Kashmiris Dispute India's Claims That The Territory Is Returning To Normal

Aug 28, 2019
Originally published on August 28, 2019 9:27 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to shift our focus now to Kashmir, a Himalayan territory that is split between India and Pakistan. For decades, the Indian side had autonomy, enshrined in India's Constitution. Three weeks ago, though, the Indian government revoked that. It's been tough to learn how Kashmiris are reacting to this move because India also cut communications to the region and blocked foreign journalists from travelling there. NPR's Lauren Frayer has these accounts from Kashmiris who have fled.

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LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Sanna Shah was sitting cross-legged on a silk carpet, trying to enjoy the folk singers at her cousin's wedding in Kashmir. But nobody could concentrate on the music. Indian troops were amassing on the streets outside. No one knew why. This was August 4, the night before India's lockdown.

SANNA SHAH: Every few hours, there would be some sort of rumor or kind of announcement. We left my cousin's wedding early specifically because of this panic that was spreading about a curfew being imposed. And my parents were particularly sensitive, and they knew that I had to fly the next day.

FRAYER: She had to fly back to New York, where she lives. After the wedding was cut short, she was texting some friends back home when...

SHAH: Out of nowhere, the Internet got cut, and I just assumed that maybe the router was down or - sure enough, we realized that the phones were out and so was the local cable TV. First thing my parents asked me was, did you print your ticket?

FRAYER: Luckily, she had. And so the next morning, as India imposed a curfew, Shah was one of the first people to travel out of Kashmir. Her uncle drove her to Srinagar’s airport.

SHAH: As soon as we backed out of our property, we were immediately met with boulders - small boulders and barbed wire. Every, I would say, thousand feet that we encountered paramilitary forces.

FRAYER: It took hours to go just a few miles, but she made it and flew back to New York, where she's been devouring news about Kashmir, news that her family there has no access to. Their cellphones, Internet and TV are all still down after more than three weeks. The Indian government says things are returning to normal, but many people travelling out of Kashmir paint a very different picture.

NAVEED BUKHTYAR: The roads were blocked. Tires were burned. They were protesting.

FRAYER: Naveed Bukhtyar is a law student who left Kashmir this past weekend. Despite a curfew, he saw massive protests, even in his hometown of Uri, which is normally very pro-India.

BUKHTYAR: My friends, my relatives were in the protest. These are the people who never protested for anything. They were chanting anti-India slogans. It was a shock for me. I've never seen a protest there.

FRAYER: Thousands of people are believed to have been detained in these protests - among them, a college student, Ahmed. He's majoring in peace studies in Delhi but was home in Kashmir for summer vacation and joined a march in his village. He recalls how Indian paramilitary forces surrounded him and his neighbors.

AHMED: They yelled at us. They beated (ph) with the guns as well. I have an injury on hand and my left arm and shoulder.

FRAYER: Ahmed says troops shoved them into the back of a van and drove to the tiny local jail, but it was already full.

AHMED: There were already, I guess, more than 40, 50 people. There was no space for even us, and in an hour, we were taken to the other jail. There were 7-year-old kids. You can hear the screams of people being beaten. The young boys, they were just like, we need guns. Either we be killed, or we kill them.

FRAYER: After three days, his well-connected family bribed a government official to free him. I'm not using Ahmed's real name to protect the family. I met him once he'd fled to Delhi, with bandages still on his arm. Indian government officials did not respond to my requests for comment, but a human rights activist, Kavita Krishnan, who managed to visit Kashmir two weeks ago, said she too heard many accounts there, like Ahmed's, of children being jailed.

KAVITA KRISHNAN: In South Kashmir, for instance, I think there was no village from which they had not just detained scores of boys and young men, en masse. So we met - parents had no way of knowing about their safety. And the sheer fear was that if we say any word in protest against the government, then our child will be in danger.

FRAYER: The United Nations has called this collective punishment. Kashmiri politicians and media have asked India's Supreme Court to intervene, Krishnan notes.

KRISHNAN: It is certainly a violation of every possible norm. It's completely illegal. There is no Indian or international law that would allow you to do what you're doing to Kashmiri people. Of course, it's collective punishment, and yet even the Supreme Court is sort of shrugging its shoulders and looking the other way.

FRAYER: India's high court has not yet issued any ruling. Many Indians do not feel sympathy for Kashmir right now because they've always thought of the region as a problem. It has a separatist movement with some funding from Pakistani militants. A Kashmiri suicide bomber killed 40 Indian troops there last February. And so most Indians may agree with the government's takeover, if not its tactics. Ahmed says he felt that when he got back to Delhi after his prison ordeal. He went to his local supermarket.

AHMED: When I went for the shopping, the shopkeeper owner was like, are you Kashmiri? And in the end, he was like, you have to say India's great. I said, India's great. Inside I was really angry, but I had to pay (ph). So I said, yeah, India's great. He said, say Jai Shri Ram. I said, Jai Shri Ram. And then I left.

FRAYER: Jai Shri Ram is a Hindu slogan that's been used lately to taunt Indian minorities.

AHMED: He was just trying to harass me. It's like India versus Kashmir right now. And I also feel that it's like Hindu versus Muslim, really, because such is the mood of the country.

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.