Why does India blind the people of Kashmir?

"Welcome to Paradise on Earth" is written on posters. But there is a climate of fear and intimidation in Kashmir

In the Indian part of Kashmir, the state and extremists are engaged in a war of wear and tear. The civilian population pays a high price.

"Close the sun visor!" The plane from Delhi has just touched down in Srinagar. If you looked at the eternal white of four thousand meter peaks minutes before, the artificial light in the cabin goes on and the passengers pull down the blinds as instructed by the cabin crew. The military airfield next door is thus protected from prying eyes. The panels may only be opened again when the machine has reached its position. “The ban on photography at the airport must be strictly adhered to,” warns the voice from the loudspeaker. Then the Vistara Airlines entertainment system plays “What a Wonderful World” and Louis Armstrong sings.

In 2018, over 500 people were killed in the Kashmir conflict; Police officers, soldiers, extremists, civilians. It was the highest number of deaths in a decade. The new year started bloody too. In February, a suicide bomber rammed a convoy and killed 46 Indian police officers. As a result, India bombed an alleged terrorist training camp in Pakistan. Pakistan struck back. In the high valley, the frightened population stocked up on emergency supplies. Agitators in the warring brother countries demanded further retaliatory strikes.

"Welcome to Paradise on Earth," proclaim the posters in the airport lobby. An employee of the tourist office happily jumps from his chair and hands the newcomer a bundle of brochures without being asked. They show an idyll with reflecting lakes and meadows where horses enjoy themselves on the deep green grass. Because of the tense security situation, it appears that the office's services are rarely used. “For tourist, no problem”, the employee gives the visitor on the way.

And always the man with the beard

On the road to the center of Srinagar, the largest city in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the hundreds of security forces stand out, their faces often covered with a scarf, their upper bodies wrapped in a bulletproof vest. Police officers stop traffic at intersections, barbed wire seals off entire rows of houses. From the lookout of an armored vehicle, a helmeted paramilitary stretches its head, surrounded by a lattice cage that would repel projectiles.

Although there is no official state of emergency in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, it feels that way. Foreign journalists are only allowed to travel to Kashmir with a special permit. The flight times are to be announced as well as the planned report topic. Once the request has been approved, the correspondent is not allowed to meet people who “engage in activities directed against the nation” - meaning supporters of Kashmiri independence or affiliation with Pakistan.

A bearded man with a peaked cap and leather bag has taken on the task of monitoring the correspondent of this newspaper. He does not want to remain unrecognized, on the contrary: the secret service agent immediately ensures that his presence is noticed. During a five-minute absence of his object under observation, he sits down in a hotel lobby next to the translator and asks to know who is to be interviewed. He introduces himself as an employee of the Central Intelligence Division, an intelligence agency of the Jammu and Kashmir Police Department, according to the website. It goes on to function as the ears and eyes of the government.

Targeted by the state and militants

For Khurram Parvez of the human rights organization Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, being bugged and spied on is still the slightest problem. He must fear for life and limb. In April 2004, while Parvez was in his home province as an election observer, an explosive device hit his vehicle. The driver and a companion died, and Parvez suffered serious injuries. After several operations, one leg had to be amputated. The attack was never solved. With his mission to document human rights violations, Parvez has got caught between the lines.

The reports of his organization read like a chronicle of horror: Indian officers who rape mothers and daughters of the same family in their hunt for extremists; Security forces who shoot demonstrators with pellet rifles and accept that they lose one or both eyes. Parvez also lists how many civilians and security forces the extremists kill. And he reprimands the separatists for refusing to negotiate a solution.

Parvez receives threatening phone calls from the extremists who want to separate the predominantly Muslim state from the predominantly Hindu India. The authorities meanwhile regard Parvez as a polluter. In 2016, border officials intercepted him in Delhi before he could travel to the session of the UN Human Rights Council. 67 days in police custody followed. "I was told that I was damaging India's reputation."

In 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report on Kashmir for the first time. It states that the Indian security forces used excessive force, which resulted in unlawful killings and a very high number of injuries. Nevertheless, those responsible would not be held accountable, especially since the so-called Armed Forces Special Powers Act in principle grants the security forces immunity. Delhi discarded the 49-page paper, mainly devoted to the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, calling it outlandish, biased and biased.

For Parvez, who works from a small back room in Srinagar, the problem is fundamental: "India believes that democracy is limited to elections." But there is also a right to object. According to the activist, this right has almost been suspended in the troubled province. In Kashmir, the government is taking repressive states like China as an example.

Self-censorship and intimidation

Bashir Manzar's everyday life is characterized by a climate of fear, self-censorship and intimidation. He is a journalist for the daily newspaper «Kashmir Images». His office on the second floor of a poorly heated apartment building has no name tag. In solidarity with two other newspapers in the valley, which the state has given an advertisement boycott, his publication also recently appeared with a white front page. «We have no idea why. From one day to the next, the advertisements dried up, ”says Manzar, pulling on his cigarette. The media houses have asked for an explanation. They did not receive an official answer. An official referred to orders from the highest authority.

The failure of state advertising not only deprives the local media of an important source of income. "The readership lacks official information, for example about exam dates at schools." Manzar, who also wears his pheran, the traditional Kashmiri coat, inside, interprets the boycott as a punitive action for unpleasant newspaper articles.

Like the human rights activist Parvez, the journalist Manzar faces threats. In July 2018, he installed surveillance cameras in front of the gate to the office building. He was responding to the murder of a professional colleague. He was shot in front of the Press Colony in Srinagar, a street where many media outlets are quartered. On that day, of all times, the police vehicle that was usually stationed in the driveway was missing. The cameras' recordings mysteriously disappeared. A reckoning of separatists or state actors? “We are being attacked from both sides,” Manzar notes laconically and taps his head with his left hand. "We write with scissors in our head." In 1997, militants banned his newspaper from publishing. The printer does not dare to oppose the order from the underground.

It is estimated that if there were thousands of extremists in the 1990s, there should now be hundreds. “However, they have a larger audience via social networks,” emphasizes Manzar. The militants are also more religiously motivated today.

A bearer of hope resigns

In the opinion of many critics, the Indian state is doing far too little to win the youth over and keep them from entering the brutal and hopeless struggle for an independent Kashmir. One who believed that as part of the system he could improve living conditions in the valley is Shah Faesal. He achieved notoriety because he achieved the best result in the entrance exam for the Indian administration - as the first Kashmiri ever.

India's central government saw a beacon of hope in Faesal, which among other things took care of education and energy projects in Jammu and Kashmir. But he resigned his job in January 2019, "because of the ongoing killings". In an interview, Faesal suggests that he resigned out of frustration at the politics of repression and the escalation of violence. He complains about restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and freedom of movement. «Kashmiri youth today are denied legitimate means of expression. That leads them to take other means. "