Kashmir’s already vulnerable civil society is being crushed
As the Biden administration prepares to host India’s Hindu nationalist government in its virtual Summit for Democracy later this week, Kashmir’s civil society is ending the year facing an assault on the basic democratic norms of freedom of expression and rule of law.
On Nov. 22, India’s anti-terror agency arrested Khurram Parvez, a Kashmiri human rights defender who works with the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), which has documented reports of violence such as mass graves, torture and extrajudicial killings by the Indian armed forces in Kashmir. Parvez is currently booked under India’s draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a lawthat allows the government to designate someone as a “terrorist” and keep them in pretrial detention for years without needing to produce incriminating evidence. In a recent statement, the U.N. Human Rights Office criticized India’s recurrent use of the UAPA as “being used to stifle the work of human rights defenders, journalists and other critics.”
On one level, it is odd to speak of a civil society space in Kashmir. India does not allow Kashmiris to gather, protest or express their political aspirations. This means that organizations and individuals in Kashmir are constantly under the gaze of a military occupation.
Yet, intrepid Kashmiri human rights activists and organizations such as the JKCCS and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, as well as journalists and academics have overcome immense obstacles to highlight the impact of the Indian government and army’s actions in Kashmir. They have experienced unrelenting attack since August 2019, when India fully annexed Kashmir by revoking the special status that gave it a measure of autonomy and accelerated the settler-colonial project that seeks to alter the demographics of the Muslim-majority disputed region.
Since then, Kashmiri journalists have been particularly hounded. A report in The Wire stated that more than 40 journalists have been “called for a background check, summoned or raided” in the past two years. Some have been detained, and others have been booked under the UAPA. Indeed, the UAPA has been used against people engaging in a range of human rights work or acts of resistance: from raising anti-India slogans at a funeral, to cheering for the Pakistani cricket team, to demanding the return of the body of a minor son shot and killed by Indian forces.
Kashmiri journalists, writers and students are being denied passports or passport renewals— or, as reported by The Wire, been made to sign a “bond” promising “good behavior” to travel internationally. Those abroad for work or study fear going home, especially if they are vocal.
Colleagues in Kashmir speak of a no-fly list. Journalists, activists and academics have either been visited or received calls by intelligence officials asking for information about their families, activities and history of employment, as well as financial, passport and property details. No one knows what the government plans to do with this information, but the intimidation is enough to instill fear. “Do not message me directly unless I say hello first,” a colleague recently wrote to me. “Our phones can be confiscated at any time.”
Recently, Indian National Security adviser Ajit Doval claimed there should be a “fourth generation warfare” against civil society. Fighting “terror,” therefore, is simply a pretense to silence Kashmiri voices that are raising awareness of India’s decades-long human rights violations, in addition to criminalizing those who support Kashmir’s freedom movement. Moreover, India is slyly crafting a narrative of “white-collar terrorism” to rebrand professionals who are sympathetic to the Kashmir freedom movement or critical of the Indian government as terrorists. Not only does this threaten the lives of members of Kashmir’s civil society, but it also forces them to self-censor.
These are the actions of a country that the Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently referred to as “a force for good in defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific and a free and open world.”
Despite these alarming recent developments, the Biden administration has largely ignored India’s attempts to clamp down on civil society in Kashmir. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union — India’s ally — vetoed a number of important resolutions on Kashmir at the United Nations Security Council, effectively undermining any steps toward an internationally mediated solution. Today, with the U.S. determination to secure India as an ally against China, as well as the formation of “the Quad,” Kashmir remains hostage to international geopolitics. Democratic norms, once again, are only of concern when in line with U.S. foreign policy interests.
Yet, when it comes to Kashmir, India is not simply engaging in “democratic backsliding.” Rather, it is cementing its over seven-decade long autocratic, colonial rule. The Kashmiris at the receiving end of this are the ones truly fighting for a “free and open world.”