Kashmiris in India are still suffering

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On August 5, 2019, in the wake of the Indian government’s move to revoke the parts of the constitution that give Indian-administered Kashmir special status, I penned an article for Al Jazeera titled There is reason to fear for the safety of every Kashmiri in India.

In the two years since, my worst fears have come true.

After revoking Articles 370 and 35-A of the constitution, which ensured the state limited autonomy and territorial sovereignty, the Indian government put Kashmir under an intense military siege. It deployed tens of thousands of troops to the state, started arresting anyone daring who voiced their dissent, imposed curfews, shut down the internet and phone lines. This suffocating military siege and communications blackout lasted so long that Kashmiris could not comprehend when it ended – if it ever did – and the COVID-19 lockdowns began.

Of course, the erosion of Kashmir’s territorial sovereignty and the rights of its Indigenous residents did not start with the revocation of Articles 370 and 35-A. Indeed, no Indian government has ever fully honoured the constitutional promises made to the Kashmiris under the auspices of the UN. Over the years, while paying lip service to the constitution, they gradually eroded the already limited autonomy of Kashmir and the rights of Kashmiris through presidential decrees, statutes, and legal verdicts.

In this context, what happened two years ago in Kashmir was nothing but the completion of a decades-old Indian settler-colonial project to “legally” annexe the state. Now, with no constitutional impediments, the Indian state is free to impose outright settler-colonial policies on long-suffering Kashmiris with impunity and erase their identities.

And Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP government has no intention to waste any time. In the last two years, India’s settler colonialism in Kashmir has been on steroids.

After revoking the constitutional clause that forbade non-natives from permanently settling, buying land and holding local government jobs in Kashmir, Modi’s government swiftly introduced a fast-track process through which non-local Indians who fit certain nominal criteria can obtain domicile status in the state. Furthermore, it ordered local bureaucrats to complete such applications in just 15 days and announced that those causing any delays to the process would face monetary fines.

As a result, a large number of non-native Hindu Indian citizens obtained residency in the predominantly Muslim region in a short period of time. Many Kashmiris rightfully perceive this policy as an effort to alter the demographic makeup of the state, and decry it as “demographic terrorism”.

Today, while there is still a salaried class of native Kashmiris, almost all top positions in the state’s bureaucracy are filled by non-local Indians. The situation is the same in the police force and the judiciary.

The erstwhile state of Indian-administered Kashmir, bifurcated and demoted to a union territory since August 5, 2019, is now being governed by an unelected “governor”. Manoj Sinha is a former BJP minister and a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right Hindu nationalist organisation – with strong ties to the BJP – that aims to create an ethnic Hindu-majority state in India. With an army of non-local bureaucrats, police officers, judges and other officials at his service, Sinha is governing the region with no meaningful input from its native population.

Historically, one of the Indian state’s primary policies in Kashmir has been to cultivate a cadre of Kashmiri client politicians inherently loyal to it. Since the late 1940’s the Kashmiri political firmament has been replete with such characters who work to ensure Indian hegemony by weaponising electoral politics and exploiting people’s need for basic governance. The complete removal of Kashmir autonomy in 2019 appeared to have left these client politicians with no real purpose or role. To remain relevant, they formed a rag-tag front to announce their commitment to helping Kashmir regain its autonomy and statehood – but mostly failed to convince the local population of their “noble” intentions.

Recently, Modi summoned these same characters to New Delhi to once again use them as pawns in his efforts to create the illusion of a new “democratic process” in Kashmir. This was done mainly to appease international anxieties around the dire situation unfolding in the Valley. The Modi government has been under intense international pressure, especially from the United States, to restore democratic processes and rights in Kashmir. By talking to Kashmiri politicians who claim to represent the population, the Indian state hoped to create the impression that it is still committed to upholding democratic principles. But this does not mean the BJP trusts Kashmir’s old collaborator-politician class. The Indian government is already working on new delimitation laws that will transform Kashmir’s Muslim majority into a tiny political minority within the rubric of Indian electoral politics. This will further obscure India’s colonial policies in Kashmir from the international community’s view and likely result in the emergence of a new Kashmiri client politician class that may forge stronger ties with the Hindu-nationalists of the BJP.

On top of triggering a demographic shift and ending any semblance of democracy in Kashmir, the Indian state also took unprecedented steps to silence Kashmiri voices in the last two years.

Today, journalism has been reduced to a government PR exercise in Kashmir. Even basic reporting of facts is being perceived and handled by the Indian state as a threat to the country’s national security. A draconian media policy introduced in June 2020 gave unelected bureaucrats the power to decide what is false news or incitement and to de-empanel (deny official recognition and access to) journalists and media outlets. Moreover, it allowed them to prevent “non-compliant” outlets from obtaining government advertisements – a major source of funding for many newspapers.

Censorship and surveillance have been rife in Kashmir for decades but, since August 2019, it is fully institutionalised and legalised. Journalists are routinely being incarcerated, beaten, humiliated and harassed for merely doing their jobs. Recently some have even been booked under terror charges after being accused of incitement, sympathising with the resistance movement and spreading “fake news”.

Not only journalists, but all Kashmiris daring to voice their dissent to the Indian state’s colonial policies and unlawful actions are being silenced. Indeed, ordinary social media users are routinely being threatened and jailed for refusing to toe the government line. The local administration is monitoring the social media activities of its employees and penalising those it perceives as violating its policies. Some have faced criminal charges and even been dismissed from service because of what they said on social media.

A few voices that still dare to speak against the government in India – and in the Kashmiri diaspora – are insisting that the revocation of Kashmir’s special status was nothing short of unconstitutional, deceitful, and undemocratic. In response, the Indian government is doubling down on its claim that the aim of the move was not to “annexe” Kashmir, but to speed up development, end “nepotism”, and eradicate “terrorism” in the state. This is, of course, nothing more than a straw man argument. Despite many political shortcomings, before August 2019, Kashmir had the highest human development indicators among all Indian states, according to India’s own official statistics. The Indian government’s every move in Kashmir is aimed at not helping the local population but erasing their ethnic, religious and national identity.

The Indian state is also trying to silence Kashmiris and prevent the world from paying attention to their plight by claiming everything is “normal” in Kashmir. Indeed, even in August 2019, when Kashmiris were under a strict military siege and curfew with no way of communicating with the outside world, Ajit Doval, the Indian national security adviser stationed in Kashmir, claimed everything was “normal” in the state and that the local population has “largely welcomed” the decision to revoke article 370.

Since then, the BJP government has continued to claim that all is well and normal in Kashmir. It repeatedly reassured the international community that it is not persecuting or oppressing the Kashmiris, but instead working to fully “integrate” them into India.

But the situation is not “normal” in Kashmir. The Hindu-nationalist BJP government is looking up to its ally Israel’s Zionist nation-state model in its efforts to “integrate” Kashmir into its imagined “Hindu India”. Integration in this context is nothing short of neo-imperial and settler-colonial violence.

It has been two years since India revoked Kashmir’s special status. And sadly, there is even more reason to fear for the safety of every Kashmiri living under Indian rule today.

-Ather Zia, is a poet and a political anthropologist who teaches Anthropology and Gender Studies at University of Northern Colorado Greeley.

Opinion article published in Al Jazeera.

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