On August 5 2019, Article 370 of the Constitution was rendered a dead letter by the government of India. The next day, the Prime Minister tweeted, "I salute my sisters and brothers of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh for their courage and resilience. For years, vested interest groups who believed in emotional blackmail never cared for people's empowerment. J&K is now free from their shackles. A new dawn, better tomorrow awaits!"
Another tweet by the Prime Minister followed immediately. This praised the chief architect of the downgrading of the State of Jammu and Kashmir into a mere Union Territory. So Narendra Modi said, "Our Home Minister @AmitShah Ji has been continuously working towards ensuring a better life for the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. His commitment and diligence is clearly visible in the passage of these Bills. I would like to specially congratulate Amit Bhai!"
It is now a year since those pronouncements. What shape has that promised "better life", this "new dawn", taken for the people of Jammu and Kashmir? A recent report entitled Jammu and Kashmir: The Impact of Lockdowns on Human Rights provides some answers. Based on field studies and detailed interviews, it has been issued by the Forum for Human Rights in Kashmir, an independent citizens initiative. Co-chaired by Justice Madan Lokur and Dr Radha Kumar, the Forum includes jurists, decorated army and air force officers, civil servants, and writers who have all had a longstanding professional interest in Jammu and Kashmir. (Full disclosure: The present writer is a member of the Forum, although he has not contributed to this particular report).
Let me, as a teacher myself, start with the education sector. Here, the impact of the lockdown and security blanket that came into effect last August has, as the report notes, "been particularly severe". For the last five months of 2019, schools and colleges were effectively shut. After the onset of COVID-19 early this year, the restrictions on the internet in Kashmir mean that, unlike elsewhere in India, even online classes are not really feasible.
Teachers and parents quoted in the Forum's report speak of children feeling lonely, vulnerable and mentally drained. As one parent commented, denying school and college studens access to the internet was tantamount to "denying them the right to life in the present digital world". The technology of Zoom, used ubiquitously everywhere else in the country, cannot be run on 2G connectivity. Of the attempts to conduct online classes through 2G, a schoolgirl in Srinagar remarked, "The grainy voices, the frequent drop calls, the background noises, the poor sound quality, and the unreadable words on the board get on your nerves, and make the entire learning process a pestering experience." Another student put it more bluntly. "The current regime", she said, "wants Kashmiris to beg for everything. It's clear that they want to send out a message that beggars can't be choosers."
As past studies have shown, decades of conflict have had a debililating impact on the mental health of Kashmiris. This problem, already grave, has got even worse after August 2019. The Forum's report quotes a psychiatrist in the Valley as saying that "the post-abrogation lockdown has shown a sudden rise in anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendency cases." To cope with anxiety and stress, many youngsters have taken to drugs.
The lack of access to 4G has also adversely affected businesses, who depend on good internet connectivity.As the report notes, "the restrictions on the Internet have caused widespread damage to education, health and industry. This is the longest internet shutdown ever imposed in a democracy...Only authoritarian regimes such as China and Mynanmar have cut off the Internet for as long or longer periods."
Nor has the crackdown materially improved the security situation in the Kashmir Valley. There were an estimated 135 terrorist incidents in the year 2019 and as many as 80 in the first half of 2020. The proportion of local Kashmiris killed in these incidents has risen. Meanwhile, as the report observes, "Pakistan's seven-decades-long efforts to fish in the troubled waters of Kashmir continue unabated." After the events of August 2019, the Pakistani state "has gone into overdrive, infiltrating terrorists, ramping up cross-LoC firing, inciting and radicalizing Kashmiris through virulent social media campaigns..." The government of India's actions have had the further consequence of drawing China actively into the dispute on the side of Pakistan.
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of state action in Kashmir since August 5, 2019 has been the widespread abuse of human rights. As the Forum'sreport documents, the government has repeatedly violated the provisions of the Indian Constitution, as well as international conventions it has signed. The state's illegal actions in Kashmir in the past year include the extended incarceration of political leaders (including former Chief Ministers) who have never remotely contemplated violent acts, the detention of children, the indiscriminate imposition of Section 144, the beating and killing of innocent civilians (including children), the destruction of people's homes, and the intimidation of journalists through cases filed against them by the police.
The political problems in Kashmir are of long standing; yet, for all the past decades of strife, the economy was in far more robust shape than that of most other states of the Union. With regard to many economic and social indicators, Jammu and Kashmir was far better placed, for example, than Gujarat in August 2019. But what the Modi-Shah regime did in that month has devastated Kashmir's economy completely. Between August and December 2019, the estimated losses of the industries of Kashmir alone were some Rs 18,000 crores. Almost half a million Kashmiris were rendered jobless. The data for Jammu is less easily available, but here too, there have been huge losses of income and employment. In both Jammu and the Valley, the once flourishing horticultural and hospitality sectors were savaged by the actions of the central government.
One year after the changes imposed in Jammu and Kashmir, the economic, social and political consequences have, the Forum's report concludes, "been disastrous. All the former state's industries suffered severe blows, pushing the majority into loan defaults or even closure; hundreds of thousands lost their jobs or underwent salary deferment or cuts; the closure of schools and universities gravely impaired education and added to the trauma of children and parents; healthcare was severely restricted by curfew and roadblocks; the local and regional media lost what independence they had".
Such are the contours of the "new dawn", the "better tomorrow", promised by the Prime Minister to the people of Kashmir a year ago. In this time, the government of India, and the Home Ministry in particular, has indeed shown "commitment and diligence", but towards the oppression, repression, and suppression of the people of Kashmir, rather than to enhancing their economic progress or their social welfare.
The sufferings of the people of Kashmir are not new. They long predate August 2019. And they have been caused by multiple actors, who include the terrorist-sponsoring state of Pakistan, roving Islamic fundamentalists, and an incompetent and sometime malign political leadership within Kashmir itself. Nor (to put it very euphemistically) did New Delhi always conduct itself with honour before August 5, 2019. The governments of Nehru, Shastri, Indira and Rajiv (among others) made many promises in Kashmir that they later betrayed, and committed plenty of human rights violations while in office.
Even so, what the Modi-Shah regime has done in the past year marks a new low. It has wilfully and systematically intensified the already enormous sufferings of the people of Kashmir. The actions of our government must surely shame all Indians - regardless of religious faith or political affiliation - who still have some sort of moral conscience.
(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include 'Environmentalism: A Global History' and 'Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World'.)
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