By Rana Ayyub
There was an eerie silence on the drive toward the Shopian district in southern Kashmir, as stray dogs and cattle walked past on a recent overcast afternoon. But the silence was suddenly shattered as a convoy of heavily armed vehicles passed by shielding top officials of the paramilitary forces.
When these trucks show up around these parts, children and young men disappear.
As we arrived in Shopian on Oct. 17, a local resident of this fertile apple-growing region led us to the house of Firdaus Jaan, whose two grandsons, Junaid, 13, and Ahmed, 22, were picked up by the paramilitary forces on Oct. 14, joining the thousands of young men and minors who have been arbitrarily detained amid a brutal crackdown in Kashmir since the Indian government revoked the special autonomous status of the region on Aug. 5.
Jaan, 92, tried to protect her grandson Junaid, who cried as 20 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men dragged him out of the house. She would not let go of him until an officer hit her with a stick. Jaan said the paramilitary forces entered the village by the hundreds and rounded up young men and children. Soon they began beating them, along with older residents, asking about the whereabouts of militants who had burned a migrant laborer’s apple truck.
Jaan’s neighbor Mohammed Yusuf Butt, who has acres of apple orchards, was despondent, suicidal. That same night his son, Shikir Ahmed Butt, went to the police station to inquire about the apple truck that had been burned. The Shopian police detained him and told his father that they would be slapping the draconian Public Safety Act against his 30-year-old son. The act allows for detention for up to two years without trial or due process. “They have taken my only son, my apples are rotting in the farms, and then they accuse us of shielding militants,” Mohammed told me. “First they took away our rights, now they accuse us of shielding militants.”
Thirty minors were picked up in Shopian on Oct. 14, according to residents interviewed.
Gulshan, 50, kept approaching the Shopian police station, where her husband was begging for the release of their two sons, Raees Ahmed, 11, and Liyaquat Ahmed, 14. They both attend a school in Srinagar but had come home to help the family with the apple harvest. “We are scared to send our children into the orchard, the CRPF is camping there, they see our children and detain them,” Gulshan said. She doesn’t know whom to fear more: the militants or the military forces.
When I arrived at the Shopian police station to verify the claims of the family, Nazeer Ahmed, the second in command, told me he had no idea about the arrests; his phone had not been working for four days, he said. His colleagues exchanged smiles. There’s a verse painted on a station wall, by the Urdu poet Allama Iqbal: “Thy abode is not on the dome of a royal palace; You are an eagle and should live on the rocks of mountains.”
Under constant surveillance and facing brutal repression and arbitrary detention, Kashmiris seem to be in constant mourning.
In the streets in downtown Srinagar, some families sat quietly mourning the absence of their children. Mudassir Majeed, a 19-year-old studying business administration, arrived home on Aug. 4 to help his father, a sheep trader. The next morning, as he was helping his father herd the sheep from the truck, paramilitary forces dragged him into a van. When his father reached the police station, he was told his son had been sent to jail in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and they cited the Public Safety Act. “I dread when my son comes out, they will label him a terrorist,” Mudassir’s father told me.
Nusrat Jahan, a doctor at the largest government hospital in Srinagar, tells me the population is suffering from borderline depression. “I have choked in the bathroom when cancer patients scream in pain and there is no morphine available to administer,” he said. “I have treated pellet injuries on 10-year-olds, and it feels as if I was operating on my own son. Our anger is spilling over. Ask the psychiatric ward. Patients are asking for drugs that can kill them in their sleep.”
On Oct. 19, I visited houses in Khanyar and Rainawari in Srinagar. The areas are known for their protests, and every household told me of a detained child. Mubasshir Peer, a chemist who lives in Rainawari, told me that more than 300 children were picked up on the night of Oct. 18, a few weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at the United Nations.
“Does your prime minister care for us?” he said. “He spoke about creating toilets while we are bleeding. Kashmiris celebrated when [Pakistani Prime Minister] Imran Khan spoke about us because at least he pretended he cared for us.”
I was also able to interview Mohammad Shafi, one of the most senior members of the National Conference, a political party whose leaders have been under house arrest since Aug. 5. “Even if there is a day when the democratic process is ushered in Kashmir, what will any of our parties promise the people of Kashmir?” he asked. “That New Delhi will take decisions on their behalf while they lock Kashmiris down like lambs. Look at this government, it arrested an 80-year-old academic yesterday who just sat on the street with a placard.”
He was referring to the arrest of 18 female academics and activists, including the wife of the former chief justice, Hawa Bashir, who sat on a silent protest in Srinagar to ask for the return of civil liberties. The women, including an 82-year-old academic with a pacemaker, were taken to jail and then released a day later on the condition that they would neither protest nor speak of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
It all reinforces the distressing silence in Jammu and Kashmir. When I asked people why they weren’t going to work, their response was fear. A government employee told me Kashmiris are keeping their children indoors.
“We fear that they will take our children away,” he said. “I can tell you this is the apocalypse Kashmir feared. We are all lifeless here.”
His 18-year-old nephew, Saquib Nazeer, has been lying in a hospital with 174 pellet wounds, including four in his heart, he told me. He is on life support.
Kashmiris are avoiding Indian TV. The news reports showing “normalcy” fill them with rage. I watched as a journalist from the channel India Today talked about a new era of peace in Kashmir. (The same journalist was called out on Twitter a week ago for anchoring a 30-minute program praising a genocidal speech by a member of the paramilitary force). Kashmiri radio just plays songs — the announcers have been off the air since Aug. 5. Newspapers don’t publish editorials — only the official version of the story makes it to print.
As I wrote this, “Boycott all Muslims” was trending in Indian Twitter. Most tweets are amplified by followers of Modi and his ministers. Some ask for a genocide against Muslims, others ask for the blood of Kashmiris.
I think about the words of Nusrat Jahan, the doctor. Soon all Kashmiris could be either in jails or mental asylums.
The world’s apathy — and the apathy of many Indians — is only perpetuating a climate of fear, silence and repression the region hasn’t witnessed in decades.
But it’s time to take notice. On Tuesday, participants at a U.S. congressional hearing about human rights in South Asia singled out India’s actions in Kashmir. Francisco Bencosme, Asia Pacific advocacy manager at Amnesty International, said his organization had documented “a clear pattern of authorities using administrative detention on politicians, activists and anyone likely to hold a dissenting opinion before and after Aug. 5” in Jammu and Kashmir.
More of us need to speak up. The world must hear the deafening silence from Kashmir. Looking the other way for strategic relations is not an option. Kashmir and her children are waiting for justice.