Concerns over freedom grow as Kashmir nonprofits and media raided

The Indian National Investigation Agency raided 10 locations in Kashmir on Wednesday, saying they are investigating separatist activities. The move raises concerns over eroding press freedom in the disputed region.

Mukhtar Khan/AP
Kashmir journalist Parvaiz Bukhari (center) talks to his colleagues after the National Investigation Agency searched his home in Kashmir, Oct. 28, 2020. The disputed region has experienced increasing restrictions since India scrapped Kashmir's special status in 2019.

India’s premier investigating agency on Wednesday said it raided 10 locations in Indian-controlled Kashmir, including the offices and residences of a journalist and two prominent activists, triggering concerns of a crackdown on information and a free press in the disputed region.

The National Investigation Agency said in a statement it searched the premises of Agence France-Presse’s Kashmir correspondent Parvaiz Bukhari, offices of rights activist Khurram Parvez and Parveena Ahanger, and the region’s leading daily Greater Kashmir, along with a non-profit group, and seized “several incriminating documents and electronic devices.”

The agency said it was investigating “non-profit groups and charitable trusts” that were collecting funds and using them for “carrying out secessionist and separatist activities” in the disputed region.

A police official privy to the raids said the investigators confiscated telephones, laptops, and storage devices from journalist Mr. Bukhari and rights defender Mr. Parvez. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Mr. Parvez’s organization, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society has written scathing reports about brutality involving some of the hundreds of thousands of Indian troops in the region. It has highlighted the expansive powers granted to them which it says led to a culture of impunity and widespread rights abuse in the region.

Former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti said the raids on activist Mr. Parvez and the Greater Kashmir office were “another example of the Government of India’s vicious crackdown on freedom of expression and dissent.”

The raids came days after Indian authorities sealed the office of an English daily, Kashmir Times, causing outrage from journalists and condemnation from global media watchdogs. Authorities said the office was sealed due to administrative reasons but journalists said the move aimed to throttle the free press.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, and both claim the region in its entirety. Most Kashmiris support the rebel goal of uniting the territory, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

Earlier on Tuesday, India enacted new laws that allow any of its nationals to buy land in the disputed region, a move that exacerbates concerns of residents and rights groups who see such measures as a settler-colonial project to change the Muslim-majority region’s demography.

Until last year, Indians were not allowed to buy property in the region. But in August 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government scrapped the disputed region’s special status, annulled its separate constitution, split the region into two federal territories – Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir, and removed inherited protections on land and jobs. The move triggered widespread anger and economic ruin amid a harsh security clampdown and communications blackout.

Tuesday’s laws, part of a series of Mr. Modi’s hard-line Hindu-nationalist policies, also authorize the Indian army to declare any area as “strategic” for operational and training purposes against the Kashmiri rebels.

On Wednesday, the region’s main pro-freedom conglomerate denounced the new laws and called for a strike on Oct. 31. Pro-India politicians from the region accused India of putting Kashmir’s land “up for sale.”

The federal government said the decision was made to encourage development and peace in the region.

Since August 2019, the Indian government has imposed overarching restrictions in the region which critics say has eroded press freedom.

Several journalists have been arrested, beaten, harassed, and sometimes even investigated under anti-terror laws. A controversial new media law gave the government more power to censure independent reporting.

The Kashmir Editors Guild in a statement Wednesday said it was concerned over the “mounting costs of being a journalist in Kashmir” and hoped the region’s media is “permitted to function without hassles and hurdles.”

Reporters Without Borders, a global media watchdog, in August said “press freedom violations by the Indian authorities in Kashmir is unworthy of a democracy.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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