5 months of lockdown. No internet or mobile data. No access to the outside world.
This has been the experience of citizens in Kashmir since 4 August 2019. When India revoked Article 370 and 35A of its Constitution, it removed the special-administered autonomy of Kashmir and Jammu, bifurcating it into two government controlled regions.
Since then, there has been persistent human rights violations, but Kashmir is not the only instance of this by India last year.
Millions of Assam people are faced with statelessness since July when they were effectively removed from the National Register of Citizens. To add to this, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which has been criticised for its exclusion of Muslims, has sparked nation-wide protests since December.
Taking a look back, India has made major moves to repress Muslims, free media and journalists, and vulnerable minorities, who live in fear of what the new year will bring.
The Indian elections in May saw huge victory and Parliamentary gain from the last election for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP is known for its Hindu-nationalist rhetoric, and its policies have coincided with this. As in most Parliaments, a bigger majority for the ruling party allows legislation to be passed with a lot less difficulty, something which Modi has seemingly enjoyed.
Kashmir has always been disputed between India and Pakistan, with conflicts dating back to the 1947 partition after the end of British Rule. Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui noted that Pakistan has not always been a friend to Kashmir, often undermining the Kashmiri independence struggle throughout its history by controlling elections in the Pakistan-administered part of the region and targeting pro-independence groups. But Modi’s move to strip its autonomy as a constitutional change is of huge gravity to the struggle, as it has led to harsh military occupation and altered the course of life for Kashmir’s citizens.
Since August, at least 80 civilians have been killed, as well as thousands arrested, as well as reports of disappearances, torture and excessive use of force by the Indian military to repress any dissent. These human rights abuses have been rampant and ongoing since August, however there has been little documentation of it because of the internet and communications shutdown.
Human rights abuses have been rampant, but the extent of this has not been shown in worldwide news coverage due to the communications blackout. This implies the primary reason for the blackout is to hide what is truly taking place in Kashmir from the rest of the world. The communications blackout itself is a violation of human rights, as the UN passed a resolution in 2016 condemning the disruption of internet use by governments, since it is so widely recognised how vital the internet is in modern day life. India’s Supreme Court has even ruled the internet ban as unlawful, despite Modi’s justification that it is necessary for security reasons. The blockade has only punished the people, according to Reuters, it has cost Kashmir more than $2.4bn since it was implemented, affecting trade, tourism and healthcare access.
Shutdowns are a frequent tactic of the Modi government when they wish to suppress dissent and access to communications. Software Freedom Law Centre in India, who tracks internet shutdowns, reported that India had 106 internet shutdowns in 2019, some of which took place in December in response to the anti-CAA protests.
The Citizenship Amendment Act amended Indian Citizenship laws which prohibited citizenship to illegal migrants, now allowing for members of certain religious minority groups from neighbouring countries to obtain citizenship by naturalisation. It creates an easier pathway for people from Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh to obtain citizenship, only having to live or work in India for six years. as opposed to ten as it was previously.
The main criticism of this amendment is that it bases citizenship on faith, and is exclusionary to Muslim minorities. BJP members and advocates who support the bill say it is aimed at protecting minorities, but critics argue if this was the case it would include Muslim minorities such as Rohingya and Ahmadis who face persecution and genocide in their own countires. Instead of offering protection, the CAA provisions and language marginalises Muslim communties and facilitates an anti-Muslim climate, which coincides with the government’s pledge to remove ‘“infiltrators”.
Protests against the bill have been taking place all over India. They have been met with violent repression from the police, with thousands of people detained or arrested, with the death toll exceeding 20.
The internet was shut down in states with high Muslim populations, including Uttar Pradesh, Aligarh, West Bengal and Assam, restricting communication, community organising and the freedom of the press to properly report on the violence.
The bill has been seen as another move in Modi’s long campaign of Hindu nationalism, which has become increasingly radical. The controversy surrounding the CAA follows from the closely linked issue regarding the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was ‘updated’ and published in August and risks statelessness for millions of Assam people. Many Muslim people in Assam found their names were not on the register, despite living there for decades, and are required to prove their citizenship or face deportation, or internment in a detention camp.
Activists have voiced concerns over this, as it is another move which discriminates against the 32 million Muslim residents in Assam, many of which poorer Bengali residents and tribespeople. Many Bengali Muslims are believed to have entered Assam after the Bangladesh War of 1971, and therefore lack proper documentation, and are now being asked to prove their citizenship from before this, similar to the UK Windrush Scandal. Residents who are not on the NRC can appeal in Foreigners Tribunals, but this is an exhaustive and expensive process, and if unsuccessful it raises human rights concerns over statelessness which will strip people of their rights, or mistreatment in detention centres.
Each of these events have not taken place in isolation, but been a succession of acts intended to reshape secular India into Modi’s Hindu nationalist vision.
Keeping Kashmir in lockdown crushes the movement towards self-determination and is allowing human rights violations to be left in the shadows. Altering the terms of citizenship puts millions of people at risk and unfairly targets minority groups. Modi’s policies only serve to fuel violence between Hindu nationalists and Muslims, scapegoating Muslim refugees and disregarding universally accpeted human rights.
However, due to the BJP’s strong majority in Parliament and a willingness to ignore the Supreme Court, the situation seems unlikely to change in the coming year. Nonetheless, activists continue to raise awareness of the ongoing human rights abuses in India, such as Human Rights Watch’s 652-page world report for 2020, which seek to keep India’s human rights violations in the public domain. The people continuing to fight must not be forgotten.