Kashmir marks a year of losing autonomy under lockdown, curfew

A paramilitary trooper stands guard in front of closed shops during a curfew in Srinagar on Aug 4, 2020.
A paramilitary trooper stands guard in front of closed shops during a curfew in Srinagar on Aug 4, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - India's territory of Jammu and Kashmir is in the grip of an economic crash and an administration at a standstill, hit by a year of restrictions after its special autonomous status was revoked and federal rule imposed.

The coronavirus pandemic has made things worse, as Covid-19 restrictions added to lockdowns which have been a feature in the territory for almost the whole year.

On Tuesday (Aug 4), thousands of Indian troops imposed a curfew in Kashmir, fanning across the city and surrounding villages, a day before the territory's anniversary of being put under federal rule.

This is the latest restriction in the year which has seen the region suffer the longest Internet blackout in a world democracy, a raft of alleged human rights abuses, and repeated lockdowns.

On Aug 5, 2019, the Home Minister had divided India's only Muslim-majority state into two federal territories and scrapped its special autonomy.

Many parts of Jammu and Kashmir remain under lockdown. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry in July estimated economic losses in the past year at 400 billion rupees (S$7.3 billion), with almost 100,000 jobs lost.

Tourism, a mainstay of the economy, agriculture, horticulture and transport were hit hard.

"Whatever businesses survived the lockdown, the pandemic has destroyed. Nobody purchases anything. Businesses are bankrupted and unpaid bank loans have piled up. Small traders have closed shop," said Mr Yaseen Khan, president of Kashmir's Traders and Manufacturer's Federation.

Mr Ram Madhav, the national general secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, attributed the economic crash to the Kashmir Valley becoming "inaccessible during winter," and the pandemic.

Administration is at a standstill. According to a February government document, recruitment is yet to start for more than 84,000 vacancies in government jobs.

Kashmir's lockdown, unlike those in the pandemic-struck world, comes with prolonged restrictions on phone and Internet access.

 
 
 

The government has slowly expanded access, first to telephone calls, then select websites, and now, broadband and 2G mobile Internet, but high-speed Internet is still blocked. In May, India's Supreme Court left the issue of restoring Internet access to an executive committee.

Mr G. N. Var, president of the Kashmir private schools' association, said schools in Kashmir have been shut for over 13 months now. He called it "a lock-up, not a lockdown".

"Outside Kashmir, schools closed due to Covid can teach online. But we are struggling to find modern software and gadgets that work on 2G Internet. It takes three hours to upload and download a lesson. Our children are depressed and really falling behind. It's creating an irreparable education gap," he said.

The drawn-out Internet curbs have devastated healthcare too. Patients under lockdown cannot send doctors their medical reports and healthcare workers can't attend online meetings.

On July 29, the government extended the restrictions on 4G Internet to Aug 19, citing its misuse in terror activities.

A July report by academics, former judges, bureaucrats and military officers said the 11 months of lockdown had seen an "across-the-board violation of human rights".

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A soldier questioning a motorist at a checkpoint in Srinagar on Aug 4, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

Since last August, the authorities have arrested thousands, including all the state's leading politicians. As of March, 437 people were still detained under the state's Public Safety Act, which allows preventive detention without charge or trial for up to two years.

Journalists in Kashmir say they face increased hostility and pressure. The Editors Guild of India described the use of an anti-terror law against two journalists as a "misuse of power" meant "to strike terror into journalists."

In May, the administration released a controversial new media policy to screen a publication's journalists and owners to decide if it could receive government advertisements, which are a significant source of revenue. Security forces would also examine media content for "unethical or anti-national activities."

 
 

The authorities justify the restrictions as necessary for national security. They say the number of locals recruited by armed groups has fallen by 48 per cent from the previous year, and that militancy in South Kashmir has almost ended. A senior police official said they killed 118 militants here between January and June.

But security experts point to Kashmir's history of upheavals after severe military crackdowns. Some of the young men killed recently had joined militant groups only this year. Former police chief A. M. Watali warned that recruitment could actually rise under the fury about Indian rule and concerns about forced cultural change.

These concerns are amplified by new domicile rules announced amid the pandemic in May. For almost a century, outsiders could not buy land in Kashmir, but the new rules allow anyone who has lived in the region for 15 years or studied for seven years and taken certain exams, to own land and apply for government jobs.

More than 370,000 people got domicile certificates in a month. Refugees from Pakistan and sanitation workers who have lived in Kashmir for decades welcome the new domicile rules. But many Kashmiri Muslims fear that an influx of people from outside the region could deprive them of property, education and employment.

In July, the government made it easier for Indian soldiers to acquire land in Kashmir. National Conference, Kashmir's oldest political party, panned it as a mission to "turn the entire region into a military establishment".

Most locals in Buddhist-majority Ladakh, the second distinct territory carved out of Jammu and Kashmir state, had celebrated their region's transformation, but are now worried about land, unemployment and demography, even holding a general strike in July.

While Kashmir's residents are being hired for state jobs in Ladakh, residents here cannot apply for jobs in Kashmir because of the latter's domicile policy.

Meanwhile, the border face-off between India and China in parts of Ladakh remains unresolved, raising geopolitical stakes in the region.