Paradise shackled, promises broken: Activists

NEW DELHI, Aug 14: A team of civil rights activists who visited Srinagar and adjoining areas has prepared a report that paints a picture completely contrary to the image of normalcy and calm in Jammu and Kashmir that the government has been projecting since the abrogation of Article 370.
The activists – noted economist Jean Dreze, All India Progressive Women’s Association secretary Kavita Krishnan, All India Democratic Women’s Association’s Maimoona Mollah and Vimal Bhai, member of the National Alliance of People’s Movement – recently returned from a five-day visit of the Valley.
During their stay in the strife-torn region, the team interacted with scores of local Kashmiris, security personnel and some political workers, including one from the BJP, to ascertain the impact that the Centre’s recent decision of severely diluting Article 370 to strip J&K of its special status had on the local people.
The civil rights activists say that life has been severely censored in the state. “When we arrived in Srinagar, on August 9, we found the city silenced and desolated by curfew, and bristling with Indian military and paramilitary presence… We travelled widely, inside and outside Srinagar – far beyond the small enclave where the Indian media operates. In the small enclave, a semblance of normalcy returns from time to time, and this has enabled the Indian media to claim that life in Kashmir is back to normal. Nothing could be further from the truth,” the report compiled by the activists states.”
Krishnan said that during the course of its visit, the team interacted with Kashmiri Pandits, Muslims and also Sikhs, shopkeepers, school and college students, local journalists, daily wage labourers and several migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and other states.
“Except for a BJP spokesperson, we did not meet a single person who supported the Indian government’s decision to abrogate Article 370. Most people were extremely angry. Anger and fear were the dominant emotions we encountered everywhere. Many of the people we spoke to said that massive protests could erupt after Eid and anticipated violent repression even if the protests were peaceful,” Mollah told reporters at a press conference at the Press Club of India in Delhi. The team had also brought with them videos and photographs they had shot in the Valley to bolster their claims but were not allowed to screen them by the Press Club management.
The report says that the words that the team heard repeatedly during their travels around the Valley in reference to the Modi government and its decisions with regard to Kashmir were “zulm” (oppression), “zyadti” (excesses) and “dhokha” (betrayal). “As one man in Safakadal (downtown Srinagar) put it: The Government has treated Kashmiris like slaves, taking decisions about our lives and our future while we are captive. It’s like forcing something down our throats while keeping us bound and gagged, with a gun to our heads.”
Krishnan also described how, in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370 and the subsequent clampdown in the Valley, a leading local newspaper – Greater Kashmir – “had two pages – the front and the back – with some news but two inside pages full of cancellation announcements of weddings and receptions”.
On Eid, while Governor Malik and the State apparatus kept assuring some sections of the media that things were normal in the Valley and elaborate arrangements for celebrations and festivities had been made, the fact-finding team disputes the claim. “The Eid festivities were severely curtailed; locals were not allowed to assemble at the Idgah to offer namaz and were told that they can either pray at their neighborhood mosque or inside their homes. In some areas the government and security personnel also put restrictions on use of loudspeakers to give the azaan call,” Mollah said.
About the protests in Soura, which the government and security establishment initially denied and later attributed to “some miscreants”, the fact-finding team said: “some 10,000 people protested in Soura on August 9. The forces responded with pellet gun fire, injuring several. We attempted to go to Soura on August 10 but were stopped by a CRPF barricade. We met two victims of pellet gun injuries in SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. The two young men – Waqar Ahmad and Wahid – had faces, arms and torso full of pellets. Their eyes were bloodshot and blinded.”
The team said that “at least 600 political leaders and civil society activists are under house arrest or detention, the whereabouts of many of these people are not known even to their families and there is no clear information of what laws have been invoked against these leaders.”
Krishnan also recalled that the team met a “11-year-old boy in Pampore who had been held in a police station between August 5 and 11.” She said that the boy had been beaten up and told the activists that boys even younger than him had been taken into custody from nearby villages.
Two competing narratives have emerged amidst the communication blackout. The Modi government, and large sections of the Indian media, claim that Kashmir is calm and Kashmiris are thrilled at the changes.
Meanwhile, reports in other sections of the Indian media and the foreign press, paint a disturbing picture of a people besieged by heavily armed troopers.
Telling is the fact that after days of refuting reports of a large protest in the Soura area of Srinagar, the Modi government has admitted there was one.
Describing the situation as grim, Krishnan said, “Frankly, it looked like occupied Iraq or occupied Palestine.”
Frankly, it looked like occupied Iraq or occupied Palestine.
The situation is absolutely grim. Kashmir is under military siege. There are paramilitary forces on every street, outside homes, outside localities. The situation is really quite alarming. There is no scope for anyone to speak, no scope for peaceful protests.
On the day of Eid, there was desolation. No one except tiny children were in festive clothing. They were not allowed to go to the mosque to do their prayers in rural areas. The azaan was not permitted so they just had to do their namaz at home. People feel a complete sense of anger and betrayal. There is helplessness, frustration.
In the Kashmir Valley, we did not meet a single soul who was happy with the decision. They were upset with the media coverage. They said, ‘Everyone is saying that it’s a great thing for Kashmir, but whose wedding is it and who is celebrating? It’s supposed to be our wedding, at least ask us whether we are happy? How come no one is asking us what we think?’ It is seen as an act of humiliation and violence against the people of Kashmir.
“I can tell you that there is a complete and total curfew. Even in the street where we were staying which is an upmarket locality of Srinagar, Rajbagh. Even that was under complete curfew on the day of Eid. Across Kashmir, there is a sense that this is an assault and an act of aggression against the people of Kashmir.”
“Yes, we did. We spoke to several Kashmiri pandits. We have video documentation of one of them. He is trying to explain that Kashmiriyat is a thing and that means celebrating Eid. He is a pandit, who is saying ‘our festival Eid is coming.’ We met Sikhs. We met Hindu migrant labourers. They all spoke about the safety and the terrible situation that everyone was in.”
“We met people in villages all over Kashmir, where little kids have been… there is no other word to use… they have been abducted by the police. They have been picked up from their homes in the middle of the night from their beds and they are held indefinitely, illegally, either in army camps or in police stations. They are being beaten up. Their parents have no way of ascertaining whether their children will disappear or be returned. There is no case that is registered, no FIR. I can say that to every village we went, there were arrests that had happened.”
“We met one Class 7 boy, who was arrested. He told us that there are others — younger than him — who have been arrested and who are still in custody. It’s total terror”, Krishnan added.
Picking up children is an act of intimidation. Their parents assured us that their children have not thrown stones. Their parents said they have been picked up on the way to mosques, from their homes, from their beds at night. That kind of thing. They are making it a point to raid houses in the night and take away young boys in the night. It creates immense fear, especially among the women. The women have whispered to us that they have been molested during such raids. This was the story in every village that we visited. My question is what is the Indian media doing? Why are they not visiting these places? We could visit them.
“I’ll tell you two things. One video is of a 11-year-old child who was released one day before Eid and he is saying that he was kept in custody from fifth onwards and beaten up, and there were children younger than him in custody. Then, we have video of family members, we are not identifying them because they are scared, but their teenage boy has been picked up in the middle of the night from his bed and he is being kept illegally. They have gone to the thana but they keep taaloing them, saying it is not in our hands, we cannot do anything. They are really afraid because there is no record of their arrest. Tomorrow, if something happens to him or he just vanishes, there is no record that he was arrested at all. We have that on record.
My question is what is the Indian media doing? Why are they not visiting these places?”
“What we were told was that it is the police as well as army. We did not go to the police stations because we were begged by the people not to. They were in two minds. They want someone to intervene but they fear it could make life worse for their boys. They said, ‘We are hoping against hope that they will be returned safely, but please do not make inquiries right now.’ They are not even sure where they are kept. They are guessing that some of them are in the thaana, some of them are in the army camps which are cheek by jowl to these villages. They are saying an illegal detention, by the police or the army, is a crime. And given Kashmir’s history, it is immensely dangerous. We know that there have been mass graves, mass custodial killings, mass disappearances, in Kashmir.”
“You are not leaving people any peaceful avenue for protest. If there is curfew everywhere, where are people supposed to protest. Stone pelting is happening because you are choking every other avenue of protest. Then, only those who are reckless and willing for the worst are going to come out and say do your worst but here we are on the streets. That is lesser in number. But the point is that people want to express their anger. They want to hold peaceful processions, they want to speak up, they want to be seen. If you were to lift the curfew, I would bet on it, that there would be a huge peaceful mass gathering in Srinagar and other places. There is no scope for it.”
“Then, they should not lie. They should say that we know it’s unpopular, they should say that we have done it against the will of every Kashmiri, and that is why we are locking and gagging them because we have occupied them and we don’t want them to speak. Say so. Why say they are all happy, they are all welcoming it, and it’s all fine. The Indian government should not lie. Don’t say everyone is happy. No one is happy. Everyone is suffering terribly.”
“People feel there is a particular vindictiveness about doing this around Eid. They said ‘we only have two festivals in a year. And they have hit out at this festival and completely extinguished it.’ We did not witness any festivities anywhere. Any child above the age of seven or eight would not have been in any festive clothing.”
“We received a warm welcome. I can’t tell you how warm and hospitable, and we felt terribly moved by this. People in such terrible circumstances with good reason to be angry against India and Indians, of course, they would be suspicious. They would ask us are we from the government or from the media. They would say that you human rights valas, you have never done anything for us. They did not trust to speak the truth in Delhi. All that was there. But inspite of all of that, out of their meagre supplies, they would ensure that we had a cup of tea. Shopkeepers would go to their stores and get out juice packets. They would welcome us in and give us lunch. We got such a warm welcome everywhere. These are human beings with no anger towards Indian people. The anger is towards the policy of the Modi government. This is something the Indian media should be doing. They should be there on the ground.”
“These are human beings with no anger towards Indian people. The anger is towards the policy of the Modi-government.”
“Now, there is cable TV, but local Kashmiri channels are not available, and they are only able to watch national like New Delhi. Local Kashmiri journalists are struggling. They got out papers for some days but now their offices are closed till the 17th. They are saying that we are not being able to get paper to print because the paper comes from Delhi. They are saying that we somehow managed to bring out the papers till now, everyday, but the army would come and ask us — ‘why are you printing, how come you are printing, where are you getting your news from? If the internet is down, how come you are printing your news? You are not being able to get agency news.’ Some of them are trying to keep afloat despite it all, but local Kashmiri channels can’t do anything.”
“They are saying that we are not being able to get paper to print because the paper comes from Delhi.”
The pellet injury situation is terrible. The two pellet injuries we saw — I don’t know how to describe it — it was horrible. The injuries are awful. Their eyesight is badly affected. Their entire face is full of pellet injuries.
Patients in general are not able to reach hospitals. The big hospitals are saying that we have stocks. But the curfew is preventing people from moving. Today, we met an auto driver in Srinagar, who is an asthmatic and he is on his last dose of Asphyllin and Salbutamol. He’s been trying to move around trying to buy the stuff, but the chemists are closed. The few chemists who are open say that their stocks are over. Some hospitals have a lot of stock, but he is saying that he may not be able to get to those hospitals. He is not able to move around everywhere.
Also, the pellet injury people very often avoid going to government hospitals because the police basically get hold of them and file cases against them. So not only are they victims of pellet guns, they also face cases all their life.
Dated: 8/15/2019

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