Lockdown in Kashmir Reopens Old Political Wounds
During the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims across the globe observe one of Islam’s holiest holidays, Eid al-Adha. In Muslim territories, Eid al-Adha is celebrated publically by sharing food with neighbors and the needy, corporate prayers, and family gatherings. However, in the predominately Muslim and Indian-administered region of Kashmir, traces of typical festivities were hard to find on August 11th, the beginning of this past Eid. Instead, Kashmiris spent the holiday on their eighth day of lockdown enforced by the Indian government, unable to access television, phone lines, and internet connection. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his governing Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) revoked the special status granted to Kashmir 70 years ago in Article 370 of the Indian constitution, abolishing its position as a nominally autonomous state. By reversing the region’s special status and imposing harsh restrictions, the BJP has threatened the human rights of Kashmiris, and inadvertently created a perfect storm for violent insurgent groups to exploit.
India and Pakistan have battled over the ethnically diverse Himalayan area of Kashmir, often compared to Switzerland for its scenic mountains and lakes, for decades--starting after both countries won their autonomy from British rule in 1947. By 1949, at the counsel of the UN, India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire and the region was subsequently divided, allowing Indian control over two-thirds of the state with Pakistan overseeing the rest. However, India and Pakistan have continued to contest for the region with two brief wars, one in 1965 and another in 1999. Despite the constant tensions with Pakistan, India instilled Article 370 in the 1950s, affording Indian-administered Kashmir the right to its own constitution, flag, and the most significant privilege—the right to prevent non-Kashmiris from buying and owning land. Over time, the Indian government peeled away many freedoms enjoyed by Kashmiris but maintained the region’s unique land rights. On August 5th, the autonomy of Kashmir was fully renounced by the BJP, claiming that the political act was a matter of national security to protect India from Pakistan-backed insurgency. The decision followed the BJP’s deployment of 35,000 armed Indian troops into the region, the closure of major Hindu pilgrimage sites, and ordering of non-residents to leave the state—all within July.
As early as August 4th, the Indian government cut off phone, television, and internet lines and forced political leaders under house arrest as a means of mitigating the anticipated backlash from its upcoming decision to repeal Article 370. Next, curfews were instilled, eventually prompting locals to take to the streets in protest of these mounting restrictions. Thousands of protesters in the major city of Srinagar were met with rubber bullets and teargas from the Indian police, according to a BBC released video, despite the Indian government’s initial denials of any major protests. Since August 5th, over seven hundred protests have been reported, leading to the imprisonment of over four thousand people. While the invading police forces have sought to suppress and quell resistance, anger is simmering among Kashmiris, and counterterrorism experts fear that the rebel forces it sought to eliminate have now been gifted a renewed purpose to grow and thrive. By exacerbating the already fragile relations with Kashmiris, Modi has provided a potential breeding ground for recruits to Pakistan-backed insurgency groups, as seen in previous wars with India. Less than three weeks after the lockdown began, a suspected affiliate of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group, shot and killed a Kashmiri police officer, marking the first engagement with insurgents since the lockdown.
Although the Indian government has promised to relax its restrictions on a “wait and see” approach, Kashmir families are reeling as the lockdown continues and thousands of civilians remain jailed for protests. On August 16th, Indian UN representative Syed Akbaruddin called the struggle in Kashmir an internal matter, claiming, “We don’t need international busybodies to try and tell us how to run our lives.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan denounced the Indian government’s dealings in Kashmir as fascist and issued a warning to “teach India a lesson” following any potential attack on Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Unfortunately, as the blackout continues to worsen relations between the two rival nations, many Kashmiris now fear they are forced to once again prepare for the same type of bloodshed and violence they dealt with just decades ago.