'It is suffocating': Indian crackdown in occupied Kashmir has even forced the valley's poets into silence
India's brutal repression in occupied Kashmir has risen to a level that now even poets are "muzzled" in the disputed territory, according to a New York Times report.
The report is based on interviews of over a dozen poets from the valley, who said “increased surveillance has left them with no choice but to stop writing resistance poetry or forced them to read it in places far from the gazing eyes of the agents of the state”.
It said Indian forces had been keeping the largely Muslim region "under a tight grip", following the repealing of Article 370 of the Indian constitution — a move that stripped occupied Kashmir of special autonomy — and arrival of additional Indian soldiers in the valley in 2019.
One of the poets interviewed for the report was Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, who writes under the pen name of Madhosh Balhami.
He told The New York Times that he now read and composed poetry in secret as the Indian authorities had stepped up the crackdown on dissent.
The poet recalled that in the mid-1990s, when uprisings were at their peak in the valley, he used to sing
eulogies for those who died while fighting for freedom at their funerals. And that he was jailed for the act.
"The local government dragged him to detention centres, where he wrote poetry and read it to fellow detainees after they were hung by their wrists and forced to stare at high-voltage lamps,” the report said.
“In the last 30 years I have never seen this kind of suppression,” Bhat was quoted as saying. “There is silence everywhere, as if the silence is the best cure for our present crisis.”
According to the report, a confrontation between Indian forces and some armed men at his residence in 2018 led to him losing his house and over a thousand pages of poetry.
Bhat described watching the flames at his family home as "watching his own body burn".
Today, he keeps his poems largely to himself. Over the past two years, police have summoned him several times and told him he was trying to sow discord.
In these times, he said, silence is golden.
“India has largely prevailed to choke our voices, but the cry of freedom inside our hearts will remain. It will not die,” he added.
The New York Times report said three of the poets interviewed shared that they were recently questioned for hours by police officers after they spoke to journalists.
“We are not allowed to breathe until and unless we breathe as per the rules and the wishes of the government,” said Zabirah, a female Kashmiri poet who goes by one name. “The silencing of voices, the freedom to speak and vent grievances, all is gone, and it is suffocating.”
Now, under the repressive Indian regime, Zabirah found inspiration in occupied Kashmir's military checkpoints and had reproduced one of her poems that denounced oppressive measures.
Nirmal Singh, a top leader of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and former deputy chief minister of occupied Kashmir told The New York Times that officials' intent behind stringent measures in the valley was to curb dissent.
“Be it poets or anyone else, questioning India’s territorial integrity will not be allowed. If you speak about azadi (freedom) or Pakistan, that will not be allowed,” Singh was quoted as saying.
According to the report, journalists in Indian-occupied Kashmir, too, had been barred from flying out of India and police had threatened to slap anti-terrorism charges on reporters who tweeted about the situation in the valley.
“Since 2019, more than 2,300 people have been jailed under stringent sedition and antiterrorism laws, which criminalised such activities as raising slogans or posting political messages on social media," the report said, citing an Indian media outlet.
It added that police even stopped peaceful protests, recalling that when Kashmiri shopkeepers did not open businesses on August 5 this year, the second anniversary of revocation of occupied Kashmir's special status, men donning plain clothes and armed with long iron rods and blades had cut locks on the shops' doors in Srinagar.
“The police appeared with the men cutting the locks and did nothing to stop them," it said.
Such grave incidents moved Kashmiri poet Zeeshan Jaipuri to compose a poem voicing concern over the prevailing grim situation.
Jaipuri, the grandson of a famous Kashmiri poet, grew embittered in 2010, when a tear-gas canister killed his 17-year-old neighbour, according to the report. He grew to hate his school textbooks, which portrayed Kashmir as a happy tourist place.
Still, he said, in past years artists and poets did not need to struggle so hard to find places to express themselves.
“Now we read our poetry to ourselves, or to a few close friends,” Jaipuri said. “Our throats are pressed because the government doesn’t want us to breathe in fresh air,” he said.