Rights

From One Year of the Gag to the Next, ‘Normalcy’ in Kashmir Comes at a Price

Just when the central government was supposed to plan its course under the cold hand of reason, Modi’s pyromania in Kashmir comes with the potential to trigger a blowback that India may not afford.

Srinagar: From the central government’s perspective, the year that just ended signifies a triumph of sorts on the Kashmir front. Despite the fact that the Valley was still reeling from the chaotic aftermath of the end of its special constitutional status – the loss of statehood, its division into two, the world’s longest internet shutdown, mass detentions, a violent crackdown on protests and significant structural changes that Kashmiris would have never consented to – the year passed off peacefully. No uprising. “If Kashmiris are angry, then where is the unrest?” a senior police official casually asked me in early 2020. “Did you see anything happening?”

But an honest reading of events will tell us that the Centre is executing far reaching changes that will drastically alter the lives of Kashmiris as they know it with the support of a severe crackdown on any expression of dissent, thereby ensuring that no effective opposition or collective voice is ever mobilised. This, even as the rights of Kashmiris to their own legislature remain suspended, the right to protest or assembly denied, press freedoms abridged and modes of communication severely curtained, regulated and in many cases downright refused.

If this represents a triumph for the establishment, ordinary Indians too, in overwhelming numbers, are gripped by a sense of elation over the taming of the Kashmiris. In the popular view, the era of ‘appeasement’ that previous governments helped sustain has finally ended. In this telling, the ingratitude of Kashmiris – dissatisfied despite their ‘special status’ – needed a draconian response. Inaction breeds immunity. And immunity, a sense of entitlement – which was actually the reason why Kashmiris managed to annoy India this long, or so the logic goes. But is the Centre’s ‘solution’ really a solution? Will its monumental assault on civil freedoms, the crackdown on civil society, the climate of fear and intimidation engendered through vengeful and selective pursuit of cases by central agencies and detentions and the indiscriminate [mis]application of a host of draconian laws eventually produce the social and political obedience in Kashmir that Narendra Modi is promising?

A Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officer patrols an empty street during a lockdown on the first anniversary of the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy, in Srinagar August 5, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

An economy that can’t breathe 

There’s one more aspect which has thrust its way into the lives of Kashmiri people: the economic strangulation. Two back-to-back lockdowns spanning an entire year have all but gutted trade and commerce in Kashmir accounting for the loss of Rs 40,000 crore and causing 5 lakh layoffs as internet closures forced entrepreneurs to flee, BPOs to wind up, artisans to lose contracts and the tourist business to crash. For a regional economy that contributes only 0.77% to India’s GDP, that forced diminution is excruciating. Add to this, the rising debt of business establishments. And while all of this was happening, the J&K government last month ordered banks to secure mortgaged properties within 60 days under the SARFESI Act, whose application to Kashmir in 2015 itself was a fairly controversial move since it contravened the provisions of the erstwhile Article 370. This astounding economic squeeze has percolated down to ordinary Kashmiris, resulting in an unprecedented financial crunch perhaps much harsher than the one inflicted during the economic blockade imposed upon Kashmiris in 2008.

Also read: With One Lockdown After Another, J&K’s Economy is Shuttered and Shattered

No room for peaceful protest

Under such conditions, it’s absurd to expect that Kashmiris can mount an uprising, at the cost of their lives, their peace of mind and their livelihood. In 2020, such a civil unrest – to which Kashmiris are not historically unaccustomed – could barely materialise given their present situation. Yet, a few days ago, I chanced upon a small video clip of India’s National Security Advisor where he credits the lack of unrest to the National Investigation Agency’s “efficient” work of tracking “terror funds” – a believable conjecture for a large majority of ‘patriotic’ Indians whose information deficiency regarding Kashmir is only matched by their zeal to look other way as the central government doubles down on the erosion of dignity of people in J&K.

Seventeen months after the ‘integration’ of J&K with the rest of India, Section 144 – which bars the assembly of more than four persons – is still in place and its enforcement has been unmistakably rigorous. Just wrap your head around this: Less than two percent of all individuals arrested in militancy-related cases have actually faced conviction in J&K even as jails across the Union territory are overflowing with prisoners beyond their carrying capacities with under trials accounting for 90% of inmates. This empirically confirms how mass detentions have been an indispensable tool in the hands of authorities in J&K, designed not to bring down crime, but to curb dissent and the right to peaceful political mobilisation. As any political scientist will tell you, it’s the violent suppression of peaceful political action that ultimately breeds violent militant response.

The detention of Shopian’s Waseem Ahmad Sheikh is a case in point. Waseem was detained as part of the crackdown to quell protests against the scrapping of Article 370 but the district’s top civil servant Yasin Choudhary – who authorised his detention – reportedly did not furnish the grounds. Here’s what J&K high court observed, before quashing Waseem’s PSA last month: “So far as the…non-communication of the grounds of detention is concerned, a perusal of file reveals, that there is nothing to show or suggest that the grounds of detention couched in the English language were explained to the (detainee) in a language understood by him…[and since]… there is no material to that effect on record…the grounds of a challenge set up by petitioner succeed and the detention stands vitiated.”

Kashmiris walk past broken window glass after clashes between protesters and the security forces on August 17, 2019, in Srinagar. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

That means Waseem served 400-plus days of unlawful detention. How many such individuals like him continue to languish in jails under unlawful detentions is hard to ascertain since a majority of the over 600 habeas corpus petitions filed at the J&K high court since August 2019 remain pending, as per the J&K High Court Bar Association.

Since the likelihood of public protest was already thwarted, it was only natural for the administration to doggedly pursue individuals who used their freedom of expression – written, spoken or otherwise – as a means of registering annoyance or resentment against the government’s policies.

Social media clampdown

Hence, one of the first cases that J&K’s newly established Cyber Police lodged was of an open FIR under provisions of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) against individuals who accessed the internet through proxy networks and “propagated secessionist ideology”. Never mind that Section 66A of the IT Act was struck down by the Supreme Court way back in 2015. Later, the police went into overdrive, booking half a dozen people in less than one month for the nature of the content they posted on social media. The Cyber Police have also been accused of summoning Twitter users in Kashmir and intimidating them for their social media posts critical of the government. Some social media users alleged they were called to interrogation centers and subjected to beating.

Also read: ‘The Assault Is on Journalism’: An Interview With Kashmiri Journalist Gowhar Geelani

Under the UAPA, the J&K authorities have detained individuals for “provocative sermons”, for “playing cricket in memory of a dead militant”, “for organizing protest in university allegedly against bad quality of food” and for “shouting Azadi slogans during Ashura procession.”

Additionally, the Modi government, through the NIA, struck a mortal blow on human rights activism in Kashmir. On allegations that funds were being raised abroad to support “separatist activities” in J&K, the agency raided the offices of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) both of whom have been influential in documenting the scale and intensity of rights violations in Kashmir. In fact it was the reports of the JKCCS that formed the backbone of the first ever human rights report published by UN Human Rights Council in 2018 calling for an international inquiry into multiple rights violations in Kashmir. On the other hand, APDP – supported by grants from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture –has produced damning reports on cases of alleged enforced disappearances in Kashmir. Its founding members were felicitated with the prestigious Rafto Peace Prize in 2017. The seizure of USB drives and documents from the APDP office have led to fear of reprisals against victims of alleged torture and enforced disappearances who had recorded their testimonies with the NGO anonymously.

Censorship by any other name

But it was ultimately press freedom in Kashmir which bore the worst assault of the crackdown in 2020, with the police lodging various cases against journalists and editors.  In April, the police booked noted photojournalist Masrat Zahra under UAPA for uploading a picture of Shia demonstrators carrying a poster of slain militant Burhan Wani. A day later, the police also booked journalist and commentator Gowhar Geelani for activities deemed “prejudicial to the integrity of India.” Similarly, an FIR was registered against Peerzada Ashiq, a correspondent with The Hindu newspaper whom the police accused of “inaccurate reporting.” Naseer Ganai, who reports for Outlook magazine was summoned for reporting about a strike call issued by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. At least twice, the police summoned Fahad Shah, editor of a Kashmir based weekly magazine. His publication has accorded fearless coverage to allegations of human rights abuse by the security forces.

File photo of journalists protesting against the restrictions on the internet and mobile phone networks at the Kashmir Press Club during the lockdown in Srinagar last year. Photo: PTI

Editor Qazi Shibli, who previously served internment for nine months under PSA for reporting about the surge in troop deployments, was detained again in August and later released. When a Kashmiri journalist, Auqib Javeed, reported on the Cyber Police’s alleged harassment of social media users, he was slapped by a police officer and threatened with legal action – although the police officially denies this. During the recent District Development Council elections, three reporters associated with national TV media also accused a senior police officer from South Kashmir of assaulting them when they attempted to verify allegations of voting being stopped in favour of BJP candidates. Furthermore, the J&K government also sealed the Srinagar office of Kashmir Times newspaper, claiming misuse of the property. Its editor Anuradha Bhasin, was lead petitioner in the Supreme Court against the internet shutdown and communications blockade in Kashmir.

The alarming frequency of these incidents underscores the tough conditions under which reporting takes place in Kashmir. It also means that the Modi government has acted vindictively against modes of communication over which it does not exercise full control. Capping all these developments is the new Media Policy spelt out by the government, which empowers the authorities to strike off journalists from official empanelment, refuse accreditation, pull out advertisements and also punish publications for “anti-national” reporting. With these draconian provisions read into the official policies, censorship in Kashmir has become institutionalised. For state functionaries, it no longer remains an offence whose likelihood of commission is determined by the lack of accountability.

Also read: Why Journalists Are Worried About the New Media Policy in Jammu and Kashmir

The gag policy has been so stringent and pervasive that even Kashmir’s high court bar association was not spared. Two months ago, it was barred from holding any elections until it clarified its position on terming Kashmir a disputed territory. The order was passed under the aegis of senior civil servant Shahid Choudhary. Even the last surviving vestiges of democratic checks and balances in Kashmir are facing unprecedented erasure. In 2020, the number of cases of no-response from authorities to various RTI applications rose alarmingly, rendering this important weapon against official subterfuge toothless.

But why is such a harsh, broad-based crackdown still continuing despite the government successfully containing the fallout of revocation of special status? That’s because the Aug 5, 2019 decision was a superficial, if symbolic, intervention. The real changes were instituted over the past 12 months.

Marginalising a people in their own homeland

The central government in January reduced the share of native candidates entering the all India civil services from 50% to 33%, which means there will be an increase of non-local officers in J&K who run the police and civil administration. The same month, an IPS officer who never served in Kashmir was given sweeping authority over security and policing, including direct control over the reshuffling of SHOs.

The administration has earmarked 6200 acres of land across J&K for proposed corporate takeover, reassigned Srinagar airport’s security from the J&K Police to the CISF, opened mineral resource extraction to non-local bidders and annulled the five year relaxation for J&K civil service aspirants. It has empowered the armed forces to declare any area as ‘strategic’ and permit constructions outside the Cantonment board and narrowed down judicial recourse for locals who many stand to suffer in case of a corporate takeover.

It also enacted policies that incentivise housing for slum dwellers and low income groups – whose presence in Kashmir is sparse but who, coming from various parts of India, could be encouraged to settle in UT. It enacted policies that abridge the authority of future chief ministers by undermining their power to take decisions concerning the civil service, police and anti-corruption bureau.

A man rows his boat on Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir, India, September 12, 2020. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Athar Parvaiz

The Modi government also cleared the decks for imposition of a new property tax in the UT that political parties believe “will overburden people who are struggling to make ends meet”. It also ended the 131 year reign of Urdu as sole official language of the J&K, amended the Panchayati Raj Act and made DDCs electable through direct vote, consigning sarpanches into irrelevance. The J&K government is now allowed to advance the retirement age of officials to 48 years, escalating fears that employees dissenting with the state’s political view might be declared as “deadwood and axed” without the matter going to court or tribunal.

Most significantly, it opened J&K land to outsiders, liberalised criteria to acquire domicile with provisions for punishment against officials if they failed to furnish it expeditiously, overturned the historic land reforms of Sheikh Abdullah and enacted laws that make the stay of migrant labourers in J&K attractive. It attempted to weaponise the Roshini act to squeeze our more land from Kashmiris but scrambled to file a review petition in court, challenging some on its own contentions, when people in Jammu erupted in anger as the revocation of law affected them more.

All these changes and manoeuvres only reaffirm the suspicion of Kashmiris that the Modi government is seeking to alter the demographic composition of J&K, marginalise them in their own land, erode structures of self-government, disempower them politically and then muzzle all voices of protest. The Indian state is literally creating a pressure-cooker situation in Kashmir.

Also read: The Second Sale Deed of Jammu and Kashmir

The new ‘normal’

Does that make Kashmir normal? Yes, by throwing the Indian constitution to the wind and violating various international rights declarations to which India is a signatory. By incurring denunciations and disapproval from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, UNHRC, CPJ, RSF, Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House, top European and American lawmakers, international academics, journalists and publications. And by precipitously slipping down on several indices measuring the health of democracy, human rights, press freedom and independence of judiciary. The Indian government has certainly put together conditions in Kashmir which convey some semblance of “normalcy” – if that’s how we describe the lack of civil and political unrest. But how long will that “normalcy” sustain in the region, trapped as it were, in the mix of political experimentation, severe repression, simmering anger, military and police excesses, lack of democracy and civil freedoms and a judiciary that looks the other way?

Then there is also China, which has emerged as a new player in the whole scheme of things. Let’s not forget that Beijing is under obligation to demonstrate to the “Quad” that its supremacy will remain unchallenged in the region. The next few years are, therefore, crucial. And just when the Indian government was supposed to plan its course under the cold hand of reason, Modi’s pyromania in Kashmir comes with the potential to trigger a blowback that India may not afford.

 Shakir Mir is a Srinagar based journalist.