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“Kashmir Has Been Turned Invisible”

India's military blockade of Kashmir is breathtaking in its brutality and violence. We can't let them silence Kashmir's dreams for freedom and justice.

Indian government forces stand alert amid curfew-like restrictions in the old city, after Indian authorities revoked Article 370 and Article 35A on August 17, 2019 in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. (Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)

The phone rings. “How are you? We all are fine here.”
“I am fine. How did you manage the call?”
“District Police Lines!”
“Don’t bother yourself again. We can stay without talking, but don’t seek their help.”
Laughter on the other end.
The allotted thirty seconds are over.
(The call ends.)

On a different phone, another call begins.
“How are you? It is all fine here.”
“I am fine. Have there been any arrests?”
Hurried answer. “No, no, nothing.”
(The call ends.)

Another call. “Can you tell our daughter we are fine here?”
“Sure. Are you?”
“Do you need anything?”
“Do you?”
The answers are hard to come by.
(The call ends.)

Yet another call. “Can you appear in a TV debate? Mother wants to see you.”
“Really?”
“Yes, she thinks that is the only way she can see your face.”
“I will try.”
(The call ends.)

Kashmir, August 14: Day Ten of the Siege

How does one deal with a siege of coerced invisibility over the place you call home? With a military blockade, enforced by a massive influx of men and machines of war along with a more chilling development, a forced silence and the deliberate concealment of not just the actions of the occupying power, but of the people they have brutalized for decades? This is the best description we have of our homeland, Kashmir.

It was the evening of August 4 when we last spoke at any length to our families. “We do not know when we will be able to talk to you again,” they cautioned, “or if we will at all.” And since then, a deafening silence. Our repeated calls have been met with the same automated response: “The number is currently switched off.” The thirty-second calls that are allowed from police stations in Kashmir are moderated; families have to wait for hours in a queue before they can get on the phone. The level of humiliation and attempt at absolute control — who people can communicate with, what they can say — is unprecedented, even for a people used to living under occupation. “Kashmir,” a local journalist remarked, “has been turned invisible even inside Kashmir.”

A strict curfew has been in place since the dawn of August 5. The few reports that initially trickled out of the valley noted that people are not permitted to move freely outside their homes. Congregational Eid prayers were prohibited in most places; the government decided which mosques would be opened. A massive wave of arrests has been reported, with politicians (both pro-independence and pro-India), academics, lawyers, and human rights activists detained. All lines of communication, including landline phones, mobile phones, and internet have been suspended, and remain so.

This is a clear strategy of rendering Kashmiris incapable of organizing themselves to respond to Indian aggression, as well as making sure they are invisible, unable to tell their stories to the world.

The Scrapping of Article 370

When additional troops were rushed in some days prior to the siege, rumors started to circulate in Kashmir that something big was about to happen. The rumors came true on August 5, when the Indian state, led by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, abrogated the provision in the Indian constitution (Article 370) that gave Kashmir “special status” and afforded only permanent residents property and franchise rights.

The Indian right has long looked at Muslim-majority Kashmir as a thorn in its attempts to create a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu polity). For them, scrapping Article 370 at once brings them closer to realizing their political project and teaches Kashmiri people: aspire to azaadi (freedom) at your own peril.

But to view this as a right-wing attack alone is to forget that, since its founding in 1947, the Indian state has sustained itself by disregarding, disempowering, disenfranchising, and dispossessing Kashmiris. For seven decades, regardless of which party has been in power in New Delhi, the Indian government has hollowed out the provisions granted under Article 370 (an article that itself was illegitimate for granting India power over Kashmir) by any means necessary: rigging elections, jailing pro-freedom leaders, banning religious and political organizations, manipulating laws, installing puppet regimes, and brutally repressing the population.

The repression has intensified since an armed struggle for Kashmiri self-determination erupted in the valley in the late 1980s. More than seventy thousand people have been killed; more than eight thousand people have been forcibly “disappeared”; close to six thousand unmarked or mass graves have been discovered since 2008; torture and rape have been used as a weapon of war; and Indian soldiers have been granted absolute impunity to commit atrocities. All of this despite United Nations resolutions and recent UN reports reiterating Kashmir’s right to self-determination.

The scrapping of Article 370 represents a new chapter in this violent history. With the article gone, there is nothing tethering Kashmir to India, save for its imperialist designs and settler colonialist goals. Once Kashmir’s land is available for anyone from India to buy, Kashmiris worry that it won’t be long before they’re displaced from their home. Their fears aren’t unfounded.

Already, Modi’s government has announced an investors’ summit and development projects, with a clear view toward establishing firmer control over the dissident territory and its people. The push to integrate Kashmir with the “mainstream” comes at the cost of choking off Kashmiris, discarding their wishes and aspirations.

Cultivating a New Political Class in Kashmir

Over the decades, pro-India politicians in Kashmir have loyally carried out the writ of the Indian state. The demise of Article 370 shows how disposable they really are to the state machinery they’ve served. Ex–chief ministers have been placed under arrest, and the Public Safety Act, known as the “lawless law,” has been used to indiscriminately book young Kashmiris for a minimum of two years without trial. And these, mind you, are the devoted agents of the client regime — just imagine the plight of the dissident Kashmiri!

The jettisoning of the pro-India political elite signals the Indian state’s intent to cultivate a new phalanx of collaborating politicians. This relates to the state’s repeated declarations that it is strengthening “grassroots democracy” and fostering “development” in Kashmir. It appears that the state will try to do so through local self-governing bodies — the Panchayats. In an August 14 interview, Modi spoke of Panchayats in Kashmir as “back at the forefront of furthering development and human empowerment” and argued the recent Panchayat elections delivered a huge popular mandate with “not a drop of blood shed.”

Modi’s claims, however, are not supported by the facts. The 74 percent turnout recorded for the entire state hides the reality that polling was not conducted in most halqas (a cluster of villages representing various wards). Of the 2,135 halqas in Kashmir, 1,407 saw no voting, with the southern Kashmir districts of Shopian and Kulgam witnessing no polling at all. Regardless of whether the numbers are high or low, it means little for Kashmir — elections act not as instruments of Kashmiri self-determination but rather as military exercises. They add to the deepening crisis, making a mockery of Kashmiris’ yearning for freedom, rights, and justice.

A Fuel to the Resistance Movement

With scant news coming out of Kashmir, it’s unclear how precisely people are reacting to the clampdown. What we do know is that they are resisting: reports of protests across Kashmir have appeared in the international media (most of which the Indian government has labeled “fake news”). The Indian state is attempting to change the very makeup of Kashmir, and it would be naive to expect people to take it lying down. The spools of concertina wire and thousands of Indian armed forces that dot the landscape cannot snuff out the possibility of a volcano of popular anger erupting.

Still, the Indian state has never cared for Kashmiri lives, and fears of indiscriminate violence persist. A fact-finding report released last week by a group of Indian civil society activists detailed the brutality of the military siege: use of pellet shotguns known to cause blindness and fatalities; arbitrary detentions, including of children; and cases of sexual assault during the raids.

For its part, the Indian media has largely been complicit in the state’s decades-long repression of Kashmir. During the current clampdown, some journalists have embedded with the military on the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest city, and insisted that everything is normal. While the international media has afforded Kashmir some visibility of late, it has largely focused on narrow human interest stories and the communication blackout, with scant attention paid to the broader political context and military occupation. But Kashmir’s current clampdown is not an isolated case of human rights violations — it is an expression of historic wrongs committed against a people with a national imaginary of their own.

Nor should we let the international community off the hook. Modi and the Indian state are able to brazenly violate Kashmiris’ rights partly because major countries and international bodies have been content to issue bland statements and condemnations rather than spring into action.

We are staring a possible ethnic cleansing in the face. The freedom, the very existence, of Kashmir’s long-oppressed people is at stake.