The Longest Lockdown: Kashmir & Coronavirus

Once notorious for its beauty, extensive crystal lakes and snow-capped mountains, the Kashmir region is now a heavily militarised zone at the heart of bloody conflict and human rights violations. 

Before COVID-19 swept across the world, India’s Hindu nationalist BJP government enforced repressive measures in Kashmir in an effort to crackdown on political unrest and militant operations. Since August, the phone lines and internet have been cut off, curfew measures were enforced by patrolling soldiers and there has been a crackdown on journalistic freedom. 

By January, measures had relaxed and 2G WIFI spots were reopened, however, once COVID-19 was detected in March, the region was plunged into lockdown again. Since, Kashmir’s special autonomous status had been revoked, blackouts and internet restrictions were a common occurrence with India accusing Pakistan of stirring anti-Indian sentiments and causing civil unrest in the region. Many believe that these internet restrictions will have a serious consequence on treating COVID-19.

“Internet access is critical at a time of crisis,” David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, said in a statement in March. “Human health depends not only on readily accessible health care but accurate information to protect oneself and their community“.

May 2020, Al Jazeera

Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times, stated that “Depriving citizens of internet connectivity right now is not just deprivation of fundamental rights, it’s criminal in act, and it’s going to be devastating for the region.” 

History of Kashmir

India’s occupation of Kashmir began in the same year as the establishment of Israel in 1948. Conflict regarding Kashmir started in 1947, when British colonial leaders divided the area between India and Pakistan. According to the Indian Independence Act’s partition plan, Kashmir could choose to accede to either India or Pakistan. However, Kashmir’s Maharaja Hari Singh, a Hindu leader who was entitled to make the decision for his largely Muslim subjects, chose to accede India, as he feared the invasion of Pakistani tribesman. 

The Hindustan Times front page, 1947, Source: The Print Media

The Kashmir region has since been a hugely contested area and a major source of tension between India, Pakistan and China. India and Pakistan have developed nuclear weapons as a result of the intense conflict and Kashmir has been at the centre of the Indo-Pakistan war in 1947-1949 and 1965 as well as the Indo-Sino war in 1962. In recent decades, the United Nations recommended the holding of a referendum for the Kashmiri’s (which was never held) and stated that there should be a ceasefire line. Now, India and Pakistan have divided regions in Jammu and Kashmir along a precarious Line of Control (LOC), which is also referred to as South Asia’s Berlin Wall. 

Is India imposing Israel’s Zionist model on Kashmir?

Many have accused India’s nationalistic government of imposing an Israeli-inspired quasi-imperialist rule over the highly disputed Kashmir region. 

Amidst the pandemic, on 1st April, India passed a new domicile law, which allows non-Kashmiris (who have resided in Kashmir for over 15 years) to obtain property and apply for government jobs. Some have compared the new law to that of Israeli settlements along the West Bank and many fear that this new law is an attempt to alter the demographic of the mainly Muslim population, thereby impacting any future referendum. 

“India wants to implement Israel’s settler-colonial project in Kashmir. Ten to 15 years down the line our territory will be like Palestine.”

Arif Rasheed, a local student, The New Arab

The BJP party led by Prime Minister Modi adheres to the political ideology of ‘Hindutva’ or Hindu Nationalism. An ideology that defines India’s culture in terms Hindu values or ‘Hinduism’. Both Zionism and Hindutva have a shared nationalistic interest both stating that they are in a ‘War on Terror’ against growing Islamic extremism in their respective regions, as India and Israel expand and pursue their monocultural state. In March alone, India had bought $116M worth of weapons from Israel, making India Israel’s largest arms export partner. Furthermore, India has and continues to send its police and armed forces to Israel to receive formal training. 

Security personnel patrol along a street in Jammu on August 6, 2019. – Washington on August 4 urged respect for rights and called for the maintenance of peace along the de facto border in Kashmir after India stripped a special autonomy status from its part of the divided region. (Photo by Rakesh BAKSHI / AFP)RAKESH BAKSHI/AFP/Getty Images

The new domicile law comes within a year of India’s Hindu nationalist party revoking Article 370, stripping Kashmir of its special autonomous status and imposing direct rule from Delhi, on the 5th August 2019. Ather Zia, an assistant professor in anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado, told TNA that “Settler colonialism has become a reality after the fear of it was looming on Kashmir for the last 72 years.” 

Even prior to the Indian-imposed lockdown, over the past 30 years, around 80,000-100,000 people have died. There are around 10,000 who have disappeared, thousands of mass unknown graves, thousands of orphans, thousands raped and tortured and the substantial psychological impact of the trauma plaguing the region, Kashmir has become a hotbed for human rights violations, mirroring that of Palestine and Tibet. 

Shubh Mathur who works on the ground in Kashmir stated that “Kashmir has become one of the most highly militarised zones in the world, noting that human rights abuses occur on a massive scale: with torture in the vast military camps and interrogation centers that sprawl across the Valley, rape, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, the use of civilians for forced labor and as human shields, destruction of crops and homes, arson, arming pro-Indian militias to terrorize the population.”

Kashmiri civilian from J&K in hospital to treat wounds from torture invoked by Indian forces, Source: The Print Media

Since, India revoked Kashmir’s autonomy, more stories of torture and detention have emerged, as the Indian army tries to stifle unrest in the region. In September, Al Jazeera reported: “a 22-year-old villager who was beaten up with sticks and rifle butts said he was picked up in a midnight raid and tortured for more than an hour along with a dozen other Kashmiris”. A Turkish news channel reported on a boy who was “stripped naked, waterboarded and forced to drink copious amounts of a horribly smelly liquid” before being electrocuted. 

The Indian army stated that these allegations were baseless and that they had not manhandled any civilians in a statement to the BBC. However, the telegraph has reported that around 13,000 boys – some as young as 14 have been detained for up to 45 days since its autonomous status was revoked on Aug 5. Beyond the anxieties of the virus, Kashmiris are also residing dangerously close to Indian artillery weapons aiming towards Pakistan’s region and anti-terrorist raids are leaving many homeless, or in congested bunkers and therefore vulnerable to contracting the virus. 

Barbed wire is seen laid on a deserted road during restrictions in Srinagar, August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

With our own lockdown measures bringing about significant challenges, many can empathise with the plight of Kashmiris whose lockdown is ever more repressive, as the region becomes a major battle ground for South Asian imperialist interests. 

To understand what life is like living under occupation in Kashmir, give a listen to our Cracking Coconuts episode where we speak to a Kashmiri activist who has directly experienced the mass surveillance and abuses of the Indian forces.