Dispatches from the Valley: Kashmiris mark the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birthday with Satyagraha
Two months into the aggravated occupation of Kashmir, how are Kashmiris faring? Sociologist Nandini Sundar and lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan report on their recent visit to the valley.
Between 5th and 9th October 2019, we visited three different regions of the Kashmir Valley: Srinagar, Shopian/Pulwama, and Sopore/Kupwara. There, we spoke to a cross-section of people: taxi drivers, shopkeepers, street hawkers, farmers, teachers, lawyers, journalists, and bureaucrats, among others.
Of the approximately 75 plus people we spoke to in these five days, not a single person we met was happy with the evisceration of Article 370 and Article 35A, as well as the conversion of the state into a Union Territory. Almost every single person wanted azadi [freedom], though what they meant by this varied between, on the one hand, complete independence (i.e. not being with either India or Pakistan) and, on the other, a merger with Pakistan. The constituency for Pakistan has increased drastically, along with those who regard Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani as their main leader. There are no takers for the so-called full integration that the Government of India is promising post-370, especially given that this promise has come with a communication blockade, heavy military presence, severe repression, and the denial of fundamental rights which are in theory available to every Indian citizen.
One old Pandit man, who had stayed back in the valley, told us he was ambivalent about azadi, saying “My children are in Delhi so I can’t stay apart from them”. But then he added, “the people here will never accept in their hearts being part of India.” He too was unhappy about the abrogation of 370, though he felt “the government may be able to ride it out, since Pakistan is not a match for India.” One group of supporters of the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) party in Handwara felt “normalcy” may return if Article 370 is restored. But they also said, “who doesn’t want azadi?”. A Gujjar sarpanch, who recognized that they were a minority as Scheduled Tribes (STs) in Kashmir, said,“even animals want azadi.” One shopkeeper in Srinagar said that 370 had been so hollowed out that it made little difference, but “still, it was our identity”. Regardless of their specific views, however, everyone felt they had lost their identity, and had been humiliated by not being consulted on their own future.
People are resisting in the only way possible – through satyagraha or nonviolent civil disobedience. There is a complete strike across the state, despite severe economic and educational losses. Since the entire political leadership of the valley is in jail – from mainstream parties to the separatist parties – this satyagraha is being carried out by the people themselves. There is some societal coercion, but by and large, this is entirely voluntary. This is not happening on the direction of militants, contrary to the ads now being run by the government.
People compare the situation in 2019 to that in 2016 after the killing of the Kashmiri separatist Burhan Wani. However, there are major differences. First, now there is no leadership and people are acting on their own. Second, the resistance is across the valley (earlier it was mostly in South Kashmir). Third, even those who were earlier with the Indian government are now completely alienated. And fourth, the communications blackout and the mass arrest of mainstream leaders is also new and unprecedented. The Indian government claims that the major difference is that there is no open resistance and no loss of life. This is blatantly untrue, since people are devising ways to resist and they have also been killed this time (even if fewer).
While people hate the Indian government, they displayed enormous hospitality and graciousness to us as ordinary Indians. They have no problem with Indians, so long as they are not from the media. The Kashmiri press is heavily censored, with Orwellian claims that everything is normal and people are happy. The government runs full-page ads every day telling people the benefits of not having Article 370. The national television media is simply a disgrace since they are collaborating with the government in the pretense that everything is normal. The correspondents for national media report abuses and torture faithfully but the news is not always carried. They remarked that in over two months, there has not been a single editorial in Kashmir on Article 370. Everyone feels that they are being pushed back to the stone age without phones and internet.
The High Court is hardly functioning. Lawyers told us that some 300 habeas corpus petitions had been filed but the court gave generous time to the government by which time the petitions became infructuous. There were hardly any private lawyers.
Even a cursory visit to Kashmir’s villages show a level of prosperity that is much higher than in many parts of India. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Ujjwala Yojana, Housing Schemes and the like are quite unnecessary here, since everybody already has brick houses, toilets, gas cylinders etc.
Unless there is enough international pressure, it appears that in the long-run, the Modi government’s precipitous step will result in a Palestine-like occupation in Kashmir, with heavy costs not just to the Kashmiris but also to the Indian economy and polity.
The mainstream leadership is, by and large, completely discredited. Repeatedly, we heard that if the government can jail even their favoured stooge, JKNC leader Farooq Abdullah, then what is a common person to expect. They also repeatedly pointed out that the government had not even spared Hindu religious sentiment: they sent back Hindus making the pilgrimage to Amarnath Temple in Kashmir. There is no going back from this step.
People are facing huge economic losses due to the curfew-turned-strike. Although there are now officially no restrictions, the uncertainty over where the government has re-imposed restrictions continues. For instance, journalists informed us that the government announced that they have removed restrictions from 20 police precincts without specifying which ones, so people are never fully certain. The heavy deployment of the military also continues, so people feel unsafe.
One taxi driver who was earlier employed at Rs. 8000 per month is now earning Rs. 5000. “[Article] 370 knocked 3000 of my monthly income”, he said. An auto driver said he used to run a hotel with 16 rooms, but since there were no tourists now, he was driving an auto.
Shops are open only from 7-9 am. The strike is largely voluntary but there is also some social enforcement. For instance, we were told that a vegetable seller in Soura who kept open all day found his shack burnt down, a milk man was given a “last warning” for keeping his shop open half day, and an apple grower who sold his fruit found six trees cut overnight. An auto driver said he no longer drives downtown for fear of random stones, so he parks his auto at night at his in-laws and walks 2 km to his home downtown. He works only for a short while in the evening. Apples which have been pre-sold due to advance agreements are being transported under government security, as there are fears of militant attacks.
On October 9th, we found that a couple of establishments (mostly restaurants) began staying open all day. It may be that people will slowly inch back to keeping open their businesses, out of compulsion. However, one apple grower we met said he was “willing to lose 9-10 lakhs every year by not harvesting and selling his apples, if it gets us azadi” [1 lakh = 100,000].
Houseboat owners, workers and others dependent on tourism have been particularly badly hit. One houseboat owner with a five room houseboat said he lost 7 lakhs this year. A shopkeeper who sells perfumes sourced from Gujarat to tourists said that, due to the communications blackout, he was unable to contact his supplier and, anyway, what would be the point since there were no buyers.
Weddings are going on, but the amount of food consumed and numbers invited are much lower than usual. The head of one NGO, Aash, which organizes mass weddings for orphans, said that while last year they had served biryani at these weddings, this year they could only serve kahwa [a Kashmiri tea].
Several people, in both Srinagar and the villages, told us that Kashmiris are able to survive the blockades and strike because of community traditions of support and co-operation, which get strengthened in conflict situations. Those who cannot afford food and other essentials are helped with rations. In places like Aanchar in Srinagar, where locals have barricaded themselves in, many people are agriculturists and have enough paddy stocks.
We visited the Shopian and Sopore fruit markets. The Shopian fruit market was completely closed with not even trucks parked outside. One grower we met said he was prepared to lose lakhs if the strike helped to get azadi.
The Sopore fruit market was also closed, but the Horticulture department office where NAFED (the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India) was purchasing fruit was open. The NAFED officials said that while normally 300 trucks leave the Sopore fruit market per day, they had managed to send out only 3 trucks since September 15th when the Market Intervention Scheme (MIS) was announced. However, they said that (a) those who had already signed agreements with traders from Azadpur market were sending it directly and (b) some informal trading was taking place outside the market. Inside the market, however, it is clear that a complete strike is underway.
Last year, the market turnover was Rs. 1000 crore [1 crore = 10 million]. Now, only 586 farmers out of 94,000 farmers in District Baramulla had registered with NAFED to sell. Out of these 586, only 46 growers had actually sold. This came to 30 metric tons which was sent out in 3 trucks (as mentioned above).
While MIS is pitched as beneficial for apple growers, in practice, because of the sorting into different grades, growers are losing out. Earlier, each crate contained a mix of grades, which were sold at the highest grade.
In Handwara, people are fulfilling their agreements, but those who had not made agreements are suffering. They have to sell their apples against the transport licenses of their neighbours who have prior agreements with traders. And since there is no communication, they have no idea what rates they are getting for their apples.
This year Eid was hardly celebrated. Around Qalamabad in Kupwara, the police went around villages and told people not to gather in Idgahs and not to use loudspeakers. People offered Eid prayers in their local mosques. There was no prayer in the Qalamchakla Idgah either.
While schools are technically open, no children are going to school. The teachers mark attendance for a couple of hours a day, sometimes 2-3 times a week. A six year old girl in Soura Srinagar said she was scared to go to school because “police uncle goli marenge” [the police uncle will shoot us]. Parents don’t want to send their children to school with such heavy militarization and without phones. We were told that the Indian paramilitary (the Central Reserve Police Force, or CRPF) had occupied SP Higher Secondary school since August 5th, but we could not personally verify this.
Rural schools are shut. Even if it’s within the locality, the armed forces are everywhere and people are scared that there may be some incident or shootout.
An 11th standard girl in Parigam village, Pulwama, who was studying for medical entrance tests in a coaching college in Srinagar had now returned home to her village. Exams have been announced for the end of November but she said she didn't know how students would do it since they have not been taught the full course. They could only revise whatever had been covered and the new material was difficult to study on their own. She didn't know how she would be able to give the entrance test.
One school teacher in a middle-class Srinagar school said they distribute assignments to all those children whose addresses they have but don't know how to reach the rest.
A college teacher said that she and other colleagues have been going periodically to college but no students come. On October 9th, when colleges officially opened, we could see almost no students. There is no public transport, so it is hard to see how school or college students would get to the educational institution.
Arrest of children/minors
Small children, some as young as six years, are being picked up and kept for a day to several days, or asked to report morning to evening for several days. Most often, there is no record of their detention. In most cases, their fathers or other relatives are asked to report every day to the police station, as some kind of surety/hostage. Children are picked up on charges of playing resistance taranas (songs) through mosque loudspeakers or pelting stones. This happened even before August 5th, when Article 370 was read down, but the pace has intensified since.
Both in Pulwama and Srinagar, we were told that children are scared to sleep in their own homes at night lest they are picked up. They sleep at a grandmother’s or other relatives’ homes.
For a year or more, the army has been carrying out a census of households in the villages. After August 5th, it was thus easy for them to target families with youth.
We encountered the following cases:
SS village, Shopian district
Approximately 20 children between the ages of 12 and 20 were picked up and kept for 15-20 days. One 12 year old child, whom we’ll call SN and is in class VII, was picked up on August 10th and released on September 25th to a juvenile justice home. There are 6 cases against him – of stone pelting, and damaging houses and vehicles. We were unable to meet his parents and get the exact details.
Other children detained from the village include:
SAM, age 14/15; class X student
ABS, age 14/15years; class X student
AF, age 16 years
IAP. He is from a poor family, so was doing labor.
They were picked up from their houses on August 10th and August 20that around 2 am. They were released in batches of 2-3 between September 20th and 25th. Apart from SN, none have been charged.
The police charged their families Rs. 100 per day for food while the children were kept in the police station. The children were allowed to meet their families for only 10-15 minutes every day. There is huge overcrowding in jails, making it difficult for the children to lie down and sleep.
We did not meet the children themselves – we were told they were out plucking apples (which may or may not have been the case), but we met members of their families and village elders.
SB village, Shopian district
In this village, children had been picked up in May 2019 and released. We met some of them and their parents.
SF, age 12, Class V
AM, age 9, class IV
AS, Age 12, Class III
FF, age 14, Class VII
Two men in civil clothes came on a scooter around 3pm to SF’s house and took him. Then they came to FF’s house and summoned him to the police station. He went with his mother. Then they went to AM’s and AS’ houses and summoned them too. Police left the younger kids off at night but they had to return to the police station the next morning. At the station, children were kicked a couple of times and made to do sit ups holding their ears. AM had been picked up in 2016 as well when he was only six.
FF was inside the police station for 5 days along with two other boys. They were quite badly beaten up. FF’s father also said that when he went to meet him he was told to come back later and could see his son was being beaten. The boys were picked up for playing taraana on the Hanfi mosque loudspeakers in SB village. The police confiscated their IPad and the mosque loud speakers. FF had been away from SB village for a few months and had only just returned when he was picked up by the police.
We spoke to one child who had been picked up and released. Six year old H was picked up from the mosque on August 17that 3 pm, along with T, age 12, class VII, and taken to the police station. They were released at midnight. After that, T’s father and H’s grandfather had to report to the police station from morning to evening for several days. H is now interested in playing with guns and thinks of them all the time.
Parigam Village, Pulwama
Parigam village has two army camps close by. The high school has been shut for two months. Earlier while the army would pass through the village, they did not bother residents. However, after August 5th, they have randomly picked up youth whose houses lie along the main road and tortured them to instill fear. On the night of August 6th, the army picked up 9 to 11 youths between the ages of 20 and 30 from 8 houses, getting one person to knock on the door of another in a chain.
We met two brothers, Shabir Ahmad Sofi (aged 25) and Muzafffar Ahmad Sofi (aged 23), along with their father Sanaullah Sofi, at their home in Parigam village, Pulwama. The family runs a nanwai [bread shop] and bakery. On the night of August 6th, the army first knocked on the door of the chowkidar, Abdul Ghani, and told him to call a man called Qayoom Ahmad Wani who runs a grocery shop. Qayoom was then used to show them the way to the baker’s house. When Sanaullah opened the door, the army asked for his sons (they knew them because of the prior census – the boys had not had any previous charges).
The 9 to 11 youth (the Sofi brothers, Qayoom Ahmad Wani, Yasin Ahmad Bhatt, Muzaffar Ahmad Bhatt and Abdul Ghani’s son) were taken to a spot outside the mosque and beaten with cables and sticks on the road from 12.30 am to 3 am approximately. They were also given electric shocks to revive them after falling unconscious. The boys crawled home on all fours. They have been unable to move for the last two months, let alone work.
When the families of the youth tried to intercede, they were turned back. The army threatened to beat the youth more if anyone tried to stop them. The next morning, the youth were taken to the Government Hospital for Bone and Joint Surgery in Barzulla, Srinagar. The families wanted to file an FIR in Pulwama police station but the station has been closed off with barbed wire.
Sanaullah’s bakery has been shut for the last two months. He incurred a loss of Rs. 2 lakh on the goods he had prepared for Eid, which could not be sold, since the bakery was shut. Now he survives on selling bread in the morning. Earlier his monthly income was about Rs. 25-30,000 per month. Now it is almost nothing.
The number of arrests and preventive detention cases has increased since August 5th. People with old FIRs against them are being picked up and kept in the police stations. Sometimes they are released and some of them are charged under the Public Safety Act (PSA) and kept in Srinagar central jail or taken to Agra. Families are scared that if they protest or speak to the press, the detainees will be charged under the PSA.
Parigam village, Pulwama
Five men were arrested and taken to Pulwama police station sometime after August 5th(exact date unknown). The army hit two girls (one of them is a nursing student) for protesting while their relatives were being taken away. We were unable to talk to this family.
Karimabad village, Shopian
This is a known militant village, with 11 graves in a martyrs’ graveyard. The army has twice demolished the graveyard but people have rebuilt it and put paper flowers on the graves. Here too, the army has picked up youth as part of preventive detention measures and sent them to Agra jail even though they have nothing to do with the militancy personally.
Those arrested include:
Mamoon Ahmad Pandit, aged 17 years, 2nd year student of the degree college, Pulwama, arrested on August 7th, and lodged in Agra central jail under the PSA. His sole crime is that he is the youngest brother of well-known militant Nasir Ahmad Pandit, who died in 2016. We met his mother who said the army came at 2 am on the 7th and told the families the youth were being taken into preventive detention till August 15th. However, when they went to the Pulwama police station on August 16th, they were told he had been taken away.
Munirul Islam, age 20, aka Suhail, son of Bashir Ahmad Pandit, arrested on August 8th at 2.45 am. We met his sister who said the army men jumped over the gate, asked for Suhail, and dragged him out by his neck and hair. The sister and mother were pushed inside the house; the army fired twice on the cement floor and later took the cartridges away. We saw the holes in the floor. Munirul had been previously taken away in July also; his hair was cut and he was beaten. At the police station, the family was told he would be released after August 15th, but on August 14th they heard he was being taken to hospital. The family met him at Pulwama police station, but immediately after he was taken to Srinagar central jail and then Agra jail.
Bilal Ahmad Dar (father of two small children). We did not meet anyone from his family, so have no details.
The charges against all three appear to be for stone pelting, breaking cars, and assisting militants. But we have not seen any papers and the families have not yet been to Agra jail or spoken to lawyers.
Prongroo village, Handwara
3 men have been arrested from this village and are still in jail. We met their families. The three men are:
Mohd Shafi Mir, son of Mohd Maqbool Mir, age 35
Asgar Maqbul Bhat
Nadeem Mohd Sheikh
On September 3rd, the police came to their houses and told them to come to Qalmabad police station in connection with an FIR lodged in 2018. When Mohd Shafi Mir went with his father, they were told he was wanted for stone pelting and attending the funeral procession of the militant Manan Wani (killed in an encounter last year). Mohd Shafi Mir’s remand kept being extended.
Zahoor Ahmad, age 25, was wanted by the police. Since he wasn't home, they picked up his 17 year old brother Danish and kept him in the station for 3 days until Zahoor came. Zahoor was inside for 18 days before he was released. He was accused of sloganeering.
OM, age 18, studies in class 12 Govt High School, was arrested on October 2nd. He was released on October 8th.
We met OM’s family. 17 police cars came to the locality and the police jumped over the courtyard gate and forced the door open when they only needed to knock. They beat the women present with rifle butts and forcibly took away OM who was going upstairs to get his ID. OM’s father was shoved to the wall and cracked his forearm and chest. The police also used pepper gas and tear gas.
Community bond system: Once a person is arrested, people in the community are asked to give surety. In OM’s case, 20 elders from the area were summoned on a daily basis. Their IDs are taken and they have to spend 1-2 hours, sometimes the whole day, in the police station.
Arrest for speaking to the media
Inayat Ahmad of Soura, a shopkeeper, was arrested on August 29th for speaking to Al Jazeera and participating in protests. After 15-16 days in the police station, he was taken to Srinagar central jail where he has been charged under the PSA. The charge-sheet said that he was involved in stone throwing on August 7th, which is not at all likely since he is the father of two kids. The first FIR against him was filed on August 7th (for stone pelting). A second FIR was filed on August 30th for participating in processions and shouting pro-Pakistan slogans.
On September 3rd, Riyaz Ahmad Thickri, from Nandpora Bhandi ward of Bhandi village, died in police custody. He was approximately 20 years old.
Bhandi is a Gujjar village and there are many timber-smuggling cases against the Gujjars here. The villagers say the forest staff take bribes of Rs. 10-20,000, plus they have to pay the lawyers Rs 500 per appearance. With travel costs, it comes to Rs 1000 per appearance. One man said he has been attending court since 2005. Since 2010, the forest department has barred Gujjar routes with barbed wire.
Riyaz Ahmad had just returned from labour in Ladakh when the police came on September 2nd and summoned him to the police station in connection with a year-old timber smuggling FIR. On September 3rd, the police went to his uncle Jamaldeen Shabangi’s house and took him to the police station. There they informed him that his nephew had committed suicide with the drawstring of his shalwar [type of trousers].
However, Jamaldeen and others, upon inspecting Riyaz’s body, saw that his nose was broken and the right side of his body from shoulder to hip was blue and bruised. A post mortem was conducted in Handwara hospital but the family has not been given a copy.
Riyaz’s mother, Shirina Begum, is blind. He has three brothers, two of whom are younger and are now doing odd labor. Riyaz was the main bread earner.
After Riyaz died in police custody, there was a procession from Heral to Varpura, Qalmabad, but the police fired tear gas on the procession. They then seized the dead body and forcibly got buried it near his home before anyone could come. His uncle Jamaldeen was hit on the face during the protest.
Had the Supreme Court intervened earlier – and it may still do so – to restore Article 370 and revert Jammu & Kashmir to its former status as a State of the Union, some of the anger may have been assuaged. However, like everyone else in Kashmir and outside, we are uncertain as to what the future will hold for Kashmir and India.
Nandini Sundar is Professor of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University. Her most recent publication is The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar (Verso 2019).
Nitya Ramakrishnan is a well-known lawyer practicing in New Delhi, India. She has many terror trial defences to her credit, notably the Indian Parliament Attack Case and the Haren Pandya Murder Case.