How 2019 changed the Kashmir dispute forever

Watershed year saw abrogation of special status and later bifurcation amid crippling curfew and communications blackout.

A masked Kashmiri man with his head covered with barbed wire at a protest after Friday prayers in Srinagar [File: Danish Ismail/Reuters]
A masked Kashmiri man with his head covered with barbed wire at a protest after Friday prayers in Srinagar [File: Danish Ismail/Reuters]

Kupwara, Indian-administered Kashmir – On a sunny afternoon in July, Ghulam Muhammad Bhat walked to the mosque in his village in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Kupwara district to seek forgiveness from his neighbours and friends.

He told them he is likely to be detained by the Indian security forces, who were rounding up all the political leaders, activists and lawyers in the disputed region in advance of New Delhi’s plans to revoke Kashmir’s special status.

It was the last time 65-year-old Bhat walked in his village. He was arrested on July 17 under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA) – a law that allows detention for two years without bail – and jailed in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district.

Weeks later, Bhat was transferred to a jail hundreds of miles away from his home, like hundreds of other Kashmiris imprisoned after India scrapped the region’s special status on August 5.

On December 20, Bhat died inside a prison in Uttar Pradesh state’s Prayagraj city – his death capping off one of the most turbulent years in the disputed Himalayan region.

Ghulam Muhammad Bhat’s wife showing his photo on her phone [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

Bhat’s death in jail

On December 20, Bhat’s son Muhammad Hanief received a call. The policeman on the other side told him his father is sick and he must visit Naini jail in Prayagraj immediately.

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When he said he did not have the money to fly, the police flew him to Prayagraj the next day on their expenses. When he reached the jail, he was taken to the morgue and asked to identify a body. It was his father’s.

“I froze for a moment. There was no one to console me. I was alone and my father’s body lay on the ground, cold and motionless,” he told Al Jazeera.

Bhat’s family remains clueless about the cause of death. Hanief said no documents or post-mortem report was given by the police.

“I had so many questions, but there was no answer from the jail authorities,” said Hanief. “I requested them to give me my father’s walking stick but they told me to take the body or else they will burn it in the jail.”

When asked about the cause of Bhat’s death and denial of a post-mortem report, Kupwara’s senior superintendent of police, Ambarkar Shriram Dinkar, told Al Jazeera: “This is all an official matter. I am not supposed to tell you.”

Bhat’s wife at her home in Kulangam village of Kupwara district [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

Crackdown and arrests

Bhat was a former member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a political-religious group banned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in March, along with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).

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More than 500 members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, including Bhat, were jailed for “supporting armed rebellion” against the Indian rule in Kashmir.

The detentions were common in Kashmir in 2019, with more than 5,000 detained, including nearly 350 booked under the PSA.

Detainees in Kashmir today include three former state chief ministers, former legislators, activists, separatists, businessmen, students and even children as young as eight.

The detentions were accompanied by a crippling lockdown – one of the longest spells ever in the region – and the shutting down of all communications, including internet and telephones, with the latter partially restored.

Early signs

The signs of 2019 being a watershed year for Kashmir appeared early when a lone rebel rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into an Indian paramilitary convoy, killing more than 40 soldiers and triggering a near-war situation between Indian and Pakistan.

For the first time in almost 50 years, Indian and Pakistani air forces indulged in dogfights and breached into each other’s territories.

Both the nuclear-armed countries claim the Kashmir region in full and administer parts of it. Two of their three full-scale wars have been over the Kashmir dispute.

While another war was averted this year, the spell of calm in Kashmir was shortlived as the region headed to another momentous event, carried out by the Indian government like a secretive black operation.

On August 5, India’s parliament, in a shock move, abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of its constitution, which gave Kashmir partial autonomy and barred non-residents from buying property or settling in the region.

India’s move included the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, into two “union territories” to be administered by the federal government, thus reshaping the geography of the region.

The decisions sent shockwaves across the restive region, home to nearly eight million people, under curfew and communications blackout for about five months.

Thousands of paramilitary forces were added to what was already the most militarised region in the world, with about 500,000 Indian troops stationed there.

The scale, intensity and severity of the entire exercise were unprecedented as Kashmiris faced a battle for their very existence. Protests defying curfews were held across the region, wounding several people.

A Kashmiri girl rides her bike past Indian security personnel standing guard in front of closed shops in Srinagar [Danish Ismail/Reuters]

Longest internet shutdown

As the New Year’s Eve marked 150 days of complete internet blockade in Kashmir, the government on Tuesday said it was restoring broadband internet in the region’s government-run hospitals.

Still, it was the longest internet shutdown anywhere in a democratic country, according to Access Now, a group that tracks internet shutdowns globally.

India on Tuesday also restored post-paid short message service (SMS) in an effort to “normalise” the situation in Kashmir.

However, prepaid phone service, broadband and mobile internet services still remain blocked, disrupting businesses and daily life.

Amid an eerie calm and uncertainty, shops and businesses have started opening after months, and the public transport system crawls back on the roads.

The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), a union of traders, said the internet blockade forced a loss of nearly 18,000 crore rupees ($2.5bn) in the last five months.

“In our report, which we compiled after 120 days [of shutdown], businesses suffered huge losses … Internet-based industries such as tourism, export, silk carpet industry, e-commerce and social entrepreneurship are completely shut. The ban hampered our day-to-day trade,” KCCI president Sheikh Ashiq told Al Jazeera.

The prolonged internet blackout also hit students, professionals, journalists, activists and emergency services in the region.

Razia Tariq, a student at the University of Kashmir, said research and other academic works have come to a halt for thousands of students in the valley.

’80 civilians killed in 2019′

In a report, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a local human rights group, said there were “mass arrests, torture, killings, use of excessive force, harassment, and intimidation” after the abrogation of Article 370.

“The year witnessed at least 366 killings in different incidents of violence,” said the report, which said there were “extrajudicial executions of at least 80 civilians, besides killings of 159 militants and 129 armed forces” in 2019.

Among the 80 civilians killed in 2019, 69 were killed after August 5. Twelve of those killed in 2019 were women and eight children, according to the JKCCS report.

“Besides becoming victims of extrajudicial executions, children also faced illegal and unjust detentions, ill-treatment, including torture, at the hands of armed forces during detention,” said the report.

Source : Al Jazeera

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