SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir – In the past year, life in Indian-administered Kashmir has become significantly more challenging. On August 5, 2019, New Delhi revoked Article 370, which had guaranteed a certain degree of autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thousands of Kashmiris have been arrested on vague charges and the government has issued a severe curfew and the world's longest internet blackout.
Article 370 had allowed India's only Muslim majority state to have its own constitution, flag, and freedom to enact its own laws, such as rules that exclude outsiders from buying property. By revoking the constitutional amendment, the Indian government claimed that the move would bring peace and development to the region.
Instead, the past year has only brought more violence and insecurity. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, when many conflicts over the United Nations' request for a global ceasefire were put on hold, New Delhi intensified military operations in the region and fought Kashmiri separatists fighting for self-determination.
This is nothing new for India-administered Kashmir, which has long been considered the most militarized zone in the world. The conflict in the region has continued since 1947, when India and Pakistan gained independence from the British and the brutal division of Kashmir made Kashmir a controversial area between the two. Since then, two wars have been waged over Kashmir, and countless battles have broken out within the territory itself. In Kashmir, which is administered by India, various groups of militants have fought for independence or a merger with Pakistan. India, for its part, has long accused Pakistan of fueling these militant movements and stimulating terrorist elements within the state. Decades of clashes between Indian security forces and Kashmiri insurgents have hit civilians hardest. Disappearance, torture, rape and a brutal response to protests have become a normal part of life. Between 1990 and March 2017, at least 41,000 people were killed, including around 14,000 civilians.
According to a report by the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, at least 143 militants were killed this year alone, 62 in June. Civilians are also involved in the fighting. 32 people were killed in the first six months of this year. On June 26, a 5-year-old was killed in the crossfire between suspected militants and Indian paramilitary forces. A 65-year-old was killed in North Kashmir on July 1 in front of his 3-year-old grandson, who said he was shot by Indian forces, although the police rejected the allegation and said he was killed by crossfire militants.
Renewed violence has left many people homeless, a double tragedy for families trying to protect themselves from COVID-19. More than 50 houses were destroyed or badly damaged in the past year. 22 of these were damaged on May 19.
On that day, Indian forces launched a blockade and search operation (CASO) in the Nawakadal area in downtown Srinagar. Such operations are carried out by the Indian Armed Forces in collaboration with the local police to work through a specific area where militants are believed to be hiding. Residents say the tactic usually involves widespread harassment from ordinary people, who are searched, interviewed, and searched their homes with little or no reason. The operation, involving the commander of one of the well-known militant outfits, became a particularly fierce battle between Indian forces and Kashmiri militants. Two militants were killed after a 12-hour fight with weapons and explosives. Three civilians later died as a result of unexploded ordnance in the region. The encounter with Nawakadal was the first battle in downtown Srinagar in two years.
Days after the fighting, the buildings were still smoldering and the smell of smoke in Nawakadal, Srinagar's oldest neighborhood, was sharp. In the narrow streets, some families cleaned as little as they could save from the ruins. Others had left without taking anything with them – their houses had completely disappeared.
While his father looked around the ruins of her house, 20-year-old Yamin Najar reported on the intensity of the violence. "It was like we were suddenly taken to a battlefield. Twenty-two houses and a bakery were burned down within a few hours. Some families have now gone to live with their relatives, but most of them have rented apartments. I wish it was a nightmare and I would wake up comfortably in my bed. But we all know that doesn't happen. "
Najar's grandfather, Ghulam Mohammad Najar, 78, remembered how hard he had worked to build the family home. “I have invested my blood and sweat in building my house for more than 50 years. Now everything is lost, even housing and bank documents, ”he said.
Among the civilians detained by explosives after the end of the fighting was 13-year-old Basim Aijaz Khachoo, who died in the hospital the following day. Khachoo, a beloved only child, was born six years after his parents married. He had left home on the day of the fighting to visit his friends across the street. "He called me from home and said there were forces out on the streets. I told him to stay there and not come home until they were gone," said Khachoo's mother Kounsar, who was in her kitchen Sitting next to her husband. Two boys later appeared at their door on bicycles carrying Khachoo's cell phone, filled with photos of their injured son. "They told us Basim was in the hospital. I don't remember how we got there. Me saw my son's torn oath dress, which he absolutely wanted to wear this morning. "
At the hospital, doctors informed Khachoo's father Aijaz that the boy had second-degree burns and both kidneys were closed. When Aijaz asked the doctors to take his kidney and save his son, the doctors replied, "Whatever you do, he won't survive."
“Basim was our only hope. When he was born, we were finally relieved that someone would be there to shoulder our bodies. We never thought we would carry him to his grave when he was young, ”said Aijaz.
The night before the showdown, CASO soldiers had started searching the area for militants. When they came to the clothing store Farooq Ahmad Sofi's house, they ordered the family to let them in. "The armed forces came in and were everywhere. My brother was searched and asked if he was carrying a gun, ”said Madeena Farooq, Sofi's daughter. The family was held in a room all night. In the morning, soldiers told them the area was not safe and ordered them to leave their homes. In the evening they were homeless – just the clothes they had worn. “My parents had bought jewelry and clothes for my marriage. We didn't have a chance to pick them up. After the attack we found only one earring – this too was turned into a piece of coal, ”said Farooq, pointing to a burned safe in the rubble of her family home.
Farooq, a graduate who recently went on to pursue a Masters in Commerce at the University of Kashmir, said she would likely have to finish her education. "I don't know how to continue my studies without a home."
In fact, education has been particularly difficult since Article 370 was repealed. For seven months after Kashmir was banned last year, almost all private and government schools were closed, leaving 1.5 million students in suspense. These schools reopened in early March and closed three weeks later when India was banned to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Tenth grader Salik Gandroo had studied at home for most of the past year. Now he and his younger sister have lost their last safe room. “This year was very important because I was preparing for my exams and I was under a lot of pressure to pass my final. My room was on the first floor and all my study materials and notes were lost due to fire. I saw my bag and when I touched it I could only hold ashes in my grip, ”said Gandroo.
Young people like Gandroo face special challenges. Youth unemployment in Jammu and Kashmir is 70 percent, and the constant struggles cause a high toll on mental health. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, around 1.8 million adults or 45 percent of the population have mental health problems and 70 percent have experienced a violent death. With few options, militancy can be an attractive option for some young adults.
Violence like in May leaves Kashmir's youth in an even more precarious situation. 22-year-old auto mechanic Adil Bashir saw his savings destroyed that day. “It was hard to believe that a place where I spent 22 years of my life was no longer there. Everything was burned. I had saved money of 130,000 rupees (fixing the roof). Now there is no more money and no home to live in, ”he said.
Bashir's nephew, the 12th grader Mohammad Ibrahim, was beaten by Indian forces before they ransacked his home, which was later destroyed by the fire. "Only the clothes I'm wearing and these shoes are what's left now," said Ibrahim. May 19 was the biggest clash of the past year, but it's unlikely to be the last big battle. While New Delhi remains determined to exterminate militants, its actions are driving more young people to take up arms and join their ranks. Numerous political leaders and civilians – over 400 in total – remain in prison or under house arrest, although they have never been on trial. New Delhi’s new laws, which allow outsiders to hold real estate and jobs, with 25,000 residence certificates already issued, indicate a concerted effort to change the demographics of the only Indian state with a Muslim majority. The media were severely restricted and journalists were routinely harassed and intimidated by government forces. At the moment, New Delhi has contained dissent through its stubborn tactics, but it has alienated and annoyed Kashmiris more than ever.