Kashmir Diary: Foreign Envoy Visit Brings no Relief

Concerns rising over environmental degradation as well

By Majid Maqbool

Five months after Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government overturned 70 years of history by canceling the special status of Jammu & Kashmir, life drags on for the two-thirds of the region’s Muslims, with Indian land officials raiding the state’s magnificent scenery and the lockdown continuing. 

Only journalists are able to access the Internet, and briefly at that, on a dozen computers at a government-run media facilitation center established in the summer capital Srinagar in the second week of August. Internet services for all Kashmir-based local newspapers and media organizations continue to be barred although some broadband internet has been restored in Jammu in the past two months.

The ban on postpaid mobile phone network was lifted in October and SMS services for postpaid mobile phones were restored earlier this month. However, prepaid phones and both broadband and mobile internet continue to be banned for others. 

Scars of siege remain

The markers of the siege and restrictions imposed by the government are visible everywhere in the valley – more troops and bunkers at important road links, and multiple road blockades scattered across the city and major towns. Public protests continue to be banned.

Even after more than five months of lockdown in Kashmir, most of the leading and prominent local newspapers are avoiding publishing any commentary or editorials on the revocation of special status, which illustrates limited freedom of press and self-censorship adopted by the local press to avoid any trouble, as the local press is mostly dependent on government ads. 

Instead, the prominent local newspapers carried articles and columns on everything under the sun except for giving space to analysis, columns on the humanitarian crisis, reports of torture and mass arrests following the shutting down of all communication lines after August 5. For example, consider these editorials and lead columns published after August 5 in a prominent and influential local daily newspaper: “The subtle secrets of nature (August 9 editorial);” “Banks are Banks (August 9 lead column); Vistas of Botox Therapy in Medicine (lead column, August 17); Macbeth and the Moral Universe (August 22, lead column); Poetry and journalism, (August 23, lead column); Food security and climate change in J&K, (August 24 lead column), etc.

Supreme Court challenge

On January 10, India’s Supreme Court, after hearing petitions challenging the constitutionality of the decision locking down the state, stated that the indefinite internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir is a violation of freedom of speech and expression granted by the Constitution, apart from violating the telecom rules. 

The court also asked the J&K administration to review all restrictive orders imposed within a week. Observing that trade and commerce are dependent on the internet, the Supreme Court said the freedom to practice such trade is constitutionally protected under the Indian constitution. It remains unsure what action the Bharatiya Janata-led government will take. 

Internet service was restored in time for a 15-member delegation of envoys from different countries including US Ambassador to India Kenneth I Juster to meet with a breakaway faction of political leaders led by Altaf Bhukhari, a former minister, some selected journalists in Kashmir, and an 18 member deputation comprised of members of Gorkhas community, West Pakistan refugees and some BJP leaders in Jammu. 

The delegations that met with the group of foreign envoys – the second since the abrogation of Article 370, which guaranteed its state status – told the US ambassador it was the worst period of governance the state has witnessed since British colonial control ceased in 1947. Others described frequent power cuts in the harsh winter season and the lack of mobile telephone and internet service. 

Altaf Bukhari said there was no harm in meeting the envoys. “We met people with the objective to apprise them about the present situation of Kashmir. Our interaction is in no way going to delay the release of our political prisoners. Our interaction has no connection whatsoever with my colleagues who are behind the bars,” Bukhari told journalists.

Envoys’ trip a “guided tour”

However, the visit, organized by the central Indian government, didn’t have any impact on the ground, with prominent regional parties dismissing it as a “guided tour.”

Unlike a similar visit in October by European envoys, markets remained open and there was no attempt by the people to boycott it.

The majority of top political leadership of the largest regional parties, including three former chief ministers of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state, continue to be in detention. Some politicians were released in the past few months after reportedly signing a bond that they won’t be taking part or doing politics around the abrogation of the special status of the state. 

Human rights concerns

According to the Annual Human Rights Review 2019 released by Kashmir-based rights organizations the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), 412 persons have been booked under the Public Security Act, decried as “lawless law” in the region. According to the rights groups, the majority of those held are in detention outside Kashmir, in jails across India. The location of nearly half of the detainees remains “unknown.”

Those booked are mostly young. “The maximum number of PSA cases have been found within the age group 18-35 years old, forming about 58.6 percent of the total number,” according to the report. “It is only within this age bracket that incidences of being booked twice with the PSA has been observed.”

The report also records six killings at the hands of government forces after the revocation of the special status and six cases of enforced disappearances during 2019 from across the Kashmir region, including one from Srinagar city, the biggest city. “While some of these killings were reported by international media, a few killings have not been reported,” the report said. 

Forest lands conversion begins

In the meantime, according to the India edition of the international environmental news service Mongabay, conversion of the state’s forest lands for development has begun, with 198 projects approved in a single month following the change in status. In the Kashmir region around 15,000 acres of state land, mostly around eco-sensitive zones such as wetlands and rivers, has so far been identified for infrastructure development by the new regional government, according to Mongabay. In the Jammu region, more than 42,000 acres has been identified.

The government, according to the report, “has repeatedly declared that it is creating land-banks for inviting investors from outside to set up businesses and industries in Kashmir. Environmental activists are alarmed, saying such conversions would result in “environmental degradation in the name of development.”

The Jammu & Kashmir region has been identified as one of the world’s most beautiful tourism destinations despite the years of tension. It is home to several valleys, the most prominent of which is the Kashmir valley. The region has been called a natural paradise, with mesmerizing mountains and valleys. It contains 10 lakes from freshwater to salty to hot springs. Widespread development, which would cut into its tourism appeal, would be a tragic mistake, environmentalists say.

Speaking anonymously to Mongabay-India, a source said: “Some of our forests, for example in Doda, have suffered extensive denudation because of diversion of huge chunks of forested land for roads and hydro-electricity projects, adding that projects other than road projects, which have been on the waiting list for years over environmental concerns. 

Those questions, he said, had still not been answered, but the clearances were given “in a hasty manner.”

Environmental activists like Raja Muzzafar, who is also an activist, say they’re worried what the proposed industrial development would do an ecologically sensitive region. “The only land owned by the government in Kashmir is part of rivers and wetlands and some Kerevas. One can just imagine what can happen to the environment and ecology once the construction is allowed there.” 

Majid Maqbool (maqbool.majid@gmail.com) is a Kashmir-based journalist. His access to the Internet was recently restored through the media center in Srinigar.