Behind Modi’s Blackout in Kashmir

A Jacobin contributor in Kashmir interviewed dozens of ordinary Kashmiris in the midst of Modi’s brutal communications clampdown on the region. Despite the Indian government’s best efforts, Kashmiris’ demands for self-determination cannot stay invisible forever.

A Kashmiri Muslim woman walks in front a graffiti written on a shuttered shop by Kashmirs in the old city after the revocation of special status, on September 19, 2019 in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir, India. (Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)

On August 5, the Indian government, led by prime minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution. Article 370 has accorded a special status to the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir since 1947, including a separate constitution, autonomy over internal administrative matters, and under which only permanent residents were afforded property and franchise rights.

As Samreen Mushtaq and Musadir Amin explain, while Article 370 was illegitimate for granting India power over Kashmir in the first place, it at least articulated some (frequently violated) rights for Kashmiris. Now, “with the article gone, there is nothing tethering Kashmir to India, save for its imperialist designs and settler colonialist goals. Once Kashmir’s land is available for anyone from India to buy, Kashmiris worry that it won’t be long before they’re displaced from their home.”

Modi knows there is no democratic basis for such a radical imposition of the Indian government’s power over Kashmir, so he is carrying out Article 370’s abrogation by force. The Indian government has imposed a communications blackout on Kashmir, suspending internet and phone services, all enforced by paramilitary rule. He is hoping to make Kashmir, and Kashmiris, invisible to the wider world, so that he can carry out his political agenda in the region while news agencies continue to regale India as “the world’s largest democracy.”

But Kashmiris can speak for themselves. Jacobin contributor Mehdi Khawaja was on the scene in Kashmir just as the lockdown began. He spent his days of curfew walking through inner streets and bylanes, striking up roadside conversations and speaking to anyone who was willing. He returned with his recorder full of conversations. Here, against the best efforts of the Indian government, are Kashmiris in their own words, on the political situation that has been imposed on them. Mehdi has concealed the identity of speakers in accordance with their own wishes.

Housewife, downtown, 45 years old:

One can’t even pray for the destruction of his house: it is already destroyed; he doesn’t have a home, a family. Only a childless man can be so cruel [Referring to Modi] . . . I have been cooking potatoes and lentils on alternate days. That’s all there is in our kitchen. Now, I started experimenting with the potatoes, to make them look and taste different so that my children don’t throw them in my face. Today’s children, you know . . . When the curfew was imposed, we bought the stock for about three weeks. We thought, even if it will be very serious, after three weeks things will ease down. But you can’t buy vegetables for three weeks: they rot. What doesn’t rot are potatoes and lentils, and now even they are running out. After this, what should I feed my children with? Modi’s liver or [BJP minister of home affairs] Amit Shah’s?

A man standing on the bend of a road on a curfew day, 42 years old:

Will what I tell you appear in a newspaper? Then wait, let me think about what I should tell you . . . Look, if you ask around here, everyone will tell you that my ideas have always been pro-India, although there is no truth in that. It is only that I admired [former Indian cricket player] Kapil Dev more than [former Pakistani cricket player] Javed Miandad . . . Amit Shah has not done a mistake. He has committed a blunder. It looked so un–Amit Shah when he said in the Parliament, “We will give our life for Kashmir.” History tells us that these people don’t give life for anything; they take away lives. They cut people and places into pieces . . . like they cut Jammu and Kashmir into pieces . . . you know who was Ehsan Jafri [an Indian politician who was killed during an episode of anti-Muslim mob violence in the 2002 Gujarat riots]?

Did you watch the discussion on Article 370 bill in Upper House and Lower House? I was watching it in a room with twenty other people (it was the only house with a working satellite network in my locality, as the Indian authorities had shut down cable network, too) . . . It was like we were looking at the funeral of someone dear to us . . . One man in the room remarked, “BJP has brought together goons and criminals for ministers.” Not one person in them knows what it is to speak decently, and I don’t understand why everyone from that party, their supporters, sympathizers, and ideologues shout. They never talk, they only make noise. Now they will come to Kashmir to make noise. Oh God, may everyone with ill intentions about Kashmir not live to see tomorrow.

Photographer, male, 32 years old:

It’s all messed up. They have ruined everything . . . BJP and its supporters are putting their ill ideas and bad intentions under the disguise of, “We will put up factories there, industries there, big malls and hospitals. We will bring development to Kashmir.” I am saying, well, who asked for that? I mean, have you ever seen a Kashmiri man chanting in anger, “We want factories, we want industries!” This fight which has now stretched over seventy years is not about money but dignity. We don’t want to live under humiliation, disgrace, and the shadow of guns. Just today [Indian millionaire] Anil Ambani, that man with a constipated look on his face, said that I am ready to back the development initiatives in Kashmir. What development is that son-of-Dhirubhai talking about? Kashmir is not a metropolitan city and doesn’t have to be one, because it is what we call a hill station, a tourist destination. It has its own ways of running the economy. They will pollute Kashmir like any other Indian city and in the end do what they have always wanted to do: change the region’s demography. They will raze all the trees and jungles and put up factories. In Kashmir, we don’t buy an AC because we don’t need one. Even during summers, temperature is mild; not that we can’t afford one. Now, when they put up factories where the trees were, we too will have to live in what I call the “artificially cooled” air. We don’t want what they call development. Climate change is already wreaking havoc in this region. Remember the 2014 floods? What I am saying is this: look how developed they have made Delhi with all the facilities a man of this generation may want, but at what cost? In a few years to come, the air in Delhi would be so harmful and poisonous that people will have to vacate the place in order to survive. Even now, people don’t prefer Delhi anymore. So in this I believe Kashmiris tend to side more with Rousseau’s naturalism, you know, living by what nature directly gives us. And the idea in the minds of Indians that Kashmir is some sort of a backward place is so very wrong. As many people repeated on TV news shows, we have better statistics than Gujarat and other Indian cities. Everyone here has a home, even the poorest of all, even the beggars have a house. Not a flat or a room or two. A house with some plot of land. Look at India, every city is filled with people sleeping on roads. And these people are many, many. Is that the “development” they want to bring here? Kashmir is the place where laborers, masons, carpenters, and other skilled workers from Indian cities like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan come to earn their livelihood. They say that in Kashmir they make more money; why else would they stay in a conflict zone? That’s not it. Indian beggars come to Kashmir to beg. Every Kashmiri will tell you that beggars from India at one point had become a menace in Kashmir because of their number and their behavior: they took hold of one’s clothes unless given money. I want to tell this to all those idiots who know nothing about Kashmir. If they want to bring development, let them start with Indian cities like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar; if they need the help of Kashmiris, we will be happy to contribute.

A student of history, male, 23 years old:

Do you want to know the truth? Well, if you are publishing this in an Indian publication, the editor will surely cut it out . . . India never behaved like a democracy in Kashmir. It is a dictatorship proper. By all this, they are stuffing the hearts of Kashmiris with more and more hatred for them. Yesterday, I heard my aunt saying, “Indians think [BJP politician] Sushma Swaraj died because of a heart problem, but they don’t know it was the effect of our prayers for their destruction. Now keep looking, they will all perish one by one within the next one year.” Their obsession for a Hindu nation will make them do terrible things blindly and inhumanely, exactly like the Nazis did in Germany to acquire a pure race. The only difference being that India is backed by the global powers. We need to look back into history to predict what may happen in the immediate future. To me, the picture of future looks grim. There will be blood.

There will be blood, and there will be much more. BJP has been planning all this for a very long time, and they know exactly what they want to do after this. Now that they can own land in Kashmir, they will establish settler colonies for people from India to live here. And to make sure the protection of those people, they will bring in still more troops. Ultimately, they will displace the Kashmiris — and, who knows, maybe kill many, as they never hesitated in doing that; they will change the entire demography of Kashmir, destroy a whole lot of people, and then receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tailor, male, 52 years old:

Do you know, this silence that engulfs Kashmir right now is poison for Modi. On the international platforms, he will have to answer why more than 7 million people were dumb for a stretch of, say, thirty days or fifty days. What will he say? That I put them under severe clampdown because I wanted to take away the last of their rights? That I didn’t want the truth, which is of course very ugly, to come out to the world? Do you think no one will hold him accountable? People around the world must be taking notice. Those who are involved in this can’t get away with it.

University student, female, 25 years old:

What angers me the most is the lies they tell. Farooq Abdullah, who has been the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir three times and is a member of Parliament, was under house arrest on the day they presented the bill in the Lower House, and when the opposition raised a concern about one member of the House being under arrest for no reason, Amit Shah, the home minister of India, at first didn’t answer them. Later, when the deed was almost done, he said that Abdullah was not under detention and that he had stayed at home on his own will. You know the kind of person Farooq Abdullah is . . . when he watched that on the TV, he got up and told the forces outside his house that your home minister is saying I am not under house arrest, who are you to keep me detained? The truth is that even today, weeks later, he continues to be under house arrest.

As the days passed by, their lies became bigger and bigger . . . did you see how they lied about Soura [a neighbourhood in the Kashmiri city of Srinagar]? They opened fire at people in Soura twice: on the first Friday after the abrogation of Article 370 and on the day of Eid. Later in the evening of that fateful Friday, my father himself went to Soura and confirmed that people were fired upon. BBC reported it. An Indian establishment in Kashmir came out with videos saying that international media should act responsibly; that everything was peaceful. I mean, how can the world not see through their lies? Why is the whole world not holding them accountable for what they are doing with us? I believe it is all about business. No one wants to lose a trading partner for unfortunate people like us. And on the day of Eid, at around 10 o’clock in the morning, I was having tea with my family when we heard clear and distinct gunshots coming from the direction between Eidgah and Soura. As a Kashmiri, I can tell the sound of an AK-47 from the sound of tear gas and other ammunitions while sitting in my room. I don’t know if you will understand, but to me it is a loud but thin sound, somewhat like the sound that is produced when you smack your tongue. Some of my neighbors later went to that place and confirmed that they had indeed used live bullets on protesters. In the evening of the same day, some DGP or IGP [director general of police or inspector general of police] and another Indian guy who called himself a spokesperson of Jammu and Kashmir government appeared on TV and said, “not a single bullet was fired today.” The spokesperson guy, who used the words “dynamic” and “perspective” in his every sentence and without context, said because thousands of Muslims in the valley had offered Eid namaz, that indicates the situation is peaceful and everything is normal. Such ludicrousness. Namaz is a prayer. People had to pray anyhow. I feared that the next thing he is going to say is that because all the Kashmiris are breathing, that means the situation is largely peaceful and everything is normal . . . hahahahaha . . . perfect morons. If I tell you all the lies Indian authorities have told in these mere ten days, your recorder will run out of space. I would have offered you tea, but there is no milk in the house . . . here, have these apples. My sister also wants to tell you a few things.

Sister of university student, 28 years old:

I have no faith in India’s Supreme Court. Their judiciary is so spineless they would not say a word against their government. I have no hope in other countries, too. All the leaders in all the countries are robbers and butchers. Come to think of it, India is not the only country torturing and shooting people. Who will speak for us? If Saudia Arabia stands against India, India will tell them: Hello, habibi, what are you doing in Yemen yourself? Had China really been determined to start bothering India for this, India would answer what the hell are you doing in Xinjiang or Tibet? Similarly to USA, India’s response would have been . . . oh my God, for USA there so many responses. This list never ends, it goes on and on, and there are almost all the major countries who are in one way or another killing human beings or treating them like dirt. In fact, UN, what did they do? All they did was tweet and held a meeting behind closed doors on China’s request, which was originally Pakistan’s request and out of which nothing came out. The world has shrunk into social media, and people think that problems of the real world can be solved there, and you know what the sad news is? UN, too, has an office on social media which, apparently, is their only working office now.

Some days after the abrogation of Article 370, I was watching the news on Al Jazeera. The scrolling text in the bottom of the screen read: “Afghan Taliban urges India and Pakistan to refrain from violence” [laughs] . . . I waited for the text to reappear so I could confirm I had not read it wrong. I even clicked a photo of it, here, look. I realized that this is how bad things are here: even Taliban is requesting to maintain peace.

Mother of a cardiologist, 60–65 years old:

When Farooq Abdullah cried on TV, I wiped the screen with my dupatta. My son switched off the television that very instant. He said all of these local politicians were looters and it is good we got rid of them for a while. Now, what can I say . . . My son and everyone here think that [Pakistani prime minister] Imran Khan will get into a war with India for them, will liberate them from the tyranny of this system that they like to call democracy. Imran Khan is that child of a good family whose parents don’t allow him to play with the rogues on the streets. He’s so soft-spoken and well mannered, he should learn something from Indian ministers.

Journalist, female, 28 years old:

Did you see that? India’s national security advisor, Ajit Doval, having lunch with people from Shopian [a district in Kashmir]? I can bet those few people around him in the video were either employees of J&K Police or common men forced out of their houses on gunpoint and asked to surround Doval and serve him biryani to show the world that Kashmiris are happy and are partying with us. I mean, do they even know what Shopian is? Or, for that matter, downtown? Do they think a man from such a place will simply stand in front of Doval and do nothing, not tell him in his face that we want freedom from you? I live in the downtown. The day Doval came to downtown, the restrictions were so tight that I doubt if a single pigeon was flying in the sky . . . common man from downtown talking to Doval, hehn! Ultimate happened when the news channel CNN-IBN showed that in a survey they had carried out 53 percent of the population in Kashmir were found to support the abrogation of Article 370. That’s pure madness. I mean, how the hell did they even carry out the survey? Every means of communication is down. People are locked up and streets are deserted. These biased Indian television channels must have made a lot of money these days, you know what I mean . . . I fail to understand how much BJP must be spending per hour on Kashmir right now. They have to pay so many people to keep us under lockdown.