Over the weekend, the Indian government imposed, lifted, imposed, and lifted another curfew in the Indian-administered region of Kashmir. For the past month, the region has faced some of the largest protests since 2008. I have been in Srinagar, the capital city of Kashmir, since June 16, shortly after the latest round of tension began. There is not much coverage of the recent events in the international media, which is unfortunate as the situation in Kashmir is contextually, inextricably linked to developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Protests have become a regular occurrence in the Kashmir Valley; the people call for freedom and an end to the Indian presence in Kashmir, but over the last few weeks, the violence has been escalating. On June 11, the local police in Kashmir killed a 17-year-old boy, named Tufail, who was walking home carrying a backpack amidst a protest in downtown Kashmir and was hit at close range with a tear gas canister. The next day, the main newspaper in the area reported that eyewitnesses said he was shot, though Indian police called his death "mysterious." During another related protest shortly after, another young Kashmiri man was injured, and died a few days later in a hospital. At his funeral, his cousin Javed was also shot and killed by Indian security forces. In the past several weeks, Indian forces have killed at least fifteen young men and injured or arrested many more. Security forces seem to be everywhere in Kashmir, especially at large gatherings of people and funerals. At many funerals, those bearing the body of the dead begin chanting anti-Indian slogans, and the services double as protests as well as memorials.
While all of this was happening, the region’s main political parties called for a hartaal, or strike in which Kashmiris shut down their businesses, and no one goes to work. Schools, banks, government buildings, and transportation are also completely shut down. During the hartaal, from June 12 to July 5, protests erupted throughout the valley and are still being violently quelled by the Indian army and local police. However, in the past week, the situation has taken a turn for the worse and the government has imposed a curfew — which means that no one is allowed to move outside. Many areas have defied the curfew and protests still ensue. Local police and Indian security forces blame the outbursts on the youth and their "stone-throwing." Local police seem ill-equipped for controlling large groups and continue to fire into unarmed crowds.
Even as I write this, I can hear shots from a distance — whether they are from the tear gas that is dispersed into the crowds or actual bullets, I can’t tell anymore. I keep hearing army convoys driving through the city — I’ve counted at least fifteen in the past half an hour alone. One night last week around midnight, I listened to a protest, hearing shouts of azaadi (freedom), announcements from the loudspeakers of the nearby mosques, and then the sounds of the Indian army trucks as they moved towards the direction of the protest. Most of Kashmir’s residents can’t really be sure what is happening outside, as the government has blocked most major media outlets.
The media censorship began once the violence started — the local TV news hour was cut to a mere ten minutes — in hopes that the news being reported would not rile people up even further. It was completely stopped for several days, though the short broadcasts have since returned. For a while, the only means of knowing what was going on over the past few weeks was the print newspaper, but even the newspapers stopped printing for a few days (though they resumed this morning). Cell-phone services in the volatile areas are restricted. Text messaging services all across Kashmir are also blocked. Last week, Indian authorities also refused to issue curfew passes to Kashmiri journalists, and now even the local reporters are unable to cover these stories. Just a few days ago, we heard reports of a dozen photojournalists being beaten and severely injured by the Indian forces as they were covering the funeral of one of the young boys who was killed.
The media coverage I’ve seen focuses almost entirely on the "stone-throwing" of the young men and allusions are made to the suspicious role of Pakistan in sponsoring this "rogue, extremist" behavior. A journalist who is particularly disliked in Kashmir is Barkha Dutt from India’s NDTV, who recently interviewed the head of a faction of the Hurriyet conference, the alliance of major pro-independence groups in Kashmir. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq asserted, "No military will be able to break the will and the resolve of the people of Kashmir," and called for a political solution to the conflict. Anchors like Dutt seem to have no idea, or don’t want to have an idea, about the aspirations and wishes of the people here in Srinagar. Nearly everyone in Kashmir wants independence.
My family here has become used to the situation. I’m currently staying with my mom’s side of the family in Srinagar. My grandparents need to get some medicines from the pharmacy, but we have been unable to move outside because of the curfew. My little cousin, who is seven years old, hasn’t gone to school for the past three weeks. She asked her mother the other day to make a special prayer to God that she would be allowed to start school again soon. My uncle, who is a physician and runs his own private clinic, has stopped going to work. During the days of the hartaal, when it is too dangerous to move around, he would leave early in the morning to evade the protests, but then return around noon as none of the patients were able to come.
But what is most heartbreaking for me is my dad’s side of the family, who lives in Sopore, less than an hour away from Srinagar. Sopore is considered to be the "Gaza" of Kashmir by locals. A number of the boys who were killed in recent weeks were from Sopore, and since I’ve arrived, the entire city has been placed on curfew — not just hartaal. There are protests there regularly and encounters between the locals and the army. I have not been able to see my grandmother nor my extended family there. Because of the curfew, their food items are severely restricted — so they’re surviving on the little amount they grow in their gardens or trying to make do with their neighbors. They don’t tell me much the few times we have been able to talk; they don’t want me to worry. But my cousin there is 14 years old — and I worry about him.
The situation in downtown Srinagar, just a few kilometers from where I’m sitting, is similar. Locals have also been under curfew for the past three weeks as downtown is where most of the protests happen. There is a shortage of food — water, milk, meat, bread.
The few times we were able to move around, I met with a few leaders of NGOs here. It is difficult for them to operate in such conditions. Their plans for the week are completely interrupted and they’re unable to move ahead on their projects. Their sense of helplessness is palpable — in these circumstances they are completely unable to provide relief or aid to the most impoverished populations here.
It is difficult to tell what will happen here over the next few weeks. But like the violence, the cycle of disappointment also exists. The Indian government might be able to quell the situation momentarily and make claims about how it is serious about the "peace process" and dialogue with Pakistan. Then, the process will be delayed. Meanwhile, the cycle of violence will continue.
Hafsa Kanjwal is a graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service who was born in Indian-administered Kashmir. She will begin her doctoral studies in history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan this fall.