Indian Army personnel cordon off an area during a terrorist attack in Sopore, Kashmir, on July 8 Wednesday. Image Credit: ANI

While the rest of the world has experienced some form of lockdown in recent months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the people of Kashmir in India have faced a double whammy. They have had to deal with both the coronavirus and an erosion of their political freedoms.

Kashmiris have been living under a government-imposed lockdown since last August — for almost a year now — and it has nothing to do with the coronavirus.

Looking back the people of Kashmir were promised the right of self-determination, a fundamental human right much highly valued in all societies. It was guaranteed to them by India under the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The unilateral abrogation of treaties with the Kashmiri people and the delegitimising the nationality of its Muslim residents is no manner to nurture any form of democracy.

- Tariq A. Al Maeena, Saudi commentator

Last year the government of India — in a sudden move — stunned everyone by scrapping Article 370 of India’s constitution — which has been the basis of Kashmir’s complex relationship with India for some 70 years. India’s own opposition, taken by surprise, dubbed the move as ‘highly unconstitutional!’ Scores of top Kashmir political leaders were picked up and locked away for months under vague charges.

Located in the great Himalayan range, Kashmir is renowned for its pristine natural beauty. With a unique culture and world-class crafts, the region ranks high on most tourist maps. As one Kashmiri resident ruefully described it, ‘The region, you would be knowing, is stunningly beautiful. It is also a gold mine of news as it’s divided between India and Pakistan. The region is ridden by conflict since 1989 which has consumed about thousands.’

Kashmir had always enjoyed a special status under the Indian constitution following the country’s independence in 1947, yet the Modi government on August 5, 2019 scrapped the region’s special status.

Two lockdowns

Since August 5, the region faced two lockdowns — one imposed immediately after scrapping of J&K’s special status and this continued for over four months and the second lockdown was imposed on March 19 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Although the COVID-19 lockdown has been eased, high-speed internet continues to remain banned.

Eyewitness reports speak of business establishments run by Kashmiris incurring heavy losses since August 5 with the tourism industry the worst hit.

A journalist from Kashmir told me that the COVID-19 pandemic did not reduce violence in the region. Kashmir witnessed the deadliest month of killings in June of this year in which many Kashmiris were killed.

The present standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh adds to regional tensions as the Army and Air Force scramble to deal with any emerging situation. Uncertainty in the region among more than eight million inhabitants prevails owing to the Kashmir conflict.

Border tensions

One example is that of Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. The LoC remained calm for many years after the 2003 border ceasefire between Indian and Pakistani troops but now it is hot again especially after the India-China standoff in Ladakh.

What has happened in these past 12 months in India is truly alarming. The unilateral abrogation of treaties with the Kashmiri people and the delegitimising the nationality of its Muslim residents is no manner to nurture any form of democracy.

Even the roars and demonstrations that have struck all across India by people of all races and religions against the government’s divisive Citizenship Act have been met with strong-arm tactics by the authorities.

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Lawmakers from the United States, Europe, and others have raised their concerns. Many of those apprehensions have been conveyed to the Modi government. Several noted independent NGOs along with secular minded Indians are battling to restore India’s democracy, but yet the siege of Kashmiris rolls on, with the citizenship of millions of Indian Muslims up in the air.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi must take up the challenge to reverse his party’s image that it serves only Hindus in India. He may have a tough battle with the hard-core RSS elements within the ruling BJP party, but if he is to let matters be as they are, then there is much cause for concern.

The fact that the once vaunted Indian democracy is slowly seeping away and bodes ill for the country and its neighbours.

— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena