Valley by settling Hindus in the Muslim-majority areas. Introducing laws to allow non-Kashmiris to settle in the state and become residents and making the military personnel and government servants eligible for domicile certificates is meant to change the ownership of Kashmiri lands. Kashmir freedom movement leaders are behind bars and all voices raised in their support are being silenced through arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings.

Most Kashmiri leaders are either under house arrest or in jail.

“All eyes are on global powers to intervene and urge India to restore the rights and freedoms of the Kashmiri people. The Kashmiris, however, have pinned their hopes on Pakistan,” says a Kashmiri man living in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. He asked not to be named, fearing for the safety of his extended family living under Indian occupation.

“To this day, when a Kashmiri youth in the Valley is killed [at the hands of occupation forces] his coffin is draped in Pakistani colours. They are not afraid of expressing their love for Pakistan. This is what they have gone through since childhood. This has gone on for couple of generations now but they do not love Pakistan any less for that,” he says.

Pakistan has rejected the unilateral changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir as violations of international and bilateral agreements. The government sees these as an effort to undermine the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination, guaranteed by the United Nations Security Council. According to the UNSC resolutions, it is to be exercised through a free plebiscite under the auspices of the United Nations. Islamabad has repeatedly urged the UN and the international community to intervene to stop India from changing the disputed Valley’s demography. It has urged India to cancel the domicile certificates issued illegally, revoke unlawful rules aimed at further disempowering and disenfranchising the Kashmiris and comply with its international obligations.

However, these efforts by Pakistan have not borne fruit. India has not allowed independent and neutral international experts and media person to visit the Valley to observe the rights and freedoms situation. Pakistan has protested that Kashmiris’ privileged special status and exclusive rights to permanent residence, acquisition of property, education and livelihood cannot be revoked to make way for non-Kashmiris to come and settle in the state to turn Kashmir’s Muslim majority into a minority.

Freedom of movement, expression, belief and religion is under severe threat. Many Kashmiris call it a state-organized genocide.

“They are using Covid-19 situation as an excuse to further tighten curfew restrictions and blocking communications. Everyone is afraid of what can happen next. A few months ago, they hadsomewhat relaxed the internet restrictions. However, it is still difficult to talk to my family members,” says Ishtiaq, a Kashmiri living in Pakistan.

The coronavirus pandemic has provided Indian occupation forces with yet another excuse to restrict freedoms in the Valley. “They are using Covid-19 situation as an excuse to further tighten curfew restrictions and blocking communications,” Ishtiaq says. “Everyone is afraid. A few months ago, they somewhat relaxed the internet restrictions. However, it is still difficult to talk to my family members. I am still unable to talk to my two brothers in the Valley. I have spoken to one of my elder brothers and that too briefly because of fear of surveillance. There is always some threat on their side when they talk,” he says.

Many Kashmiris in AJK and Islamabad say the Pakistani leaders should not have attached high hopes to the Modi government. “We should have kept in mind his record of anti-Muslim sentiment when he was chief minister of Gujarat,” Arif Ali, a Kashmiri living in Muzaffarabad, says.

Indian Kashmiris are going through one of the worst phases of their history. Previously, they were facing the consequences of a militancy. But now it seems that the Indian aggression will take an even more serious turn after revoking of Kashmir’s special status. They are trying to eliminate the culture and identity of Kashmiris. “Our culture and freedom of religion are under severe threat. It is a matter of survival of the Kashmir identity, ethnicity, culture and traditions in the Valley. This can only lead to greater aggression among the youth,” Ishtiaq says. “This war has entered a historic phase. We have to stand up for our survival, for our culture, religion and identity,” he says.

Historically Kashmiris have been resolute and consistent in their love for Pakistan. However, now their hopes from Pakistan are diminishing. Some Kashmiris in Islamabad and AJK believe that they are still looking towards Pakistan. They want Pakistan to do something for them. They say Pakistan has practically done nothing. “Will the support Pakistan gave to Kashmiris during the past 70 years go to waste now? The answer to this question lies in action,” another Kashmiri says.

Azad Jammu Kashmir Prime Minister Raja Muhammad Farooq Haider believes that the dispute has become more highlighted following the unilateral Indian actions.

“This is a potential threat to peace in South Asia. Durable peace cannot be established between Pakistan and India until the Kashmir issue is resolved,” he says. He urges the international community to pressure India to immediately stop the human right violations in the Valley.

“The global community didn’t accept the unilateral abrogation of the special status of the disputed territory on August 5 last year. Kashmir is a flashpoint but the global pandemic of coronavirus put it on the back burner,” he says.

Raja Farooq Haider says that on one hand India has massacred thousands of unarmed Kashmiris in the held territory and on other targetted the vulnerable civilian population particularly children, women and elders residing alongside the Line of Control (LoC). He says Srinagar is the spiritual capital of the state. The Kashmir liberation movement, he says, is passing through a crucial phase. “Indian brutalities have failed to suppress the indigenous struggle,” he adds.

AJK President Sardar Masood Khan says any semblance of autonomy enjoyed by the people of IOK has been done away with the revocation of Articles 35-A and 370.

“The proposed amendment to the Jammu and Kashmir Development Act will give the occupation forces authority to declare any part of IOK a ‘strategic area’, allowing them to legitimise land grab in the disputed territory,” he says.

“Almost a year has elapsed since the lockdown started in IOK. During this period, the Indian government has taken illicit steps towards bifurcating the territory, placing it under Union control and ultimately introducing new domicile rules. Proposed amendments in Jammu and Kashmir Development Act will turn the entire region into a military establishment,” he says.

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at [email protected]

A year of siege