Prison without walls: Understanding the crisis in Kashmir

If India’s government insists on continuing along this path, Jammu and Kashmir could come to be referred to as the world’s largest outdoor prison, a black mark on the reputation of a country that once prided itself on being the world’s largest democracy.

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Besides the wildfires currently raging through the Amazon, which provides the oxygen for every fifth breath you take, the most dangerous place in the world, at least from a geopolitical perspective, is probably another one of the world’s most beautiful places. The Kashmir valley, surrounded by the cloud kissed Himalayan mountains, has had a history alternating between sad and tragic for most of the modern era.

Beginning on August 5th, the relative peace that has been maintained in recent years in Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir, home to just under 15 million people, began to unravel. India’s Hindu nationalist BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi repealed article 370 of the Indian constitution that had given the contested territory a measure of independence since the subcontinent finally broke from the shackles of the British empire in 1947. Earlier governments in New Delhi chipped away at J&K’s independence, but Modi’s government has blown it up.

With its statehood revoked, Jammu & Kashmir are now officially split into two distinct ‘territories’ under New Delhi’s direct control.

While the constitutional change was met with some consternation outside the country, especially in Pakistan, which has fought two wars with India over its own claims to the area in 1949 and 1965 (and another dangerous escalation called the Kargil conflict in 1999), the move seems to have been popular with many Indians. Ironically, it could be argued that by abrogating article 370, India’s claim to the territory lost its legitimacy under international law.

The overturning of Article 370 also repeals Article 35a, which allowed J&K to decide which citizens are permanent residents of the territory and gives them priority for things like government jobs and educational opportunities.  The latter had led to one of the most highly educated populations in northern India and, although there is still much work to be done, much better options in life for Kashmiri women as a result. 

The fear that some have is that overturning the protections offered by Article 35a will lead to a kind of settler colonialism in J&K as Indians from other states, almost certainly Hindu, pour in and change the demographics of the territories. Even popular culture in India is already calling, through what is known as ‘patriotism pop’, for settlers to move there.

As reported by Yahoo News, soon after Jammu and Kashmir lost its statehood, songs began appearing on YouTube calling for people to consider moving to the region, “buying land there and marrying Kashmiri women.” 

More seriously in the short term, the extrajudicial arrests being made in J&K, especially in its capital and largest city, Srinagar, began soon after Article 370 was overturned.

As reported by MSN, “Among the people who were rounded up were Mian Qayoom, president of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association; Mohammed Yasin Khan, chairman of the Kashmir Economic Alliance; Raja Muzaffar Bhat, an anti-corruption crusader; Fayaz Ahmed Mir, a tractor driver and Arabic scholar; and Mehbooba Mufti, the first woman elected as Kashmir’s chief minister.”

Ordinary citizens have also been taken by authorities. A husband and wife, holding a bag of clothes and shoes for their son, who they were searching for after he’d been taken by authorities, were interviewed by a reporter from the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster. 

The wife, Raj Begum, talked of the trauma she faced trying to stop police from taking the 24-year-old, “Soldiers hit me with a wooden plank as I tried to resist my son’s arrest.”

Unofficially under curfew, people in Jammu and Kashmir have to contend not only with local authorities but a variety of Indian paramilitary police forces who have set up shop with alarming consequences for locals. 

As one person told a group reporting for the magazine Jacobin, after requesting anonymity out of fear of reprisal, “We’re afraid, because the army camp nearby keeps imposing impossible rules. They insist we have to return within half an hour if we leave home. If my kid isn’t well, and I have to take her to the hospital, it may take more than half an hour. If someone visits their daughter who lives in next village, they may take more than half hour to return. But if there’s any delay, they will harass us.” 

As we might expect, many Kashmiris, especially young people, have engaged in daily protests over India’s power grab, some with stones and other objects thrown at authorities, with at least two dead and hundreds injured at present, numbers that are almost sure to grow. 

Other means of trying to control the population have been less coercive but perhaps more effective. All communication from J&K has virtually ceased, with the internet, landline and mobile phone networks down since August 5th. Television stations have been shuttered and the area went from 174 Urdu and English newspapers to just 5 in a matter of weeks. 

There are certainly parallels to the walling off of the now separated territories of Jammu and Kashmir to what is being done by Indian ally Israel in both the West Bank and Gaza, but it could also be compared to the methods used to control restive populations by China, which also borders J&K, first in Tibet and now in that country’s Muslim majority western province of Xinjiang. The use of concentration camps to ‘re-educate’ the Uighur population in the latter is an innovation that will probably not be used in Kashmir, but the core idea of repopulating these areas with people viewed as more loyal to the state is comparable.

What is occurring in Kashmir showcases many of the world’s biggest problems in one geographic location. Putting India and Pakistan once again on the road to a conflict that could potentially see the deployment of the nuclear weapons held by both sides (and possibly China, which has also fought wars with India in the past). The Indus river, which flows through J&K is also the main source of fresh water for Pakistan and northwestern India; with climate change, these resources will only become more of a sticking point. 

Politically, Modi’s BJP Party was at the vanguard of what is becoming a growing international trend of far-right nationalism. As Chief Minister of Gujarat in western India in 2002, he was in charge when riots that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, occurred. Although he was cleared by the courts of involvement, many people still believe he was involved in both stoking and helping to organize the riots that took place over several days after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was burned by parties still unknown. 

Well funded by Indian diaspora communities and wealthy Indians alike, Hindu nationalist forces have been quietly building networks of lobbyists in North America and Europe. This, coupled with the strong anti-Muslim bias already existing in many countries, are just the formula to create the kind of indifference by the international community to what is happening in Jammu and Kashmir that we’ve also seen in Myanmar, where 750,000 Rohynga people have been turned into refugees, forced over the border into Bangladesh.

Regardless, if India’s government insists on continuing along this path, Jammu and Kashmir could come to be referred to as the world’s largest outdoor prison, a black mark on the reputation of a country that once prided itself on being the world’s largest democracy.

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