India to keep Kashmir lockdown for Eid on protest fears

  • 11 Aug 2019

With public mobile, landline telephone and internet connections still severed by the authorities in most of India-administered Jammu and Kashmir, many are still struggling to make contact with relatives to plan their Eid al Adha holiday.

Indian paramilitary soldiers patrol a street in Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. ( AP )

Indian authorities are expected to extend a military clampdown in Kashmir ahead of Monday's start of the Eid al-Adha festival on fears protests could break out over its stripping of the Muslim-majority region's autonomy.

Indian-administered Kashmir has been in a security lockdown since last Monday, when India's Hindu-majority government rescinded years of autonomy and gave full control to New Delhi.

Officials eased restrictions earlier Sunday but imposed them again in the afternoon amid a tense atmosphere in the main city of Srinagar.

They plan to keep security tight on Monday to block any big gatherings of people during Eid al-Adha, a major religious holiday for Muslims, a police official and sources in Srinagar told AFP.

"People were apprised of the situation and were asked to celebrate the festival in their neighbourhood. They were told that officials were keeping an eye on the situation and people have been asked to offer prayers locally," the region's police chief Dilbagh Singh said.

Some 500 people took part in protests on Sunday. Indian authorities have stressed that no violence has broken out in the picturesque valley.

Local lea ders have warned the loss of autonomy could lead to unrest in a region that has mounted an armed insurgency against Indian rule for three decades, leading to tens of thousands of deaths.

Authorities appear to be acting with utmost caution, with some parts of India-administered Kashmir still in lockdown, because of a fear of a backlash from residents who have been forced to stay indoors, with little access to resources.

A two-minute reprieve

Outside a guarded government office in Srinagar, an interminable queue forms every day for a near-priceless opportunity: a two-minute phone call to the outside world.

Only two mobile phones with an outside line are on offer in the deputy commissioner's office, but so desperate are people to contact families in the rest of India and overseas that they come from across Srinagar and beyond to wait in line.

Under the watchful eye of Indian paramilitaries, the calls and conversations are tightly controlled, and simmering frustrations often boil over.

One 56-year-old woman, who had walked miles and was stopped at dozens of checkpoints along the way, became embroiled in an argument with security forces outside the office after she was turned away.

"They stopped me from entering because they don't have a female police officer to frisk me," the dejected woman, who was hoping to call her two children studying abroad, told AFP.

"I am worried about my daughters but they would definitely be more worried about us," she said, declining to be named.

In the end, she was left with no choice but to give her childrens' numbers to a stranger in the queue and plead with him to try and contact them.

Srinagar is coming up to one week without internet or phones - the city's 1.5 million people are cooped up in their homes unless they have a curfew pass, August 11, 2019.(Reuters)

A shackled region

"Several residents said they had been beaten up by security forces for simply trying to buy necessities like milk" and "they had to beg officers to cross a landscape of sandbags, battered trucks and soldiers", the New York Times reported.

After Friday prayers, Srinagar city saw mass protests where armed forces used teargas shells, pellets and rubber bullets on protesters, while also firing live bullets into the air to disperse the crowd, Kashmiri journalist Mohammad Haziq reported.

Authorities in Srinagar said they didn't fire guns, but videos published online showed otherwise. 

India’s main opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi on Saturday said there are reports of violence and “people dying” in the region. Talking to reporters in New Delhi, Gandhi said “things are going very wrong there,” and called for the Indian government to make clear what is happening.

State-run All India Radio quoted the region’s top bureaucrat, Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam, as claiming that people were coming out of their homes for Eid shopping. He also alleged that Srinagar and other towns witnessed good road traffic on Saturday.

New Delhi rushed tens of thousands of additional soldiers to one of the world’s most militarised regions after Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government announced revoking Kashmir’s special constitutional status and downgrading its statehood. Modi claims the move was necessary to free the region of “terrorism and separatism," but many fear it's a pretext to re-populate the Muslim majority region with Hindus. 

A regional political party from Kashmir petitioned the Supreme Court to strike down the government’s move to scrap the region’s special status and divide the state into two federal territories. An opposition Congress party activist has already filed a petition challenging the communications blockade and the detentions of Kashmiri leaders.

A Kashmiri man covers his mouth during a protest against the scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the government, in New Delhi, India, August 9, 2019(Reuters)

Pakistani PM reaction

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Sunday compared India's ruling Hindu nationalist party's policies to dictator Adolf Hitler's "Nazi Aryan Supremacy." He warned Modi's actions would go beyond Kashmir and eventually target Indian Muslims and neighbouring Pakistan.

"Attempt is to change demography of Kashmir through ethnic cleansing. Question is: Will the world watch & appease as they did Hitler at Munich?" Khan tweeted.

Ram Madhav, a senior leader in India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hit back.

"Threat to democratic world is from Pak-sponsored Jehadi terror, not from India," Madhav tweeted.

Pakistan said on Saturday that it had gained China's support to take a motion to the United Nations Security Council condemning the Indian decision to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir.

Pakistan suspends trade with India

Pakistan has formally suspended its trade relations with India after New Delhi’s move to scrap the special status of India-administered Kashmir, an official statement said on Saturday.

A statement issued by the Commerce and Textile Ministry said the bilateral trade with India has been suspended immediately.

"The Federal Government has been pleased to suspend bilateral trade with India with immediate effect and until further order", read the statement.

The ministry issued two different statements amending the country's import policy order 2016 and added "India" in the list from where import of goods is banned.

Islamabad also suspended all kind of exports to India.

Kashmir is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan and is divided between the archrivals. Civilians have been fighting New Delhi’s rule for decades in the India-controlled portion, and most Kashmiri residents want either independence or a merger with Pakistan.

“When a demographic change is made through force, it’s called genocide, and you are moving toward genocide,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters in Islamabad after returning from Beijing.

With India moving to erase the constitutional provision that prohibited outsiders from buying property in Jammu and Kashmir state, Indians from the rest of the country can now purchase real estate and apply for government jobs there. Some fear this may lead to a demographic and cultural change in the Muslim-majority region.

Qureshi also said that while Pakistan is not planning to take any military action, it is ready to counter any potential aggression by India.