TORTURE is defined as: “the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment, or in order to force them to do or say something”. Amidst the challenges faced by communities worldwide due to the coronavirus pandemic, the term takes on new significance considering the condition of Kashmiris across the LoC holed up inside their homes. Can an entire eight-million-strong population be tortured collectively?
As if solitude had taken away his sensitivity, the recently released pro-India Kashmiri politician Omar Abdullah tweeted, as a ‘joke’, that multiple lockdowns have somehow prepared Kashmiris better than anyone else for the 21-day lockdown in India. Even if the joke was meant to be sardonic in nature, it dilutes the enormity of the injustice of it all.
Occupied Jammu & Kashmir has been under lockdown since Aug 5, 2019. The BJP revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution that allowed special rights for Jammu & Kashmir, such as the ability to make its own laws when it came to permanent residency, property ownership, and fundamental rights. It also barred non-Kashmiris from owning land or settling there. A cruel lockdown and communications blackout followed immediately afterwards. This mass confinement came as Kashmiris were expected to protest against such blatant attempts to change the demographics of their region, which threatens to erase their identity and right to their homeland.
The idea that this is somewhat easier for Kashmiris is torturous at worst and ill-informed at best. The continuing communication blackout ie lack of access to 4G internet technology is disgraceful. Despite international calls to provide it with this technology amidst the Covid-19 outbreak, the Narendra Modi-led BJP is bent on destroying not just the identity and livelihoods of Kashmiris, but their very psyches, a fact reinforced by the introduction of the new domicile law. Imagine being in a seemingly indefinite lockdown, without access to internet, in a place many experts are deeming extremely vulnerable to the Covid-19 outbreak. If that is not mental torture, then what is?
The lockdown is worse for Kashmiris in IHK.
Besides the severe societal-level anxiety and depression Kashmiris are bound to experience during this lonely time, there are multiple ways in which this lockdown is worse for Kashmiris than for those in India (and the world) in practical terms.
According to Daniel Bastard of Reporters without Borders: “At a time when people under lockdown all over the world are using the internet to work, communicate and get information, 8m Kashmiris continue to be cut off from the absolutely vital information that is needed to prevent the spread of the pandemic.” Many Kashmiris do not have access to necessary information related to preventive or curative measures against the spread of Covid-19. Already there is a stark disparity between Kashmir and India when it comes to preparedness to manage Covid-19 with one doctor for 3,866 people in the former, and 2,000 people in the latter.
There are thousands of young Kashmiri boys and men who have been jailed and allegedly tortured since August 2019. Although many countries are considering releasing prisoners from overcrowded jails to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission, no such initiative has been made on behalf of the BJP when it comes to Kashmiris, despite calls to do so.
The lockdown is a continuation of disruption of life in Kashmir. Kashmiris had been out of school since August 2019, and with the communication blackout, did not have access to online education. This continues till today, as Kashmiri children stay home and stay uneducated, while online education becomes available to all others. Kashmiris cannot ‘work from home’, as many lost their jobs and businesses since the security lockdown and clampdown on communication began. Kashmir’s economy has been devastated in the past seven months, erasing entire industries.
At this point, even if the same number of jobs remained, Kashmiris would not be able to ‘work from home’ like the rest of the world. There is no Skype or Zoom to call friends and loved ones. While India counts down the 21 days, even as Modi himself plans a ‘staggered exit’ from an obviously ill-thought-out national lockdown, Kashmiris know there is no end in sight. If that is not torture, then what is?
By design, the lockdown in India-held Kashmir is meant to suppress. The BJP revoked Article 370 apparently to fulfil a campaign promise to integrate Kashmir with India. It is clear from the Kashmir version of the #21daylockdown that Kashmir is not a part of India. And potential consequences resulting from this atrocity can mean that it never will be either, no matter how many are attempted to be browbeaten into submission.
The writer works at TRT World Research Centre in Istanbul.
Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2020