'Time needed to restore order in Kashmir,' says Indian apex court as govt claims easing restrictions in phases
Indian authorities need more time to restore order in Kashmir, a Supreme Court justice said on Tuesday as a security clampdown entered a ninth day since New Delhi revoked the region's special status, triggering protests.
The court is hearing an activist's petition seeking to lift curbs on communications and movement that have disrupted normal life and essential services in the Himalayan region.
Telephone lines, internet and television networks have been blocked since August 5 when India withdrew occupied Jammu and Kashmir's right to frame its own laws and allowed non-residents to buy property there.
Restrictions on movement and assembly, including a ban on gatherings of more than four people, were tightly enforced on Tuesday in the region's main city, Srinagar.
Menaka Guruswamy, a lawyer for the petitioner, said the court should move to restore hospital services and open schools.
“That is all I ask,” she told the Supreme Court in New Delhi.
Justice Arun Mishra said the government wanted to bring Kashmir back to normal as soon as possible.
“The situation is such that nobody knows what is going on. We should give them time to restore normalcy. Nobody can take one per cent of chance,” Mishra said. “Who will be responsible if something really bad happens tomorrow?”
The petition also seeks the release of detained political leaders in Kashmir, among more than 300 people held to prevent widespread protests.
The court is expected to rule on the petition in a few days.
Attorney General K.K. Venugopal had told India's Supreme Court security appeared to be getting better.
“The situation in J&K is being reviewed every day and there are signs of improvement,” Venugopal said, as the court heard the plea against the lockdown.
Meanwhile, an Indian home ministry spokesperson claimed on Twitter that the restrictions “are being eased out in a phased manner” in the tinderbox Kashmir Valley.
Normal communication in the more peaceful Jammu division of the region “has been restored after assessment by relevant local authorities”, the spokesperson added.
There was no independent confirmation of the easing of restrictions. On Tuesday afternoon people in Kashmir could still not be reached by phone and the internet appeared to be inaccessible.
The spokesperson said that medical services are being provided “without any hindrance” and the availability of medicines has “been ensured” in every hospital in the valley.
A main highway through the region “continues to function normally”, with 100 heavy vehicles “plying daily” carrying fuel and other essentials.
Furthermore, Indian officials announced plans for a three-day investor summit in Kashmir beginning October 12, to kickstart economic growth.
Navin Kumar Choudhary, occupied Jammu and Kashmir's principal secretary of industry and commerce, said the government would try to drum up investment in tourism, horticulture and film production in Kashmir, famous for its alpine scenery and fertile soil.
Modi's government has said the old laws prohibiting people from outside Kashmir from buying property, settling there and taking up government jobs had hindered its development.
Restrictions were lifted in five districts of Jammu on Monday, and relaxed in nine Kashmir districts, the home ministry said. Still, it said there would be heightened security for Pakistan's Independence Day on Wednesday followed by India's the next day and then Muslim Friday prayers.
On Monday, authorities sealed off parts of Srinagar, where hundreds of people shouting anti-India slogans spilled onto the streets following prayers on the Muslim festival of Eidul Azha.
Rahul Gandhi, a leader of India's opposition Congress party, said on Tuesday he and his colleagues want to visit the region, responding to media reports of an invitation from authorities overseeing Kashmir.
Gandhi tweeted “but please ensure us the freedom to travel and meet the people, mainstream leaders and our soldiers stationed over there”.
The Indian home ministry spokesperson on Tuesday also confirmed for the first time that clashes took place on Friday after prayers.
According to residents around 8,000 people took part in a protest, with security forces firing tear gas and pellet-firing shotguns to break up the demonstration.
“(The) miscreants mingled with people returning home after prayers at a local mosque. They resorted to unprovoked stone pelting against law enforcement forces to cause widespread unrest,” the spokesperson tweeted.
“Law enforcement authorities showed restraint and tried to maintain law & order situation. It is reiterated that no bullets have been fired in #JammuAndKashmir since the development related to #Article370,” the spokesperson added, referring to the scrapped article in India's constitution related to Kashmir.
Authorities had eased restrictions temporarily on Sunday to let residents buy food and supplies for Eid, a major Muslim festival.
But security was tightened again after sporadic protests involving hundreds of people during the day, residents said. Police vans roamed the streets late Sunday ordering people to stay indoors.
For Eid on Monday the Himalayan region's biggest mosque, the Jama Masjid, was ordered shut and people were only allowed to pray in smaller local mosques so that no big crowds could gather, witnesses said.
Footage filmed by AFP on Monday showed hundreds of people protesting in the Soura area of Srinagar, shouting slogans such as “We want freedom” and “India go back”.
Three helicopters continuously hovered over the area as protesters jeered and shook fists at the aircraft.
“What India has done is unacceptable to us. Our struggle will continue even if India keeps Kashmir locked down for months. Only solution is that India has to accept what Kashmiris want,” one protester said.
“India is a sham democracy and the world should take note of the atrocities this country is doing against us,” another said.
India has raised concerns about some Twitter posts on the situation in occupied Kashmir, where Kashmiri fighters have been fighting Indian rule for nearly three decades.
Police in Kashmir said they asked Twitter to act against a malicious post from one user. Indian media reported on Monday that the government had asked the company to suspend eight accounts accused of spreading false information about Kashmir.
A police officer while speaking to NDTV news network alleged that some of the accounts were run by Pakistan's spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
A spokesman for the publicity wing of Pakistan's military and intelligence services said it had no involvement in the accounts.
Madiha Shakil Khan, who operates one of the eight Twitter accounts, said she was not formally contacted by Twitter, but one of her tweets about fighting for Kashmir's freedom was blocked in India.
Khan, whose account @Red4Kashmir has about 700 followers, lives in Islamabad but hails from Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
“I am tweeting in solidarity with Kashmiris,” Khan, 28, told Reuters by telephone, adding that she had no ties to Pakistan's ISI.
“Kashmir is being totally censored. They only want the Indian narrative. Every month they suspend me.”
Twitter and India's federal home ministry did not respond to requests for comment.