I’m sure many people have heard of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. It’s a movement of Argentinian women who staged a silent protest against the disappearance of their children during the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s.
From 1977 to about 2006, they gathered at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and wore white headscarves embroidered with the names and dates of birth of their children – demanding answers from the state. It was a bleak form of protest, but it succeeded in getting the generals and police officers prosecuted and punished for crimes against humanity.
It’s possible that not so many will be familiar with a markedly similar protest movement, the Association of Parents of Disappeared People (APDP), founded in Kashmir in 1994 by Parveena Ahangar and others whose loved ones have been “disappeared”. The number of people disappeared in Kashmir since the uprising against Indian rule in the late 1980s is between 8,000 and 10,000. Ahangar’s own son Javaid disappeared in 1990 when he was a teenager.
Ahangar and her group gathered in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, on the 10th of every month, with headbands bearing blank outlines of passport photos, to memorialise the disappearances and to seek answers. While the protest was often sparsely attended, for years the parents at least had the opportunity to get together publicly: to comfort each other, to demonstrate, to talk to the press. That all changed a year ago today, with an epochal silencing of Kashmiri voices.
On 5 August 2019, India erased Kashmir’s long-held autonomy by revoking articles 370 and 35A of the constitution (which guaranteed the region’s special status), and put the region under a devastating military and digital siege. These campaigners for the disappeared, mostly women, have themselves disappeared: vanished from our screens, vanished from public memory. This and several other erasures executed by the Indian state over the years, and most categorically in recent months, has led me to believe that Kashmir itself has been subjected to enforced disappearance.
Mass arrests, Gestapo-style surveillance, torture, the suppression of free assembly, the crushing of the Kashmiri press as boatloads of Indian journalists and foreign envoys go on guided “normalcy” tours, the decimation of the local economy, the longest internet shutdown ever imposed by a democracy, the crippling of the education system, the incarceration of thousands of young people, the unprecedented criminalisation of speech (those who’ve been released have had to sign “bonds of silence”), the conversion of hotels and guesthouses into detention centres, the gagging of Kashmir’s civil society. It all serves to remove Kashmiri agency: to keep them firmly out of the frame.
Already, India is reprogramming the economic and social life of Kashmiris by amending domicile laws, by allowing Indian citizens to acquire property and land, and by abolishing longstanding institutions of the state of Kashmir. Among the bodies disbanded are a children’s commission, a women’s rights body, and the state’s semi-autonomous human rights commission.
They have made plans to steal Kashmir’s resources. Recently, mining rights to Kashmir’s sand from its riverbeds was given to Indian companies via an online auction that was expressly out of bounds for local families who have depended on the sand for their livelihood for years. India is creating “land banks” for investment opportunities: granting itself powers to procure land for its armed forces just about anywhere in Kashmir. Until recently, it required the consent of the local government, which was last year replaced by an unelected, and unaccountable, Indian governor. Please mark those two words: “land” and “bank”; very potent tools for further exploitation, expropriation and occupation.
Kashmir today is being turned into a colony as the world watches. India’s home minister has talked about building settlements and temples. There has been a suspension of even the most nominal form of autonomy. Local law is frozen. An astonishing 99% of habeas corpus pleas since last August are pending. The 70-year-old president of the Kashmir Bar Association, Mian Qayoom, who spent a year in prison, was released on the condition that he can’t go home until a certain date and that he shall not speak. The supreme court of India issued these conditions.
Just before Covid-19 began to spread in February, a high court turned down a petition from another Kashmiri organisation – unknown to most people, Kashmir has an Association of Pellet Survivors, those blinded by pellet guns introduced in 2012 to quell protests. The court said it was not necessary for them to be heard. An occupation can be identified by just this kind of suspension of everyday legal systems – a state of perverse and all-pervasive exception.
India has embarked on a project to shut out Kashmiris from even a semblance of control over their lives. It was evident on 5 August 2019, when India rushed in thousands of additional troops and cut off Kashmir from the world, and it has been evident since then. In one of the cruellest acts of coercion, the administration now prohibits Kashmiri families from burying their slain militant sons in neighbourhood graveyards. To prevent people from attending the funerals, Indian officials have taken away bodies of militants to remote places for quiet burials. The state has turned body-snatcher.
One of the ways an oppressive regime exerts control is by dramatising a population’s powerlessness by subjecting it to daily indignities. To inflict indignity on Kashmiris now seems to be Delhi’s primary strategy.
A year after the annexation, this is where Kashmir is. A terrifying moment made infinitely worse by the lockdown necessitated by the pandemic: a siege within a siege, as we witness in real time the full-scale occupation of Kashmir.
• Mirza Waheed is a novelist and essayist. His latest novel, Tell Her Everything, won the 2019 Hindu prize for fiction