Militarization, Land-Grab, Demographic-Change, Medical Apartheid, Ecologicide: Kashmir under Indian Settler-colonialism in the Times of Covid
Official figures rank India second only to the United States with confirmed cases of Covid-19 (30.13 million) and 393,310 deaths, representing a mere 3.7% rate of full vaccination as of 24 June 2021.  The New York Times, however, reports a much graver situation, including a study of three different antibody tests, called serosurveys, which convincingly demonstrate the immense gravity of Covid-19 pandemic in India. The in-depth scientific analysis of the serosurveys by NYT indicates that at the most conservative the estimated number of deaths in India is at least 600,000, with a more likely estimate of 1.6 million deaths, and a worst case scenario of 4.2 million deaths.
Post-August 5, 2019, when India unilaterally derogated Articles 370 and 35A, after dismissing even the façade of the elected assembly in 2018, the Indian State has vigorously discriminated against the people Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), particularly its Muslim population, especially in the form of explicitly prejudicial new land laws aimed at full-blown settler-colonialism. In a frightening feedback loop, the Indian state violence draws upon and abets Islamophobic violence against Muslims of J&K at large, and includes a rising number of lynchings, the latest on June 21, 2021. The pandemic in Kashmir is thus exacerbated by a settler-colonialism aimed at “drowning the Kashmiris once and for all.”
Escalation of militarization, Land-grab & demographic shift
To make the already grave situation of the pandemic in the midst of settler-colonialism even worse, there has been a terrifyingly large troop movement into the already most militarized zone on Earth, Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IOJK), which has to be read in conjunction with the fact that the internationally recognized and reputable organization, Genocide Watch, issued a Genocide Alert for Kashmir on August 15, 2019. The influx of more troops into Kashmir is tantamount to further advancing the “ten stages of genocidal process,” already identified by Genocide Watch as being “far advanced” two years ago.
The arrival of more Indian troops has spurred justified fears amongst all Kashmiris. Similar increase in militarization two years ago had led up to the derogation of Articles 370 and 35A on August 5, 2019, accompanied by unilateral and drastic changes in the Domicile Laws, Land Laws, and Employment Laws, a lockdown/throttling of internet for more than 18 months, economic losses of more than US$5.3 billion in just the first ten months of the lockdown, and dispossession of the most vulnerable people of Jammu & Kashmir.
On June 24, the headlines from Kashmir woefully declared “Jammu and Kashmir has been placed on high alert for the next 48 hours and internet may be suspended on Thursday,” (June 24). This comes in the wake of a meeting on June 24 between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a few hand-picked pro-India Kashmiri politicians whose capacity as “representatives of Kashmir public opinion” is widely recognized by scholars to be severely “undermined” by their histories of “corruption” linked to Indian “patronage democracy,” and who have participated or collaborated with the Indian State in what can veritably be called “Crimes Against Humanity” and “War Crimes.” The news coming out so far does not indicate much beyond some talk about granting of statehood, at some yet-to-be-determined time in the future.
Given this context, Kashmiri fears re: impending calamities or dispossession via targeted evictions in IOJK are completely rational. These potential plans include, but are not limited to, escalating the demographic-change, via ethnic-flooding and ethnic-cleansing, that India has already been carrying out in a UN-acknowledged “disputed area,” where any such change is manifestly illegal. The nomadic Muslim Bakarwal and Gujjars tribal people of IOJK are particularly at risk, and have already faced thousands of such motivated evictions.
Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples; Ms. Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context; and Mr David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment have taken note of Indian policies vis-à-vis the Indigenous Peoples, including those in IOJK:
“Indigenous peoples and local communities are treated as squatters when in fact the land is theirs, and they have protected and stewarded their holdings for generations and play an important role for conservation… The basic premise of this decision [of eviction], which treats tribal peoples as possibly illegal residents of the forest, is wrong — indigenous peoples are the owners of their lands and forests.”
Carried to its logical conclusion, this explicit settler-colonialism will not only be a geopolitical disaster for the entire region, potentially instigating war between at least two (and possibly three, if China is also included) nuclear-armed states, India and Pakistan – who have already fought three wars over Kashmir in 1948, 1965, and 1999 – it will also spell material and cultural genocide for Kashmiris, an existential crisis entailing the loss of both life and identity. Indian politicians explicitly speak of Kashmir and “Final Solution” in the same breath, and the current regime’s ideologues have explicitly upheld Nazi methods of genocide of the racial or cultural Other. Did we not say “Never Again”? What will we do to prevent such an unspeakable tragedy?
Insufficient & discriminatory medical infrastructure: ‘Medical Apartheid’ in IOJK
The public health infrastructure in IOJK shows deliberate and criminal neglect at each and every level by the Occupying State, compared to that in India itself, albeit a “developing state,” to an extent that it may be called “Medical Apartheid.” There are an estimated 600 ventilators for a population of over 13.6 million (the projected population of J&K in 2021 is actually supposed to be 15 million) and the doctor to patient ratio is 1:3,866, which is about half of that in India at 1:2,000, and a mere quarter of the ratio of 1:1,000 recommended by WHO. As of last April, less than fifty percent of the nursing positions were filled. The crucial index of number of hospital beds per 100,000 people in IOJK is fourth from the bottom when compared to Indian states, at 61.63 per 100,000. Average for India is 137.62 per 100,000. The Kashmir Valley (97% Muslim) is about 30% more populous than the Jammu region (31% Muslim, 65% Hindu). Moreover, the majority of the total cases of Covid-19 within Jammu & Kashmir have been reported in the Valley of Kashmir. However, the Indian Government’s vaccine distribution so far is skewed in the reverse direction.
Even in the midst of this unprecedented pandemic, the apocalyptic scale in India, and despite repeated pleas by the UN, the Indian government continues to detain thousands of Kashmiris across the region and in India. Most have been arrested preëmptively, without a charge, and without the prospect of trial under draconian and undeniably colonial laws like the Public Safety Act (PSA, called “the lawless law” by Amnesty International) and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). These political prisoners are effectively facing death sentences in overcrowded, unhygienic, and poorly ventilated prisons, and many have indeed tested positive for, and died of Covid-19. Held without trial in Udhampur jail, booked under PSA, Mohammed Ashraf Sehrai, one of Kashmir’s much-loved pro-freedom political leaders, passed away on May 5, 2021, after contracting COVID-19. A week after his death, Indian police arrested his two sons under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for “raising anti-national slogans” at the funeral.
On May 6, 2021, the Indian state censored necessary speech by prohibiting medical doctors within Kashmir from speaking to the media and ordered oxygen manufacturers to supply only to “designated hospitals,” thereby cutting out private hospitals and local non-profits that had until then played a vital role in providing life-saving oxygen to Kashmiris recovering from Covid-19. With only two oxygen-manufacturing units in Kashmir, it is crucial that these units remain accessible to all hospitals and NGOs. Dr. Muhammad Afaaq Sayeed, project director at Social Reforms Organisation (SRO), a Srinagar-based NGO, told Al Jazeera, “We have been giving oxygen cylinders…to at least 350 patients… in home care. They also come for a refill. When we won’t be able to give refills, they will suffer.”
Genocide via super-spreader events and Ecologicide
Despite the current catastrophic mass deaths in India due to Covid-19, the Indian government kept Kashmiris on tenterhooks and only canceled the Amarnath Pilgrimage on June 21, just seven days before the start of the pilgrimage. We probably owe this to increased world attention, so thank you, World! Despite the last-minute relief from the erstwhile imminent urgency, it is important here to give a little background of this particular increasingly “communal” (i.e., anti-Muslim) and “militarized tourism” – “aggressively militarized” at that. Amarnath is a cave with an ice stalagmite, 3,888 feet (about 4 kilometres) above sea-level, at one end of the once pristine, now polluted, Lidder Valley, in the Third Pole, home to several glaciers such as Nehnar, Kolhai and Bodpathri. The region of the Hindu Kush mountains and Himalayas of J&K and the Tibetan Plateau is widely known as “the Third Pole” as it stores more snow and ice, and thus potable water, than anywhere else in the world except for the North and South Poles. With the world’s highest mountains, including all fourteen peaks above 8,000 meters, the Third Pole is the “source of the 10 major river systems that provide irrigation, power and drinking water to over 1.9 billion people in Asia – over 24% of the world’s population,” and forms a “global ecological buffer.”
Each year under its administration, India has brought in increasing numbers of pilgrims to Amarnath: from 12,000 people in 1989 to the “largest ever gathering” that was approvingly projected for this year: 600,000 people. This is a drastic increase of 5,000% over 32 years. The “nationalist pilgrimage” can actually be more correctly called a “colonial pilgrimage,” and deploys over 30,000 administrative and military personnel for the period which has steadily increased from about two weeks to almost eight weeks this year. Very much like the Kumbh Mela that “may end up being the biggest super-spreader in the history of this pandemic,” as declared by Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, Amarnath Yatra (June 28 to August 22, 2021) was poised to be a catastrophic super-spreader event for the besieged people of Kashmir, “with no plans for lockdown” in the already ecologically-fragile Himalayas.  Ecologists determine that a “lack of people and pollution management along the pilgrim trail to the Amarnath Cave, the shrine in Kashmir, is having a massive impact on a stunning and ecologically sensitive zone,” even before the onset of Covid-19 and the political catastrophe of August 5, 2019. “Global warming is already taking a toll on these glaciers and anthropogenic (human) activities on a large scale in this sensitive ecology ‘can further precipitate the melting’ of these glaciers,’” according to Professor Mohammad Sultan Bhat, head of the Department of Geography and Regional Development at Kashmir University, Srinagar. The fears of ecologicide are heightened with a recent report that the snow cover in Nanga Parbat area of the Himalayan territory of Jammu & Kashmir has reduced by 7% and three glaciers have “disappeared.”
To add to the ecologicide, especially since August 5, 2019, India has been on a rampage cutting down trees in Kashmir ― India’s Environment Ministry has recommended cutting of 214,502 trees for the Ujh multipurpose hydroelectric project in the ecologically sensitive, Kathua region of IOJK. Furthermore, on April 2, 2020, the Social Forestry Department passed an order to immediately “start the process of felling of 42,000 poplar trees of Russian species at different locations-avenues.” The reason given was “to ‘contain’ the spread of Covid-19 infections… Botanists say there is no scientific proof of this. Doctors say that by producing oxygen, trees actually improve lung capacity of all animal life in their vicinity.” Also, in Kanidajan village of the Budgam district in Kashmir, “locals reported the government chopping 10,000 apple trees in an attempt to remove residents.” In the middle of November 2020, 50 officials of the Jammu and Kashmir Forest Department cut about 10,000 apple trees, basically to remove the indigenous peoples and local communities of Kashmir. And last but not the least, Kashmiri farmers, the mainstay of Kashmiri economy, fear for their apple orchards due to “incessant mining” in the heart of the apple growing region of Kashmir. All this, one must concede, bodes ill for the “global ecological buffer,” i.e., not just for the people of Jammu & Kashmir or for those of South Asia, but for the entire world.
- Urge your UN Representatives – for example, for people in the US, Madam Ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, United States ambassador to the United Nations – to call for a “free and impartial plebiscite” to be held in Jammu and Kashmir, as already promised by UNSC Resolution 47(1948) and agreed to by both India and Pakistan. Furthermore, the people of Jammu & Kashmir have to be party to the negotiations on the implementation of the resolution.
- Urge your government representatives to call on the Indian government to:
- Demilitarize Kashmir immediately;
- Desist from changing the demography of Jammu & Kashmir, acknowledged by the United Nations to be a disputed area;
- Procure, provide and establish oxygen generation facilities required for meeting ICU and non-ICU needs of hospitals in public and private sectors to handle the impending COVID-19 pandemic surge;
- Ensure medications and vaccines are available in Jammu & Kashmir in an equitable manner;
- Revoke the order restricting access to local oxygen manufacturing units;
- Ensure mandatory PCR testing protocols and quarantine of travelers by road till on-spot results are available;
- Release all incarcerated Kashmiris, including political prisoners, children and ailing individuals, who have been taken far away from their homes in Kashmir and India;
- Revoke the order prohibiting medical doctors in Kashmir from talking to media – freedom of speech is a quotidian democratic right, but in times of a pandemic it becomes a critical responsibility of medical doctors;
- Allow free flow of information with regards to the pandemic in mainstream and social media without resorting to censorship or intimidation of journalists or citizens.
- Ensure the formulation of an Environment Policy for Jammu & Kashmir, with due consultation from global Indigenous peoples and Environmental groups recognized in ecological preservation;
- Stop the cutting of public trees, mining of riverbeds, and other ecologically dangerous activities, with immediate effect;
- Rethink the organization of the annual Amarnath Pilgrimage in Kashmir with due respect to the ecological fragility of the “global buffer zone,” and the immediate repercussions on the people and eco-zone of Jammu & Kashmir.
Author: Huma Dar| Publication: Crescent International