Fortnightly Feature-The war on Kashmir’s political spaces

The warmth of the march sun lights up the smokey interiors of the bus. Sitting in the back seat, Haleema welcomes the change after long winters, where she sometimes had to walk two kilometers to get firewood to keep the stove in her house burning. The bus smells of cigarettes and sweat, the torn seats, and the loud “BURHAN’ written on the back of the seat remind her of the times that took away her only support. 

Haleema is a half-widow. Her husband was taken away in a jeep by the Indian army, never to be seen again. A lawyer in Srinagar had told her they had taken him to a torture center in Ganderbal, where young boys were hung on hooks by their shoulder blades while the Indian army cut out parts of their flesh. She still hopes it was a mistake the lawyer had made. 

This journey to Srinagar would be her usual monthly routine, where many such women would gather in a park in Lal Chowk and share their pain. They would also organize and raise funds for women like her who have no support. The chosen spot would usually be Pratap Park. But now she meets the women in a house because the Indian government has banned them from meeting in public parks. The Indian occupation wants to project Kashmir as a tourist spot and an upcoming  smart city. So the visuals of women who have lost everything to the raging conflict are deemed ‘ugly.’ The government wants to cover it up. 

“I am trying to collect some money to get an MRI that the doctor has suggested. I can’t afford it. I will meet the other women, and someone might know how we can do it,” she says with no hope in her eyes. 

She opens her dark green purse to find some coins and hands it over to the bus conductor. The conductor knows who she is and declines to take the fare. “Khodaayi karinayi aabaad.” (May Allah bless you) she says and gets down from the bus. 

The space where her group used to meet for sit-in protests is currently being given a ‘smart-city’ facelift. It isn’t smart quite yet and isn’t empathetic, either. The Indian armored vehicles near the park and the adjoining Clock Tower remain, and footpaths are taken over by the Indian paramilitary forces for large bunkers from which their masked men point guns at every passerby. The barbed wires surrounding these bunkers force Kashmiris to walk in a military maze. Physical spaces are taken over in the name of ‘strategic positions.’ But it is the war on political spaces that is getting worse. 

After India unilaterally abrogated the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir and de-facto illegally annexed the region by imposing direct control of New Delhi through an appointed Governor, every political space has been criminalized. Soon after Delhi’s August 2019 move, all political leadership in Kashmir was detained. The popular resistance group Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) saw every leader, worker, and everyone connected with the group being arrested. 

Since then, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the head of one faction of the Hurriyat and the Mirwaiz of Kashmir, has been placed under house arrest. For more than three years, he has been denied his right to publicly practice his faith and preach on Fridays at the famed Jamia Masjid in his capacity as the Mirwaiz (the chief preacher).

Following an attachment order from the NIA Special Court, the National Investigation Agency of India shut the All Party Hurriyat Conference office in Rajbagh, Srinagar, on January 29th under UAPA. The Hurriyat organization has consistently backed pro-freedom speakers and directed the liberation movement. India has been executing leaders of the Kashmiri resistance movement—–through infliction of “slow death” on political detainees. The Tehreek-e-Hurriyat chief, Mohd Ashraf Sehrai, died in prison in Jammu after three weeks without medical care. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the “symbol of Kashmiri resistance,” passed away under a 12 year long house imprisonment. Altaf Shah, a key Hurriyat leader and Geelani’s son-in-law passed away from kidney cancer after being refused medical care in India’s Tihar Jail until his condition deteriorated. 

Another pro-freedom group egregiously outlawed in 2019 was the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), whose leader Yasin Malik was detained by Delhi. The Indian government stated that it banned the organization because it engaged in “anti-national activities” and a “secession movement,” while Malik was accused of “funding terrorism.”

The BJP government has repeatedly shown that there is no room for dissent for anybody in this Hinduvata system, especially Muslims. Under the colonial anti-terror statute UAPA, Modi’s administration banned Jamaat-e-Islami in February 2019 because of their  association  with the resistance movement. Over 150 of Jamaat’s members were detained by police on the intervening nights of February 22 and 23, 2019, including its leader Dr. Abdul Hamid Fayaz, district administrator, and spokesperson advocate Zahid Ali. The organization said that 300 of its members were detained.

While the attack on political groups is in signature Hindutva style across the board in Kashmir, even neutral parties like activist groups and the press have seen a brutal crackdown. Gross human rights violations have been committed in Kashmir by the Indian state for many years, and they have only worsened after Article 370 was abrogated. Circumstances in which pro-freedom leaders are placed are deplorable. With that narrative in place, the dictatorship views human rights advocates as a threat to Indian authority over Jammu and Kashmir.

Ajit Doval, Prime Minister Modi’s National Security Advisor, publicly described civil society as the “new frontiers of the war” that could be “manipulated to hurt the interests of a nation” published in an article by VerfassungsBlog, a journalistic and academic forum based in Germany. 

In addition to raiding the house of anyone with a dissenting voice, NIA also targets human rights defenders. On November 22nd, 2021, Khurram Parvez, a Kashmiri Human Rights Defender and coordinator of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a prominent human rights group, was arrested under UAPA.  JKCCS offices have undergone repeated NIA raids, during which records and reports have been taken. Staff members and associates of JKCCS were called to New Delhi by the NIA for questioning after Parvez’s arrest in November 2021. They endured intimidation and harassment for several days. 

While political and social activism was brutally crackeddown upon, the press saw its share of attacks as well. The GOI has passed hundreds of instances of state agencies using anti-terror legislation to harass, attack, and arrest Kashmiri journalists. The J&K police have summoned at least 180 journalists for questioning since August 2019, according to The Caravan. 

The report lists ten journalists booked under UAPA or PSA, a further ten journalists booked under other charges, and 12 journalists raided by the J&K police or NIA, noting that there may be further cases.  

The Indian government also didn’t fail in shutting down the only remaining space for Kashmiri journalists that could somehow hold the regime accountable for its curtailment policy towards the journalistic fraternity by violently abrogating the Kashmir Press Club in January last year through a military-styled coup. 

The 53-page “New Media Policy 2020” was published by the Modi administration on June 2, 2020, which has direct control over Jammu and Kashmir. It granted mid-level bureaucrats in the local administration unrestricted authority to decide what counts as “fake news” or “plagiarism” and what is “unethical,” “seditious,” or “anti-national.” Also, local officials can now file lawsuits against editors, publishers, and journalists without providing any supporting documentation.

The Indian government is not only stifling dissent but abolishing the press club, ensuring no record of the happening remains. Continual harassment of political venues while covering up its history of fascism and human rights violations to consolidate its authority has been in full swing. 

Political spaces describes the channels, openings, and points of entry that citizens have to voice their opinions and impact political decisions. Citizens can express their preferences, organize, take individual and collective action, and interact with the government without hindrance or harassment when the political environment is open. In Kashmir, the situation is the exact opposite. 

Legal and structural constraints that make it difficult for individuals to participate in politics actively have frequently been used as restrictions on political space. The government limits space for international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and local civic actors to stifle critical or reform-minded voices.

In 2014, Kashmir remained off-limits to international assistance organizations and media amid the disastrous floods. India has subsequently covered up its atrocities in Kashmir by refusing entry to reporters for the international press after foreign organizations sent to Kashmir to assist following the terrible earthquake in 2005 led to the discovery of mass graves in North Kashmir. 

A near-total ban on foreign reporting from Kashmir, which is now directly ruled by New Delhi, has come from the extension of the already-in-place rules in August 2019. Since then, no independent foreign journalist has visited the Kashmir valley for reporting.

In a recent study, 21 of 30 foreign journalists who requested permission to visit Kashmir claimed their requests were rejected. Yet, the study also included the first half of 2019, before the tightening of limitations brought on by the repeal of Article 370. Journalists referred to this as a “tipping point,” signaling the end of their ability to report from Kashmir. A few months after the abrogation, S. Jaishankar, minister of external affairs, claimed that Kashmir was still not “safe” for foreign journalists to enter.

A journalist who participated in the survey wrote, “I was summoned to the Indian high commission in [redacted] when applying for my visa and told my stories were too anti-government.” Another journalist wrote, “when I applied for my visa extension abroad, the Consulate requested me to write positive stories on [Narendra] Modi’s success.”

With no access to the foreign press and a brutal crackdown on local reportage, no neutral spaces in Kashmir remain active. Political spaces are now being managed by proxy parties remotely controlled by New Delhi. By doing so, New Delhi’s version of Kashmir is the only one available to observers overseas. And this version is sanitized, far away from the actual repression on the ground. 

There are no longer any active neutral spaces in Kashmir due to a lack of access to international journalists and a violent assault on local reporting. Proxies currently run political spaces that New Delhi controls remotely. By doing this, the only version of Kashmir accessible to observers outside is the one from New Delhi. Also, this version is sanitized and detached from the reality of repression. Local activists say they have no strength left to carry on working. 

Haleema, too, has lost any hope for improvement. “I just want to take care of my health now. Everything else is lost,” she says. “There is no one to look after me, so I have to look after myself. But healthcare is expensive, and I don’t have money,” she adds, counting the few hundred rupees she received from one of the women at the meet. She then hurries to the bus stop to board the bus back to her village.