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Containment Zone

How Covid-19 has further entrenched India’s occupation of Kashmir

Around 6:00 AM, an armed police vehicle drives past our house, blaring: “For the prevention of coronavirus, Section 144 has been imposed in Srinagar . . . Do not try to come out of your homes . . . Do not try to break the law. Strict action will be taken against those who defy the orders.” It silences the songbirds—mynas, house sparrows, swallows, and bulbuls—who have until then been chirping in our little back garden.

The police depart, yelling at passersby. But their vehicle lingers in my mind’s eye, recalling other images: a protestor killed under its wheels in Srinagar in 2018; a man paraded around his village, tied to its bonnet, on election day the previous year; endless curfews announced through its speakers; civilians bundled into it during crackdowns. The irony of police vehicles announcing a health emergency has not been lost on Kashmiris. It offers a window into a jackboot state’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among the first things the Indian government did after placing Kashmir in pandemic lockdown was to demarcate certain neighborhoods as “containment zones,” entirely sealing them off from civilian movement. Roads leading into these zones were blocked by concertina wire and in some places by permanent iron structures. Of course, this division of space was aimed less at “curtailing the spread” than increasing the state’s capacity for surveillance, confinement, and segregation. For their own “safety,” people were being placed in open-air prisons: Kashmir’s predicament in miniature. The locals I spoke with did not know what they would do in case of a fire or medical emergency.

Beating the crap out of Kashmir’s people is second nature for Indian policeman, and the pandemic has not deterred them.

On April 7, the Indian army, under Operation Namaste, released a promotional video, “War Without a Battlefield,” set to a Bollywood song “Kar Har Maidaan Fateh” (“Win Every Battlefield”). It shows troops in Kashmir posing in combat gear, advancing to kill an unseen enemy, and later benevolently distributing food among civilians and spraying disinfectants. Such propaganda is in keeping with the Indian military’s long-running “Winning Hearts and Minds” doctrine. Today, there are over half a million troops on the ground in Kashmir—effectively, an occupying army—with expansive settlements and garrisons, watchtowers, bunkers, surveillance units, and torture chambers. These same “security forces” have never missed a photo op to portray themselves as people’s saviors.

In March, a video surfaced online of a policeman atop his vehicle, hurling abuses into the microphone in Pahari, a regional language. “Oh you Kashmiris,” he bellows. “Enough of explaining in Kashmiri language, now listen in Pahari! Bastards, go inside your homes or else we will beat the crap out of you.” But beating the crap out of Kashmir’s people is second nature for Indian policeman, and the pandemic has not deterred them. Here is a partial list of those the police have harassed or physically assaulted since the lockdown began: civilians, essential services personnel, government employees, bank employees, health care workers, and journalists. “I had to change routes several times and dodge the armed forces just to buy psychiatric medicines for my sister,” a friend told me.

In another video that was shared online, a police officer is seen forcing civilians to squat and hold their ears between their legs, crawl on the road, and perform a frog-walk. These gun-toting officers have since distributed flowers and sweets among the medical community.

During curfews or curfew-like restrictions, the Indian government usually issues “permits” to Kashmiris, allowing civilian movement in case of an emergency. But this is a more a matter of weaponizing paperwork than offering relief. On March 26, policemen beat up an engineering student who was accompanying his aunt to a doctor. He suffered multiple fractures and an eye injury; his aunt and uncle were also beaten up. “Show this pass to someone else,” the policeman told him, rejecting his permit. “It holds no value.” At the same time, doctors themselves have been repeatedly stopped and harassed for their “valueless” permits. “Who gives them the authority?” asked Dr. K (name changed). “How is a pass offered by a district magistrate more sacrosanct than identity cards of doctors and paramedics, especially amidst a global crisis?”

While Kashmir’s Muslims living in India have long been threatened and harassed, the recent anti-Muslim violence in Delhi and state-perpetuated Islamophobia has raised fears to a new level.

Dr. Faiz (name changed), who works long shifts at a dedicated Covid-19 hospital, is palpably frustrated by the police response. “The priorities of a police state like ours are completely misplaced,” he tells me. “We are compelled to navigate a military-occupational bureaucracy. Should we do our duties or wait in queues to procure permits?” Tacitly admitting its mistakes, the health department on April 1 circulated a notice warning doctors against questioning the government. “It has been observed that some of the government servants are publicly criticizing the efforts of the administration to combat the pandemic of Covid-19, which is against the service conduct rules,” the notice read. “Henceforth strict action will be initiated against such elements who resort to such uncalled for reporting to media.”

People I spoke to also described maltreatment at the state capital Srinagar’s airport, deficient screening, and unhygienic quarantine facilities. Returning from New Delhi, one PhD student raised concerns over such negligence with the authorities. For his efforts, he was beaten by the police—who then lodged a report against him. “Our parents and relatives were baton-charged, harassed, and heckled outside the Srinagar airport by armed forces, leaving some severely injured,” another student, who is pursuing her medical degree in Dhaka, told me on the condition of anonymity. “But those with high-level connections weren’t held back for the quarantine.” Landing at the airport, she was made to wait for nine hours before she was finally taken to a government-owned facility, where over twenty people were squeezed into a single room with an adjoining washroom. “It was cold, ill-equipped, and protocols of isolation or distancing weren’t followed,” she told me. “We were kept with people who had arrived from higher-risk countries.” After considerable protest, some of them were shifted to another facility. “We were asked to board a military vehicle, a completely closed space, with small wire-meshed windows. Given the history of such vehicles here, it was terrifying.”

Yet another student reported a similar experience. “After waiting for over six hours, a bus drove us to a quarantine facility. We were accompanied by Special Operations Group (SOG) personnel. It was traumatic,” she told me, again on the condition of anonymity. In Kashmir, the SOG is a counter-insurgency force known for custodial killings, torture, and disappearances. Its headquarters are an infamous torture center. “Their black kerchiefs and big jackboots triggered many memories,” the student told me. “My mother told me stories of violence perpetuated by them. They tortured my father and beat him up and my three-year-old sister in 1993 right after the Bijbehara massacre. My uncle was also severely tortured by them.”

A friend studying at a university in the United States raised more general concerns about returning to Kashmir. “I can’t risk being quarantined in Delhi for fourteen days before I can fly home. It is already fatal to be identified as a Muslim in Delhi. Being a Kashmiri Muslim only adds to the vulnerability,” he said. While Kashmir’s Muslims living in India have long been threatened and harassed, the recent anti-Muslim violence in Delhi and state-perpetuated Islamophobia has raised fears to a new level.

Like the quarantine facilities, hospitals, too, are reported to lack proper resources. There is only one allopathic doctor for every 3,866 people in Kashmir, versus the WHO norm of one to one thousand. Kashmir has about a hundred ventilators for a population of over seven million. A dearth of protective gear and other essential medical supplies has also been reported, as has accessibility to medical literature and emerging guidelines—all of this exacerbated by the ongoing internet gag that limits people’s access to high speed internet. Dr. Faiz unsuccessfully tried to send me an article published in The British Journal of Medicine because his own internet was too slow. I later accessed the article myself, which points out how slow internet speeds affect Covid-19 diagnosis, prescription, and treatment in Kashmir.

The coronavirus could not have arrived at a worse time in Kashmir. Just over a year ago, on August 5, New Delhi officially abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had offered the state nominal autonomy. Though it had been inexorably watered down by previous administrations over the past seven decades, this was a major change. Not only has Narendra Modi’s right-wing government revoked Kashmir’s special status, it has broken the state into two entities or Union Territories, which it will govern directly.

Before August 5, 2019, the state had repeatedly maintained that there was “nothing to worry about.” It was only “rumormongering.” But on August 5, we woke up to the noise of helicopters and drones as tens of thousands of additional Indian troops were brought into the valley. Soon our homes, streets, and lives were entrapped within spools of razor-wired silences. Barricades and checkpoints proliferated; streets turned to dead ends. Landlines, cell phones, internet, postal services, and cable television networks were suspended. Lauding Modi, a minister in his cabinet said: “Several prime ministers came and went, no one had the courage to abrogate Article 370. But, the man with the fifty-six-inch chest scrapped it in one go.” Modi has frequently referred to his chest size during election campaigns.

Since then, there has been a spree of arrests in Kashmir. Thousands have been detained under the Public Safety Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which allow the police to apprehend civilians on the flimsiest pretenses. Many of the detainees, who include minors, have been shifted to prisons in other states after those in Kashmir were filled. This practice has continued through the pandemic. According to a newspaper report, as of April 16, the state had arrested 2,303 people and registered 1,012 First Information Reports for “violating lockdown restrictions.” Meanwhile, the armed forces, exercising their impunity, have continued routine military operations that include barging into people homes for “cordon-and-search operations.” Downplaying police violence, Dilbag Singh, the region’s police chief announced in a press release that “people have to cooperate in breaking the chain of this deadly virus . . . police [have] to be harsh, but that is only for betterment of the community.”

Doctors and lawyers have called for decongesting jails. I spoke to Mir Urfi, a high court lawyer who has challenged administrative detentions, particularly juvenile detentions, for over a decade now. “Regional jails are overcrowded,” she told me:

Hundreds have been incarcerated often under draconian laws before and after August 5, and many are lodged in prisons outside. Vulnerable inmates aged over sixty or with comorbidities could have been released with conditional legal bonds, but repeated calls for decongesting prisons remain unheeded.

Dr. Aadil, who works at a tertiary care hospital in Srinagar, raised similar concerns. He pointed me to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, which observes that the limited medical care and confined settings in prisons reinforces the vulnerability of prisoners. The journal article also stresses the importance of cooperation between the legal and public health officials and detention facilities for fighting the virus. Such cooperation exists in Kashmir—only it is militarism, rather than people’s welfare, that binds these institutions together.

The Indian state has long invoked the language of psychiatry to pathologize Kashmir people. In her essay “Resisting Occupation in Kashmir: The Ethnography of Political Violence,” the anthropologist Saiba Varma writes, “The merging of humanitarian, military, and biomedical impulses in contemporary Kashmir produces Kashmiri subjects as ‘outpatients’ in need of care and discipline.” The aim is to “[transform] political agitators into medical victims.” In the past, protesters and resistors have been labelled as drug addicts in need of counseling. This time around, they are being associated with a more literal contagion: a top army official warned people of not sheltering “unknown terrorists as they may be spreading the coronavirus further.” The region’s police chief also claimed that “some serious inputs are coming to the fore that Pakistan is pushing Covid -19 positive patients into this part of Kashmir.” (The manufactured “threat” from Pakistan feeds India’s hyper-nationalism while allowing it reflect responsibility for its actions in the valley.)

The pandemic has not stopped India’s armed forces from carrying out sustained counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir.

Surveillance is vital to India’s control of Kashmir. While “human intelligence” and local “agents” have always been deployed, the last decade has seen a surge in electronic snooping including phone tracking and survey-based profiling. During the pandemic, the state has resorted to using heat maps, geo-tagging, and crowdsourced apps, and has also set up “24/7 control rooms” responsible for maintaining records, collecting data and information, monitoring contact-tracing, and tracking people “who hide their travel history” based on the received information.

The Talaash (roughly, “Search”) app and website have been set up to allow “people to inform the administration of suspected Covid cases in their neighborhood” and to “track down the evaders.” Through this website one can both report about themselves and anonymously report about others. In March, days after a social media ban was lifted in Kashmir, the police issued an advertisement urging citizens to send them screenshots of individuals sharing “inflammatory terror or violence-loaded” posts. The advertisement promised a monetary reward to any informers—who they dubbed “peace-makers”—if a First Information Report was registered based on their complaint.

Additionally, drones normally used in counterinsurgency operations have also been deployed for making announcements and “supervising” sealed areas in Kashmir. The Indian army has also been kind enough to set up about seventeen helplines to “help the awaam (people) to manage stresses related to Covid-19 and to provide immediate relief to those seeking advice.” While it is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of the app and these helplines in slowing the spread of the virus, it’s hard to ignore that they legitimize spying while increasing state penetration at the grassroots level.

Meanwhile, I have been receiving constant SMS alerts instructing me to download the Aarogya Setu (“bridge to health”)—a flagship app developed by the Indian government to “help India win this fight with Covid-19.” But this “bridge” lies in the shadow of a huge watchtower. The app gathers user data, tracking real-time movements as well as one’s proximity to other users. No surprise, then, that the ruling Bharatya Janata Party’s IT cell, notorious for trolling and peddling fake news, has been urging people to download it. While the agency overseeing the app remains unknown, its terms of conditions clearly state that data may be shared with other agencies as the government deems fit, even for purposes other than epidemic control.

The pandemic has not stopped India’s armed forces from carrying out sustained counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir. Almost each day, we wake up to the news of more deaths, arrests, and destruction. On April 12, the Indian army used a civilian village as a base to launch its artillery guns into Pakistan’s as part of an exchange of fire along the Line of Control (LoC)—the de facto border that divides Jammu and Kashmir, between Indian and Pakistan. Homes were destroyed, and nine civilians were killed on both sides. A thirty-six-year-old woman in Kopwor district’s Reddi Chowkibal village, about one hundred kilometers north of Srinagar, died when a shell landed in her garden. As the shelling continued, a splinter hit an eight-year-old boy in a neighboring village, killing him. The tragic picture of his mother cradling her dead son became yet another portrait of grief.

The coronavirus lockdown is only one among many concentric circles of oppression that Kashmiris have to endure, the center being the Indian state’s mammoth military occupation.

In May alone, more than twelve houses were destroyed in Srinagar during a single “encounter” between militants and troopers, leaving scores of families homeless overnight. It is common practice for troopers to blow up houses, killing the militants trapped inside, “rather than engaging [them] in a drawn-out gunfight” (in the words of a police officer). To prevent mass participation in the funerals of militants that inevitably follow—an indication of their popular support—the slain are labelled as “unidentified” and discretely interred in designated graves hundreds of miles away from their homes. In this way, the state also denies families the right to mourn their dead.

Nor has the pandemic halted India’s settler colonial occupation. Just twenty days after the World Health Organization declared coronavirus as a pandemic, the Modi government announced new rules for citizenship rights in Kashmir, allowing Indian nationals to acquire domicile certificates. On May 18, as infections were peaking, fast-tracking procedures were announced that would grant domicile certificates within a fortnight to any Indians who had lived in Kashmir for fifteen straight years, or had studied there for seven years and appeared in high school examinations in the region. Since June, about 1.6 million such certificates have been issued. Such changes, people and observers fear, will lead to “demographic flooding” in the disputed region.

Indeed, the abrogation of Article 370 was intended to facilitate a land and resource grab, and the pandemic has allowed the Indian state to expedite this process. With 21,400 acres already under its belt—acquired over the years through force for its bases and cantonments—the Indian military looks set to now “legally” purchase more land. Business leaders are not lagging far behind. “Responding to the call of Narendra Modi,” India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani (whose company Reliance Industries Limited itself faces several land grabbing allegations) announced he’d be setting up a “special task force” for the “developmental needs” of the Kashmir region just a week after the special status was watered down last year.

While these changes—erasures upon erasures—indicate the state’s ever-growing power, they also betray its anxiety about the power of Kashmiri history and collective memory. Through their everyday memorialization and resistance practices, the people of Kashmir have woven counter-narratives that challenge India’s narrative control and obfuscation of truth. In Kashmir, India’s pretensions to democracy are exposed as a sham.

The coronavirus lockdown is only one among many concentric circles of oppression that Kashmiris have to endure, the center being the Indian state’s mammoth military occupation. The area bound by two concentric circles, called annulus by mathematicians, is where we live in short-lived reprieves before another larger circle closes in on us.

Corona means crown in Latin. The term describes its protein-spikes, which aid its invasion into the human cells. Like an imperial master, it seeks to replace native cells with a settler-virus population. The virus passes its genetic code into the cell, ordering its machinery to create more copies of this viral RNA. In time, the cell is completely overtaken by these demands. But history tells us that empires and crowns have fallen and will fall again. And this is what Kashmir can tell you: amid it all, birdsong remerges.


Read more about state terror and resistence in occupied Kashmir.