Kashmir, One Year On

Skye Arundhati Thomas

Women protesting in Srinagar, Kashmir, against the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, 30 August 2019. Photo © Masrat Zahra

Two hours after midnight on 19 May 2020, residents of Nawakadal in downtown Srinagar woke to the sound of automatic gunfire. Indian security forces were chasing down suspected militants. Paramilitary and police personnel stormed into the neighbourhood, launched grenades through gates and windows, confiscated cooking-gas cylinders. Houses were set on fire; some razed to the ground. By 9 a.m., Nawakadal was choked with smoke, dust and debris. Later in the day, 12-year-old Basim Aijaz walked over to the scene of the shootout. As he stood in the rubble, joined by a small crowd, an unexploded shell went off. He died from his burns after a night in hospital. It was five days before the end of Ramadan, and Basim had dressed in his new Eid clothes before leaving the house.

Tomorrow will mark one year since the Indian government abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution, which had provided a loose form of legal autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. Democratically elected Kashmiri leaders were arrested, 30,000 additional troops deployed, and a total communications shutdown imposed, cutting residents of the valley off from one another and the outside world. Jammu and Kashmir were divided into separate union territories. Months passed without any internet or telephone access. A weak 2G connection has now been made available, but it is unstable and often suspended.

Local economies are devastated. The nationwide Covid-19 lockdown has only exacerbated the brutality: the Indian armed forces are being negligent with PPE and rough handling Kashmiris, running dozens of unnecessary ‘cordon and search’ operations, detaining civilians without probable cause and blocking off roads with barbed wire and heavily armed soldiers. Jails are still overcrowded, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that some prisoners should be released on parole to ‘decongest’ them. Doctors have been barred from speaking to the press; any criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic is penalised.

An eerie TikTok video that Basim had made went viral after his death. Dressed in a striped T-shirt and chunky watch, he lip-synchs: ‘Kya karoge tum aakhir, qabra par meri aakar … Thodi der ro loge, aur bhool jaaoge’ (‘What will you do, after all, when you visit my grave? You’ll cry for a while and then forget me’). The state insists that the boy was injured when a wall collapsed on him, a version of events passionately disputed by his family. The superintendent of the hospital also confirmed the fatal extent of his burns. As the Kashmiri journalist Masrat Zahra says, Basim would not be the first child to have been killed in Kashmir after picking up an unexploded shell. The dissonance between the official account and Kashmiri witnesses is also disturbingly routine: it shows how the Indian state has all but destroyed the Kashmiri judiciary, and given the armed forces impunity for their actions. Most Kashmiris are no longer concerned with whether India will grant them constitutional rights: they want independence.

The rescinding of Articles 370 and 35A was allegedly made to ‘usher in development’ and ‘curb terrorism’. Domicile laws passed in March require Kashmiris to apply for new identity papers, and make it possible for settlers to buy property in the valley. The armed forces have been acquiring land for ‘strategic’ purposes. On 12 August 2019, a week after the shutdown, the billionaire chairman of Reliance Industries, Mukesh Ambani, announced that he was setting up a ‘special task force’ to look into investing in Jammu and Kashmir. In recent months, Reliance has received huge capital investment from US firms including Facebook and Google.

Meanwhile, the military stranglehold continues to be justified by the invoking of ‘terrorist threats’. As of June 2020, Kashmiri journalists can only continue to work if they have been rigorously vetted by the state, and existing accreditation systems are being revised. There have been protests, with demonstrators holding up signs that say ‘Journalism is not a crime,’ although the Indian state is increasingly treating it as one. Kashmiri journalists, including Zahra, have been booked under the draconian and unconstitutional Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Tomorrow, upper-caste Hindus and priests will conduct a ground-breaking ceremony for a temple being built on the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992. (Hindus believe the site is the birthplace of Rama.) The event will be live-streamed, and portraits of Rama and 3D images of the temple will be broadcast in Times Square, New York. Modi will present an offering of 110,000 laddoos to the gods. Staircases in Ayodhya are being painted saffron, and the streets hand-swept. Security is being stepped up. That the date of the inauguration coincides with the first anniversary of the crackdown in Kashmir is not a coincidence; neither is the fact that the world’s attention will be diverted to this spectacle.