December 10th 2019 marked 71 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which contrarily was witness to the escalating state oppression and heightened military occupation of Kashmir, further erosion of human rights and democracy, following the political repression post 5 August 2019. Narratives of “normalcy” in the Kashmir valley increasingly began to be heard through media reports and orations of ministers, particularly of the ruling central government. The irony of a “normalcy” that was silenced by the shutdown of internet and telephone communications, had to be interrogated and unravelled. It cannot be forgotten that the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A is part of a long history of circumventing a political resolution on the autonomy of Kashmir that has had specific and escalating consequences in terms of ordinary liberties and freedoms for the people of Kashmir. The Kashmir issue that confronts us today is an unresolved political issue, not limited to human rights violations, but rather using violations to pulverise a political resolution. The suppression of all rights must be seen within this larger political context.
This report is a glimpse into the situation in Kashmir through the voices and experiences of the people in the valley. It attempts to share their pain, distress, displacement, shattered aspirations due to humiliation, hopelessness and fear accompanied by economic loss, breakdown of education, health and other public systems. It reflects the physical and psychological injuries that every person in Kashmir endures leaving gaping wounds that only peace, justice, recognition of an unresolved political crisis and care can heal.
A group of five women from Telangana, Meghalaya and Delhi who have been intending to go to Kashmir since August 5, 2019, after months of planning and aborted attempts, finally made it to Kashmir between 31 January to 5 February 2020. The purpose among others was to see, hear and understand objectively this narrative of “normalcy” being asserted by the Government of India (GOI). The members of the team were Kalpana Kannabiran, Sarojini Nadimpally, Navsharan Singh, Roshmi Goswami and Pamela Philipose.
This report details the situation on the ground in Kashmir as it was reported to us by people living there – exactly six months after the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India (see Annexure I). The team travelled through north and central Kashmir and Srinagar and met with people from different walks of life – ordinary people. They included shopkeepers, patients in government health facilities, students, street vendors, auto and taxi drivers, waiters, shop assistants, health service providers and front line workers, intellectuals, human rights defenders, parents and kin of disappeared persons and persons under detention, lawyers in the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), journalists in the Press Club, the Government Media Facilitation Centre and outside; our walks around Srinagar at different times of the day provided insights into the relevance of the “normalcy“ narrative which predominates mainstream Indian discourse on Kashmir after August 5, 2019.
While distinct aspects were explored, viz., education, health, media, various levels of impact of the internet and communications shutdown, detentions, heightened army and police presence, these should not be perceived as silos but as an intertwining of what is the total subjugation of the valley and the “disappearance” of the state, now surviving through the fragmented union territories of Ladakh and J&K. Internet was supposedly restored on January 14, 2020, and the projection that ‘everything is now normal’ greeted tourists, foreign diplomats and others. However, there was no access to the internet for the six days we were in Kashmir. The access to internet was controlled through manoeuvring technology, a 2G access which makes internet practically defunct.1
These intended conversations in a sense began even before we reached Kashmir as we met with Kashmiris and others invested in Kashmir in the places where we came from in the days preceding our departure for Srinagar. These were people we knew, had a personal contact and with whom we shared a relationship of trust. A former medical doctor/ mother/wife expressed her deep-seated pain, trauma and sense of insecurity rooted in her very personal experience over decades – the abduction and release of her husband with bullet injuries, their flight from Kashmir with very young school-going children, the loss of loved ones in militant violence, the targeting of her husband by the army, and their determination as an itinerant family to stay on course and assert their public and civic responsibilities as citizens of a free land. She spoke poignantly of how everyone in Kashmir today has a story of pain and suffering to tell and how everyone has suffered at different moments of time – the Kashmiri Pandit as well as the Kashmiri Muslim -and each community continues to live with enduring memories of personal trauma and pain. Her fervent desire and prayer for peace was deeply moving. This desire to think of Kashmir as a home of all Kashmiris – Muslims and Pandits – was reiterated by several people we met in Srinagar as well.
A former judge provided a more clinical perspective pointing out the havoc that decades of violence and conflict has created; the dismal state of affairs in J&K; the lack of infrastructure and basic services, etc. And yet, none of that had changed since the BJP came to power in 2014, nor has any of that changed since August 2019. He wondered aloud whether this new ‘state of normalcy’ has changed anything at all.
A third perspective was the most dismal. Looking at the politics of hate, exclusion and marginalisation of the Muslim community in general in India currently, a journalist expressed his apprehensions of a bleak future for Kashmiri Muslims — one of total hopelessness and complete annihilation. In dark despondency and resignation, he concluded, “They will kill us all.” The enormity of this simple statement hit us hard and left us (the seemingly protected majority), overwhelmed and silenced by our own powerlessness and of being mute spectators to the unfolding of this horrific reality. Yet another perspective was offered by a very knowledgeable former Intelligence officer who also emphasised the Kashmiri’s deep desire for peace and urged that one needs to keep visiting and talking to people in the region. When asked “what would talking do?” he replied, “it gives hope.” “Hope of and for what?” He had no answer. In a context where the facade of democracy is being dismantled on a daily basis across the country this is a chilling foreboding.
A day after we returned, a large number of people who had been detained since August 2019 — pro-India politicians and ordinary Kashmiri people — had been charged under the repressive Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows detention without trial for a minimum of three months, which can be further extended to six months and two years subsequently.2 A report by Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) has revealed that as many as 662 persons were booked under the draconian PSA in 2019, most of them after August 5.3
At least four people under detention, whose family and kin had met us urging us to take their cases up and secure their release, had been charged under PSA — of these three belonged to working class families that survived through wage labour and their brothers/sons who were in custody were very young – in their early twenties.
IN “NEW” “NORMAL” KASHMIR
We had prior experience of Kashmir – the checkposts, hartals, heightened army presence, and had heard accounts of the daily and routine suffering of the people of Kashmir under decades of military occupation. The drive from the airport to the hotel, the visits to Baramulla and Bandipora districts was especially instructive. Amidst the frozen apple orchards and mofussil towns we drove past limping back to a semblance of daily lives, the evidence of military occupation was formidable — barricades of concertina wired enclosures for military personnel that contained self-sufficient islands of housing, shopping areas, well equipped medical centres, movie theatres, even functioning schools in some places.
Interactions with Kashmiris and civil society groups working there revealed that surrounding fields, forests, meadows had become out of bounds for them as fear and intimidation prevent most people, especially Kashmiri girls and women, from carrying on with their everyday activities like foraging for greens, wild mushrooms or even just firewood. In a village that we visited, an army camp had come up near the water source, which prevented the villagers (primarily women and girls) from going out to collect water; this was an area which suffers acute water scarcity during the dry months. In fact, all communications and roads, it was widely felt, were not for the people of Kashmir but to facilitate the movement of the security forces and this was unceremoniously and constantly driven home more recently during the clampdown from August 5, 2019 onwards.
The hotel we checked into in Srinagar had only the five of us and one more guest – as occupants. On a Sunday (i.e., 2nd February), we visited the bustling weekly market at Lal Chowk in the afternoon to have lunch. The following morning, newspapers reported that two Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel and seven civilians were injured in a grenade attack by militants in Lal Chowk around the time we were in that area, and a couple of civilians had been taken into custody. The manner in which normal street life re-commenced without passers-by, including this team, being made aware of the grave developments going on, would indicate how accustomed both ordinary people and the security forces have become to such developments so that they have become almost “normal”.
Leaving Srinagar on February 5, exactly six months after the abrogation of Article 370, we were on our way to the airport from a Primary Health Centre (PHC). Throughout the two-kilometre stretch that separated us from the army cordon, villagers – mostly men – had poured out on the highway. As the roads were blocked with barbed wires and cordons of army and CRPF personnel, we tried to get to the airport driving on mud tracks through eight or more villages off the highway. Most of the vehicles were turned back or had to take a detour. It was extremely tense and we wondered what had happened. From onlookers, we heard that less than two kilometres away on the highway, in Lawaypora, an encounter had taken place, in which two militants and one army personnel had been killed and a civilian shopkeeper critically injured and captured an hour earlier. The sense of fear and anxiety was palpable on the streets, on the faces of the people, including that of a friend of ours who was driving us to the airport. Among the stranded commuters stuck in the traffic for hours, were ambulances carrying patients.
There have been several accounts of the mammoth militarisation on either side of the border, quoted by a wide spectrum of sources, including the Guinness Book of World Records, as being amongst the highest in the world. From accounts during our visit, we gathered that there are nine lakh army personnel officially stationed in the valley. The actual number is closer to 12 lakh, according to residents of the valley, who have been watching the deteriorating situation since August 5, 2019. In the lead up to August 5, there were army personnel posted in front of every house, and there was talk that the Army was now ready to kill as never before. Around 690 companies were sent in after August 5, of which 23 were sent back. Approximately one lakh personnel were added to the five lakh already stationed there.4
In this “new” Kashmir, we repeatedly heard the word – khauf (fear) – a sense of which we experienced during our brief travels and our encounters with “normalcy” from the point of our arrival in the valley to our departure circling around the site of an encounter.
“370 Hatne ke Faayde” — Experiencing Abrogation
The Army as well as the Police in Kashmir are not only an organized repressive apparatus, but also used as instruments for state propaganda. Post August 5, 2019, the Army was seen distributing handbills “370 hatne ke fayde” (the advantages of 370 abrogation) in Urdu. Acting as an arm of the government in power, the Army was coercing people to consent, to agree to the advantages of the abrogation of Article 370, while it stripped them of their autonomy, statehood and identity. If the liberal state is based on consent, Kashmir is all about coercion and repression.
In order to bring people out of homes and demonstrate to the world outside that “normalcy” had returned to the valley, even while it was under hartal (strike) and voluntary shutdown, in several places, the army made announcements that scholarships for students were going to be announced and that people should bring their income certificate to a pre-announced office to upload their income information. As people came out in large numbers, the Army took pictures, and fed them to the media to proclaim that Kashmir is normal, people are out in the streets doing their everyday work, normalcy has returned. People reported to us that they realised only later that there were no scholarship monies which had been credited to their bank accounts. Similar incidents were reported from other villages where crop damages were announced to draw people out, especially after November 15, when the narrative of normalcy had to be pushed. Internet was opened in one office in the district headquarters and people were asked to collect there to upload their certificates.
Torture, Intimidation and Anticipation of Arrest
People reported widespread torture and intimidation by the Army. Sameer Ahmed Bhat, a militant was killed in an encounter in Pulwama, by a joint team of the Police, Army and the CRPF in 2018.5 Now the Army fired on his grave and broke the gravestone. A young man from South Kashmir described a very common experience after August 5, 2019. Army men routinely stop anyone on the road, ask for their phone, question them on their contacts, smash the screen and tell the person to come back and collect it the next day. He also said that the soldiers asked them, “why are you not pelting stones? Come fire at us so that we shoot ten…twenty thousand of you. We have the go ahead to kill a few thousand of you.” In certain places in South Kashmir, parents reportedly took their sons to the police station begging police to keep them in the police lockup for fear of their being whisked away during an Army crackdown.
Raids, harassment and intimidation of people by Police and Army, characteristic of a police state, is the common experience of the people. In several places in Srinagar and also in remote villages, people told us that the Army was present in large numbers in residential areas, entered homes by even jumping over walls, and asked ordinary people to provide phone numbers, details of their family members, tenants and the details of any guests who stayed overnight. Reports of the Army seeking out granaries and baskets storing grain in village homes and pouring kerosene over these, were reported by several people. In Srinagar, we were told that Army personnel entered homes, demanded car keys from the owners and took away cars for days — there was no record of how these cars were used and the owners themselves had no information. Owners told us that their cars were often returned damaged and vandalized, and sometimes not returned at all.
Local police have very few women officers and the Army has none — all visits, arrests and interrogation were done by male officers. In a village we visited even a very elderly sarpanch was picked up and detained for a whole month because the residents in this far flung and relatively peaceful village had simply convened to discuss what was going on. For that matter villagers were unable to raise simple basic questions like the lack of water supply (a village that we visited in north Kashmir for instance gets water for an hour or so after every 10-12 days) or electricity. Everything is perceived as ‘dissent’ against the ruling regime and any person who raised questions was immediately picked up and even detained.
All over the Valley, before January 26, 2020, another round of arbitrary arrests was made under preventive detention. The boys were picked up on January 24-25, 2020, from homes and from the streets without any provocation. Some were released after a few days while others continued to be incarcerated for longer durations. In a village visited in Baramulla, we were told, some 20 people were rounded up from this village on or around August 5, and kept in custody for almost a month. They were brutally beaten up, their mobiles snatched and they were warned not to indulge in any protest before being let off. The year 2016, when Burhan Wani the Hizbul Mujahideen commander was killed by the security forces, was a bad year for the local people because of the constant repression that followed, but many felt that the situation today has deteriorated immensely and what is being experienced now is unprecedented.
A NEW MODEL OF GOVERNANCE
Kashmir is under a new model of governance.
“In our memory, this is the most violent and humiliating experience we have had to endure,” said an old man, his voice quavering, as we sat down to talk to a few men and women who had gathered to talk to us.
“They banned the internet and cut off phone lines. How could we even tell our story to anyone? What kind of state is this? Yeh to poora gunda raj hai (completely lumpenised raj). They announce that a convoy is coming and we are ordered to stand and wait for hours for it to pass.”
In the Shopian area, it was reported, a highly emboldened Army while stopping vehicles at checkpoints, declared, “Article 370 nahi raha” and were heard saying, “we will marry your wives and daughters.”
In addition to extensive areas already occupied by the Army, civil society members whom we met were extremely concerned that the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35 A had set the stage for implementing the Israeli ‘style’ strategy of creating ‘settlements’ aimed at changing demography and alleged that plans were already in place on how this will be rolled out. We were informed of Israeli assistance for surveillance and arms and army officers from Kashmir being routinely sent to Delhi to be trained by the Israelis on several aspects, including ‘crowd management’ and ‘surveillance’, by academics and researchers we spoke to during our visit. Their greatest concern was that these Israeli strategies and modus operandi, first used in Palestine, were being replicated at all levels in Kashmir.’
Speculation and fears were aggravated by the fact that there is no Kashmiri leader or person of authority that they could turn to and allay their apprehensions. All Kashmiris in the higher positions of the bureaucracy have been removed and all political leaders have been imprisoned and charged under the PSA. There were ‘concerns’ that amongst the political prisoners there were some who would never be released, or their cases even heard, for they are the ones who had the ability to mobilise and unite the people. There were mixed positions on the National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) political prisoners who were always pro-India. Many felt that they have been the worst hit and they would now have to ask themselves some very hard questions.
Another person observed that earlier 25 percent of Kashmiris used to be in favour of India. Now there were none. The feeling that the people of Kashmir have been stripped of all dignity was universal, he said. A shopkeeper laughed as he observed,“ Farooq Abdullah used to be in favour of India – for 70 years that family has been following the dictates of India. There are marriages across every faith in that family. Farooq Abdullah even put a tikka on his forehead when he was required to. Now the people of Kashmir are turning around and asking him – what has your Bharat Mata done?”
According to those in touch with communities in Ladakh and Jammu, people there, after initially welcoming the abrogation, also understand that their own predicament is tied to that of Kashmir. It is widely perceived in the valley that the dismantling of the state has given rise to a new understanding of a shared predicament and the fear of losing land to “outsiders”.
Of all the periods of violence in Kashmir, the abrogation of 370 and 35 A and post- August 5, 2019, is cited as the most violent and gross humiliation ever —streets being renamed, the Kashmir flag removed from the Secretariat and an aggressive hinduisation process being initiated. Women in a village meeting referred to it as the biggest ‘toheen’ (humiliation/insult) brought upon the Kashmiri people and that by the government isolating Kashmir from the rest of the world, Kashmir has been pushed back by half a century. Other fears raised had to do with the grand mercenary plan of the ruling regime that Kashmir and its distinctive culture that would be wiped out and the Kashmiris’ inborn ‘mehman nawazi’ (gracious hospitality) exploited to the hilt. People were also apprehensive of the proclaimed plans to put up factories in Kashmir—hamari jannat barbad ho jayegi (our heaven will be despoiled).
Through the J&K Re-Organisation Act, the Centre kept 166 state Acts intact and repealed 153 other Acts. Among the 153 are Acts through which seven important commissions were dismantled by the Centre: the Human Rights Commission, Commission for Persons with Disability, Information Commission, Consumer Commission, Women and Child Rights Commission, Accountability Commission and Electricity Regulatory Commission.6 Significantly, PSA is one of the few state laws which is retained by the Centre under the J&K Re-Organisation Act and has been used in the first instance on PDP and NC leaders and also other Kashmiri leaders as well as ordinary youth.7
Several people we met were of the view that the abrogation of Article 370 was aimed at changing the demographic composition of Kashmir and Article 35A is the target to achieve this. By removing the bar on settlement and land acquisition by outsiders the government, it is feared, was rolling out a plan to establish Hindu settlements across Kashmir, as the only way outsiders could be brought in en masse.8 These settlements, according to some sources, will be surrounded by a security ring which will house approximately 10 lakh retired army veterans.
One of the Kashmiris who met us described the “new normal” in poignant terms: Monday-Hartal, Tuesday-Raid, Wednesday-Internet Shutdown, Thursday-Curfew, Friday-Firing, Saturday-Arrests. Another rued that life had been snuffed out in Kashmir for six months.
Attempting to get some information on any semblance of governmental or democratic functioning, we asked about the panchayats and were informed to our utter shock, that the sarpanches who had got elected in the December 2018 panchayat elections9 were unable to return to their villages, fearing for their lives, and were housed in different hotels in Srinagar. Attempts by the team at securing access to these “sarpanches-in-custody” were unsuccessful.
Details of clerics and mosque committees were gathered by the Army before August. After abrogation, all clerics were instructed not to discuss Article 370. One cleric who said, “the same Constitution which had 370 has given me the right to protest”, was arrested and sent to Agra jail. Another was arrested for attempting to answer a question by a young boy on what Article 370 was. Incidentally, we noticed a book in Urdu entitled, ‘A Post-mortem of Article 370’, with a cover illustration showing Narendra Modi breaking into Kashmir’s wall with a pick axe, which was discreetly tucked away in pavement stalls, ‘enjoyed’ brisk sales. The abrogation of Article 370 was very carefully planned and orchestrated and the people of Kashmir understood immediately that it was different this time – stone pelting, kanijang, will not get Article 370 back. According to a shopkeeper, violence had become a part of their daily lives. He said, “Anxiety is always in our midst; we do not know what the next hour will bring.”
An overall observation was that of a deep ‘soul wound’ inflicted on the people of Kashmir that pervades the entire atmosphere and conversations. Kashmir has seen much violence at different moments but the intentionality and Machiavellian design of the structural violence put in place since August 5, 2019, is like no other. It is widely experienced as a violent intent to break the community and families — emotionally, socially and economically and decimate futures.10
During the clampdown many people lost their jobs and incomes. We met individuals (hotel staff, safai karamcharis and others) who have had to take loans, sell land to make ends meet or address medical emergencies. Casual conversations with hotel workers revealed that there has been no work for six months; practically all skilled/professional work, especially in the middle income group, whether as stringers for newspapers or as hotel workers, have had to supplement their income with wage labour. All routes to engaging in decent work for fair wages have been blocked, pushing the vast majority to the brink of precarity. The clampdown was perceived as being strategic and intented to destroy livelihoods so that people are left with little choice but try and go back to ‘normal’ life. A friend told us about her cousin’s online business which has been affected very badly. She designed pherans and other outfits and sold them online. She had never had an outlet and the internet was crucial to her work. For the last five months, unsurprisingly, she could not receive a single order or delivery. The lack of the internet has taken a huge toll on crafts and local businesses of all kinds.
Of course, the “normalisation narrative” that is touted and meticulously showcased to “select” visitors, could be picked up here and there. As we were told and also independently perceived, there is a carefully choreographed narrative being built up and propagated by a cadre of ‘collaborators’ – essentially mercenaries who have been handpicked to provide a loyal political alternative or push the controlled ‘development mantra’ of the ruling regime. Some others were driven by basic economic needs – the taxi driver at the airport was happy that a traffic flow had restarted and his earnings were picking up. A shikara owner and petty vendors on shikaras spoke of livelihoods snapped with the clampdown, and that the situation was slowly turning around. An autorickshaw driver volunteered a day-long tour of Srinagar, taking great pleasure in showing us around the old city, the Jamia Masjid and the KhanQahi Shah-i-Hamdan in Srinagar, telling us while he drove us about how he insisted on plying his autorickshaw every day after August 5 at enormous personal risk — he said he refused to be confined to his home even under the most adverse circumstances. But even as people spoke in this way, they invariably called out the government’s bluff that it was necessary to abrogate Article 370 and 35A, so that ‘development’ could come to the valley.
It was these many narratives of courage and resilience of ordinary people in a context that continues to be far from “normal” that were exceptionally inspiring.
ARRESTS AND DETENTIONS
The estimates of the numbers detained in the valley across different districts varied between 12,000 and 15,000 – these were persons under detention without records as well as those placed under illegal arrest. A few were picked up locally, assaulted and released. But of those who continued to remain in custody there was no count. There were reports of a labourer from Kalampora near Pulwama being assaulted by the Army. An adolescent who saw this tried to intervene to save the labourer. He was assaulted and his house searched. Children and youth were particularly adversely affected, as they are not allowed to step out of their homes for fear of being picked up. Even so, we came across two cases where young men were picked up from their homes: one of them was detained because he was in a photograph of a funeral procession in the village, and sent to Agra jail; the other was visiting home during a college break and has been transferred to Ambedkar Nagar jail in Uttar Pradesh. The families were distraught as there were no routes open for them to secure the release of their boys. One of these young men was a student; his father obtained orders from the J & K High Court to bring him to Srinagar for his practical examinations (in December 2019) and final examinations (on January 31 for exams scheduled in the second week of February). Neither of the orders have been complied with, a refusal that is plainly contumacious.
In a four-hour discussion with leading lawyers of the J&K Bar Association in the High Court in Srinagar, we were told that there is no one to listen. There were no democratic values that are a part of the system. There was disappointment that the Indian public was not able to express solidarity with the people of Kashmir and the media in India is so fearful that it has lost its independence, they have become godi media (lapdog media). Leading senior advocate ZA Shah has challenged Article 370 in the Supreme Court and was eloquent in this analysis of what ails the system. When the institutions are destroyed, where is the space to speak, he asked? “There is no accountability, and even a petty official has the powers of a Nazi.” The anti-CAA protests has given slender hope. Speaking on the subject of detentions, Advocate GN Shaheen, former General Secretary of J&K High Court Bar Association, observed that 15,000 people have been “picked up” using different forms of arrests and detentions. Only the plight of those who had approached lawyers and courts were known.
There were 450 habeas corpus petitions filed after August 5, 2019 — 447 of these were pending before the court, only three were heard, one of them of a terminally ill cancer patient. Mr. Qayyum, President of the Bar Association was detained on the intervening night of August 4-5. A petition was filed on August 7. He is very unwell, and is currently detained in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. In hearing the cases, judges make no reference to rules or precedent. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that habeas corpus must be heard within 15 days but now they simply say, “forget about rules”, “forget about Supreme Court ruling”. The judiciary in Kashmir is also overtaken. When by a stroke of luck a favourable order was obtained from the court, the government did not honour it. There was just one designated court in Srinagar for Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for 12 districts. The court has completely disregarded bail petitions. It has been reduced to a remand court and bail or any other relief was not given in this court. It has become an instrument of oppression. The powers vested in subordinate courts earlier has been completely eroded. In an unprecedented move, detainees under preventive detention have been placed in solitary confinement. Although it was an established practice to keep those preventively detained in detention facilities close to their homes, the punitive measures were aggravated through transfers to distant jails. This must be seen as related to quantum of punishment and enter the account of disproportionate punishment in violation of procedure established by law. Government says that 500 people have been sent to jails outside J&K – to UP and other places. Preventive detention, which in itself is the continuation of a colonial practice, even when it allows bypassing of procedural safeguards, follows a practice of periodic reviews. The transfer of detainees to far off areas makes the possibility of such reviews very remote.
We would like especially to present the case of Senior Advocate Nazir Ahmed Ronga, who was arrested in August 2019 and released unconditionally from custody on January 17, 2020. Members of our team met him in the J&K High Court on February 3.
The Case of Mr. Nazir Ahmed Ronga, Former President of JK Bar Association:
Mr. Ronga, over 70 years old, was arrested from his home in Srinagar on August 9, was put through a medical check-up in the Police Control Room and detained in Central Jail, Srinagar from August 9 to September 3. Before September 3 an inmate informed him that he was detained under the draconian Public Safety Act. Soon after, a police officer directed the jail superintendent to produce Mr. Ronga before him. He was served the grounds of arrest and shifted to District Jail, Ambedkar Nagar, UP. From the first day of arrest, his family was not informed for 20 days. He is clear that the grounds were totally fabricated and false. He has a standing of 40 years in the Bar and served for nine years as the Bar Association President. Now, he says, the institution is under challenge. People are losing faith. He was taken in an army plane (Dakota) along with 29 other detainees. They were divided into three groups and escorted by ten policemen and two riflemen to Lucknow. From there they were put through a 6 hour road trip to Ambedkar Nagar where 29 of them were placed in one barrack and Mr. Ronga was placed in solitary confinement. Initially he was let out of his cell for half hour once in 24 hours. He went on a hunger strike. The period outside the cell was then increased to one hour. He along with other detainees went on hunger strike again protesting that they were not convicts but political prisoners and must be treated as such. After 51 days the conditions were relaxed, and again further relaxed after three months. He was allowed out of his cell from 8 am to 5 pm in December and finally released on January 17. Of the people who were detained with him were two from JKLF (one of whom has been in prison for 13 years); three were accused of gun-snatching; the rest were alleged to be stone-pelters or affiliated to political parties. There were two other persons aged over 60 years: one from Sajjad Lone’s party and another from PDP. One of the grounds for Mr. Ronga’s arrest was that he had brought thousands of people out to cast their vote – “You have the potential of organising people against Government of India”, he was told. Also that he was an advisor to Omar Farooq who had asked him to enter politics – both entirely without basis. Mr. Ronga’s son, who is a lawyer, moved the international community and his detention was unconditionally revoked. He was emphatic about his belief in the rule of law and asserted he has always strived “to ensure the majesty of justice”.
“If you want to influence the judiciary, you are not contributing to justice. I have also been working on what measures we should take to ensure the independence of the judiciary. It is our duty. No matter which party is in power. Modi has abrogated Article 370. I want to ask him: Have you settled Kashmir?”
Mr. Ronga was very concerned that we grew up with talk of “unity in diversity” and now we have moved to “tukde-tukde gang”. In his view the discourse of unity in diversity should never leave India and the rule of law must prevail under all circumstances. He also felt strongly that conflict between India and Pakistan must be settled for all time:
“Give peace a chance. Prosperity and peace must go together. There must be permanent peace on the subcontinent and India has a big role to play. Kashmir is here. It will not go anywhere. Hanuman cannot lift Kashmir and take it somewhere else. Kashmiris will continue to take shawls to Bengal, Chennai and the rest of India. As human beings we must come together leaving our religions aside, confine it to our private lives. We have not thrown out Kashmiri Pandits. The situation was such that we could not even help ourselves. At that time the Governor played a dirty role. We have never said only Muslims should live in Kashmir. Kashmiri Pandits should come and live here. You cannot move sentiments of people on the basis of religion for long.”
Public Safety Act (PSA)
The Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act was amended in July 2018 to do away with a legal provision that prohibited it from lodging state residents detained under PSA in jails outside the state, to make way for sending them to prisons far away from their families. It is under these amended rules that the post-August 5 PSA detainees have been jailed outside J&K. Although the Amendment 2018 was tabled on the grounds of “up-gradation of infrastructure, particularly for improving the living conditions of the jail inmates”, in reality moving the detainees to far flung areas is to add to the punishment. The families we met were struggling to come to terms with the arrests and find means to visit their kin in far-off regions. They had to sell their land and other possessions to make the journeys to see their kin. They told us that the detainees have no clothes and no money and sometimes they send request for these but the parents have no means of going for frequent visits. Two testimonies (names changed) reflect the very grave situation.
Bilal Ahmad a resident of district Kupwara, and B. Sc final year student of Amar Singh College, Srinagar, was picked up from him maternal uncle’s home on August 5. He was in the village for Eid holidays. His father followed him to the police station and asked the officer the reason of his son’s arrest. The Police officer told the father that he will be released in 5/6 days. Several other boys who were arrested on the same day were released after a few days when they allegedly agreed to pay heavy bribes to the police. Bilal’s father refused to bribe because he was convinced that his son was not involved in any wrongdoing. He waited for him to be released. But soon the family learnt that the boy has been booked under PSA and sent to Central jail in Srinagar. For several days they didn’t know where he was. After two weeks in Central jail, he was sent to Ambedkar Nagar, in UP, some 1,600 kilometers away from Srinagar.
His father tried to follow the case and learnt that the police had named him in a 2016 stone pelting case in which an FIR, with a few names stating ‘unnamed crowd of thousands’. Bilal, then a minor, was named, detained but was released on bail. He had been out on bail, studying in Srinagar and staying away from any political activity. His arrest under PSA shocked his father, “Mujhe police se nafrat ho gayi hai”, they are not willing to listen to common people, they just do things which earn them one star or two stars, promotions and rewards for catching more people. My son is innocent.”
In Ambedkar Nagar custody, Bilal got jaundice and although he received treatment, his father made the 1,600 km arduous journey to Ambedkar Nagar to meet him. The family had to sell their cow to put together Rs. 25,000 spent on going there. “In Ambedkar Nagar, no hotel will provide accommodation to a person from Kashmir, “not even in hotels run by Muslims,” the father lamented. When he met his son in jail he learnt that he was badly beaten and tortured in police custody and kept in a small cell of six by six with one more detainee. His son gave him phone numbers from 25 other boys who were lodged in the same jail and have not been able to call or meet their families.
The father filed a petition in the J&K High Court praying that his son be allowed to take his practical exam which was due in January 2020. The High Court passed an order that the boy be brought back for his exam. The Order was received on December 31, 2019 but the Court order was not honoured. He filed a second petition to allow him to write his final exam due in February 2020 and the Court again passed an order for his appearance in exam. But once again it was not followed. The father is now left with no option but to file a contempt of court petition and seek redress but he has no money.
It seems the state is using the policy of punishing people through incarcerating them and then torturing them through long drawn out legal cases. As a Bar Association senior member said, ‘Keeping them busy in cases is a tool they are using, knowing full well that these cases will outlive this regime.”
Naved Parray, 21, a casual worker, was picked up on August 12 from his home in a village, in Baramulla district. The family first thought it was a routine rounding up of young men before August 15. They expected his release in a couple of days after August 15. But when he wasn’t released, his brother and mother got very worried and went to look for him in the police station. They were both insulted and given a beating when they pleaded for the release of Naved. The mother was hit on her back. A few days later, Naved was transferred to Central jail in Srinagar and before the family knew, he was transferred to Agra jail in Uttar Pradesh and PSA slapped on him.
His family had to sell 10 marlas of their 1.5 kanal land holding for 47 thousand to pay for their trip to Agra to meet him which costed them 35 thousand. Naved was the only earning member of his family. His old parents have no source of income and they are somehow now living by borrowing and waiting for his release. They have no means to approach the court so Naved Parray languishes in Agra jail, a thousand kilometers away from home, unrepresented.
SURVEILLANCE AND CENSORSHIP
Journalists across the board who met and spoke with us talked about how the surveillance and control over publication of news had impacted their right to professional practice and livelihood directly guaranteed by the Indian Constitution as a Fundamental Right under Article 19(g): (g) “to practise any profession, or to carry on any “occupation”, trade or business.” A journalist spoke about how he was beaten by the police for trying to cover the violence after the Friday prayers and protest in Soura on August 21, 2019. We also heard reports of other journalists having been assaulted by the police and security forces. A small group of journalists we met in the Press Club on February 1 spoke of how after the announcement was made on August 5, 2019, journalists from all over the valley just gathered at the Kashmir Press Club at a complete loss about what they should do. At the very least, they felt they should have been reporting a decision like this and its effects from Kashmir, but they were the ones who were and continue to be shut out of the news reporting.
A group of five or six of them tried thinking about this and walked along the Jhelum Bund till they were accosted by Army personnel who questioned them on why they had gathered. Not wishing to precipitate matters, they dispersed without argument. They recognised that if anything had happened to them there, nobody would have known. On the way back they found people around the houseboats and sat around in a circle discussing what the abrogation of Article 370 might mean. All of a sudden a police officer appeared and said he had been searching for them, as an official press conference had been convened and they were required to be present. When they followed him to the venue of the press conference, there was nothing happening so they returned. Journalists also spoke of the circulation of lists of journalists who were engaging in investigative and critical reporting.
The physical intimidation of journalists had been continuing uninterrupted as does the censoring of news. All the journalists we met laughed at what had come to pass as “news” in Kashmir since August 5, 2019 – commercial advertisements and notices and lifestyle reporting (diabetes and sundry issues). From August 10, four computers were made available for journalists at the UN Centre and hundreds of journalists queued up each day to file their stories, mostly unsuccessfully. A few weeks later, the Media Facilitation Centre was opened by the Government near Polo in Srinagar, in the vicinity of the Kashmir Press Club with about 10 computers, as the only channel for the filing of news stories, but one that was censored by the government. Self-censorship or silence were the only two options before journalists. Journalists who reported on internet shutdowns were summoned by the army and interrogated. They said they had to think a hundred times before filing a story, because they are completely on their own. We were told that on 30 November, two journalists were summoned to Cargo where they were grilled by police officials for their stories.11 They were asked to reveal their sources and about how did they manage to get the documents. In late December, two journalists were stopped by police at Handwara while they were on an assignment, taken to the office of Superintendent of Police where they were questioned about a story they had filed and told that they were trying to precipitate the problem.12
There was a widespread feeling that nobody would rally around them. To date, there is no clear plan for the full restoration of the internet in Kashmir. Another aspect of this media crackdown is that the press releases issued by the Bar Association, especially in the matter of habeas corpus petitions, but also on other matters of life and liberty before the court, go to the Media Facilitation Centre and only those news items that are favourable to the government are published.13 Nobody in Kashmir has any independent access to news media.
Implications of the Communications Shutdown
For over two months, there were no functional phones, no internet and no communication lines open in the valley. That fact that internet shutdowns are unconstitutional has been affirmed by the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India.14 We tracked the various levels at which the shutdown of communications operated in Kashmir.
A woman in a village that we visited stated emphatically, “We feel that our Kashmir has been pushed behind by fifty years. We don’t have any communication with any district, or with other parts of the country; we feel like we have become ‘untouchable.’” She and other were disturbed by the alienation created and described the difficulties that they experienced as a result of the internet being blocked, communication systems being shut down. In the words of another woman who spoke to us,”We could not talk to anyone, we were silenced. Cutting us off from any kind of communication, the Indian government ensured our isolation. Kashmir has been turned into a prison.”
College students had not been able to fill the online forms for competitive exams nor for scholarship grants. Internet access to university libraries was disrupted, increasing the stress levels of students. They also complained that with personal access to internet services having been cut, they had to queue for long hours outside the district headquarters, the only government offices where public access to internet services was being provided. The far-reaching impact of the internet shutdown was evident in testimonies around health-care access post August 2019.
There were reports of the complete collapse of start-ups, resulting in financial losses for young entrepreneurs who bore the worst brunt. There are also reports of the increase in Non-Performing Assets in J&K Bank since August 2019. Owners of vehicles hypothecated to banks have not been able to pay their loans owing to the complete shutdown for over three months. The heavy snowfall in November and December 2019 aggravated the economic crisis further with roads being closed. The thriving fruit industry suffered 50 percent losses, and even fruit that has been sent out to places like Delhi were paid for in instalments as there was an overall economic slowdown.
On January 14, 2020 the J&K administration announced that 2G mobile connectivity in five districts in Jammu region will be restored.15 The fact that this was restricted to the five Hindu majority districts was not lost on the people we met in Kashmir.
SCHOOLING AND EDUCATION
Schooling had come to a complete halt. In 2016, we were told, when schools shut down, communities and neighbourhoods mobilised themselves to provide a space and schooling for clusters of children. This time, after August 5, 2019, people are too scared to set up non-formal/neighbourhood schools to compensate for the loss of school hours and to provide even a fragile normalcy to children caught in the vortex of an occupying power.
Children were the worst affected in any conflict situation, and in Kashmir, the children have been adversely affected. With schools and colleges shutting down, children have lost months of study, and may even loose a year, if they fail in their examinations. However, there is no one who will take responsibility for the loss of their entire year of education. It is a gross violation of their rights.
Students talked about schools and colleges having been shut for the past six months and despite the difficult circumstances board exams were held. “We don’t feel good (accha nahi lag raha hai). Our colleges are closed. Exams are taking place but no classes are happening. However, notice has come out that exams are going to happen and the dates will be given.” According to them this was similar to what had happened for the 9th and 10th classes. There were no classes but exams were held. The students had to study at home on their own and give the exams.
“We studied at home, just did rote learning for the exams. We feel angered and we feel like crying. We are young and we have many aspirations. But there is no way our aspirations are going to be fulfilled”.
An MBA student told us that the university and hostels were closed. There was no internet, all of which had affected their studies. According a father,
“Especially in the last six months children’s education has been severely disrupted, it’s almost over. If they could go to schools or colleges, they would have kept busy. All that has stopped. They don’t have anything to do now, they just sit at home. After March, inshallah, they will go to the schools as they will reopen.”
According him the turmoil which the valley had witnessed in the past three decades played a grim role. Firstly, schools and colleges were shut frequently, owing to which students, young people were not able to complete their education on time and this made them feel insecure about their future. This insecurity led to depression, and frequent resort to substance use. A lawyer who was living in Delhi for the past few months said that he keeps worrying about his people back home.When he opens the newspaper in the morning, he just hopes that these young children who are studying in Kashmir are not being targeted and arrested.
There is extreme anger at the fact that questions and answers for examinations were sent around through WhatsApp.16 The rise of the WhatsApp Education System under the watch of the current government has specifically disastrous consequences for Kashmir. There have been no schools, colleges, universities functioning for six months. Students in higher education have been obstructed from applying for advanced degree programmes by the internet shutdown. Official figures say 70,000 students appeared for exams. People we met asked, “Who are these students? How and where did they appear without attending any classes?” The people we spoke to were extremely angry at the blockade in education as this has an immediate bearing on the future of the younger generation.
A group of high school girls in a village in north Kashmir while relating the challenges of attending classes told us simply but pointedly, “We also have dreams”. Often communities rally around to ensure that education is not disrupted. In 2016, for instance, when schools closed down, communities enabled and mobilised space and schooling for groups of children. But this resilience of communities seems to have been deliberately targeted this time. Schools, colleges and universities have not functioned for the past six months but any kind of mobilisation around providing alternative access has been brutally dealt with. This has resulted in people refraining from trying to provide enabling educational spaces and create normalcy for the children.
Having aggressively promoted the WhatsApp Education System, the government was and is fully cognisant of the disastrous and far reaching consequences of an internet shutdown for the Kashmiri students. Students in higher education were unable to apply for advanced degree courses or register for capacity enhancement programmes. People asked how they were expected to appear for exams without attending classes. People formally connected to the education system pointed out that this modus operandi of the current government was extremely disturbing for it has targetted and crippled the future generation of Kashmiris in an extremely insidious manner. As the picture became clearer during our days in Kashmir, the probability of this being the ‘intent’ of the ruling regime became very high.
The Central University, and Kashmir University had not held any classes but the students were asked to write exams and they were also promoted. Messages were passed on that notes were available at a particular photocopy shop, students bought those notes and wrote their exams. “Is this education?!” lamented a parent. “Then they say everything is normal as the exams have also taken place. Young peoples’ lives have been put on the line. There are over 1000 contract lecturers in the college and university system. Over 2100 posts have remained vacant. There were no arrangements for appointments made in 2019, and 2100 lecturers were thrown out. Their case is pending before the J&K High Court. “Ek talim hi thi hamare bacchon ke paas aage badne kiliye; woh bhi inhone chheen li.” (Our children only had education to push themselves ahead in life; even that has been snatched away). This lament must be understood in the context where Kashmiri students studying in other parts of India have been subjected to violence and abuse, the curtailment of education and aspiration following them outside Kashmir as well. This is an inherent part of the “new normal.”
MISOGYNY AND THE VIOLATION OF KASHMIRI WOMEN’S RIGHTS
During our interactions, a number of young women complained that they were regularly taunted by the male army personnel that they would now be able to marry the girls and young women from Kashmir. Army personnel in Shopian have reportedly told people in the villages that they had come to marry their daughters and wives. “We cannot sleep at night,” said a woman. A friend accompanying us said, “Why only the Army? Even the Indian men in general are elated that they can now marry the ‘beautiful’ young women from Kashmir.”
The government of India’s decision on abrogating Articles 370 and 35A was painted with the narrative of emancipation of Kashmiri women and their development in the state. This was immediately followed by offensive remarks from various BJP leaders celebrating the abrogation with the freedom to marry Kashmiri girls. “Earlier ‘bahus’ (daughters-in-law) used to come from Bihar, but now we will bring girls from Kashmir”17 was a comment made by the Haryana Chief Minister while speaking at an event to celebrate success of the Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao campaign. Adding impetus to ‘fair Kashmiri girl’, a BJP MLA from UP proclaimed, “… Get married there to a fair Kashmiri girl. There should be celebrations. Everyone should celebrate, be it Hindus or Muslims. This is something the entire country should be celebrating.”18
These comments, naive and lighthearted as they may seem, reflect a far deeper malice. A surreptitious narrative for the support and celebration of the abrogation was being created with a tacit enticement of inculcating a desire to marry ‘beautiful’ Kashmiri women. Not only does this idea brazenly objectify women from Kashmir, it also instrumentalises their challenging lives in an immensely militarised region, while portraying them as victims to be rescued by the masculine brigade of non-Kashmiri men, with claims that it was for their (women’s) development.
The open call by men who are part of the ruling dispensation to Indian men to celebrate their prospects of marrying Kashmiri girls derives its legitimacy from a regressive patriarchal premise that believes in dissolving the agency of women and girls and their rights to consent within the institution of marriage, and the legitimacy of “occupation”. The girl, in this scenario, is seen as emblematic of the land that has been subjugated. It is necessary to place Kashmiri women in the centre to understand the gross violations therein. In a state of affairs where the human rights of the people of Kashmir have remained suspended with draconian laws such as Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), historic militarisation or the post-abrogation lockdown of the region, it is in this situation that the lives of Kashmiri women are located.
The inability of Kashmiri women to assert their opinion or to respond to these claims because of the lockdown and communication blockade must not be construed as a sign of their docility or acquiescence.19 In fact many young women had condemned such demeaning statements that undermined their agency, in conversations with fact finding teams. Their voices of resistance need to be amplified and it is the experiences of the women post-August 2019 that will bear testimony to whether or not abrogation has furthered their development. The impact on women in contexts of militarisation is extreme in the public and private spheres with both exacerbating their oppression, including control of mobility and violence against women. Women told us that aggression within families has increased and they were paying a heavy price. Men could go out and were able to vent their feelings, but women were confined to their homes in many places. After the evening prayers – Magrib ki namaz – owing to the pervasive climate of fear and insecurity, members of the family are forced to stay inside. A number of people mentioned that family members sit in different corners of the house and there was an increase in acrimonious exchanges within families and domestic violence against women and children.
RIGHT TO HEALTH AS RIGHT TO LIFE WITH DIGNITY
In situations of conflict and fragile contexts, health – both physical and psychological – is invariably affected. The decades long military occupation and violence in Kashmir has indisputably severely impacted the physical and mental health of the people of Kashmir. This impact on their health saw further deterioration in the period following August 5, 2019. Every one of those who spoke to us – whether health care workers or ordinary people, young or old – shared about the stress, distress, sadness, despair, hopelessness they experience and talked about their mental health having been affected. Some of them also described the situations of ill health and the hardships that several people experienced in accessing health services, which had extremely serious consequences for some. “In the last few years, hypertension and diabetes have been increasing. Hypertension has become like an epidemic. I can see how much paediatric hypertension has increased during the turmoil. Diabetes is also on the rise as there is no physical activity during the prolonged curfew. The young people are going through major depression. The already existing illnesses and health problems have definitely aggravated in the last six months,” shared a medical officer in a primary health centre (PHC). According to a news report, over the past two to three decades infertility has gone up in Kashmir from 12 percent to 18 percent and this can be attributed to stress and anxiety as well.”20
Interviews with the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMs), the frontline workers of the health system, medical officers, lab technicians, health officials as well as with a few patients reflected the ground reality of the health situation since August 5, 2019.
A health official stated that Kashmir had very good health indicators and was one of the better performing States in the country. The infant mortality rate (IMR) and life expectancy were very close to the national average. In J&K like in other states, some variations in terms of infrastructure, human resources, disease patterns and indicators existed between districts. Despite the overall health indicators, expansion and strengthening of the public healthcare system to ensure quality and availability of health care appropriate to primary, secondary and tertiary levels, was an immediate need. Provision of an entire range of essential drugs and diagnostics in public health facilities along with human resources and better governance and management were critical. Corruption continued to plague the procurement of goods and services whereas a robust and transparent system was the need of the hour.
He opined that these gaps in the health context had persisted over years; however, with every turmoil and clampdown, the situation only worsened. Post-August 5, particularly with the unprecedented abrogation, the clampdown on communications and the lack of transport, the implications for health were very adverse. According to a medical officer,
“We had almost zero cases [patients] in the second week of August. In September we had 20 percent patient load, in October 50 percent and now (end January) it is almost 100 percent. Since the transportation has improved, people are accessing health services. In August, it was very different. We did not have patients for a few days. Soon after, we began receiving emergency cases such as with heart problems, delivery cases, etc. It was not easy for patients to reach as there was no transport but somehow they managed to come to the facility despite all the difficulties with transport and communications. Some of them walk all the way. What could they have done – they had no option (kya karein –majboori). Some of them also managed to get curfew passes to travel and reached the health centre.”
Lack of or Limited Access to Health Services
One of the deepest impacts post August 5, 2019, on the people of Kashmir have been the challenges that they faced in accessing health services, especially due to restrictions in movements, curfews, absence of transport and communications, as well as the fear of harm. A medical officer recalled that she used to leave home early, at 5 am, to reach the hospital. It was quite tense and they didn’t know if it was safe and whether they would return by evening. They travelled in ambulances, which was perceived as safe and tried to reach out to the patients in the villages gradually. The frontline workers continued to reach out to the communities even during the turmoil. The immunisation coverage was not discontinued. Everyone from the cleaning staff to the ASHAs, ANMs, medical officers worked very hard. She lamented, “Unfortunately, nobody appreciates our contribution and we do not get any award. If the Army does something they are rewarded but even when we save lives every day, we receive no acknowledgment or recognition. No one thinks about our mental health and the stress we go through.“
The ASHAs shared with us how they have to go out any time of the day or at night; the lack of transport facilities and communication were huge barriers to providing health care to the community. The curfews and the heavy presence of the army, according to them,, had restricted their mobility and therefore their work.
“After 5 August, at least for four months we did not have village health and nutrition day (VHND) meetings, and village health sanitation nutrition committee (VHSNC) meetings could not happen for six months. Our mobility had been curtailed. In other states we could have returned home late, even at 10 pm, but not in Kashmir, where we have to get back by 6 pm [due to curfews, transport issues, etc].”
The narratives of the ASHAs reflected their tenacity, standing firm and working round the clock in these extremely adverse conditions, this despite their work not being adequately recognised nor remunerated, One of the ASHAs we met said,” Whether during stone pelting or nakabandi [barricading/blockade], we continue to do immunisation, we take expecting mothers to the hospital for delivery, or other patients to the hospital for treatment. We could not take the national highway. We took patients through village or forest tracts, on hand carts, horse carts – whatever we could find in the village – to the hospital. No maternal deaths occurred because of us. There may have been deaths in hospitals because doctors were not there. But not because of us. We will never let that happen.”
One of the ASHAs who was from near the LoC (Line of Control) revealed that there was always a threat of shelling and fatal injuries in her area, which has been in a situation conflict for a long time. In the last one year, many houses were damaged and affected families had to flee to other villages. Schools, health centres, remained shut for weeks together. In this context, she talked about how she and other ASHAs provided support and facilitated access to health care since August against all odds.
“We have to go to Baramulla or Srinagar if anyone gets injured with shelling and with no communication and transport, this is extremely difficult. We risk our lives all the time and save the patients. When we have to take patients to the hospital in the middle of the night, we are terrified. We have no idea what will happen to the patient or to us. So many deliveries have happened on the road, out of fear. Because of the firing or other problems, ambulances cannot reach the villages. We have to carry the patients on our shoulders, or on charpoys. And we are petrified of shells landing on us or on the charpoys. Our children become anxious when we have to go out during shelling. My young son asked me, ‘Why are you going? Who knows where a shell will land from! If anything happens to you, what will happen to us?’ We are constantly living in fear. Only we know how we are surviving, carrying out our work and saving the lives of our patients. You can understand only when you experience it.”
Another ASHA we spoke to similarly described the challenges they faced – in facilitating health care.. She talked about the roadblocks and checking everywhere which usually took very long, forcing them and their patients to wait for hours in the queue. There were no exceptions and even with patients in a serious condition they have to wait for many hours. They were stopped several times on the way to the hospital and there was a constant concern amongst the ASHAs about the patients’ condition deteriorating, or the possible loss of life. “If anything happens to the patients we ASHAs will be blamed. So there is always a sense of fear in our minds. We are living with this constant stress.”
During medical emergencies since the abrogation of Article 370, there was no way of seeking services on the phone. Further, doctors were stopped at the army blockades delaying them from reaching health facilities. Many hospital employees living outside the premises could not reach the hospitals because of these blockades. Hospitals had to use ambulances to ferry hospital staff to and from their homes because, in some of the areas, private vehicles were not allowed. Routes were pre-set causing delays in reaching the health facilities.21 There were many instances of the army personnel not permitting ambulances or other vehicles with patients to pass. Not only did the road blockades prevent health care workers from performing their duties but patients trying to reach the health facilities in “private vehicles”, even in emergency situations, were stopped repeatedly at multiple barricades for checking their identities and having to answer questions about the purpose of their travel.
A young man from a village in North Kashmir recounted his experience, shortly after August 5.
“My ammi was very unwell. She was in critical condition and needed immediate medical help. Since there was no phone connection, I could not call the ambulance to take her to the hospital in Srinagar. I could not even reach any doctor. The only way was to somehow take her to Srinagar. With great difficulty I managed to get an autorickshaw and get her in it. I crossed my village and reached the highway. On the way we were stopped by the Army at every check post. After going some distance, we were stopped because of an Army convoy. When a convoy passes by, all the vehicles on the road have to wait and are allowed to move only after the entire convoy passes. As there are a large number of trucks in a convoy, it sometimes takes one to two hours. My mother was so serious, I went to the officer and begged him to allow our auto to pass. I pleaded with them so many times. I even removed the bed sheet covering my mother so that he could see her condition. He abused me for stepping out. But he did not allow us to go and casually said, ‘Let the old woman die (marne do usko)’. It was not only unfair, but so humiliating! I was angry but completely helpless. I could not do anything as I was at their mercy. They could do anything to me”.
Similar incidents were reported in the media – of a pregnant woman in her last stage of pregnancy being forced to walk about six kilometres to reach Lal Ded Women’s Hospital in August,22 we spoke to a nurse who was in the ward attending to the women in the Lal Ded hospital.
“In August, September and October, there were many instances of women who could not come in time for deliveries. There are very few ambulances. The few that were running, were stopped on the way. It was very stressful. Not many women were admitted for deliveries. Even doctors were frustrated as they could not reach the hospitals. The mobile medical vans were not being operated. Mobile phones and internet were blocked. So there was no way any pregnant woman could reach the hospitals or call for help. Patients who were admitted in the hospitals were trapped and unable to return home as there was a complete lockdown.”
A woman we met at a hospital in Srinagar who was taking care of her younger sister explained that the situation between August and October 2019 was very tense. Her sister was expecting her third child but could not come for her check-ups regularly. “We were worried that she might deliver the baby prematurely due to the stress, or have a miscarriage. Even though we live in Srinagar, we could not go to any hospital – even for our own health problems – as there was heavy army deployment and no transport available. Can you imagine what could be the plight of patients who were in far-flung areas?”
The lack of access to timely health care only accentuated the critical condition of many patients. A senior resident doctor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Lal Ded told us that cases of stillbirths, foetal distress and severe post-partum anaemia rose significantly during the four months of lockdown because patients could not come for regular checkups.
The narratives we heard were of the daily humiliation of the entire people, reducing them to non-entities, holding absolute power over them, disrupting every aspect of their daily lives, especially the provision and access to health care.
The Impact of Internet Shutdown on Implementation of Ayushman Bharat (AB-PMJAY) and Other Health Programmes in Kashmir
According to media reports, it was announced by the J&K administration on December 31, 2019, that short messaging service (SMS) for post-paid connections and broadband services in all government-run hospitals, health facilities and health department offices in the Kashmir valley would be restored.23 However, our discussions with health care providers indicated that there was no functional internet .
A senior doctor explained that limited internet facilities were finally restored for hospitals, particularly for the Ayushman Bharat-Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana scheme. (AB PMJAY),24 but it did not help matters as the 2G network was extremely slow. “Patients faced a lot of difficulty. Even patients with gold cards had to pay for their treatment as the AB scheme is completely online and dependent on internet services. I am not sure if they can reimburse the amounts to the families.”
During May 2019, in a letter addressed to the Chief Secretary of J&K, the Government of India lauded the efforts of the State administration in ensuring benefits of AB-PMJAY to the targeted beneficiaries. There were 6,13,697 families eligible for AB-PMJAY with 123 public, 29 private hospitals, 3 medical colleges and 3 NABH fully accredited hospitals empanelled having 1393 health benefits packages.25 According to the AB website, till May 2019, 1.1 million e-cards had been generated and 13,000 claims worth Rs. 8.7 crores submitted.26 Patient data under PMJAY pre- and post-August 5 accessed by Medibulletin “shows a sharp decline in hospital admissions in the state after August 5 – in fact, in the immediate aftermath, hospitalisations were down to one-tenth of the numbers before the abrogation”. While in the last week of June 2019 there were 2,050 hospital admissions, in the three weeks following 5 August, the total admissions stood at 179, 163 and 250 respectively.27 The hospitalisation rate per lakh population dipped from 57 before August 5 to just six in the three weeks after that. The valley hos pitals, which had been among the best performing institutes under the programme, saw zero admissions for days in August.28
When people registered under PMJAY seek treatment at an empaneled health facility, they get an individual gold card if they produce any two of the three identity proofs such as Aadhaar card, ration card or RSBY (Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana) card. This process also requires authentication for comparison with the online reference identity database. All of this is internet based. Each time, re-treatment is sought, they have to produce their gold card, which, if authenticated, allows them to seek cashless treatment. The hospitals had to verify card-holder details from the their website and securing the necessary “pre-authorisation”, after which the hospital is paid depending on the disease package chosen. This is required to be done within seven days. Such processes being completely online, the programme suffered in the aftermath of the internet shutdown. Since hospitals could not process the claims and receive payments, they denied free treatment and provided services only on payment.
It was a huge burden on patients since payments out of pocket were extremely challenging, especially given that work and earnings had been drastically affected due to the lockdown. Without the internet services, it would have been virtually impossible for a number of people to access this scheme. As a consequence, several patients could not access much needed health care, leading to worsening of their health conditions.
A journalist talked about a woman who was suffering from kidney failure and was on dialysis. She had been availing free dialysis treatment from a private hospital in Srinagar until the lockdown began. Her son was not in a position to pay for the treatment as he did not have a stable source of income and was already burdened with loans. Also, dialysis had to be done repeatedly and her son had no means to afford such treatment unless it was provided free and, in this instance, without having to pay out of pocket. A resident of a village near Srinagar revealed the problems faced with regard to PMJAY, “To check whether we are eligible to be a beneficiary of PMJAY, we have to visit the (web)site and enter our mobile number; there is a long process after that too. We did not have internet or mobile connectivity; internet started functioning only recently.”
Similarly, the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme (RNTCP)29 uses an online portal called NIKSHAY for registering patients with tuberculosis in both public and private health facilities, recording all the clinical and laboratory data as well as interfacing with schemes such as Kshay Poshan Yojana that allows all patients to receive Rs. 500 every month through Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) in their Aadhar-linked bank accounts. However, without internet, the staff has been unable to enter data in the portals. According to a health care provider, all the information was being maintained manually in registers. While it is likely that the public health services would have been able to continue diagnosing new patients with tuberculosis and put them on treatment, it is almost certain that none of these patients would have been able to get their cash benefits to aid their nutritional intake. Besides, the periodic monitoring and evaluation of the programme at the district and state levels would have surely been compromised since online Nikshay entries could not be done. This poses serious risks to ensuring appropriate follow up, prevention and corrective measures to modify treatment based on reports of drug susceptibility testing, thereby jeopardising the health of the substantial number of persons suffering from tuberculosis in the state.
Since the health service delivery is completely dependent on internet a medical officer told us that they were now maintaining Out-Patient Department (OPD) and In-Patient Department (IPD) data manually in registers.
The lack of internet in a health system that is substantially dependent on it, aggravated stock outs of key life-saving medicines, as the process of tendering, stock management, indenting, supply of medicines was and will continue to be affected at every level. The likely gaps in the supply chain and management of medicines and devices are a matter of deep concern and need further enquiry. The lack of supply of medicines would not only affect the tertiary institutions where the patient volumes are larger, but particularly the frontline institutions due to their remote locations and proximity to the people were affected due to stock outs while transport restrictions denied them alternative access to medicines.
A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed before the Supreme Court by Dr. Sameer Kaul and Salim Jahangeer Kirmani to ensure restoration of landlines and internet service across hospitals and medical establishments in Kashmir. The petition highlighted the adverse effects on health and medical services and since it is established that Right to Health and Medical Care is a fundamental right enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution, the information and communication technology blackouts in the hospitals amount to serious infringement of a fundamental right. The petition also brought to notice that most purchases of surgical equipment, instruments and drugs are made from across the world. Therefore, the entire process involving ordering, payment and tracking is conducted online. Hence, irreparable loss was foreseen unless, internet service was not immediately restored in hospitals. The notice was issued by the Apex Court on 30 September 2019, and the following day, on October 1, 2019, the matter was withdrawn with a liberty to file it before the Jammu and Kashmir High Court to avail appropriate legal remedy. There is no further indication that the petition was filed before the High Court.30
Thus, by shutting down internet, land line and mobile phones in Kashmir for such a long duration, the State has caused grave violation of the right to health by disabling the functioning of health systems and programmes for the benefit of people, especially the poor who are unable to afford quality health care. Moreover, this has also had serious repercussions for their economic condition.
Serious risks to health posed by the breaks in continuum of treatment in the last six months
The increasing incidence of hypertension, diabetes, stroke, cancers, lung and heart diseases, infertility as well as mental health issues was perceived as a serious health concern by many of the health care workers who spoke to us. Pervasive psychosocial stress as a risk or causative factor as well as a consequence of the situation in the state was flagged by ordinary people and the health care providers. A larger number of people with hypertension, diabetes, cancer, mental health issues, etc. require immediate treatment as also regular check-ups, care and follow up.
The period after August 5, according to a medical professional at a government hospital, saw a drastic drop in cancer patients as many of them failed to appear for chemotherapy. This was also reported by India Spend, “The oncology department in the government hospital, which normally sees 200 patients a month, only got
50 patients in August 2019”.31 Treatment of cancer involves careful administration of multiple chemotherapeutic drugs and radiation in accordance with a protocol and regular follow-up for potential complications. Break of protocol poses serious risk of relapse or non-response to the chemotherapy. Similarly, many dialysis patients could not access follow-up treatment during August-September 2019, evident from a number of reports, with possibly severe consequences for their health.
In the same way, patients with tuberculosis, leprosy, bronchial asthma, HIV, rheumatoid arthritis, and epilepsy, among several others, also require immediate treatment and continued follow-up for best outcomes. Any gaps in early diagnosis, treatment, access to medicines can be disastrous for many of these patients.
Mental Distress and Ill-Health
The mental health consequences of the decades of military occupation, including in the past six months, were articulated by every person – health care workers, to journalists, lawyers as well as others — who spoke to us. Everyday lives of the people living in the valley was closely connected and deeply impacted by the “disappearances” of their family members, detentions, torture, pellet injuries, health problems, economic distress, breakdown of public services, including education and health.
A survey conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF),32 in 2015 showed that nearly 1.8 million adults in Kashmir indicate symptoms of significant mental distress due to unemployment, financial issues and due to traumatic events. The survey also found that 41 percent of the population showed signs of depression, 26 percent showed signs of anxiety and 19 percent showed probable symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),which is exacerbated due to associated stigma.
Kashmir has been through decades of turmoil that has resulted in an increase in mental distress/psychosocial issues. Moreover, feelings of fear and uncertainty was repeatedly expressed as having increased since August 2019, by almost every person we spoke to, regardless of their social and economic location. Militarisaton has had an extremely negative impact on psychosocial health in the valley, and is now a major public health concern, experienced variably by different people. According to a student studying MBA, “with the total shutdown of communications, schools and colleges, without any other social gathering for young people, it has had severe effects on mental health”.
Many of the Kashmiris we spoke to said that they were used to the civil strike –the shutdown of shops and businesses – but were anxious about the uncertainty of what lies next. They felt hurt and humiliated, and that their sense of identity was taken away. During a visit to the OPD of Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (IMHANS) situated at the SKIMS (Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences) government hospital in the first week of February 2020, we saw several young and old women and men under treatment for depression and anxiety. One young woman was under treatment for depression because she was unable to cope with a controlling and aggressive father. “Tension to hame jahez mein milta hai,” said one woman. Violence and aggression within families and communities had registered a drastic rise – interrelated with and exacerbated by the violence and oppression in the state. A survey assessing the mental health of a thousand children from 12 schools in Shopian district in 2018 found, “One out of every three children had a clinically diagnosable mental disorder, most commonly in the form of mood, anxiety or behavioural disorders.” This survey was conducted earlier and does not reflect the impact on the children’s mental health in the current context, which saw prolonged shut down of schools and colleges, severe restrictions on mobility, etc. 33
Similarly, survivors of pellet injuries were experiencing deep psychosocial impact. A 2016 study titled study titled ‘Psychiatric Morbidity in Pellet Injury Victims of Kashmir’ conducted by the Government Medical College Srinagar found that 85 percent of pellet victims also suffer from various types of mental health issues.34 The study conducted on 380 pellet and pellet-plus firearm injury patients showed that many of them were diagnosed with major depressive disorders (25.79%), followed by other issues — adjustment disorder (15.79%), panic disorder (12.11%), PTSD (9.21%), generalised anxiety disorder (7.89 percent), mixed anxiety with depression (5 percent), substance abuse (4.21 percent), specific phobia (2.89 percent), and hypomania (2.11 percent). A young photo-journalist told The Hindu, that he cannot sleep alone even after 32 months after the injury occurred, and finds it hard to cope with the trauma of being hit by pellet shotguns: “I have a handicap to nurse all my life now. The world has grown hazy for me. I have to live behind shades. Every time I am alone in the bathroom or bedroom, I cry. It’s hard to be alone now.”35
According to a health activist, in recent years the valley had also witnessed a rise in substance use particularly by the young people. The psychosocial impact of this aggression and military occupation has been severe, causing young people to turn to substance use to cope with loss of hope, aspirations, and the physical and psychological pain of the ongoing conflict. A person working on mental health stated that the Psychiatric Hospital was presently being accessed by almost 300 patients a day, reporting mental health issues. These included severe depression, aggression, substance abuse especially amongst the youth. He was concerned about indications of a ‘planned strategy’ by the powers that be of pushing and making drugs accessible to the young people. A situation such as in the valley was bound to push people into depression and substance use which in turn exacerbates their vulnerability to cycles of aggression, violence and mental distress. Already, the situation with regard to mental health is at a crisis level and is expected to linger for years.
As a mental health expert commented on the evidence of mental distress among students from the school in Shopian, “You are living in an environment suffused with constant fear of being hurt or humiliated, where the very guardians of your security are threatening and dangerous, and where your parents, who you always looked up to protect you from the worst, are despondent and hopeless. There is no escaping this pressure-cooker, day after day, month after month, year upon year… … these are exactly the right ingredients to ferment a potent brew of hate, anger and violence in our minds.”36
Undoubtedly, there is an urgent need to address these mental health concerns through psychosocial care and support. However, this would merely be a trivial and temporary measure unless the root causes – the military occupation, the oppression, the daily fear and humiliation, the control and shutdown of varied dimensions of their lives – are addressed.
Survivors of pellet injuries
Security forces have been using pellet guns in Kashmir as a “non-lethal” measure for crowd control for some time now. Since 2016, many fact finding reports have highlighted their lethal consequences and the large number of injuries in the valley. Although there have been fewer reports on pellet gun injuries post abrogation, sporadic news about pellet injuries have been appearing from time to time. According to a report by Al Jazeera37 on August 9, 2019, 16-year-old Asrar Khan was hit by a tear gas shell and pellets on his face on August 6. The report also mentions a few other cases of pellet injuries. Ultimately, on September 2, Asrar succumbed to his injuries.38A August 10, 2019, report in India Today states, “Police used tear gas and pellets to fight back at least 10,000 people protesting Delhi’s withdrawal of special rights for J&K in its main city of Srinagar on Friday [August 9], a police official and two witnesses said.”39
During our interactions with locals, there was some relief that there had not been too many incidences of injuries and deaths due to pellets in the last three months. While it was not entirely clear if this implied restricted use of pellets, or the suppression of protests and crowds due to the lockdown and detentions; or the decline in the reporting of pellet injuries by hospitals or the media.
Given the serious, long term and debilitating physical and psychological health consequences of the pellet injuries, the absence of adequate recognition, health care and rehabilitation and the likelihood of their continued use by the forces as a crowd control measure, necessitate their inclusion here. The experiences of these survivors resonate their ongoing struggles, anguish and desperate call for health care and support.
A survivor who was injured in 2017 whom we spoke to, shared,
“It is not just the irreversible damage to our eyes or to the body, it is the entire soul which is wounded. I was a student and went home for the holidays. There was a death in the village and my friends asked me to join them for the janazah (collective prayers). All of a sudden we were confronted with a massive police force using tear gas and pellet guns. I was hit by pellets… I had four surgeries in the last two years. I have lost most of my eyesight and still have pellets inside the eyes. I wanted to become a lawyer, it was my dream, but I am unable to study. It is very difficult to read…”
Apart from physiological and psychological damage, the costs for treatment, disability costs and loss of livelihoods pose a life-long economic and social burden on the survivors, on their families and communities.40 According to another pellet gun survivor,
“There are many survivors of pellet injuries including young women, who require further medical support. Several of them were the primary breadwinners for their families when they were shot. But most of them cannot work anymore. Like me – I am supposed to look after my parents, but now they are the ones looking after me. Many of us still have the metal pellets lodged in our skulls, in our eyes and in different parts of our bodies. The doctors said they cannot remove the pellets as it might further affect vision or cause other problems. So some of the pellets remain lodged inside the bodies of the victims…”
The serious injuries caused by pellets lead to extreme mental distress, learning difficulties and also day-to-day socio-occupational dysfunction, particularly among students and young children. Children, especially, have to face the brunt of these irreversible injuries and violence for their entire lives. A large number of children have dropped out of schools as they are unable to see, read or concentrate because of the disability caused by pellet injuries.41 Furthermore, as a consequence of this violence, conflict and intentional injuries, many people become disabled and many families experience further impoverishment, with additional costs of care-giving, loss of economic support imposed on them.
According to a health activist,
“Visually impaired survivors require therapeutic and rehabilitation services like physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, visual-mobility trainings; Assistive aids like braille, hearing aids, mobility aids – wheelchair, crutches, canes and other devices. However, I have not come across any pellet survivor being provided these assistive aids. The psychological suffering need to be addressed with regular counselling and therapy which is completely missing now. There is no systematic documentation of mental health issues of the survivors.”
The use of pellet guns by the State to disperse protestors in Kashmir has been widely questioned. It is not only a gross violation of human rights, but a serious violation of the right to health when it subjects the victims to fatal injuries and permanent disabilities with absolutely no compensation, and hardly the best of treatment and care infrastructure that may be available elsewhere in the country.42 It is imperative for the State to stop the use of pellet guns altogether, and also to formulate a health care and rehabilitation plan for the survivors. The State must ensure comprehensive health care provision including effective and affordable treatment facilities, disability support and long term mental health counselling. The injustice of the use of pellets must be recognised and compensation provided to survivors and families of victims for the grievous injuries and loss of lives. The State is accountable and must ensure the utmost so that all survivors are able live with dignity.
COMMUNICATION AND MEDIA
Communication and control of the media has been one of the central pillars in the Government of India’s hegemonic rule in Kashmir and it must be noted that there is nothing new about this. Under the Instrument of Accession of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), signed in 1947 by then maharaja, Hari Singh, control over three key sectors was conceded to the Union of India: foreign policy, defence and communications. The instrumentalities used to ensure control over communications were several, from the administrative and infrastructural, to the informational and cultural.
Radio Kashmir is a good example in illustrating this interlocking of government policy making and media control. Established in Srinagar in 1948, it became an extension of All India Radio/Akashvani after 1953, with Sheikh Abdullah’s dismissal as prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir in 1953. Every time hostilities escalated, as for instance in the early 1990s, New Delhi exercised its right to suspend news broadcasts from Srinagar and airing them from New Delhi instead. After the abrogation of Article 370, Radio Kashmir has now been trifurcated too, becoming All India Radio, Jammu, All India Radio, Srinagar, and All India Radio, Leh, respectively.
While a tight grip has always been maintained by New Delhi over communications and the media in the valley, what is distinctive about the post- August 5 scenario was the unleashing of a calculated synergy between military force (ensured by the reinforced mobilisation of security personnel) and the manipulation of the media and their content. What was also striking was the relentless, systematic and uncompromising hardness of approach that was adopted. From the earliest hours of the very day the Indian Parliament was presented with the Jammu and Kashmir Re-Organisation Bill, 2019, the people of the region were enshrouded in a media gag so impenetrable, so sudden, so cynical, so ruthless, that an entire population of 13.6 million was blindsided. Disrupting mobile and broadband networks was an old tactic of the authorities, but landlines were usually available in the past. This time that was not the case. As one eye-witness put it to this team,
“When I came out of my home that morning, I saw a people lost. The entire impact of that moment will take years to erase from popular memory. The informal advisory was that one should not talk apart from conducting one’s prayers. There was complete strangulation of an entire society.”
As for the current ban on mobile internet service, it is now posed to break every record as the world’s longest such curtailment. A similar measure undertaken to quell the protests that broke out after the Burhan Wani killing in 2016, had extended for 133 days. The present ban has long overtaken this milestone, having stretched on for over 200 days. This despite the Supreme Court recognising in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India that in “today’s world the internet stands as the most utilized and accessible medium for exchange of information”; “freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice any profession or carry on any trade, business or occupation over the medium of internet enjoys constitutional protection”; that an order suspending internet services indefinitely is impermissible”; that any suspension “must adhere to the principle of proportionality and must not extend beyond necessary duration”; that “power under Section 144, CrPC cannot be used to suppress legitimate expression of opinion or grievance or exercise of any democratic rights”.
This team visited the Kashmir valley 20 days after the Anuradha Bhasin judgment. It was a period that saw the Government of India (GOI) making every effort to project to the world that normalcy has indeed been achieved in the valley. On October 31, 2019, it had hosted a 23-member delegation of European Union (EU) MPs in the valley, a move that was followed up, on February 14, 2020, by a second batch of 25 foreign envoys visiting the region. On January 18, 2019, a batch of 36 ministers went to the region on a five-day trip, bearing Prime Minister Modi’s message that they were there “to spread the message of development among the people, not only in the urban areas but also in the villages of the valley.” One minister reported back that he had noticed a “yearning for change, a quest for a new narrative and an overpowering desire for development and good governance”.
The quote just cited indicated the strong will and intent of the GOI to control and shape the narrative in the region in order to cement, for the long term, its hegemonic project in the valley. Two strategies were deployed to help achieve this: First by ensuring the amplification of its own narrative through means of the mainstream media in India, particularly through television channels and the deployment of ’embedded’ journalists. Three broad tropes could be discerned in such media coverage: one, the celebratory ‘Kashmir-is-ours’ content; two, the ‘Kashmir-is-peaceful’ claim; and, three, the emphatic rubbishing of reportage conducted by independent media both in India and abroad, that sought to present a contrasting picture. The attempt here was to frame any individual or entity questioning the government’s stances as “anti-national”, “Pakistani agents” and carriers of “negativity”.
Second, while mainstream media’s hyper-nationalist treatment of news on Kashmir is allowed to proliferate, the once vibrant media in the region have been systematically and deliberately silenced, a development that has affected the lives of ordinary people directly.
To understand how this was being done, the team met up with journalists in the valley and the first aspect that struck us forcibly was the complete and widespread despair among media professionals there. A photographer working for a national newspaper spoke for many when he described his own journey from defiance to finally succumbing to self-censorship and sometimes silence.
“Initially, we tried to carry on working as usual. For instance, when I heard of people coming out on the streets in defiance of the police in the Soura neighbourhood of Srinagar, some days after the abrogation of Article 370, I rushed there. So badly beaten was I by security personnel there that my body still bears the scars.”
After that experience it was difficult for him to fight fear. Even if he worked on an assignment, he would find that he couldn’t file the material for fear of the consequences. Someone once told him of a case of a woman who was asphyxiated to death after a grenade was hurled into her home. He went to the spot and actually captured the scene of the incident, but he could not summon up the courage to visit the government-run media centre and have it dispatched to his office.
Conversations with journalists in Srinagar and at the Government Media Facilitation Centre indicated feelings of acute anxiety and even self-loathing for being forced to come to the government surveilled facility, which many of them termed as a “sub-jail”, in order to function as a journalist. On the one hand, the government presumes that every journalist is a potential terrorist and ensures a close watch on each person’s work and movement; on the other, the local people consider that these journalists have sold out to the Indian government, and are now agreeing to be locked up in a room to take down dictation from the authorities. One journalist bitterly spoke of how he was being robbed of his credibility and how dearly he wished to quit in a situation where there were, in fact, no escape routes.
If journalists in Srinagar felt like this, the situation on those situated in smaller towns and stringers in rural areas was infinitely worse. This team did not speak with those based out of Srinagar but their colleagues did convey to us the impossibility of their situation. Many of them are now reduced to earning a livelihood through mazdoori (manual labour). The executive editor of a newspaper told the team, “If newsrooms are dead in Srinagar, you can well imagine the impact in the districts. Our district correspondents used to file online or phone in their stories. Now they have to personally come to Srinagar to send in a report, after waiting their turn at the media centre — imagine the time, effort and costs involved! District correspondents in Rajouri Poonch face the same challenges. Connectivity has always been a problem, but now the authorities are using that pretext to make things worse.”
There is a clear link between freedom of the media and the right of ordinary people to be informed. As Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin, had argued in her petition before the Supreme Court last August which gave rise to the Anuradha verdict of January 10, a communications and media gag amounted to a “direct and grave violation of the people’s right to know about the decisions that will impact them.”
Repression on the media must therefore be seen as part of the same continuum of repression unleashed by the GOI against the ordinary people of the region ever since the abrogation of Article 370 and is part of the larger design to subjugate, discipline and deprive them. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry has calculated that the region has suffered approximately Rs 15,000 crore as a result of the lockdown. The actual losses in terms of societal well-being would be incalculable.
In the 200 and more days since the abrogation, there have been innumerable ways in which journalists have come under attack, both physically or psychologically, and the mediapersons the team spoke to kept cataloguing them. They ranged from forfeiture of facilities like housing to incarceration. Arbitrary detention has, by far, become the most common form of repression. The first recorded incident, post the abrogation, involved Qazi Shibli who worked for Greater Kashmir. According to his own account, on August 14, the police “barged into my house and detained me.” He was released the next day after his family and colleagues raised an outcry. The most recent incident involved Naseer Ganai, of Outlook magazine, and another journalist, Haroon Nabi, who were detained by the police for having reported on a JKLF statement. The police demanded that they name their source – ie, the email id from where they had got the statement.
Protection of sources – a foundational norm for the professional journalist – has been intrinsic to the experience of being a mediaperson in Kashmir and the battle to achieve this has been a terrifying one. Explained a media activist in Srinagar,
“After the Supreme Court verdict of January 10, Internet Service Providers have started taking official undertaking from those wishing to avail of internet services, which also has a clause that all access to content and infrastructure would have to be provided when required by security agencies. While this may not be an issue for a travel agency or a hospital or hotel, how can any self-respecting journalist sign such an undertaking?”
There is now a new anxiety, as one newsperson revealed to us: “Journalists are now being detained over their alleged use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to access the internet and there is real fear of the police dragnet.” Since we left the valley, we have also been informed that the police have now taken to filing open FIRs, to arrest those they believe are using VPNs and those found guilty could be arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which allows the state to deny the arrested person bail/anticipatory bail and detain him or her without a charge sheet for up to 180 days.
In this cat-and-mouse encounter the attempt on the part of the GOI at all times is to go for maximalist measures. This means ever harsher penalties and the flying in of cyber experts to build ever higher firewalls in a bid to render VPNs infructuous. The consequences of this war against the media and the ordinary people of Kashmir is difficult to envisage, but that they certainly disturbing and presents India, with its claims to be the world’s largest democracy, as an authoritarian and repressive state to the rest of the world.
The visit to Kashmir from January 31 to February 5, 2020, by our five-member all-women team was undertaken to understand in person the effects on the people of August 5, 2019, when Article 370 and Article 35A were abrogated. Particularly troubling to us, as we embarked on this mission of conscience, was the official rhetoric of “normalcy” which we believed we must situate in context, based on our direct experience of conversations and commutes in the valley six months later. The “normalcy narratives” have resonated through media reports, official briefings, parliamentary discourse, ministerial visits, and guided tours of foreign dignitaries. In a context where there was an internet shutdown in place, where judicial indifference masked the situation on the ground, and where media reports from Kashmiri reporters located in and reporting from Kashmir were scarce, it was only through travelling through Kashmir and speaking to people there that a ground report could even be attempted.
Barring a few solidarity visits to the valley by members of progressive groups, Indian civil society’s lack of response to the vengeful war waged on Kashmir has been significant. No professional bodies of doctors, lawyers, teachers, or of journalists, apart from one,43reached out to fellow workers in Kashmir to learn first-hand the impact of the August 5 Abrogation of Article 370 and the clampdown by the state.
Why do we lack the culture of standing in solidarity with the people who are victims of injustices and state repression, we asked ourselves? This visit taught us (once again) the value of reaching out in solidarity. Our lack of empathy and moral courage and our irresponsibility, for staying silent, for not speaking out loud enough, has meant that these unjust conditions will go on. It has, and, it will contribute further, to routinizing impunity for illegal acts of the state. It should matter to us, all of us who have stakes in this country, in this democracy, to speak up, seek accountability, challenge impunity and work towards turning this society into a place where justice does not elude a whole community, a whole people.
This concluding section of our report reiterates the key concerns voiced during our travels in Kashmir. While at one level, it is impossible to separate these concerns from the long history of military occupation, armed conflict and the use of draconian laws like AFSPA, UAPA and PSA in the valley, there has certainly been an exacerbation and precipitation of distress, fear, trauma, suffering, and dispossession on many counts. Military occupation itself has been consolidated and bolstered by this move that has strengthened impunity on the ground. The abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A has a long history that has persistently sidestepped a political resolution. The erasure of the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir is the culmination of a series of counter-constitutional moves, but is by far the most harsh, drastic and indefensible on any count.
The specific aspects we observed and reflected on during our short trip were: heightened army and police presence; the widespread impact of internet shutdowns; adverse effect on emergency medical and health care access; arrests and detentions on an unprecedented scale; and specific observations on communication and media.
Persons in custody have been housed in jails in Kashmir, in detention centres, and in jails in other states, as well as other custodial facilities. The numbers of those under detention are over 10,000 even according to conservative estimates with people having been picked up from districts across the valley. In many cases, the details of detentions, location of the person detained and provisions under which he has been detained are not known to the family. Of this number only a small proportion has approached the court, and of this, the court has provided scant relief. In cases where the court has provided some relief, the government has brazenly refused to comply with the court’s orders. Legal redress for persons in custody, most of them young men in their twenties and thirties, is an immediate demand. In several instances, these are persons under preventive detention or charged under PSA, who must be discharged forthwith. There must be a total abatement of arbitrary arrests and preventive detention.
The most striking aspect of the valley today is the barricaded street. The lifting of barricades and checkpoints that inhibit mobility and everyday travel is a matter of utmost urgency especially for the pursuit of livelihood, education and accessing medical facilities. Quite apart from the material effects of physical weaponised curbs, they are importantly an assault on the dignity of the people of the valley and signal the conversion of the entire valley into a prison, as one of our informants, a woman, observed.
The withdrawal of the armed forces from the area is the only way routine intimidation by the Army expressed in many different ways, as we have detailed in our report, can be eliminated. The heightened Army presence is rendered infinitely more toxic on account of the impunity guaranteed by draconian laws.
From businesses that have shut down, to the crippling of emergency and routine medical and health care, to the denial of the right to education to children and youth, the full restoration of the internet is imperative to creating basic minimum conditions for a dialogue on peace in the valley. As long as internet remains suspended by a vindictive state, there can be no way out of this impasse and peace will remain distant and unachievable.
The suppression of a free press in Kashmir, the curbs on and threats to journalists and state censorship through instruments like the media facilitation centre signal the erasure of any pretence of democracy in relation to the valley. Not limited to internet access, the curtailment of their right to practice their profession with full freedom is a move that has dispossessed journalists in serious and far-reaching ways. The normal flow of information into and out of Kashmir is necessary for people within and outside the valley. The curbs on the free press have a disastrous impact on ground reports on matters ranging from court proceedings on life and liberty to the status of education and health, for example.
The spiraling effects of arrests, internet shutdowns, non-functional schools and universities are most evident in the rapidly deteriorating psychosocial health in the valley. Reports of depression, panic and anxiety attacks, and drug abuse abound. In terms of public health, once a state with one of the best systems of public health, we are now confronted with a system that cannot access supplies, patient subsidies, hospital care and emergency services. While doctors and ASHAs work round the clock and stretch themselves and their facilities to reach as far as possible, the physical barriers – barricades, lack of transport, and no net connectivity – create adverse circumstances that make it impossible to provide care that the facilities are normally equipped to. A close examination of this one area in itself ruptures the “normalcy narrative” thoroughly. Child health, especially their psychosocial health is an extremely worrying concern. With the escalation of arrests, children are confined within the four walls of the home with no school or neighbourhood contact for days on end.
The curtailment of educational access it is feared – and justifiably, in our view – will destroy the futures of entire generations of children and youth. Schools have now reopened, but filling vacancies – of teaching staff and the commencement of full school routines are an immediate and urgent need. For this to be realised, the presence of the Army must decrease substantially, as this is a major deterrent to school attendance.
We unequivocally condemn all statements that derogate the right of Kashmiri women to dignity, personhood and integrity and urge stringent action against all persons guilty of making sexually abusive and offensive statements about women of Kashmir.
Across all our travels and meetings and conversations, the single point that came across strongly was that peace be given a chance in Kashmir, premised not on Kashmir being viewed as a beautiful land mass that has to be possessed but respected as the homeland of the Kashmiri people. The only way this could be done is to bring fundamental freedoms and liberties back to the valley, ensure protection of land and resources and restore the dignity of the Kashmiri people. The lifting of draconian laws, release of persons under arrest and illegal detention; creation of secure conditions for children, especially in the matter of mistreatment by security forces and lifting of restrictions on educational access; provision of accessible healthcare and emergency medical treatment throughout the valley; withdrawal of the army in civilian areas; enforcing accountability of army and police personnel with a clear aim of eliminating torture, extortion, criminal intimidation, unlawful custody, disappearances and extra judicial killing; and restoring the independence of the judiciary.
In the absence of comprehensive and immediate measures to restore all liberties and personal freedoms, in our view, there can be no discussion on the way forward.
Constitution of India, Part XXI: Temporary, Transitional and Special Provisions
ARTICLE 370. (1) Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution,—
(a) the provisions of article 238 shall not apply in relation to the State of Jammu and Kashmir;
(b) the power of Parliament to make laws for the said State shall be limited to—
(i) those matters in the Union List and the Concurrent List which, in consultation with the Government of the State, are declared by the President to correspond to matters specified in the Instrument of Accession governing the accession of the State to the Dominion of India as the matters with respect to which the Dominion Legislature may make laws for that State; and
(ii) such other matters in the said Lists as, with the concurrence of the Government of the State, the President may by order specify.
Explanation.—For the purposes of this article, the Government of the State means the person for the time being recognised by the President as the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir acting on the advice of the Council of Ministers for the time being in office under the Maharaja’s Proclamation dated the fifth day of March, 1948;
(c) the provisions of article 1 and of this article shall apply in relation to that State;
(d) such of the other provisions of this Constitution shall apply in relation to that State subject to such exceptions and modifications as the President may by order** specify:
Provided that no such order which relates to the matters specified in the Instrument of Accession of the State referred to in paragraph (i) of sub-clause (b) shall be issued except in consultation with the Government of the State:
Provided further that no such order which relates to matters other than those referred to in the last preceding proviso shall be issued except with the concurrence of that Government.
(2) If the concurrence of the Government of the State referred to in paragraph (ii) of sub-clause (b) of clause (1) or in the second proviso to sub-clause (d) of that clause be given before the Constituent Assembly for the purpose of framing the Constitution of the State is convened, it shall be placed before such Assembly for such decision as it may take thereon.
(3) Notwithstanding anything in the foregoing provisions of this article, the President may, by public notification, declare that this article shall cease to be operative or shall be operative only with such exceptions and modifications and from such date as he may specify:
Provided that the recommendation of the Constituent Assembly of the State referred to in clause (2) shall be necessary before the President issues such a notification.
[**Temporary provisions with respect to the State of Jammu and Kashmir. In exercise of the powers conferred by this article the President, on the recommendation of the Constituent Assembly of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, declared that, as from the 17th day of November, 1952, the said art. 370 shall be operative with the modification that for the Explanation in cl. (1) thereof, the following Explanation is substituted, namely:— “Explanation.—For the purposes of this article, the Government of the State means the person for the time being recognised by the President on the recommendation of the Legislative Assembly of the State as the *Sadar-I-Riyasat of Jammu and Kashmir, acting on the advice of the Council of Ministers of the State for the time being in office.” (Ministry of Law Order No. C.O. 44, dated the 15th November, 1952). *Now “Governor”].
ARTICLE 35A. “Saving of laws with respect to permanent residents and their rights.- Notwithstanding anything contained in this Constitution, no existing law in force in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, and no law hereafter enacted by the Legislature of the State,-
(a) defining the classes of persons who are, or shall be permanent
residents of the State of Jammu and Kashmir; or
(b) conferring on such permanent residents any special rights and
privileges or imposing upon other persons any restrictions asrespects-
(i) employment under the State Government;
(ii) acquisition of immovable property in the State;
(iii) settlement in the State; or
(iv) right to scholarships and such other forms of aid as the State
Government may provide,
shall be void on the ground that it is inconsistent with or takes away or abridges any rights conferred on the other citizens of India by any provision of this Part.”
1 Following a Supreme Court order on January 10, 2020, the government announced it would restore 2G mobile data on post-paid mobile phones in all districts in Kashmir. But access was only allowed to a whitelist of websites as per the order, leaving internet curbs largely unchanged. Athar Parvaiz, 144,500 Jobs Affected As Tourism Takes A Hit In Kashmir, IndiaSpend. 28 January 2020. https://www.indiaspend.com/144500-jobs-affected-as-tourism-takes-a-hit-in-kashmir/ Accessed on 28 February 2020.
2 The Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety (Amendment) Act, 2018.
3Annual Human Rights Review 2019 by APDP and JKCCS revealed that 412 persons in the territory were booked under the PSA post August 5. A majority of these persons continue to remain detained in jails across India, it said.
4These figures were provided to us by local journalists.
5http://www.ptinews.com/news/9684933_Two-Hizb-militants–civilian-killed-in-Kashmir-encounter. 30 April 2018. Accessed on 24 February 2020.
6 Pallavi Sareen, ‘Who Will Do the Work of the 7 Commissions Dissolved in J&K?’The Wire. 9 November 2019. https://thewire.in/government/jammu-and-kashmir-commissions. Accessed on 28 February 2020.
7As per the JKCCS report, those booked under PSA majority of them are youth, not older than 35 years of age. “The maximum number of PSA cases have been found within the age group 18-35 years old, forming about 58.6% of the total number. It is only within this age bracket that incidences of being booked twice with PSA has been observed.”
8Safwat Zargar, however, points out that this might be more difficult than the government thinks it is: https://scroll.in/article/953922/special-status-for-jammu-and-kashmir-may-be-gone-but-outside-investors-cannot-buy-land-there Accessed on 27 February 2020.
9Safwat Zargar, ‘J&K panchayat elections saw 74% voter turnout – but that figure hides the full story.’ Scroll.in, 16 December 2018. https://scroll.in/article/905364/a-closer-look-voter-turnout-numbers-do-not-tell-the-whole-story-of-kashmirs-panchayat-elections. Accessed on 28 February 2020.
10IndiaSpend analysed comparative figures for tourist arrivals in the valley during 2019 and 2018. In August and September 2018, 85,534 and 103,195 tourists, respectively, visited Kashmir; in 2019 these figures stood at 10,130 and 4,562 (an 88% and 95% drop, respectively).
11 Cargo, Hari Niwas and Papa-2 were the three well known torture-houses in Kashmir during the height of insurgency in the mid-90s. Cargo building has now been converted into a cyber police station.
12Reported to us by journalists we met.
13 Information provided by lawyers we met in High Court of J&K.
14 Writ Petition (Civil) No. 1031 of 2019. Supreme Court of India, 10 January 2020.
15https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/broadband-internet-restored-at-80-hospitals-health-centres-in-kashmir-2157678. Accessed on 28 February 2020.
16 WhatsApp exams were pushed even in JNU in December 2019 by the University administration when the students were on strike following an arbitrary fee hike. Such non-academic methods of evaluation were boycotted by the majority of the students and later the Delhi High Court had to intervene to restore the conduct of regular statutory evaluation methods in response to a writ filed by the teachers of the University in the High Court. Sadly, such a route for redressal does not exist for students or the university faculty in Kashmir.
17 Abrogation of Article 370 ‘cleared path to bring Kashmiri girls for marriage’: Haryana CM. The Statesman. 10 August 2019. https://www.thestatesman.com/india/abrogation-article-370-cleared-path-kashmiri-girls-marriage-haryana-cm-1502787533.html
18 ‘Now Marry Fair Kashmiri Girl’: BJP MLA’s Remark After Abrogation Of Article 370. Outlook. 7 August 2019. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/now-marry-fair-kashmiri-girl-bjp-mlas-remark-after-abrogation-of-article-370/335751. Accessed on 28 February 2020.
20Rabia Noor. Kashmir’s Hopeful Mothers Have a Silent Enemy in the State’s Violence. The Wire. 20 February 2020. https://thewire.in/health/kashmirs-hopeful-mothers-have-a-silent-enemy-in-the-states-violence. Accessed on 28 February 2020.
21Swagata Yadavar, Athar Parvaiz, ‘In J&K Shutdown, PM’s Health Scheme Grinds To Halt, Healthcare Crisis Grows,’ September 6, 2019. https://www.indiaspend.com/in-jk-shutdown-pms-health-scheme-grinds-to-halt-healthcare-crisis-grows/ Accessed on 28 February 2020.
22 Zubair Sofi, Zainab Dala. In Ravaged Kashmir, an expectant mother’s fight to give birth in safety. https://www.msn.com/en-za/news/in-depth/in-ravaged-kashmir-an-expectant-mothers-fight-to-give-birth-in-safety/ar-AAFTnhb Accessed on 28 February 2020.
23https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/broadband-internet-services-to-80-hospitals-in-kashmir-restored/articleshow/73069193.cms Accessed on 28 February 2020.
24 Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana providing health insurance cover of Rs. 5 lakhs per family per year for secondary and tertiary care hospitalization to over 10.74 crores poor and vulnerable families (approximately 50 crore beneficiaries). https://www.pmjay.gov.in/jammu_kashmir_profileAccessed on 28 February 2020.
26The Government of India maintained that the J&K has successfully reached out to the needy and issued e-cards covering 57 per cent of families in the state in less than six months, highest from any state in the country.
29Now called National Tuberculosis Elimination programme (NTEP) is the flagship programme for care of tuberculosis programme all over.
30Kashmiri Doctor Files PIL in SChttp://kashmirtimes.com/newsdet.aspx?q=94587. Accessed on 28 February 2020.
31Swagata Yadavar, Athar Parvaiz, ‘In J&K Shutdown, PM’s Health Scheme Grinds To Halt, Healthcare Crisis Grows,’ September 6, 2019. https://www.indiaspend.com/in-jk-shutdown-pms-health-scheme-grinds-to-halt-healthcare-crisis-grows/ Accessed on 28 February 2020.
32Kashmir Mental Health Survey Report 2015. https://www.msfindia.in/sites/default/files/2016-10/kashmir_mental_health_survey_report_2015_for_web.pdf.Accessed on 28 February 2020.
33Mohammad Altaf Paul and Waheeda Khan, Prevalence of Childhood Mental Disorders Among School Children of Kashmir Valley, Community Mental Health Journal, 2018.
34‘Psychiatric Morbidity in Pellet Injury Victims of Kashmir’ Government Medical College, Srinagar, 2018.https://thepolisproject.com/the-mental-agony-of-pellet-gun-victims-in-kashmir-by-aaquib-khan/#.Xljn-i2B3_R Accessed on 28 February 2020.
35Peerzada Ashiq, ‘In Kashmir, hundreds of pellet gun victims face a hazy future’. The Hindu. 1 June 2019. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/in-kashmir-hundreds-of-pellet-gun-victims-face-a-hazy-future/article27401702.eceAccessed on 28 February 2020.
36Vikram Patel, ‘Mental illness often stems from early-life trauma. It’s happening in Kashmir.’ The Indian Express, 7 August 2019.
https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/judgement-day-3-kashmir-unrest-mental-illness-5883899/ Accessed on 28 February 2020.
37 Adnan Bhat and Zubair Sofi, Kashmir: Civilians severely wounded in pellet gun attacks, 9 August 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/08/kashmiris-fighting-lives-pellet-gun-attacks-190808105704499.htmlAccessed on 28 February 2020.
38 Adnan Bhat, ‘Kashmiri Teenager Dies of Pellet, Tear Gas Shell Wounds’. 5 September 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/kashmiri-teenager-dies-pellet-tear-gas-shell-wounds-hospital-190904181621345.html. Accessed on 28 February 2020.
39 Tear gas and pellets greet thousands as protests rock Kashmir over new status despite clampdown: Report https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/thousands-protest-kashmir-new-status-clampdown-1579352-2019-08-10. Accessed on 28 February 2020.
40 Sarojini Nadimpally. ‘Use of Pellet Guns has Caused a Public Health Crisis in Kashmir.’ The Wire. 29 March 2017. https://thewire.in/health/pellet-guns-kashmir-public-health. Accessed on 28 February 2020.
41B. News, “Injured baby refuels India Kashmir pellet gun debate,” BBC News , 2018.
42 Sarojini Nadimpally. ‘Use of Pellet Guns has Caused a Public Health Crisis in Kashmir.’ The Wire. 29 March 2017. https://thewire.in/health/pellet-guns-kashmir-public-health. Accessed on 28 February 2020.
43 ‘News Behind the Barbed Wire: Kashmir’s Information Blockade’, Free Speech Collective, September 2019
About the authors