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“One Big Jail”: Fact-Finding Mission Finds Widespread Abuses in Kashmir as India Tightens Grip

Web ExclusiveAugust 22, 2019
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Kashmir remains under tight restrictions after India revoked the special status of the Indian-controlled part of the Muslim-majority region. India imposed a curfew, cut off all communications and reportedly arrested more than 4,000 people, including many political leaders. We speak with Kavita Krishnan, a leading women’s rights activist in India who just returned from a fact-finding mission to Kashmir. She is the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). “We felt that the whole of Kashmir was one big jail,” Krishnan says. “Decisions are being taken about the Kashmiri people without any semblance, even a pretense, of consulting them. … All you are left with is open, brutal military control of the Kashmiri people.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to the crisis in Kashmir, which remains under under lockdown two weeks after India revoked the special status of the Indian-controlled part of the Muslim-majority region. Al Jazeera is reporting Kashmiri rebels fired a grenade earlier today, wounding two Indian police officers in the city of Baramulla. One officer died. A Kashmiri rebel was also reportedly killed in a gun battle with police. Major protests have also been reported in the Kashmiri city of Srinagar. According to Agence France-Presse, at least 4,000 people have been detained in Kashmir since August 5th.

Meanwhile, there has also been more deadly violence between Indian and Pakistani forces at the Line of Control, which separates Kashmir. On Tuesday, Pakistan announced it would take the Kashmir dispute to the International Court of Justice. While India has shut down telecommunications and the internet in Kashmir, some firsthand accounts of what’s happening are emerging.

We go to New Delhi, India, where we’re joined by Kavita Krishnan. She is a leading women’s rights activist in India, who has just returned from a fact-finding mission to Kashmir. She’s the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and a member of the Communist Party of India.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Kavita. You’ve just returned from Kashmir. Can you talk about what you found there and the significance of what India has done?

KAVITA KRISHNAN: Yes. The situation we found in Kashmir, just days after this decision to take away Kashmir’s autonomy, the situation was very bad. We felt that the whole of Kashmir was one big jail, and people were really suffering very badly. They were unable to communicate with each other. Any Kashmiri protests were being met with the most brutal kinds of crowd control, including pellet guns and tear gas. And Kashmiri people were feeling terribly betrayed, because their leaders, as well as the people themselves, are all kind of locked up.

And so, decisions are being taken about the Kashmiri people without any semblance, even a pretense, of consulting them, even a pretense of democratic process. So what is left of the contract between Kashmir and India, which was the special status Article 370, is basically nothing. And so, all you’re left with is open, kind of brutal military control of the Kashmiri people. So, the situation was indeed very, very bad.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve described the situation as under complete siege, and even young children are being arrested as an act of intimidation. Explain what you saw and who you talked to on the ground.

KAVITA KRISHNAN: Yes. So, we tried to meet as many ordinary people, Kashmiri people, as possible, of diverse communities, in different parts of Kashmir, so that included urban Srinagar, as well as various parts of rural Kashmir. And we were probably the first team to do this, because most journalists had not ventured out of Srinagar, or even out of a small enclave in Srinagar, ’til we did so.

And what we found there was that people were wanting to protest, they were very upset, but they could not protest because peaceful protest is not allowed, A, and also the fact that in many of the households in rural Kashmir, young children had been picked up by the police completely illegally. So they were being illegally detained in police stations or army camps. And so, the parents would be so fearful for the safety of their children that they would not be able to voice any protest. And this is what we found there.

We also spoke to a lot of Kashmiri women and girls, who were especially angry that the Indian prime minister and the Indian government was talking about liberating Kashmiri women. And they were upset because the leaders of the ruling party in India were talking about Kashmiri girls as though they are the spoils of war, and saying, “Oh, Indian men can now get fair Kashmiri brides,” and things like that. So there was a lot of anger and a lot of sense that Kashmiri people didn’t count, that Kashmir has been reduced to territory, which is being treated by the Indian government as though it is a Muslim territory to be conquered by a Hindu-majoritarian government.

AMY GOODMAN: Seven million people have been confined to their homes without any communication for more than two weeks in disputed Kashmir. This is Ishrat, a Kashmiri woman from Srinagar.

ISHRAT: [translated] For 12 days, we have been locked inside our houses. We cannot go out of our homes. We cannot go and get medicines. We have small children, and we can’t even go and buy toffees for them. There is nothing for us. We have relatives outside, brothers and sisters in countries outside, but we have no contact or news of them. We have absolutely no information about their well-being.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how are you getting information now, Kavita Krishnan, as you’ve left the territory and you’re back in New Delhi?

KAVITA KRISHNAN: Well, after we got back, we found that, you know, journalists have started going, so some journalists of some independent portals and papers have started doing very good work reporting from there, although they’ve also been talking about how difficult it is to report from there. So, Kashmir-based journalists, Kashmiri journalists are saying that the armed forces are forcing them to delete their footage, video footage, as well as taking away other material that they have. And Kashmiri papers are finding it hard to even come out, because they’re even finding it difficult to get newsprint. So, reporting from Kashmir is still very difficult. But still, there are some journalists on the ground doing a great job.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, the Kashmiri political leader Shah Faesal was interviewed on BBC from New Delhi, where you are right now, Kavita. Faesal was asked whether he had exaggerated the extent of India’s control over Kashmir. He was detained shortly after this interview.

SHAH FAESAL: Most of the political leaders who belong to my political party and all other political parties have been detained. I am the only person from the all-party meeting, which met there in Srinagar on 4th, who is free. And honestly speaking, I’m ashamed of myself that I am free at a time when the entire leadership of Kashmir is under — you know, in jail and all the 8 million people have been imprisoned.

STEPHEN SACKUR: Do you think, in all honesty, when this interview is done — and perhaps over the next few days, you will try to go back to Kashmir — do you think you will be free for long?

SHAH FAESAL: Police has come to my home couple of times after I left. And it’s also a story in itself, the way I reached the airport and came to Delhi. Because of communication breakdown, maybe people could not communicate to their higher-ups about my escape from the airport. But I am very much apprehensive that soon after I leave from here, I may be detained, like anybody else.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Kashmiri political leader Shah Faesal. Right after this interview — by the way, in it, he said he was ashamed he hadn’t been arrested. In fact, as he left, he left the studio and went to the airport, he was arrested and has not been released since then. Can you talk about his significance? His own father was killed by Kashmiri separatists.

KAVITA KRISHNAN: That’s right. And Shah Faesal, as well as many of the leaders who were arrested, are, in fact, people who were seen as pro-India in the valley. They were seen by Kashmiris as being a part of a middle ground that was arguing for continuing the relationship with India and remaining part of the Indian union. So, what the Indian government has now done is to completely lock all those people up. And so, a lot of Kashmiri people told us that, look, those who were singing praises of India are the ones that India has locked up today. So that’s a message to us that we should not, you know, place faith in the Indian political process and democratic process anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, Daily Show host Trevor Noah drew parallels between the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Donald Trump.

TREVOR NOAH: The more you look, the more you realize these similarities have spanned their entire lives, right? When Trump was doing Pizza Hut ads, Khan was in ads for Pepsi. Trump had three marriages in the tabloids; so did Khan. Trump thinks Islam is bad; Khan lives in Islamabad. I should have stopped while I was ahead, but the rhythm kept me going. In fact — in fact, these guys are so alike that shortly before he was elected, Khan was also embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal. And just like Trump, he got through it. … I’m not saying Imran Khan is the brown Trump. I’m saying that Imran Khan is one of many leaders around the world who is following the successful format of the hit show called The Trump Presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: This, to be fair, was well before what happened in Kashmir. That was Trevor Noah of The Daily Show comparing the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to Donald Trump. Kavita Krishnan, if you could respond to this description?

KAVITA KRISHNAN: Yeah, I, in fact, did respond to the show, which came out quite a long while ago, commenting on social media, saying this is a very ill-placed, ill-advised parallel. And, in fact, it would be wiser to actually make a parallel between Indian Prime Minister Modi and Donald Trump, who both share Islamophobia and xenophobia as the core of their politics. And, in fact, Narendra Modi, in many ways, is actually more dangerous, because he is backed by an organization called the RSS, which is inspired by Hitler’s and Mussolini’s parties, quite explicitly so.

And that’s why I find that internationally, you know, the tendency to look at India as a market, and therefore to sort of excuse, you know, look the other way, when its prime minister, its elected prime minister, is basically busy demolishing India’s secular democratic federal Constitution today and is trying to push India towards becoming a Hindu-majoritarian country. I think that the tendency to look the other way and to look for softer targets is extremely saddening for those of us in India who are actually struggling for democratic rights here and who are struggling to sort of save, protect the India that we have known and loved all these years.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Indian Prime Minister Modi saying Kashmir’s previous status was unjust for Kashmiri women because they lost their inheritance rights if marrying a person outside the region. Your response to Modi implying he was doing this for the women of Kashmir?

KAVITA KRISHNAN: Yeah, so that’s — the Kashmiri women had the best response to this. They said that, look, we are fighting patriarchy here, but so are you, aren’t you? Women are fighting patriarchy in their own cultures in societies all over the world. But who are our oppressors to be claiming to liberate us? And it’s especially galling to hear these words from Modi, when his party men are actually saying things like, “Oh, now that — you know, now our Indian men can get fair Kashmiri brides.” And so, Kashmiri girls and women would tell us, you know, we are being talked about as though we are the spoils of war, as though we are apples and peaches of Kashmir for somebody to just steal. So this is rape culture language coming from the ruling party in India towards Kashmiri girls and women.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we end, I wanted to ask you about the significance, overall, of what is happening and what Modi has done, what this means for Kashmir, when you pit two countries, India and Pakistan, both nuclear rivals. Could this be a trigger for some kind of nuclear attack? And how do you see, and what are you calling for, the resolution in Kashmir?

KAVITA KRISHNAN: Right. Well, for the first time ever, India recently said that it would not have a no-first-use policy. So we are probably the first country in the world to say we will not have a no-first-use nuclear policy. And so, indeed, there is a very real danger of a nuclear-armed conflict here.

But also I would say that, you know, the issue is not just a bilateral one. When Kashmir is treated simply as a something which India and Pakistan are fighting over, I think that that is an injustice to the Kashmiri people, because I think that any resolution should respect the fact that the status and the political future of Kashmir, Kashmiri people need to have a say in that. And that is what we need front and center. And also, India needs to — you know, as a start towards this, India needs to withdraw its military presence from the civilian landscape of Kashmir. It needs to actually address the long history of very terrible human rights violations there, including mass graves and custodial torture, custodial violence, custodial rape. All these allegations need to be really addressed. And that would just be the smallest step in the direction of actually resolving this conflict respectfully, with respect for the Kashmiri people and their voice.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump and Prime Minister Modi of India have a very close relationship. Can you talk about whether you think Islamophobia plays a role in this?

KAVITA KRISHNAN: Certainly. I think that Islamophobia plays a huge role, because with the Indian government right now, they know that what — you know, what they’re doing in Kashmir, they know that’s not going to resolve the Kashmir conflict. What they are doing is that they are projecting this victory over Kashmir, this triumph over this rebellious Muslim province, which is how they project it, to do their politics in India as a whole and to say that basically Muslims, by their very nature, tend to be pro-Pakistan and anti-India, you can’t trust Muslims and all of that. And therefore, I think that, you know, the ways in which Trump dealt with the disputed territory of Jerusalem and just declared it unilaterally to be an Israeli capital is similar to the way in which Modi is dealing with Kashmir. And you have, in fact, Hindu-majoritarian groups in India which have expressed a lot of admiration for Donald Trump, precisely because of his Islamophobia.

There’s also a link between Israel and India and the BJP government in India, because the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, they really look at Israel as a model for the way Israel creates its minorities, for the way Israel is basically openly a Jewish state — they want India to be a Hindu state in the same way — and also for the way Israel treats Palestine. They want India to treat Pakistan that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Kavita Krishnan, if you can talk about the response inside Kashmir right now? What kind of opposition is there? And also, in India, what kind of opposition is there to Modi’s move in Kashmir? Can you talk about the peace movement?

KAVITA KRISHNAN: See, in Kashmir, there is — there are some sporadic protests. As I said, widescale protests are probably extremely difficult now, given the paramilitary — complete paramilitary control over such a large part of Kashmir. But what a lot of people told us is that what they would like to do is to be able to protest peacefully, you know, to be able to protest the way people are doing in Hong Kong, for instance. They said that we would like to be out on the streets of Srinagar in the thousands and peacefully, without expecting bullets and pellet guns.

In India, on the other hand, I would say that while, of course, the Indian government has got a whole lot of support from very wide quarters, because of the lack of knowledge about, you know, the history of Kashmir’s accession to India, and because of Islamophobia, there are still protests by left organizations, by people’s movement and civil liberties groups and young students and women’s organization groups and all of these. They have had quite significant large protests in major cities, as well as small towns, basically making various points here, saying — you know, pointing out that if Modi government said that the status, autonomous status, was a temporary provision and they can do away with it, they look at India’s Constitution itself as a temporary provision, and they want to get rid of that, as well. They want to get rid of affirmative action for the oppressed castes in India, which is something Modi’s organization, the RSS, said just very recently, just the other day, that we need a dialogue to, you know, discuss what to do about affirmative action. They’ve always seen affirmative action also as a temporary provision. So we’ve tried to, you know, do what we can to have Indian people, people all over India, empathize with the situation of the Kashmiri people now and stand up for them right now.

AMY GOODMAN: You were there during one of the most sacred Muslim holidays, Eid. Can you talk about the timing of Modi’s announcement at Eid?

KAVITA KRISHNAN: Yes, I think Kashmiri people felt that this was an especial, you know, piece of cruelty that the Islamophobic Modi government had unleashed on them. Many of them told us, you know, even if he had to do this, couldn’t he have done it after Eid? Because, you know, their entire Eid was spent in mourning, in worry and fear about their young boys who were in police or army custody. And we found that no one was celebrating Eid. Many in rural Kashmir were not allowed to go to the mosques, or the mosques were not allowed to broadcast the prayers from there, you know, the speeches from the mosque, which are usually done. And apart from very small children, no one even wore new clothes on Eid. And many of them could not afford, because they hadn’t been earning for more than a week. They could not afford to get home, you know, nice things to eat and, you know, the sacrifice that is done on Eid and all of that. So there was a terrible sense of mourning and sadness there, and a feeling that this was especially cruel on the part of the Modi government.

AMY GOODMAN: And Pakistan asking the U.N. Security Council to intervene in this, what would this mean?

KAVITA KRISHNAN: Well, I wanted to talk briefly about the significance of that, because I think that for a long time, since 1972, there’s been an international acceptance that Kashmir is a bilateral issue, after the Simla Accord between India and Pakistan. And since then, there has not really been that much international discussion of Kashmir. But I think Modi’s move essentially breaks this Simla Agreement. And that is why the U.N. Security Council at all discussed the issue, which in itself is significant.

It’s also significant that while Russia spoke sort of in support of India, they also mentioned that the issue should be resolved bilaterally, in keeping with not only the Simla Agreement, but with U.N. resolutions. I think that this must be the first time in decades. You know, since 1972, I don’t think any major international country would have mentioned the U.N. resolutions on Kashmir in this manner.

So, I think that for — you know, whether it will really push towards a resolution or not, one cannot say. But definitely, the Modi government has pushed the issue in the direction of internationalization of the Kashmir dispute once again.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there any other thing you would like —

KAVITA KRISHNAN: And that is seen as a diplomatic failure on part of the Modi government?

AMY GOODMAN: Is there anything else you’d like to add for a global audience to understand what’s happening right now in Kashmir, and what would you like to see, how you would like to see this resolved?

KAVITA KRISHNAN: Yes, yes. See, I think that for a global audience, I think, you know, the tendency to look at such issues cynically, it’s very important for people across the world, I think, to refuse to look at it cynically, and to say that this is an entire people that are stripped of their, you know, basic mobility and their basic right to talk about their own status, their own future. And, you know, they’re essentially being imprisoned here, and decisions are being taken about them without consulting them. So, it has to — you know, people have to stand up and speak for Kashmir.

And also, they have to realize that the Indian government, you know, is taking — that this is only the first move of the Indian government in the direction of very speedily pushing India in the direction of becoming a Hindu-majoritarian country, a totalitarian country. And so, people really need to speak up in solidarity with people in India, with people in Kashmir, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Kavita, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Kavita Krishnan is a leading women’s rights activist in India, who’s just returned from a fact-finding mission to Kashmir. She’s the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). She’s speaking to us from New Delhi. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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