Two years of Kashmir unrest, political void and a sinking economy

As disputed region marks second anniversary of losing special status, Al Jazeera reviews what New Delhi’s move achieved in two years.

A Kashmiri man with his head covered with barbed wire attends a protest following the scrapping of Kashmir's special status [File: Danish Ismail/Reuters]

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Two years after the Modi administration stripped Indian-administered Kashmir of its limited autonomy, political activity in the disputed region is in a deep freeze, businesses are struggling, while people’s rights are being suppressed through stringent laws.

On this day two years ago, India’s Hindu-nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi scrapped the region’s special status guaranteed by India’s constitution decades ago and turned the country’s only Muslim-majority state into a federally controlled territory.

The move included the removal of a ban on permanent settlement of non-Kashmiris in the region, a step that locals fear is aimed at bringing demographic changes in the region.

The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government claimed the changes would result in a better development of the region and boost its economy.

But experts and political analysts say the situation has only deteriorated in the last two years.

Political void

The last state elections in Indian-administered Kashmir were held in 2015, when a regional pro-India party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), allied with the BJP to form the government.

The region has a group of political parties considered loyal to New Delhi. They contest regional and national elections, which are boycotted by the region’s separatist groups, who demand either a merger with neighbouring Pakistan or an independent nation.

In 2018, the BJP withdrew its support to the PDP, toppling the government and putting the state under the direct rule of New Delhi.

The next year, as the Modi government scrapped Articles 370 and 35A which granted Indian-administered Kashmir its autonomy, dozens of politicians from the region, including three former chief ministers belonging to pro-India parties, were arrested. Some of them continue to be in jails.

Meanwhile, the region was split into two federally controlled territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – and no legislative elections have been announced so far.

Between November to December last year, multi-phase local elections were held in the region to elect 280 district development councillors. Analysts said the polls were an attempt by New Delhi to show “normalcy” in the disputed Himalayan region, also claimed by Pakistan.

While the elected members of the district development councils have no powers to legislate or amend laws, many of them have been since confined to hotel rooms in different places and barred from visiting their constituencies due to “security threats”.

Many elected councillors, angry over the government’s treatment, have threatened to resign.

The region’s pro-India politicians say the government’s controversial decisions “have damaged the very bond of our relationship with the union of India”.

“There is no political space left for anyone,” Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, a former minister and four-time legislator from the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), told Al Jazeera.

Tarigami is convener and spokesman of the People’s Alliance of Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a coalition of six parties demanding the restoration of the region’s autonomy and statehood.

He said a fallout of the BJP government’s 2019 decision has been “a process of throttling  of democracy and democratic rights, which have resulted in a forced silence” in the region.

“Unconscionable suppression of civil and democratic rights continues unabated. Indiscriminate arrests and harassment of all sections of our people, including government employees, on different pretexts continues.”

There are reports that the federal government has made future elections subservient to what is called delimitation, which means redrawing the region’s assembly constituencies. Residents fear the BJP aims to increase seats in the southern Jammu area of the region in order to reduce the representation of the Kashmir valley in the state assembly.

Suppression of civil rights

A 78-page report, titled Two Years of Lockdown: Human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, released by an Indian civil society group, Human Rights Forum Jammu and Kashmir, on Wednesday concluded that the security situation in the Himalayan region has worsened.

The report referred to rising cases of human rights violations including the crackdown on dissent, arrest of activists and use of draconian laws against journalists for doing their jobs.

“Indeed, new methods that endanger civilian security, political freedoms, government service, and media independence have been added. There appears to be little accountability for violations by the union government and security forces,” it said.

Indian security forces at the site of a rebel attack in Srinagar [File: Farooq Khan/EPA]

The report said close to 1,000 people are still in prison, including minors and elected legislators, some under stringent laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA.

Data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau shows 921 cases were registered in the region between 2014-2019, 500 of which were recorded in 2018 and 2019.

Lawyer and activist Habeel Iqbal told Al Jazeera that in the last two years, UAPA has been used in Indian-administered Kashmir as a “tool for tightening control over its population”.

“Apparently, it is done in the name of security concerns but the real motive seems to be political. People are detained for months without trial and the courts are being used to legitimise the police excesses and arbitrariness,” he said.

Soon after its 2019 decision, the BJP government closed down six semi-autonomous commissions in the region, including the State Human Rights Commission, Commission for Protection and Women and Child Rights, and Commission for Persons with Disabilities.

At the time of its closure, the region’s rights panel had at least 8,000 pending cases of torture , enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and rapes. Thousands of families have been left without any hope for justice due to the closures.

Nearly a year after these commissions were shut, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) raided the offices and residences of two top rights activists in the region: Parveena Ahanger, the head of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, and Khurram Parvez, a member of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS).

After the raids, human rights activism in the region has been completely throttled.

JKCCS chairman Parvez Imroz told Al Jazeera that in the past two years, rights violations by India’s security forces have become more brazen in the restive region.

“[…] Because along with political impunity, they now enjoy moral impunity,” he said, adding that the “neutralisation of civil society and human rights groups” is against the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Depriving people of their daily rights, using threats and intimidation to silence people … Whatever little agitation and protest victims used to have that space has been choked.”

A Kashmiri villager stands on the debris of a house destroyed in a gunfight in Pulwama, Indian-administered Kashmir [File: Dar Yasin/AP]

No end to violence

One of the arguments the BJP government had made while enforcing its 2019 decision was that the move will reduce the armed rebellion against the Indian rule in the region, which started more than 30 years ago.

But the records tell another story.

A local official, on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that in the first seven months of 2021, at least 80 local youths have joined the rebellion. In 2020, 163 had joined, he said.

Last month, at least 31 armed rebels were killed in more than a dozen gun battles, with the trend showing there is no end to violence in the region.

Civilian fatalities have also risen. While 32 civilians were killed during protests or security operations last year, at least 19 civilians lost their lives in the first six months of 2021, report by a local civil society group says.

Yashwant Sinha, the former federal minister and member of Human Rights Forum Jammu and Kashmir, told Al Jazeera there is a lot of resentment among people because of what happened two years ago.

“The trust deficit has deepened. It is a sullen silence,” he said after his visit to the region last week.

“To tell you the truth, normalcy has not returned to the Kashmir valley. The fact that there is no stone-throwing in the streets and there are no demonstrations does not mean normalcy has returned.”

Fears of dispossession

After it tightened its grip over the region militarily, the federal government also introduced a series of policy decisions and abolished many historic land laws, which protected the land rights of the region’s natives for decades.

New Delhi on Tuesday released a 76-page document, Jammu and Kashmir: Marching to a new tune, highlighting the “achievements” of the government since August 5, 2019.

In the document, the government said it has issued four million domicile certificates issued to people to settle in Indian-administered Kashmir, including 55,931 certificates given to Hindu and Sikh refugees who came to the region in 1947 when the subcontinent was partitioned to form India and Pakistan.

The document further said that nearly 3,000 similar certificates were issued to members of the marginalised Valmiki community, who work as sanitation workers, and to hundreds of Gurkhas brought to Kashmir from Nepal. Until August 5, 2019, these individuals were not recognised as citizens of the erstwhile state.

However, the document is silent on the number of domicile certificates given to people from other Indian states, a silence that is heightening anxiety in the Muslim-majority region about New Delhi trying to alter its demography.

Besides, New Delhi has also thrown open other gates for the outsiders to settle in the region. Jobs earlier reserved for permanent residents of the region are now open to domicile certificate holders.

Moreover, in another disturbing trend, at least 11 government employees have been terminated from their jobs for “being a threat to the state”.

Local political analyst Sheikh Showkat Hussain told Al Jazeera the moves have created a fear of dispossession and loss of rights over jobs and land

“All the apprehensions people had about the status quo have proved true,” he said.

“They were apprehensive that if the status quo continues, they will be outnumbered by those who come from Indian states and they will be dispossessed of their land and identity. All of this has come true.”

Politician Tarigami said people of the region are “being ripped apart into smaller units, ripped off their jobs and rights over the natural resources that are theirs”.

Sinking economy

Perhaps the worst impact of the 2019 decision has been on the region’s economy, which traders and industrialists say has collapsed, with thousands of job losses and rising unemployment.

Sheikh Ashiq, the president of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry told Al Jazeera that  the region’s economy has suffered losses worth $7bn in two years of consecutive lockdowns, first due to the scrapping of the special status and later due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“When we were hoping to revive the trade after the 2019 lockdown, COVID-19 hit the region. We conveyed to the government the need for comprehensive support to revive the businesses,” Ashiq told Al Jazeera.

Ashiq said at least 500,000 Kashmiris have lost their jobs since 2019, including nearly 60,000 employed in the flagship tourism and horticulture sectors.

With the existing economy of the region on the verge of collapse, local businesses are not hopeful of new investments in the region.

“The businesses who have already invested their blood and money should be saved first,” said Ashiq.

Siddiq Wahid, the former vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology in the region, said New Delhi’s decisions have put even the BJP government “in a difficult position” by creating more trouble spots.

“It has worsened for Delhi,” he told Al Jazeera. “Now, it (government) has four trouble spots to control. The Jammu area feels economically deprived due to land rights that have been taken away from them. Ladakh is another spot as they are not happy with New Delhi because they were promised a union territory with powers of local authority which has not happened.”

Source: Al Jazeera