Kashmir has gone quiet.
The streets of its cities, often reverberating with chants against Indian rule, are all but empty. The region is in the third week of an unprecedented lockdown that has largely kept its 7 million residents indoors.
But the anger among Kashmiris is palpable. It stems from a surprise decision by India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government to subsume the semi-autonomous region into the fold of the federal government by revoking its decades-old special status. On Aug. 5, the Modi government also proposed, and the following day passed, a bill downgrading the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two federal territories.
For days before the dramatic changes took place, rumors swirled in Kashmir that something big was afoot. New Delhi deployed thousands of troops to the Himalayan valley that has long been bitterly contested by Pakistan and India, and was already one of the most militarized regions on Earth. The government evacuated hundreds of Hindu pilgrims from the area around a remote mountain shrine. Tourists scrambled to leave.
Just before midnight on Aug. 4, Kashmir’s communications network went dark. Telephone landlines, cell phones, WiFi, broadband and cable TV were cut.
As a result, many Kashmiris were in the dark the following morning when Modi’s home minister announced the changes to Kashmir to an uproar from the opposition in Parliament.To prevent uprisings, the government imposed an indefinite curfew, dotting city streets with military barricades manned by thousands of armed soldiers shouldering assault rifles. Three weeks later, police in riot gear are there to help a limited stream of vehicles and pedestrians navigate the security maze.
Kashmir has been under siege before.
The problems in the region extend back to independence from the British raj and partition, in 1947, which left India in control of most of Kashmir, and Pakistan and China in charge of other parts of the territory. Most people in Hindu-majority India’s only Muslim-majority area support independence or a merger with Pakistan. The Indian government has often tried to suppress uprisings, including a bloody armed rebellion in 1989. About 70,000 people have been killed since that uprising and the subsequent Indian military crackdown that has left Kashmiris traumatized and broken.
But this latest decision has rendered Kashmiris helpless. They are unable to tell their stories to the world. Even the postal services to the region have been suspended.
While sporadic protests have erupted in several neighborhoods in Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city, images of what’s happening in the region are sporadic and incomplete. Using the controversial Public Safety Act, India’s armed forces have arrested protesters, professionals and even former state politicians who once defended India’s right to rule.
Some security restrictions have been lifted elsewhere in the region, such as in the Hindu-majority area of Jammu, where people were seen cheering the move by the government in street celebrations last week.
The change unfolded days before the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. Congregational Eid prayers were prohibited in most places; the government decided which mosques would be opened. This has furthered angered the people of the region, as they gear up for a long period of strife.
Text from AP News story, Hundreds defy restrictions, join protests in Kashmir, by Ashok Sharma and Edith M. Lederer