A siege within a siege

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Afifa Tahir Azim Khan;
John Steinbeck in his famous novel, In search of America (1962) states, “A sad soul can kill you quicker than a germ’. Ever since New Delhi has abolished the separate Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir, the misery of Kashmiris has deepened with shattering economy and deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the restive region amid restrictions. Years of dissention left a generation traumatized. India’s clampdown played havoc with daily lives of Kashmiris. Now the battle against the coronavirus has further isolated and scarred the people with little approach to help. Occupied Kashmir, under indefinite curfew since August 5, 2019, remains the largest jail on the planet. A complete communication blackout is in place.

How are the people coping with lack of food and medicine? Do the    most vulnerable people have stamina to survive? World has been in the clench of Coronavirus since December 2019 and Indian Occupied Kashmir on the other hand, had been in the grip of virus of hate, prejudice and intolerance for seventy three years. The year 2019 will be remembered for the brutality of India, as Indian government suddenly on 5 August 2019, striped away statehood from Jammu and Kashmir which had been a Muslim majority state. In the same month, state-wide lockdown was enforced by 900,000 Indian troops, crushing the freedom of expression and movement of Kashmiri people. Every season of turbulence in Kashmir brings a new kind of pain. One season is marked by the dead bodies of teenage boys demolished by Indian forces. Another brings an epidemic of dead eyes as Kashmiris being struck in the eyes by pellets fired by police officers.

India has outstripped all records of Human Rights in history of mankind. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs have reported all of these violations. However, J&K from all over the world has been completely disconnected, as cell phones and internet services have been suspended. It is forbidden for media and outsiders to enter J&K. However, a fraction of the information has been disclosed to World Media. This is one of the most wretched times to be a Kashmiri. They are being reminded of this fact every minute since the August 5 abrogation of Article 370 of India’s Constitution, which had granted Jammu and Kashmir partial autonomy as an Indian state. Kashmiris confront it in their minds, in the perturbed look on the faces of fellow Kashmiris, in the enervated markets that have only recently reopened after months of shutdown, and in the street-side crowds that consistently go off course into discussions about an uncertain future and the dread of emerging demographic change. They feel it every time they pick up their phones, knowing they won’t connect to the internet – even months after the communication blackout began. There were 55 internet blackouts in 2019 alone, including the largest in recorded history of 213 days. True, under pressure from the international community and the country’s Supreme Court’s direction, the government has selectively restored the internet connectivity to some “essential services” in the central parts of Kashmir, but service is still not available to the 8 million people of the region. And it is unlikely they will get it anytime soon, as the federal government’s plan to set up 400 internet booths across the valley would make you believe.

These fewer booths will be there to enable access to the internet for the common people who are not being trusted with a connection of their own. The Kashmir siege, however, goes well beyond restricted access of the internet and embraces every aspect of life. It is about so many things done to the people concurrently: it is about a blanket security lock down and a communication be siegement, which has brought to suppress almost all forms of protest by Kashmiris . The pandemic has been affecting the entire food system of Kashmir. Border closures, trade restrictions and quarantine measures have been preventing farmers from accessing markets, including for buying inputs and selling their produce, and agricultural workers from harvesting crops, thus disrupting domestic and international food supply chains and  reducing access to healthy, safe and diverse diets. The pandemic and therefore the curfew has put an end to jobs and placed millions of livelihoods at risk.

As breadwinners lose jobs, fall ill and die, the food security and nutrition of millions of women and men are under threat. The new normal in education is the increased use of online learning tools. The COVID-19 pandemic has set off new ways of learning. All around the world, educational institutions are looking towards online learning platforms to continue with the process of educating students. But around 8 million Kashmiris are deprived of access to education at all. There is no concept of online learning as the internet connectivity remains cramped. In August 2020, 4G cellular internet services were restored in two districts of Jammu and Kashmir. But 18 districts remain without high-speed mobile internet. Working remotely has become a routine in today’s work environment. With the ease of connecting from just about anywhere, employees have the freedom and convenience of working from their home. But Kashmiri people cannot go for online jobs as the region combats with the longest internet blackout imposed by a democracy. Where world is shifting towards e-health care to use digital technologies and telecommunications, such as computers, the Internet, and mobile devices, to facilitate health improvement and health care services. Internet restrictions are having a negative effect on public health of Kashmiris, as they must rely on slow 2G connections to download the latest medical studies and advice. Doctors are also unable to join live webinars, which have become a helpful tool for research professors in labs to share the latest information on the virus with doctors working on the front lines. There are no arrangements for spreading information related to curative measures or spread control of the virus. And authorities are still cracking down hard on dissent, with one doctor being transferred to a remote hospital with 3866 patients in Jammu after publicly demanding protective equipment. Others have been threatened with losing their jobs if they protest.

Out of 14 million residents, only 1.4 million people are eligible for the Ayushman Bharat National Insurance, rest is struggling for the basic lifesaving treatment on time. In a protest for internet connectivity restoration in Jammu, Dr Omar Saleem Akhtar, one of the Kashmiri doctors, said, “This is not a protest, this is a request. Please restore internet connectivity to all hospitals and medical establishments in Jammu and Kashmir” What is more painful is that there seems to be no impending getaway from this state of affairs. It is an Orwellian world thoroughly controlling each and every aspect of life. Kashmir is thus unlikely to be allowed an autonomous political, social and media space to give voice to the situation on the ground. Nor does it appear that the Internet, which is an organizer of this space alongside being the foundation of the modern life, will be restored fully for now. This has created an oppressive environment for people in the region. It is as if every person living in the region has been imprisoned. People have no control over their lives: everything seems monitored and guided. The government is busy in its illegitimate annexations, and so it continues to prolong the misery. And the people in Kashmir have little option but to endure it.