New Delhi: Ever since the Union government decided to read down Article 370 and split Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, officials and a section of the Indian media have consistently been claiming that the situation is largely calm in the state.
From August 9 to 13, a team of four civil liberties activists – renowned economist Jean Dreze, women’s movement activists Kavita Krishnan and Maimoona Mollah, and Vimal Bhai from the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM) – travelled across the Kashmir Valley to see whether the claims are true or not.
At a press conference in New Delhi on August 14, they said that nothing could be further from the truth and the whole of Kashmir is full of “anger and anguish” as they feel betrayed by the Union government’s decision.
The activists said they were first team to travel beyond Srinagar to different villages of south Kashmir.
“In every village we visited, we found that scores of young men have been illegally detained by the police without any reason,” said Krishnan from the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA).
Dreze said that there was massive military and paramilitary presence across the state. “According to our estimates, one military guard has been deployed for every 10 residents of Kashmir. The purpose of such a massive military deployment is clearly to control the local population from protesting.”
The team said whatever the government may say, there was curfew condition everywhere in the state. Schools, colleges, shops – barring a few ATMs, hospitals and pharmacies, everything was closed.
In a striking revelation, the team said that among the hundreds of people they met during their five-day visit, only one person who supported the reading down of Article 370. “Only the BJP spokesperson of Jammu and Kashmir supported the decision. Our meeting with him started in a friendly manner but ended with him threatening us. He asked us not to engage in any anti-national activity,” Dreze said.
“People were visibly angry and felt that the most important link (Article 370) Kashmir had with India has now been broken. One of them said that Congress stabbed us in the back but the BJP has attacked us from the front,” he added.
Krishnan, who introduced the team, said that most of the Indian media operated from a “small enclave” of Srinagar where it showed a semblance of normalcy in the valley. However, the reality across Kashmir was vastly different.
The team was taken aback when it was not permitted by the Press Club of India (PCI), the venue of the press conference, to show the video footage it had collected during their visit. The team said that the PCI office-bearers told the activists that the Club was under government’s surveillance and was under pressure not to allow screening of any content about Kashmir that went against the official position.
The team then went on to narrate responses they got from the people of Kashmir. AIDWA leader Mollah said that the government was incorrect to say that celebrations went as usual on Eid, while the fact was that most in the Kashmir Valley did not get access to mosques even on the day of the festival.
Krishnan said that the national TV coverage which showed that everything was normal in the Valley acted like “insult to injury” as the people of Kashmir felt betrayed by the Union government.
“Kashmir is witnessing an economic clampdown. Trade has stopped. Shops are shut. Daily wagers can’t go to work. There is an atmosphere of fear across the Valley,” Krishnan said.
Such is the fear, she added, that most people feared disclosing their views on camera and only allowed the team to record their voice to protect their identities.
Many women they came across in Kashmir, the team said, felt offended by a few leaders who have declared in their speeches that Indian boys can now marry Kashmiri girls. “Most women told us that they don’t want to be rescued. ‘Have these leaders asked us whether we want to marry Indian boys?’” Krishnan said.
The team said that they came across a few common phrases in almost every village they visited. “Zulm (oppression), jyadti (excesses), dhokha (betrayal), bandhook ki khamoshi (silence at gunpoint) were some of the phrases we heard everywhere,” she said.
Vimal Bhai of the NAPM said that there is a sense that the whole of Kashmir has been imprisoned. “The situation is extremely grim. Most people we met talked their hearts out about how they were humiliated by the government’s unilateral decision but all of us asked us not to mention their names. Such is the fear.”
“Everywhere we went, people told us that they do not have any enmity with Indian people, and that their fight is against the Indian state. They said that revoking Article 370 was an attack on Kashmiriyat (Kashmiri culture and identity). They were also clear that revoking 370 will affect Kashmir’s Hindus as much as the Muslims,” he said, adding that many young boys were “abducted” by the security personnel at midnight for no fault of theirs.
He said that while the team was estimating that nearly 100 political leaders were detained, the situation was far worse.
“In village after village, many people have been kept under detention. While top leaders have been detained in hotels, ground level political workers have been kept in school and block office buildings,” he said. Krishnan added that the number of people who have been detained by the police could be more than 600, which included civil rights activists, college professors, social workers and so on.
Mollah said that the anger in the Valley is such that people had resolved not to remain silent on what they believed to be “an India’s state’s oppressive decision”.
“Modi expanded his slogan of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas to include Sabka Vishwaas for 2019 elections. Are the Kashmiris not included in this slogan? How could the government take a decision without consulting the Kashmiri people?” asked Mollah.
She said that reading down 370 was part of the BJP-led government’s agenda to convert India into a “Hindu rashtra”.
“The point of such a massive military deployment means that they (Indian authorities) are not looking for terrorists alone, they are after each and every Kashmiri. This is what the Kashmiris believe now.”
She added that the team found no signs of communal polarisation on the ground but felt that the Indian authorities are pushing the state in a direction where Hindus and Muslims could stand divided. She likened the Indian state to Israel, and a measure to turn Kashmir into another “Palestine”.
Dreze said that “there is a widespread belief in the rest of India that Kashmir is poor”. “This is complete nonsense. I have visited Kashmir four times. Every time I go, I am struck by the prosperity of Kashmir, especially the rural areas. Kashmir by no measure can be compared with the catastrophic hunger in Bihar and Jharkhand, states I am familiar with,” he said, adding what the team saw was completely different from the official narrative of calm.
Anecdotes of unrest
The team said that most mainstream newspapers of Kashmir have stopped working, with all lines of communications withdrawn. “There is no way newspapers can access newsprint, which goes from New Delhi. Greater Kashmir, the Valley’s biggest newspaper, is printing only four pages. While the first page is full of dated and other news from the sports world, the inside pages are full of announcements of marriage cancellations,” Krishnan said, hinting at a situation where even the families of the groom and the bride had no way to get in touch with each other.
The team pointed out that it was clear that the military deployment was to contain the unrest in the Valley rather than protect the people there as the government claimed. “People are living in fear of harassment from the government, army, or police. They expressed their anger freely in informal conversation but no one was willing to speak on camera,” a press release issued by the team said.
The team said that as soon as it set foot in Srinagar, it came across a few children playing in a park. “We could hear them say ‘Iblees Modi’, which meant Satan Modi,” Krishnan said.
The team said almost all, including children in the valley, thought that Article 370 was the contract between Kashmir and India.
“Had the contract not been signed, Kashmir would have never acceded to India, many said,” the team pointed out.
“One man in the Jahangir Chowk area near Lal Chowk described Article 370 as a “mangalsutra” (sacred necklace worn by married woman) between Kashmir and India.” Many also believed, the team said, the pro-Indian parties in Kashmir have been cheated by the Union government and now those who have been arguing for the state’s azadi (freedom from India) feel vindicated.
Dreze said that since many in the Valley thought that India itself has broken the most important link between Kashmir and India, it could pave the way for radicalisation of the youth there.
“The whole of Kashmir is, at the moment, a prison under military control. The decisions taken by the Modi government on Jammu and Kashmir are immoral, unconstitutional and illegal,” the team said. It demanded immediate restoration of Article 370 and 35A, and that any decision on the state should only be taken after consulting the people of Kashmir. It also said that the gags on communication should be removed immediately.