Modi’s Government Is Exploiting the Pandemic to Ramp up Repression in Kashmir

The people of Kashmir have been left badly exposed to COVID-19 by a state that spends lavishly on tools of repression while neglecting public health services. The Indian government is using the lockdown to extend its regime of surveillance and control.

Indian policemen stand guard in front the barricades on a deserted road, as India remains under an unprecedented lockdown over the coronavirus on April 20, 2020 in New Delhi, India. (Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)

India may be the world’s largest democracy, but it also has other claims to fame: according to a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, it is the world’s second-largest importer of arms. With its allocation for defense almost five times as much as that for health, the country also spends a significant part of its budget manufacturing as many weapons as it can domestically.

The Indian authorities transport much of this weaponry to the northern valley of Kashmir, where it is deployed on the streets against unarmed protesters demanding their right to self-determination. Indian forces have experimented on the people of Kashmir with a whole range of weapons over the years.

They have used pellet guns — which they claim are nonlethal — to maim and blind tens of thousands of ordinary people. They routinely fire tear gas canisters of various kinds which have, along with many other casualties, resulted in the deaths of two schoolboys after military men shot them in the head at point-blank range. Indian forces have killed thousands with the weapons they consider “nonlethal” and countless more with the lethal ones. All with complete impunity.

On the streets of Kashmir, the excessive use of tear gas has predictably caused grave damage to the respiratory systems of the civilian population, who find their homes engulfed in smoke and pepper gas, even with the windows closed. A paper published by Turkish researchers showed that inhaling tear gas over a period of time can have a significant harmful effect on a person’s lungs. The people of Kashmir have been breathing it in for decades now.

Underlying Conditions

In this place of sadness and defiance, news of the first confirmed COVID-19 case in March spread like the smoke of a tear gas canister. It stoked up panic and chaos in the immediate vicinity, while in regions further afield, people initially scoffed at those who displayed signs of alarm.

Soon, however, people stocked up on rice, pulses, and potatoes and sat inside their homes, perhaps aware that no one in power would want to save a people under occupation if the pandemic took hold, and also conscious of the shortcomings of India’s malformed health care system.

Medical experts and health organizations have insisted that in most cases, only people with an underlying medical condition succumb to the virus: hypertension, diabetes, or respiratory problems. Unfortunately, this means that the people of Kashmir are especially vulnerable to this deadly virus, because of their ruined lungs and the hypertension caused by years of conflict.

Only last year, on August 5, when India’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government officially (but illegally) revoked what was left of Kashmir’s autonomy, it also implemented one of the longest and most rigorous clampdowns in history throughout the region. Any space for dissent was eliminated. The authorities detained thousands of activists, academics, and journalists, including even politicians who are considered apologists for the Indian government; most of them are still locked up.

They also booked tens of thousands of ordinary people under draconian laws, including children as young as nine years old, many of whom were tortured. Life as we know it, already precarious in Kashmir, came to a standstill.

The government withdrew some of the restrictions on physical movement after months of international pressure. But the constraints on mobile communication have only recently been relaxed, and internet coverage is still limited to an ancient and tortoise-paced 2G.

Even in the midst of a global medical emergency, after eight long months, the Indian state is not allowing people access to reliable high-speed internet. Because of this, doctors and medical experts in Kashmir are unable to obtain the latest information about COVID-19.

Students, who have been out of school since August 5 last year, have no facilities to study online. Working from home for professionals is out of the question. People associated with handicrafts and the tourism industry — the majority of the population in Kashmir — have been out of work since August, too, not merely since the start of the pandemic. They are increasingly forced to take up odd jobs to make ends meet.

“This Is Our Curfew”

The never-ending conflict has left Kashmir’s health care system in ruins, if it can even be said to exist at all. At a time when the World Health Organization has been urging states to carry out tests on a grand scale, fewer than 15,000 tests had been carried out in Jammu and Kashmir by April 27, for a population of 12.5 million.

There are just ninety-seven ventilators and a handful of functioning hospitals that are ill-equipped, as patients have repeatedly complained. A senior doctor warned Al Jazeera that if the pandemic takes root in Kashmir, “we will die like cattle.”

To add to the crippling shortcomings of the health care system, the Indian state has threatened the doctors and health care workers in Kashmir — who had spoken out against poor management and the lack of proper equipment — by telling them that “strict action would be taken” against anyone who “publicly criticizes the efforts of the authorities to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.” After this statement, the state-run media interviewed doctors and health care workers on a regular basis to back up an apologetic narrative, praising the authorities for doing an excellent job.

Outside, on the streets, the Indian forces have been harassing and beating up health care workers, even though they are exempt from the lockdown. A person who was on his way home from the hospital told a national publication that he was brutally roughed up and hit on the head with a rifle butt.

Soldiers stopped a journalist who works for a local magazine at a checkpoint and demanded that he open up his bag. When he tried asking questions, the Indian soldier cut him short: “This is not the virus curfew, this is our curfew.”

Architecture of Oppression

The Indian state’s approach to the COVID-19 outbreak in Kashmir reeks of its imperial and militaristic attitude. Further proof of this came when it issued a new set of domicile orders, taking advantage of the pandemic and the lockdown, in the full knowledge that popular resistance in a time of emergency would be minimal.

Indian military forces have already occupied thousands of acres of land in Kashmir for decades, but the new rules make it possible for any Indian citizen to own land or acquire a much-coveted government job in the region. This poses a serious demographic threat, as the BJP and its parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have vowed to turn India into a Hindu nation. This act of pulling Kashmir completely under the dominance of the Indian constitution also makes the question of self-determination yet more difficult.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, the Indian state still finds the time to persecute Kashmiri journalists. Only last week, the authorities booked a female photojournalist under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) — which allows the government to designate any individual as a “terrorist” without evidence — for sharing her previously published photographs on social media.

Within twenty-four hours, police had booked two more senior journalists, also using the UAPA in one case, for equally fatuous reasons. This brazen attempt to intimidate journalists who are trying to cover the Kashmir conflict is not a new development, but the fact that those journalists are now being branded as “terrorists” is deeply concerning.

Even scarier, perhaps, is the way that the Indian state is exploiting this opportunity to normalize a pervasive regime of surveillance, both physical and electronic, which will remain in place even after the pandemic is over. Although surveillance has long been a major tool for perpetuating the occupation of Kashmir, the authorities are taking such measures to a qualitatively higher level, with every action of every individual now being monitored.

A senior police officer said that he felt like he was “chasing a militant” while tracing people’s travel histories via call records and bank transactions. This comment underlines how the Indian state is building — in the phrase of Edward Snowden — the architecture of oppression.

State of War

This intensified surveillance regime is just one aspect of a broader reality: the Indian state has approached the task of containing the pandemic in Kashmir as if it were a military operation. In response, people have been trying to avoid being taken by the authorities to quarantine centers.

They distrust these state-controlled centers intensely, associating them with detention camps where torture is routine. The idea of a quarantine center evokes not hope, as it should, but fear: in the minds of Kashmiri people, it looks like a jail.

Meanwhile, in faraway villages of South Kashmir, the Indian forces continue to kill rebels fighting against the state (or as the Indian media likes to put it, they “eliminate terrorists”). On April 12, as the world was still preoccupied with the humanitarian crisis, Indian soldiers moved into a mountain village in North Kashmir and used the poor villagers as human shields, firing at Pakistani forces across the Line of Control (LoC).

The two countries, which don’t have enough face masks to contain the virus, still had the resources for an exchange of heavy artillery fire, which resulted in the death of at least four people on both sides of the border, including two children aged eight and two.

This helps the Indian state in more ways than one: as well as driving home the message to the people of Kashmir that nothing, not even a medical emergency, can prevent the state from doing what it wants to do with them, it also diverts the attention of India’s Hindu majority from the country’s collapsed health care system and an economy whose condition is even worse, toward an “enemy who wants to attack us.”

Solidarity Against Adversity

In spite of these horrors, the Kashmiris are holding up with a sense of harmony, perhaps rooted in years of conflict and shared suffering. Many people from different organizations as well as individuals have come forward to provide money and supplies to people who might not be able to survive the lockdown without assistance.

Such groups took the initiative to provide thousands of doctors and medical workers with personal protective equipment (PPE). The administration has rewarded these efforts with constant harassment and attempts to “regulate” their work.

As much of the world’s population sits with their fingers crossed, hoping for the pandemic to disappear as unexpectedly as it arrived, they at least have the luxury of thinking that once this is all over, they will again be able to walk without fear on the roads, meet their loved ones, and lead a normal life.

However, the people of Kashmir know that the current lockdown is just the latest in a long series of curfews. Even if the COVID-19 pandemic is halted and life returns to normal elsewhere, for them, life is only going to get worse.