Ten days since Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government shut down all mobile services and the internet in Jammu & Kashmir, making it harder to understand how Kashmiris feel about the state losing its special constitutional status, and effectively choking any dissent, backlash and protests against its demotion to a Union Territory.
Two competing narratives have emerged amidst the communication blackout.
The Modi government, and large sections of the Indian media, claim that Kashmir is calm and Kashmiris are thrilled at the changes.
Meanwhile, reports in other sections of the Indian media and the foreign press, paint a disturbing picture of a people besieged by heavily armed troopers.
Telling is the fact that after days of refuting reports of a large protest in the Soura area of Srinagar, the Modi government has admitted there was one.
HuffPost India spoke with women’s rights activist Kavita Krishnan, who has returned from a five-day fact finding mission from Kashmir, along with economist Jean Dreze, Maimoona Mollah from the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Vimal Bhai, a social activist.
From August 9-13, Krishnan, who is secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), traveled to Srinagar, Sopore, Bandipora, Anantnag, Shopian and Pampore.
Describing the situation as grim, Krishnan said, “Frankly, it looked like occupied Iraq or occupied Palestine.”
Frankly, it looked like occupied Iraq or occupied Palestine.
What did you see?
The situation is absolutely grim. Kashmir is under military siege. There are paramilitary forces on every street, outside homes, outside localities. The situation is really quite alarming. There is no scope for anyone to speak, no scope for peaceful protests.
On the day of Eid, there was desolation. No one except tiny children were in festive clothing. They were not allowed to go to the mosque to do their prayers in rural areas. The azaan was not permitted so they just had to do their namaz at home. People feel a complete sense of anger and betrayal. There is helplessness, frustration.
In the Kashmir Valley, we did not meet a single soul who was happy with the decision. They were upset with the media coverage. They said, ‘Everyone is saying that it’s a great thing for Kashmir, but whose wedding is it and who is celebrating? It’s supposed to be our wedding, at least ask us whether we are happy? How come no one is asking us what we think?’ It is seen as an act of humiliation and violence against the people of Kashmir.
What is the curfew like?
I can tell you that there is a complete and total curfew. Even in the street where we were staying which is an upmarket locality of Srinagar, Rajbagh. Even that was under complete curfew on the day of Eid. Across Kashmir, there is a sense that this is an assault and an act of aggression against the people of Kashmir.
Did you speak with Kashmiri pandits?
Yes, we did. We spoke to several Kashmiri pandits. We have video documentation of one of them. He is trying to explain that Kashmiriyat is a thing and that means celebrating Eid. He is a pandit, who is saying ‘our festival Eid is coming.’ We met Sikhs. We met Hindu migrant labourers. They all spoke about the safety and the terrible situation that everyone was in.
The Modi government has said that Kashmir is mostly calm, but there are sporadic protests involving a handful of people. They came out against the BBC’s video footage that suggested there was a large protest in Soura.
Yes, but they are not allowing protests. Protests have been sporadic, I agree. There was one huge protest in Soura near Srinagar. That was correctly reported. It was a very large protest. We met pellet gun victims, who were not protestors, but bystanders there. We met some of those kids. You can’t gag and bind people and say there are no protests.
We met people in villages all over Kashmir, where little kids have been… there is no other word to use… they have been abducted by the police. They have been picked up from their homes in the middle of the night from their beds and they are held indefinitely, illegally, either in army camps or in police stations. They are being beaten up. Their parents have no way of ascertaining whether their children will disappear or be returned. There is no case that is registered, no FIR. I can say that to every village we went, there were arrests that had happened.
You are saying that a class 7 boy was arrested?
Not one. We met one Class 7 boy, who was arrested. He told us that there are others — younger than him — who have been arrested and who are still in custody. It’s total terror.
Why would the authorities be picking up children as young as that?
As an act of intimidation. Their parents assured us that their children have not thrown stones. Their parents said they have been picked up on the way to mosques, from their homes, from their beds at night. That kind of thing. They are making it a point to raid houses in the night and take away young boys in the night. It creates immense fear, especially among the women. The women have whispered to us that they have been molested during such raids. This was the story in every village that we visited. My question is what is the Indian media doing? Why are they not visiting these places? We could visit them.
This is very grave news and serious accusations. Have you brought back proof?
Yes. We have video documentation of family members and of a child who had been released one day before. We do have documentation.
Could you elaborate?
I’ll tell you two things. One video is of a 11-year-old child who was released one day before Eid and he is saying that he was kept in custody from fifth onwards and beaten up, and there were children younger than him in custody. Then, we have video of family members, we are not identifying them because they are scared, but their teenage boy has been picked up in the middle of the night from his bed and he is being kept illegally. They have gone to the thana but they keep taaloing them, saying it is not in our hands, we cannot do anything. They are really afraid because there is no record of their arrest. Tomorrow, if something happens to him or he just vanishes, there is no record that he was arrested at all. We have that on record.
My question is what is the Indian media doing? Why are they not visiting these places?
These arrests that you spoke of are are being done by the police or the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force)?
What we were told was that it is the police as well as army. We did not go to the police stations because we were begged by the people not to. They were in two minds. They want someone to intervene but they fear it could make life worse for their boys. They said, ‘We are hoping against hope that they will be returned safely, but please do not make inquiries right now.’ They are not even sure where they are kept. They are guessing that some of them are in the thaana, some of them are in the army camps which are cheek by jowl to these villages. They are saying an illegal detention, by the police or the army, is a crime. And given Kashmir’s history, it is immensely dangerous. We know that there have been mass graves, mass custodial killings, mass disappearances, in Kashmir.
Getting back to the protest in Soura. You were able to speak with people there?
We could not reach Soura because the police would not allow us to reach, but we went to the hospital in Srinagar, SMHS (Shri Maharaja Hari Singh). In that hospital, there were two people who were badly injured by pellet guns in their eyes and face and arms and body, and we were able to speak with them and their families. We got to know from them that this in fact has happened in Soura, the previous day. And that there were many more people injured in the skin hospital in Soura. We wanted to go to Soura and we immediately tried to go, but then the paramilitary would not let us cross.
Frankly, if you ask me, the numbers of military deployment and paramilitary deployment being reported in the Indian media is an underestimation in our opinion. In our opinion, it must be much, much, much, much higher. To every Kashmiri, there must be four CRPF personnel. The entire place is full of CRPF, everywhere. There is no single street in Kashmir that does not have CRPF. There are outside every home. It’s crazy.
There is no single street in Kashmir that does not have CRPF.
So your sense from being on the ground is that the Soura protest was large?
It was enormous that is for certain. Protests by all accounts continued. The next day, when we were on the way to Soura, the police stopped us. But where the police stopped us, we could see that there were young boys on the street protesting and the CRPF was unable to get them off the street. We have photographs of those boys and of the protest. We have videos of testimonies of people there which makes it very clear that people are immensely angry and upset. They said, ‘We are being treated like prisoners. We are being treated like slaves.’ This is a refrain everywhere. ‘You have turned our home into a prison. You have turned each of our villages into a prison.’ People are not able to visit each other on Eid. Brothers and sisters in neighbouring villages are not able to visit each other on Eid. There is immense grief and foreboding about what the future holds.
You are not leaving people any peaceful avenue for protest. If there is curfew everywhere, where are people supposed to protest. Stone pelting is happening because you are choking every other avenue of protest. Then, only those who are reckless and willing for the worst are going to come out and say do your worst but here we are on the streets. That is lesser in number. But the point is that people want to express their anger. They want to hold peaceful processions, they want to speak up, they want to be seen. If you were to lift the curfew, I would bet on it, that there would be a huge peaceful mass gathering in Srinagar and other places. There is no scope for it.
It is likely that if the curfew is lifted, there would be huge violent protests not peaceful ones?
Then, they should not lie. They should say that we know it’s unpopular, they should say that we have done it against the will of every Kashmiri, and that is why we are locking and gagging them because we have occupied them and we don’t want them to speak. Say so. Why say they are all happy, they are all welcoming it, and it’s all fine. The Indian government should not lie. Don’t say everyone is happy. No one is happy. Everyone is suffering terribly.
People feel there is a particular vindictiveness about doing this around Eid. They said ‘we only have two festivals in a year. And they have hit out at this festival and completely extinguished it.’ We did not witness any festivities anywhere. Any child above the age of seven or eight would not have been in any festive clothing.
How did the Kashmiris respond to your fact finding mission?
We received a warm welcome. I can’t tell you how warm and hospitable, and we felt terribly moved by this. People in such terrible circumstances with good reason to be angry against India and Indians, of course, they would be suspicious. They would ask us are we from the government or from the media. They would say that you human rights valas, you have never done anything for us. They did not trust to speak the truth in Delhi. All that was there. But inspite of all of that, out of their meagre supplies, they would ensure that we had a cup of tea. Shopkeepers would go to their stores and get out juice packets. They would welcome us in and give us lunch. We got such a warm welcome everywhere. These are human beings with no anger towards Indian people. The anger is towards the policy of the Modi government. This is something the Indian media should be doing. They should be there on the ground.
These are human beings with no anger towards Indian people. The anger is towards the policy of the Modi government.
Cable TV was not working, earlier. Now it is?
Now, there is cable TV, but local Kashmiri channels are not available, and they are only able to watch national like New Delhi. Local Kashmiri journalists are struggling. They got out papers for some days but now their offices are closed till the 17th. They are saying that we are not being able to get paper to print because the paper comes from Delhi. They are saying that we somehow managed to bring out the papers till now, everyday, but the army would come and ask us — ‘why are you printing, how come you are printing, where are you getting your news from? If the internet is down, how come you are printing your news? You are not being able to get agency news.’ Some of them are trying to keep afloat despite it all, but local Kashmiri channels can’t do anything.
They are saying that we are not being able to get paper to print because the paper comes from Delhi.
A lot of information is about Srinagar. How is it outside Srinagar?
Far, far worse. So there was a slight relaxing of the curfew just before Eid, but very slight and for a very short time. People were rushing about doing Eid shopping. Sheep were unsold. For sheep traders, it was a waste of one year of preparation. People just don’t have the money to buy. The situation in the villages was utter terror. There is unbridled arresting, every single political activist of any party, no matter how small. Young boys have been picked up en masse. This is what we could confirm.
These were villages and towns.
Yes, villages and towns. We went to Sopore and Bandipora as well as villages between Srinagar and Sopore and between Sopore and Bandipora. We visited villages in south Kashmir, in Anantnag, Shopian and Pampore.
How are people dealing with the communication blackout? How did you deal with it?
It was a complete blackout. We could not communicate with a soul. So there are queues around police officers. If a police person has a phone, people mill around them in the evening and hope that they will be allowed to make a call to a loved one outside Kashmir. Inside Kashmir, there is no communication. Someone who lives in Srinagar, but has family back in the village cannot check on the welfare of their family. It is a terrible situation. Even on the roads to these places, there are checkpoints everywhere. There are huge convoys of paramilitary. Frankly, it looked like occupied Iraq, occupied Palestine, if you ask me. There is not a development deficit in Kashmir, there is a democracy deficit.
If a police person has a phone, people mill around them in the evening...
When do people think this going to end?
I don’t think anyone sees an end in sight. They think this is what has come to stay. They are hoping that a little bit of the restrictions are lifted.
Access to basic supplies. What is the situation?
Until the 9th (August), even milk was not available. Children were not having milk. There was a dire situation. But on the 10th, there was a slight relaxation of the curfew for a few hours so people came out and stocked up on some basic stuff. The thing is that everything is uncertain. All shops are closed. They open for brief windows here and there. A few ATMs are open. Another problem is that people are not being able to earn so they don’t have money to buy stuff, including migrant workers from other states like Bihar and UP. They told us that they have been earning better in Kashmir that in any other state — Rs. 600, 700, 800 a day, which is higher than other states.
There is not a development deficit in Kashmir, there is a democracy deficit.
What is the situation in hospitals?
The pellet injury situation is terrible. The two pellet injuries we saw — I don’t know how to describe it — it was horrible. The injuries are awful. Their eyesight is badly affected. Their entire face is full of pellet injuries.
Patients in general are not able to reach hospitals. The big hospitals are saying that we have stocks. But the curfew is preventing people from moving. Today, we met an auto driver in Srinagar, who is an asthmatic and he is on his last dose of Asphyllin and Salbutamol. He’s been trying to move around trying to buy the stuff, but the chemists are closed. The few chemists who are open say that their stocks are over. Some hospitals have a lot of stock, but he is saying that he may not be able to get to those hospitals. He is not able to move around everywhere.
Also, the pellet injury people very often avoid going to government hospitals because the police basically get hold of them and file cases against them. So not only are they victims of pellet guns, they also face cases all their life.