Inside Kashmir’s lockdown: Barbed wire and a sense of loss

Why We Wrote This

India’s revoking of Kashmir’s special status may reverberate in world capitals. But in Kashmir itself, people’s sense that the world has shifted beneath their feet goes much deeper than politics.

Dar Yasin/AP
Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard during a security lockdown in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Aug. 14, 2019. India is trying to stave off a violent reaction to Kashmir's downgraded status.

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Rumors have been afloat in Kashmir this week, amid a communications blackout. Rumors, loss, and anger.

Since Aug. 5, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has been under strict restrictions. Thousands of troops have flooded the often-volatile area, which is part of the larger Kashmir region claimed by both India and Pakistan. Streets are dotted with barbed-wire barricades, and few people – an especially striking emptiness during Eid.

The reason for the lockdown? The Indian government’s decision last week to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, enshrined in the constitution, which granted some autonomy to the country’s only Muslim-majority state. One day later, parliament voted to revoke its statehood, turning Jammu and Kashmir into two federal territories. Critics have called the moves undemocratic, while supporters argue they will help quell the region’s violent insurgency, and boost economic development.

Many Kashmiris feel betrayed, and some argue that politicians are trying to change the culture and demographics of their home.

“They removed our guts,” says one policeman, on duty outside a locked-up mosque. “Now what is left of us?”

For the past week, since India’s government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the streets of this long-disputed region have been mostly deserted, dotted with troops and barbed-wire barricades. The people are inside – worried about family, amid a communications blackout; wondering about their children’s futures; waiting out a lockdown. 

But still, one thing is palpable: a sense of lost identity.

On Monday, Aug. 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced it was revoking Article 370 of India’s Constitution, which granted Kashmir – the nation’s only Muslim-majority state – special status and limited autonomy. By the end of Tuesday, it was no longer a state: parliament passed a bill to strip Kashmir’s statehood, splitting the region into two federal territories.

Thousands of troops have flooded often-volatile Kashmir, which is also claimed by Pakistan, and imposed a curfew. Over the weekend, some restrictions were lifted as residents prepared for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, honoring Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. But during Eid itself, the curfew was back.

Critics of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government have criticized last week’s moves as undemocratic and perhaps unconstitutional – and a further challenge to resolving Kashmir’s status with Islamabad. But many Kashmiris also fear that more fundamental changes to their community lie ahead. In revoking Article 370, the government did away with a prohibition on non-Kashmiris buying property, permanently settling, and applying for government jobs in the famously beautiful region.

“They slit our throat and it is the time to respond with unity,” Abdul Hamid says passionately, waiting for a temporary phone booth set up by the government amid the blockade.

“Our children are unaware right now but they will realize it in future,” he continues. “They will be forced to become Hindus. The repercussions of this decision will pan out in the future.”

Dar Yasin/AP
Kashmiri Muslims participate in Eid prayers outside a mosque during a security lockdown in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Aug. 12, 2019. Troops in Kashmir allowed some Muslims to walk to local mosques alone or in pairs to pray for the festival during an unprecedented security lockdown.

Kashmir has been in and out of conflict since the partition of British India in 1947, when India and Pakistan achieved independence. The two nuclear-armed countries have fought two formal wars over the wider Kashmir region, which both nations claim in full but which each only partially controls. A violent armed rebellion demanding independence or Pakistani control has roiled Indian-administered Kashmir for 30 years; the military has repeatedly been accused of human rights violations in its response. 

Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, known as the BJP, has argued that Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status has contributed to the unrest and blocked economic development. The party promised voters it would normalize Kashmir’s status ahead of general elections in 2014, when Mr. Modi first became prime minister, and again in 2019, when the BJP won again – a few months after a suicide attack in Kashmir killed at least 40 security forces.

Outside Kashmir, many Indian citizens have celebrated the decision to strip the state’s autonomy, hailing the BJP for delivering on its promise.

But in Kashmir, people see it as the loss of their identity – as Kashmiris, as Muslims, and as citizens of India, in the terms they understood it. 

The ultimate aim of the government’s decision is to change the demographics of Kashmir, argues historian and political analyst Siddiq Wahid. “It is not accidental that they have left [Hindu-majority] Jammu and [Muslim-majority] Kashmir together because they can demographically flood Jammu and then let that seep into Kashmir,” he says.

Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
Kashmiri men shout slogans during a protest after the scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the Indian government, in Srinagar, Aug. 11, 2019.

Others argue it will be a long time, if ever, until many Hindu Indians move to the region, given its depressed economy and violence. With the announcement of the decision last Monday, many nonnative workers left the Valley in the nearest vehicle they could find and afford. “We have no work here,” said Ram Prasad, who hails from a village in Uttar Pradesh, 600 miles away. “We come here to work but the government has taken a decision that impacted our livelihood. We should have been taken care of first.”

Last Friday, ahead of the festival, the grand mosque in Srinagar, the region’s capital city, was locked up. “They removed our guts,” says a policeman on duty. “Now what is left of us?” Elsewhere, with the curfew eased to permit Friday prayers, people took to protests, with some pellet gun injuries reported. Police said no bullet was fired. Dozens of incidents of protesters throwing stones at security forces have been reported.

On Eid, many families sacrifice an animal, recalling the ram that God substituted for Isaac. At Srinagar’s main market for the livestock, customers and sellers looked gloomy, but went ahead with trade. “The price is much less this year – it is only half,” says seller Mohammed Shafi. “The reason is people who would sacrifice four animals are deciding they will do one. There is no certainty how the situation will be on Eid.” Last year, he says, he sold 300, but suspects the number will be lower this year. Traditionally, Muslims give one-third of the sacrifice to the needy, and one-third to relatives. But during the curfew, many doubt they can make those visits.

With little information available, rumors have been afloat. Indian state radio has reported more than 500 arrests. Several people who once supported pro-Indian parties say they won’t come out into the streets for them again; with leaders detained, even staunch supporters are feeling betrayed. What will the next generation see, people ask – the same bloodshed?

A 20-year-old student, who recently began college in Srinagar, says that now he is determined not to leave Kashmir for something better. The government’s decision has “finished mainstream politics but don’t realize yet what does it mean,” he said. “With time, they will understand when there will be no jobs or development in reality. People think it’s a loss for the [regional parties] National Conference and People’s Democratic Party, but it is for people – everyone has lost.”

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