Dispatch

Kashmir’s Paramilitary Lockdown Traps Locals

Witnesses say travel is nearly impossible and communications have been severed.

Indian security personnel walk on a street in Srinagar on August 9, 2019,
Indian security personnel walk on a street in Srinagar on August 9, 2019, STR/AFP/Getty Images

As the 28-year-old fashion designer Murcyleen Peerzada, a Mumbai-based Kashmiri woman who has been living in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, for the past four months, left her home in the disputed region on Wednesday morning, the first thing she noticed was the silence, interrupted only by the rumbling engines of armored vehicles.

Owing to the recent arrests of as many as 400 politicians and affiliates in Kashmir, her father, Feroze Peerzada, a vice president for a local political party, the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement, anticipated that he, too, would be put behind bars soon. He didn’t want any harm to befall his daughter, so they decided to attempt to reach the rest of the family in Mumbai, where Feroze had a business. A few minutes into the drive to the airport, Murcyleen realized that Srinagar, the city of 1.2 million people, had turned into a ghost town: Lengths and lengths of barricades and barbed wire divided neighborhoods; the streets—even main squares and attractions—were deserted; and playgrounds and markets stood abandoned. Paramilitary troops guarded checkposts every few hundred yards. As they drove to the airport, they saw dozens of vehicles turned back by the army. Just before the two reached the airport terminal, Murcyleen’s SUV was stopped by a paramilitary officer who demanded to see their tickets. As they tried to explain that they wanted to reach family in Mumbai, and had been unable to buy tickets due to the total crackdown on the internet and mobile services, the officer told them that they were stupid for not having left with the tourists on Sunday and that only those with confirmed outbound tickets were allowed to leave.

Murcyleen was just one of millions of Kashmiris trapped in the region after the abrupt crackdown last weekend, which came ahead of the announcement on Monday of the controversial decision to revoke the special constitutional status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Home Minister Amit Shah shared a presidential decree with the Indian Parliament, which abolished Article 370 of the constitution, stripping the state of the nominal autonomy it had enjoyed for seven decades.

In order to thwart violence and protests over the unprecedented announcement, the region has been on a lockdown since Sunday night, and the authorities suspended internet, mobile connectivity, and local cable television networks, pushing the Kashmir Valley into a complete information blackout. Amid massive troop mobilization, political leaders, including two former chief ministers, were put under house arrest. While protests subsequently erupted in New Delhi, only a few dared to turn out on the streets of Kashmir.

“I was born and brought up in Kashmir,” Feroze said. “I’ve lived through the darkest days of militancy and armed insurgency that plagued the valley in the ’90s. But even during the worst of these days, landlines were never disconnected. Also, owing to the constant unrest, Kashmir often sees military deployment, but this time, there are forces we don’t even recognize. Everything has come to a standstill.”

Days later, Kashmir residents continue to remain locked inside their homes with little to no information about what is going on—even as the United Nations, on Wednesday, said it’s “deeply concerned” that the restrictions “will exacerbate the human rights situation” in the region. After being blocked from the airport, Murcyleen and her father headed for the relatively stable city of Jammu, just 165 miles away by car. (Foreign Policy spoke to them there by phone on Wednesday night: Murcyleen was able to reach Mumbai the next day.)

A journey that normally takes five hours took them 10, despite the usually snarled highway being empty of traffic save for a few buses taking migrant laborers back to their hometowns in other states. “We were stopped five times, and every time my heart went to my throat,” she said. “The body language of the armed men—their harsh tone and accusing eyes—told us they saw us as a threat.” Murcyleen said she had to convince the soldiers she was a tourist, not a Kashmiri—something she was only able to pull off thanks to her proof of address in Mumbai. They were directed through a host of remote villages and jungle routes before eventually making it to Jammu.

Murcyleen and her father are among the first Kashmiri residents to be able to bear witness to what is happening in the valley. The blackout includes the local news media: Most English- and Urdu-language newspapers in Srinagar have not published a single edition since Monday.

“My cook, his mother was critically ill when he last spoke to his brother over the phone on Sunday evening. His family told him that she might not survive the night,” Murcyleen said. “About two hours after that call, phone lines were disconnected. Now, he’s been living in anguish for three days, wondering if his mother is still alive, if he’s missed his chance to say goodbye.”

For the first two days after the lockdown on Sunday night, Feroze ventured out of his home on four occasions to check on the ground situation. Each time, the paramilitary troops at the end of his residential lane sent him back.

Locals in Kashmir had anticipated something was afoot after the central government deployed an additional 10,000 troops in the valley and tourists and pilgrims were evacuated from the region late last week. Like others, the Peerzadas had stocked up on supplies: groceries, milk, medicines, and cash. They were, however, aware that the stock would soon run out—and medical emergencies, if any, would have to be dealt with at home.

The unrest in Kashmir is only the latest move in a decades-long territorial conflict: This is the 51st time that India has pulled the plug on mobile and internet communications in the region—in 2019 alone. India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, an ethnically diverse region, which has been contested since before the two countries won their independence from Britain in August 1947.

India-administered Kashmir has seen an armed revolt that has been waging for the past three decades, killing some 42,000 civilians. Hundreds of thousands of troops were deployed by India in the region in the 1990s following a pro-independence insurgency by Islamist militants in 1987. India blamed Pakistan for backing separatist militants, a claim that the latter denied. Clashes between protesters, Indian troops, and militants have been common in the valley since then.

Most recently, a fresh wave of violence emerged after the young militant leader Burhan Wani was killed in a battle with Indian security forces in July 2016. Wani’s death sparked a wave of clashes between civilians and troops, and in 2018, according to Indian government numbers, 324 security forces and militants were killed—the highest toll in a decade. Since the end of 2018, the region has been under direct rule from New Delhi, fueling further anger.

In order to establish better control over the region, the Indian government has now scrapped Article 370, which, according to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had “only given terrorism, separatism, nepotism, and massive corruption.” The move, he said, was the dawn of a new era for Jammu and Kashmir. The government claims that there is now “zero violence” in the region and that the situation is “completely peaceful.” “Whoever is saying that things are normal in the valley—they’re lying,” Murcyleen said. “How do they know? There is no voice of the valley. Communication channels are blocked. There is no way to reach anyone. My paternal aunt lives 10 minutes away from our home, but we haven’t been able to check on her. The troops won’t let us—they’ve sealed all our roads. Every single lane has a huge truck filled with armed, uniformed men. That’s terrifying, not normal.”

Feroze said a single announcement has brazenly stripped the region of seven decades of its identity. “It’s undemocratic, the way this has been imposed,” he said. “I’m all for a unified India, but Kashmiris have to be treated with empathy. The people are shocked, distressed. We don’t deserve this.”

“Now that my daughter is safe, I’m returning to the valley,” Feroze said. “This is the time to be with my people.”

Puja Changoiwala is an award-winning Indian journalist and author. She writes about the intersections of gender, crime, social justice, development, and human rights in India. Twitter: @cpuja

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