In Kashmir, the Coronavirus Means Increased Police Powers

People in Kashmir have been suffering a militarized lockdown since August, when India put an end to the region’s semiautonomous status. In a pandemic, that lockdown is set to continue, extending the disciplinary powers of India’s armed forces in a region where tensions are already at boiling point.

Indian paramilitary troopers stand alert in front of the shuttered shops in the city center, on September 24, 2019 in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. Yawar Nazir / Getty

The lockdown that coronavirus has imposed upon much of the world is nothing new for those living in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The region was already reeling from the catastrophic impact of a seven-month-long military lockdown when the coronavirus pandemic hit and the Indian government swiftly increased the powers of the military siege on Kashmir.

The lockdown emerges from the Indian government’s unilateral order to revoke Kashmir’s nominal autonomy and turn it into a federally administered territory, a bill that was passed in parliament in August last year. The region was turned into a military garrison overnight, with Indian army and paramilitaries ruling over the streets, in what India’s media has referred to as a “final solution” for Kashmir’s decades-old political dispute.

In subsequent months, the region’s economy practically crashed to the tune of $2.4 billion USD. Owing to strict military curfews, everything from agriculture to small businesses and tourism — the sectors that keep Kashmir’s economy afloat — was brought to a standstill. Already struggling to survive in these conditions, Kashmir’s working class — mainly comprising precariously employed hourly workers, small business owners, and the peasantry — are now facing compounding crises thanks to the threat of the virus, which has already claimed three lives in the region.

Hindu Nationalist Assault

The Hindu nationalist ruling party in India is committed to shifting the demographic balance of the Muslim-majority region by encouraging more nonindigenous settlement. To accelerate the settlement process, domicile and property laws have been hastily altered, paving the way for Indians to apply for public-sector jobs and buy land in Kashmir. This has also been complimented by the opening up of forest land for industrial exploitation and transferring mining contracts to outside players, threatening fragile ecology as well as hundreds of local livelihoods.

Since the mid-twentieth century, when some of the most radical land redistribution was enacted in Kashmir, relatively equitable land ownership has been a unique characteristic of the province that helps it maintain its economic self-sufficiency. More than 70 percent of the region’s population depends on agriculture for its livelihood. This, in turn, allows people to survive long spells of military lockdown and general strikes without facing shortages in basic necessities.

The ultranationalist government in India now wants to destroy all this and has decided to appropriate what it calls “land banks,” ostensibly for industrial zones — an echo of Israel’s “zoning” in the West Bank in the wake of the Oslo Accords. Its intention is to make Kashmiris dependent on handouts doled out by New Delhi, at the same time dismantling Kashmir’s Muslim majority, which it views as a roadblock to a Hindu-majoritarian polity stretching across all of South Asia.

Breaking Point

Kashmir’s health care system has been struggling to survive under the impact of the military occupation. India is among the top four spenders on defense, and this defense includes the expenses of 700,000 troops stationed to control 12 million people in Kashmir, making Kashmir the most militarized zone on Earth.

Consequently, the doctor-to-patient ratio in Kashmir is 1:3,866 — vastly lower than the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) norm of 1:1,000. The Kashmir Valley has just ninety-seven ventilators for 7 million people, a ratio even lower than besieged Gaza — leaving it completely unprepared for public health crises like this pandemic.

The system is already stretched as a result of state-sponsored violence, and hospitals and ambulances have not been spared. Now, the non-availability of essential requirements like personal protective gear and testing kits have left the health care system ill equipped to respond to the pandemic, and the regional government has warned of penal action if they continue to underline these shortages publicly.

The internet has assumed the status of a fundamental right all over the world. In Kashmir, however, low-speed internet was only restored in January after seven months — the longest ever shutdown recorded in history. In the face of unanimously recommended physical distancing measures, high-speed internet becomes all the more important in conducting essential transactions, accessing educational resources, and disseminating medical guidelines coming from abroad.

Kashmiris, and in particular health care workers, have been urgently calling for decent internet coverage. While multiple human rights bodies have urged the Indian government to restore high-speed internet in the region, calling its throttling in the midst of health emergency a demonstration of “criminal irresponsibility,” the gag is being continuously extended through weekly executive decrees.

Militarized Response

Globally, this pandemic has aggravated existing tensions. Entrusting states to tackle the emergency may inadvertently open the door to authoritarianism and increased surveillance. The pandemic magnifies these fears, especially where right-wing parties are in control.

South Asian history after decolonization is replete with periods of dictatorial regimes, civil wars, communal violence, military coups, and a recent upsurge of right-wing governments. It is the military that protects borders and, thus, constructs the nation. And it is the military that forms the first line of defense against any kind of crisis challenging these states. Therefore, a militarized response to social, political, economic, cultural, and now a medical crisis is embedded in South Asian states.

In Kashmir, militarization is an everyday reality and not a one-off incident. The experience inculcated through years of military control seamlessly became the instinctual “official” response. Kashmiris have long been subject to surveillance by the armed forces, who are now in charge of implementing WHO guidelines to deal with the health emergency. The number of reports registered and arrests made by the police for violating the lockdown has increased proportionally to the number of COVID-19 tests conducted. Videos showing police brutality are already circulating; even venturing out to buy essential items or attend a doctor’s appointment comes with the risk of persecution.

In rural areas, cordon and search operations — armed forces cordoning localities for suspected armed militants — continue, even though all gatherings are banned. On the Line of Control, the absurdly drawn temporary border along which Indian and Pakistani armies regularly exchange fire, artillery shelling claimed the lives of at least four civilians, including two children. The United Nations request of a worldwide ceasefire clearly fell on deaf ears. So has the call for the release of prisoners. It is pertinent to mention that thirteen thousand Kashmiris were arrested on the eve of India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy, and most of them continue to remain incarcerated in Kashmiri and Indian jails, away from their families in unhygienic surroundings. A sexagenarian prisoner died recently, another advocate with medical conditions suffered a cardiac arrest, and numerous others — invisible to the media’s headlines — continue to suffer in silence, all the more at risk during the pandemic.

One of the successful tactics used by colonial powers to perpetuate their control is the policy of “divide and rule,” fomenting suspicion among natives and pitting them against their own brethren. The Indian state has created a cluster of “native informers” who provide information about armed militants, secessionists, or any dissentious political initiatives. These psy-op designs have ripped apart the social fabric of Kashmir, spreading mutual suspicion and distrust throughout communities.

The dreaded surveillance dragnet, typically used for counterinsurgency, has now also been deployed to track what the government calls “COVID suspects.” Now, the administration openly calls for Kashmiris to report such returned travellers who are suspected of concealing their true travel histories. Some people have responded to the call and have begun to report on their neighbors, much to the latter’s distress. They acted as informers for the administration who, in turn, were informing the police — not the hospitals. Such is the way that a global pandemic has exacerbated the tensions already at boiling point in the region of Kashmir, while the institutions of occupation exercise exceptional disciplinary powers.