• The Siege of Kashmir in Context: A Journalist’s Account

    Is this the start of settler-colonialism in Kashmir? Are we the last generation that will see Kashmir in its current form? Is this the start of our Nakba?

    These are the questions I write down in my journal on August 5, 2019, soon after India’s Home Minister stripped Kashmir of its nominal administrative autonomy and made it possible for non-Kashmiris to buy property in the region. Articles 370 and 35-A of the Indian Constitution, that provided the regional government in Kashmir with a certain degree of autonomy and prevented predatory land acquisition by outsiders, were abrogated without Kashmiri consent. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has since long perceived the Muslim-majority region as a threat to the establishment of a Hindu-nationalist state in India and beyond.

    This ecologically fragile and scarred land — my home — has been fought over for decades and is now at risk of being plundered wholesale, not just by jingoist settlers from outside but also by India’s capitalist powerbrokers.

    In one of the last entries in my journal, I wonder whether It is possible for just a handful of people, comparatively, to protect this land from settlers and the military? “They are armed not only with deadly weaponry,” I write, “but also with perceived moral superiority shaped by the dehumanization of Kashmiris in the Indian consciousness, as well as a legal carte blanche.”

    The impunity of the Indian military is so pervasive that not even a single soldier nor paramilitary has been prosecuted for the egregious human rights abuses they have committed in Kashmir, ranging from massacres and mass-raping entire villages to torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. I wondered to what extent the colonial onslaught would backfire and make Kashmiris suspicious of Indians in general, infecting them with a similar xenophobia that is shaping Indian state policy.

    But, even in the most testing times, Kashmiris rarely fail to recognize the inherent dignity of all humans. Once, I went to cover the story of Aijaz Ahmed Paula, a carpenter and cricketer who had been shot dead while trying to rescue armed rebels during a gunfight with Indian paramilitaries. Still mourning the loss of their only breadwinner, the family refused to talk to us unless we had lunch with them first.

    We learned about India’s formal annexation of Kashmir on August 5, 2019, when the “final solution of Kashmir’s problem” was triumphantly celebrated on Indian prime-time TV. The night before, a military siege had been implemented throughout the region, with 700,000 troops occupying almost every square inch of Kashmir, from roads and intersections, to schools and universities, to public parks, private properties, orchards, courts, hospitals and places of worship. Every imaginable space was filled with military and paramilitary forces with the single purpose of cracking down on all manifestations of Kashmiri public life, not just dissent.

    Forget about leaving the house to buy groceries — even peeking through a window was considered an affront by the Indian military personnel touting machine guns, teargas canisters, pellet shotguns, and a seeming visceral hatred for every Kashmiri. Without network reception, phones had no purpose other than to be thrown throw at soldiers, we joked. Internet was suspended and we lamented how even in war zones like Syria people managed to get an internet connection. Rather than being advanced under the veneer of co-opted democracy, the military occupation was now manifest in the region. The whole of Kashmir had been turned into a concentration camp.

    How did we survive in this camp? The short answer would be by sticking to the banalities of household life. Our homes became both a refuge and a prison. We tended to our vegetable patches; cleaned our homes inside-out; dried vegetables for the upcoming winters; wondered whether our relatives were doing well or even if they were still alive; made stock of the essential medications; worried about running out of rice; and, once in a while, climbed fences to sneak into our friends’ homes for endless political discussions.

    “Is the world reacting to this?” we wondered. “Will the Indian government go so far as killing us en masse, a genocide, an ethnic cleansing?” we worried. “Will India and Pakistan go for an all-out war?” we dreaded. “Is this the beginning of the end of Indian occupation?” we hoped.

    All the while, reports of mass rallies, of protesters being killed, of houses being burnt were abound. There was no means of confirming these reports, but judging from India’s track record of brutality in Kashmir, they could not be dismissed either. One of the nights we sheltered in our homes, an additional contingent of paramilitary troopers arrived in our village, carrying a long list with the names of local young men who were to be detained. Soon, soldiers began to break down the doors of people on that list. Lists, night-time raids, vandalism.

    While all this was unfolding, somebody had managed to sneak into the neighborhood mosque and pleaded via the loudspeakers for villagers to come out and resist. But it was too late. The young men were already on their way to the dreaded torture centers where wounds have been inflicted on Kashmiri bodies, and society, on an industrial scale. Later, some of the detained — and tortured — young men had been released after paying bribes of up to $1,300 USD — a fortune in Kashmir.

    In a few days, we began to run out of medicine. The only place to buy them was in the town center, which was separated from us by an unknown number of military checkpoints. Making days of unsuccessful attempts, the troopers, grudgingly, let us through after checking and double-checking the prescriptions with their disgust-filled gaze, acting as if they were conferring a great favor upon us by granting passage. At the pharmacy, the prescriptions were stamped with the latest dates so that on the way back home the troopers could confirm that we were actually out to buy medicines. But even the pharmacies were running out of medicine. “We only have 40 percent of the stock left,” the owner of one of the largest pharmacies in my hometown told me at the time.

    Military sieges are not new in Kashmir. I have grown up amidst crippling curfews, the dreaded crackdowns of the 1990s during which all adult males in the house were ordered to line up in a communal space while soldiers carried out door-to-door searches, and night-long gun battles when I curled up inside my father’s arms, hoping for the machine gunfire to die down or, at least, not grow any louder. I have lived through the siege of 2008, when people from all walks of life poured into the streets and forced the Indian government to rescind an order that handed over tracts of land to a religious organization. A schoolkid then, I realized for the first time the power of mass public protest. I lost friends during the protests of 2010, when people took to the streets in the wake of a staged gunfight in which Indian forces tried to pass off civilian laborers as armed militants. And the bloodletting of 2016, when the region exploded to protest the killing of a militant commander and Kashmiris were subjected to history’s first instance of mass-blinding in the ensuing state crackdown.

    Throughout these different sieges, hundreds of Kashmiris were killed, maimed, tortured and detained by the Indian state. So, this latest siege, in many ways, is a continuity of India’s long history of oppression aimed at breaking the spirit of the Kashmiri people. And while we are submerged in the daily struggle to survive, we should not lose sight of the complexity of the situation. We need to be critically aware of the myriad differentiations of privilege that run through Kashmiri society on the basis of class, caste, and political affiliations — especially in times of crises.

    Lacking geostrategic leverage and natural resources, Kashmiris often joke that suffering is the only currency we possess. The suffering and our resilience to overcome it. I have covered — or attempted to cover — this suffering as a journalist for the past three years. I am amazed at how we journalists, particularly our senior colleagues who have been covering Kashmir for decades, manage to document this colossal human suffering and remain sane.

    In my short career as a journalist, I have listened to the story of Mubeena Ghani, who, along with her pregnant aunt, was gang raped by the Indian military on her wedding night. I still remember the anguish on the face of the father of Rizwan Assad Pandit, a schoolteacher and a lecturer at the local university who was tortured to death last March. How could I forget the faint murmuring of unconscious Mahjabeen, whose fiancée, the lorry driver Sharjeel Ahmad, was shot dead by the Indian forces one week before their wedding? Could one imagine the agony of Wiwiek Widiasati, an Indonesian woman, who traversed borders of state, language and culture to marry Abid Hussain, the love of her life, only to see him shot dead by the Indian paramilitaries while he was at work in his orchard? Or the resilience of an elderly Kashmiri man, whose house — built with his own hands over the course of many years — had just been blown up by the military during a gunfight with armed rebels, but who still managed to say, “The rebels escaped unhurt. That is the only thing that matters.” The list of loss and resistance is endless.

    Local Kashmiri journalists have been working tirelessly to break the enforced silence of the current military siege at the risk of their own physical well-being. Many of them have been intimidated, beaten and detained.

    Currently, at least two Kashmiri journalists — Asif Sultan and Shibli Qazi — are in detention. Just last month, Muzammil Mattoo and Masrat Zehra, two photojournalists, were assaulted and threatened by the paramilitaries for just doing their job. In 2016, Muzammil and Zuhaib Maqbool, also photojournalists, were attacked with shotgun pellets, partially blinding Zuhaib. Kashmiri journalists, editors, and publishers have been summoned to torture centers and have faced trumped-up charges by India’s counterterrorism agencies.

    The ongoing blockade of phone networks and the internet have forced journalists in Kashmir to look for other sources of income and local police have ordered journalists to share the web links of all their future work with the them, a clear act of intimidation. A so-called media center has been set up by the government, ostensibly to facilitate journalists by providing them with an internet connection, but a senior journalist very aptly described it as a “media-concentration camp” where journalists have to line up for hours to access the internet on a desktop PC only to be subjected to mass surveillance. Recently, a guard posted outside the premises declared that anyone who publishes online or is a freelance reporter is not to be allowed in.

    As I write this, the military lockdown in Kashmir continues. Children and adults are being detained and tortured while their families are kept in the dark about their whereabouts. The communication blockade is firmly in place and India ensures that impartial observers are barred from visiting the region. Protests, and in fact all assemblies, are banned, and exercising our right to free speech could prove lethal. One can only guess at the horrors being inflicted on an indeterminate number of Kashmiri dissenters, detained without trial across jails in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

    At least a dozen people have died because there was no way to call an ambulance or reach a hospital, a doctor recently told The New York Times. One of the largest hospitals in Kashmir has recorded a 50 percent drop in the number of surgeries they perform. Moreover, cancer patients have been unable to attend chemotherapy sessions because of military restrictions and a lack of public transport. During the past three months of lockdown, the region’s economy has suffered a staggering loss of $1.4 billion, in addition to thousands of jobs that have been lost. Businesses that depend on the internet have either shut down or moved out.

    Islamic congregations, including Friday prayers in central mosques, are also banned. These bans come only months after the Indian government mobilized their entire military force in Kashmir to supposedly facilitate a Hindu pilgrimage, which, rather than being a limited religious affair, has assumed increasingly nationalist characteristics in recent years. During this year’s pilgrimage, locals were banned from commuting or parking their vehicles on same roads as that of the pilgrims — an act of virtual apartheid.

    I witnessed this forced segregation unfold in my hometown Islamabad (Anantnag), which lies on the main route of this pilgrimage. Paramilitary forces took control of roads overnight and would not even allow pedestrians, let alone ambulances, to cross while the pilgrims commuted through. All of us watched in helplessness, horror, and humiliation as these same roads where we all had grown up suddenly became inaccessible to us. This coming summer, this structure of apartheid will unfold again on our roads, accompanied, I suspect, with increased declarations of triumph within India.

    Amidst this lawlessness and widespread oppression, Kashmiris, like always, seem to find ways to protest. This may take visible forms of public rallies, stone-throwing, barricading neighborhoods to keep the Indian military from entering, or a good old general strike. But I also believe that at this point Kashmiris may have realized that putting up a spectacular, performative resistance that usually grabs the world’s attention, is something that they can no longer afford.

    Under the muzzle of almost a million troops, constant surveillance, and threats of deadly violence and detention, looking for spectacular, public displays of resistance in Kashmir may be the wrong approach. After all, is surviving a brutal military siege not a form of popular resistance in itself? Are apple orchards filled with rotten apples, left unplucked by farmers so as not to allow the Indian government portray a picture of normalcy, not proof enough of widespread resistance? Is it not an act of defiance against forgetting and trauma when Feroz Ahmad Ganai pulls out a neatly wrapped needle hidden deep inside his pocket, the very same needle that was used by the Indian military personnel to torture him, to show it to a journalist?

    People often pose me the incredibly complex question, “What can the world do to help Kashmir?” One can only begin to answer this by repeating the cliché of “unlearning.” Unlearning the common wisdom that paints India as a rosy utopia, where diverse religions, languages and cultures live in ideal harmony. Unlearning the image that India is a country where supposedly all violence is derided and the only collective activity that people engage in is yoga.

    It is time that the Indian post-independence nation state be seen — especially by the conscientious Indians — as a deeply problematic entity that has been indiscriminately violent vis-à-vis its marginalized communities and has maintained a decades-long military occupation and is now, possibly, implementing a settler-colonial regime in Kashmir.

    We also need to be deeply worried of the increasingly fascist character that the country is assuming, especially under the current dispensation. Acknowledging and understanding the problem is the first step towards its resolution.


    Photos courtesy of Saqib Mir.