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Kashmir Under Siege: India Moves to Annex Territory, Heightening Tensions with Nuclear Rival Pakistan

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Tensions are escalating over the disputed region of Kashmir following India’s revocation earlier this week of its special status, which granted the area some autonomy. Kashmir remains on lockdown, with internet and other communications blocked and leaders placed under house arrest. The Modi government has also deployed tens of thousands of additional troops in Kashmir. Pakistan announced Wednesday it would expel India’s ambassador and stop its newly appointed envoy from assuming his position in New Delhi. It also announced it was cutting off all bilateral trade with India. We speak with three guests: Sanjay Kak, a New Delhi-based Kashmiri documentary filmmaker; Mirza Waheed, journalist and award-winning Kashmiri novelist; and Siddhartha Deb, award-winning Indian author and journalist.

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: Tensions are escalating over the disputed region of Kashmir following India’s revocation earlier this week of its special status, which granted the area some autonomy. Kashmir remains on lockdown, with internet and other communications blocked and leaders placed under house arrest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has also deployed tens of thousands of additional troops in Kashmir, which is already one of the most militarized areas in world, patrolled by more than half a million soldiers.

Nuclear rivals India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir in full, but each governs only a portion of the region. The two countries have fought several wars over the territory since the partition of the subcontinent and independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

Pakistan announced Wednesday it would expel India’s ambassador and stop its newly appointed envoy from assuming his position in New Delhi. It also announced it was cutting off all bilateral trade with India. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed a joint session of Parliament in the capital Islamabad earlier this week.

PRIME MINISTER IMRAN KHAN: [translated] If we get ready to fight 'til our last drop of blood, what war will that be? It will be the war that no one will win. Everyone will lose that war. The implications will be felt across the world. So the next question is: Am I using nuclear blackmail? I'm not using nuclear blackmail. I am appealing to common sense.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pakistani prime minister also said he fears India will carry out, quote, “ethnic cleansing in Kashmir.” The revocation of Articles 370 and 35A would allow Indians from outside the territory to buy land and settle in the region, among other actions, that will shift the demographic makeup of the Indian-administered, Muslim-majority region, further entrenching Indian rule over the disputed area. Hundreds of protesters gathered in the capital of Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir Wednesday. This is Kashmiri politician Shagufta Kazmi.

SHAGUFTA KAZMI: [translated] Today, the women of Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir, have come onto the streets in support of those women, our sisters and mothers across the Kashmir border who have sacrificed the lives of their sons, their brothers and their children. If India does not stop atrocities, if Modi does not end his heinous activities, these mothers, these daughters, these women here will remain on the roads in support of the people of occupied Kashmir until we get our rights and freedom.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Meanwhile, press reports in India said the Modi government informed the U.S. before revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. The State Department has denied the claims.

Well, to talk more about the implications for Kashmiris, as well as the region, we’re joined now by three guests. Sanjay Kak is a New Delhi-based Kashmiri documentary filmmaker. He’s the author of Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir. He returned from Kashmir Sunday night and is talking to us today from Delhi. And in London, Mirza Waheed is a journalist and award-winning Kashmiri novelist. His books include The Collaborator, The Book of Gold Leaves and, most recently, Tell Her Everything. He joins us now from London.

AMY GOODMAN: And here in New York, we’re joined by Siddhartha Deb, award-winning Indian author and journalist. His recent piece for The New Republic, “India’s Looming Ethno-Nationalist Catastrophe.” His nonfiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, was a finalist for the Orwell Prize and the winner of the PEN Open Award.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin in New Delhi with Sanjay Kak. If you can explain — you’ve just come out of Kashmir. If you can explain, to a global audience, many who may not be familiar at all with what’s happening in Kashmir, its status, the significance of what has taken place this week?

SANJAY KAK: Thank you, Amy.

I returned from Srinagar on Sunday evening. And today is the fourth day that all communications have been blocked. So, it’s almost impossible to figure out what people are feeling, what they’re doing, how they are managing, how emergency services are functioning. We do know that everybody in politics there is currently incarcerated. So, even the sort of in-between category of political figures is invisible.

I think, in some senses, you know, the Article 370 and the attendant Article 35A, there are two ways of looking at it. Largely, it had a symbolic connotation, because, in many ways, historically, since 1956, when it first came into place, it was a kind of a legal — let’s say, a link, that insured that Kashmiris had a certain amount of autonomy, legally and constitutionally. However, over a period of time, not by accident, it has been whittled away. So, in effect, it had been emptied of meaning, and it only had largely a kind of symbolic value. The only thing of any real substantive value that remained was enshrined in Article 35A, which prevented people from — non-Kashmiris, nonstate subjects, as it’s called, from buying property in Kashmir. And I think that was significant. So, the abrogation of 370 and, by implication, 35A, immediately raises the specter of the flooding of Kashmir with not just capital, but also people from outside of the valley.

Having said that, I think that for those who heard of the political turmoil in Kashmir, this conversation about 35A or 370, and the constitutional impropriety of it, is of concern, essentially, to a small segment of the population who, in Kashmir, are described as pro-India. The people — the more radical elements of the political struggle there who are, in the Indian media, described as separatists, they actually have no truck with any of this. As far as they are concerned, it doesn’t matter whether there’s 370 or there’s 35A. Theirs is a struggle for sovereignty. So, ironically, the people most affected by the abrogation of Article 370 are the people who are most wedded to the idea of India in Kashmir. So, we speak here of political parties like the National Conference, led by Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar, or the PDP, which is led by Mehbooba Mufti. So, in some strange sort of way, the government of India, in its wisdom, has damaged most grievously their only allies in Kashmir. And this is the irony of the situation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Mirza Waheed, could you also respond to what the Indian government has done earlier this week in Kashmir? Your parents live in Kashmir, and you’ve not been able to reach them because of this communications lockdown.

MIRZA WAHEED: Yes. It’s probably the worst siege we have seen in the last 30 years. I haven’t been able to make any contact with my parents or anyone else in Kashmir. But that’s true of everyone outside Kashmir. There is absolutely no contact with our loved ones in Kashmir. I grew up at a time of conflict, when it all started. I was a teenager. In the last 30 years, we’ve all seen this — you know, crackdowns, operations here and there, sieges, you know, long curfews. When I was a teenager, I lived through a 70-day-long curfew. So, none of this is new, but this is the harshest clampdown on basic liberties in Kashmir I remember in the last 30 years. That’s one.

Number two, I largely agree with Sanjay. He’s absolutely right that this mattered to a certain segment of the political classes in Kashmir. But people, common people, ordinary Kashmiris, are terrified, must be terrified of this, because it’s the last sort of protection, however flimsy, however nominal, protection of their basic identity as Kashmiris, which meant that they can hold onto their property and land and not have any demographic threat, so to speak. That has been removed on Monday.

And Sanjay is again right: The way it was done, it was completely — it was a travesty of all norms. There was no consultation, no discussion. You have to imagine how terrible it is that you imprison an entire population in their own homes. You turn the Kashmir Valley — you turn it into an open prison. And you block their phones. You don’t let them speak. You have a long, sort of hard curfew in place. And then you decide to assemble in Delhi and make a decision about Kashmir’s status with regard to its place in the larger Indian constitutional sort of framework. And the Indian authorities knew very well this is not going to go down. And that’s why today, even now, there is absolutely no contact with our families in Kashmir.

AMY GOODMAN: Here in the United States, you know how insulated the American population is in understanding what happens outside. We’re talking about two nuclear rivals, India and Pakistan, and the disputed region of Kashmir. If you can explain to this global audience how high the stakes are now, why the Indian Prime Minister Modi has done this, and do you see this as a possible flashpoint, with thousands more soldiers brought into this, one of the most militarized areas of the world?

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, yes. I mean, I think it’s a kind of exercise in completely authoritarian power. And I think there are two big questions here. What does it mean for Kashmiris? And I think both Sanjay Kak and Mirza Waheed have given us some sense of that. But what it also means for India, in the sense that parliamentary democracy is really a sham. That is what Modi and the BJP are revealing again and again and again, that just by fear, they can sort of decide on something, on the fate of a large group of people. Now, of course, which groups of people is really important, and it’s not accidental. It is the fact that, you know, the target is really Kashmiris, and Kashmiri Muslims in particular.

And, you know, so this is basically Modi’s way of distracting from the large-scale problems that continue to sort of — you know, that continue to plague India under his rule, which includes the economic — you know, economically, India is doing badly. Environmentally, it’s a disaster. It is the heart of climate change. The Indian subcontinent is at the heart of climate change, so, you know, with the kind of populations, with the kind of poverty. And there’s nothing that’s being done about it. And instead, Modi is giving — Modi and the BJP are giving the supporters something to feel triumphant about, by seeing the Kashmiris basically being turned into prisoners in their own home.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is a majority-Muslim population, the only one in —

SIDDHARTHA DEB: It is. It is. But, you know, one of — it is. And it is obviously for the Hindu right BJP. This is the primary target of hatred, which is not to say that they don’t hate others. They hate all minorities, all dissenters. And I think one of the big questions is not only what does it mean for Kashmir, but that, you know, this could happen in India. Tomorrow Modi could decide to split another Indian state into two. And, you know, again, this is completely — it’s a kind of escalation of the kind of violence. And the Indian state is not benign and democratic, you know, even without Modi and the BJP. But this is a kind of escalation of violence, an escalation of exercise of power from Delhi. And it’s being done with the kind of short-term gains in mind. There is no long-term view.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Siddhartha Deb here in the United States, in New York. Mirza Waheed is a Kashmiri journalist, speaking to us from London. And Sanjay Kak, also Kashmiri, speaking to us from New Delhi, India, he has just returned from Kashmir on Sunday night. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “We Are Real” by Silver Jews. The band’s leader, the poet David Berman, died Wednesday at the age of 52. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’re talking about the crisis in Kashmir. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The United Nations and the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, an independent civil society organization, released two separate reports this year on human rights violations in the occupied territory. The reports found Indian security forces used excessive force, torture, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and deployed pellet guns, as well as live ammunition, against protesters. Pellet guns have led to thousands of people, including children, sustaining serious eye injuries, with many going completely blind. The U.N. report also documented abuses by armed groups that have been operating in the area for decades. These are only two of the most recent reports on human rights violations in Kashmir. Countless previous inquiries have found similar violations.

I want to turn to a Kashmiri student named Asim Abbas, who spoke to the BBC Wednesday. He compared Kashmir’s situation now, after the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A, to Palestine.

ASIM ABBAS: [translated] We are going back to the Stone Age. We do not know what’s going on in the outside world. We do not know what’s going on in other neighborhoods. This will have very dangerous consequences. Just like how Israel is creating settlements in Palestine, the same policy will be applied here, too.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Mirza Waheed, you’re a Kashmiri journalist and writer. You grew up in Kashmir. And you’re speaking to us now from London. Could you talk about the systematic human rights violations that have been going on in Kashmir for decades, and explain exactly what the revocation of these two articles means for the way in which Kashmir will be governed?

MIRZA WAHEED: You know, I’ve been thinking about it, obviously, the last four days. And I increasingly begin to see it as the latest betrayal and a stab in the back, in a long series of betrayals going back to '47, because, as we all know, Kashmir was to be solved by a referendum, where India and Pakistan were to ask Kashmiris what do they want. And that was not a — Kashmiris didn't decide that by themselves; it was a promise made by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to the people of Kashmir, to India’s Parliament and to the — at the U.N. Subsequently, the referendum promise has never been honored. After ’49, Delhi essentially managed Kashmir via client elites, having people friendly to their position in power in Kashmir, mostly by managing elections locally and not allowing Kashmiri people a true voice in their destiny.

Now, when the armed insurgency began in 1989, you have to understand it’s — because I don’t see this as in isolation. This goes back to everything that the Indian state has done in Kashmir. And to Kashmiris, India has always treated Kashmir as a colony. Why do I say that? Because, you know, when you have 70,000 people dead, killed in the last 30 years, you have about 8,000, 9,000 unmarked and mass graves in the mountains of Kashmir, which haven’t seen much investigation or conversation around the world. As soon as 2016 — India, you know, considers itself the world’s largest democracy, and, numerically speaking, it is the world’s largest democracy, but Kashmiris see it as the world’s cruelest democracy. Why do I say that? In 2016, the Indian state responded to protests on the streets of Kashmir by blinding Kashmiri youth on the streets of Kashmir. What do I mean by blinding? They used a Victorian-era gun called a buckshot weapon, buckshot gun, which releases a spray of lead pellets in the air to catch, you know, prey in flight. And it caught all these protesters in their eyes. So, about hundreds and hundreds of people were injured in their eyes, out of which about more than a hundred have lost vision for life, either partially or completely.

So, you have to see this latest sort of siege and the revocation in the larger context of what has happened in Kashmir all these years, which is the story, a tragic story, of brutalization of Kashmiri people. And that is all the — that’s why I say this move, this move, is going to have unimaginable consequences, because Kashmiris will not see this as just a small step by a political party that is undoubtedly pandering to its right-wing majoritarian Hindu base in India by teaching these ungrateful Kashmiris a lesson, you know, by revoking their — whatever nominal autonomy they had with India’s Constitution. They see it as yet another stab in the back. This latest revocation is a low blow, you know, packaged with humiliation of Kashmiris, that not only are we not going to ask you — not only are we not going to let you decide your future, we’re also going to snatch away the little bit of autonomy that previous regimes had promised you. So, I really, really worry, and I’m very, very worried about what will happen in the next few days or weeks, when Kashmiris sort of make sense of what has been done to them by, essentially, an occupying power. You know, Kashmiris have often always seen their region, their lives being governed by an occupying state from Delhi.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Siddhartha, could you — in your recent piece you wrote in The New Republic, which is headlined “India’s Looming Ethno-Nationalist Catastrophe,” in the piece, you write that “Modi and his party are now attempting to engineer a Hindutva version of lebensraum in Kashmir.” So, explain what you mean by that. And also respond — the Kashmiri student, who we just played earlier, said that Kashmir will now effectively be like Israeli-occupied Palestine.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, I think the Kashmiri student is quite right in the parallel that he’s choosing. Certainly, it’s something that came to my mind, as well.

You know, I mean, I think there is a great deal of distress within India in terms of agriculture, in terms of livelihood. There are no jobs. There is drought. I mean, India sort of seesaws between drought in large parts of the country and sort of these unpredictable monsoons and floods. And so, there is a great deal of — you know, there’s a great deal of poverty and migration. And I think, in part, in Kashmir, what Modi has tried to do is two things. I mean, for the poor in India, there has always been this story that has been — this fake news produced by the BJP campaigning, that Kashmiri Muslims get special privileges. And the very sort of raw example of this would be a political street address that I heard in Kolkata in passing, many years ago, where the BJP speaker was saying that, you know, Kashmiris get subsidized meat from the Indian government for a price that you won’t even be able to buy dog meat in Kolkata. This is clearly directed at the large masses of the Indian poor, that Kashmiris — and this is said of other groups, as well, including Indian Muslims, as well — that they get special privileges. It’s similar to the “welfare queen” comments that Americans make about its black minorities, that, you know, they get special privileges. And it plays onto the same kind of majoritarianism, same kind of sectarian nationalism. So, that’s one part of it.

The other part of it is for the other part of India’s BJP support, which is the sort of the more elite, the business crowd, and it is that now you can go into Kashmir and buy land. You know, on social media, it has been — is filled with Hindu right supporters of Modi saying, “We will now marry Kashmiri women.” And you can kind of see the settler-colonial, racist, sexist sort of rhetoric at the heart of it. And so, the idea is that they can now purchase land in Kashmir and basically turn it into an investment destination. So, that’s what Modi is doing. And so, in that sense, I think there is a sense that, you know, we are going to let more Hindus move into Kashmir.

I will just say one thing, though. Kashmir is not alone in this kind of protection of land rights. This is common in many border parts of India where there are minorities or indigenous people. This is true in many parts of the northeast, including the state where I grew up, in Meghalaya, where the similar protection is in place that you cannot buy land if you are not from the indigenous groups there, in order to protect them from being swamped by much more — you know, people with much more access to capital, essentially. So, it’s not — but the BJP, particularly in the Hindu right, makes an issue out of it with regard to Kashmiri Muslims alone.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we get to Imran Khan just having come to the United States and met with Trump, I wanted to go to New Delhi, to Sanjay Kak, the Kashmiri filmmaker, documentary filmmaker, just back from Kashmir. If you can talk about the timing of this? In a few days is the Muslim holiday Eid. You have the prime minister of India, Modi, who was banned from the United States because of what happened in Gujarat — he was essentially the governor, the chief minister of Gujarat — in 2002, a mass slaughter of Muslims there. And what this now means for this majority-Muslim area in Kashmir, this happening right before Eid?

SANJAY KAK: Well, this is — in some senses, it’s baffling, because the expectation was that the annual Hindu pilgrimage of the Amarnath Yatra would be allowed to get over, Eid would finish, and then perhaps that’s when people were expecting that something would happen. But, strangely, the Amarnath Yatra was truncated. The pilgrims were sent back. Tourists were literally pulled off the streets. Hotels, very, very far away, in Pahalgam, in Gulmarg — you know, policemen went inside hotels and told people that they have to leave immediately. So, an enormous scare was generated, when it may not have been. There was nothing so urgent.

So, the question we have to ask is: Why now? And I think Siddhartha pointed in the right direction, which is that the bad news on the economic front was beginning to kind of make its way to the front pages, with a series of very senior Indian business figures coming out, quite openly and unequivocally, about the fact that a downturn in the economy was just around the corner — and not just a downturn, but a spiraling downturn. That’s one.

Secondly, I think that the series of statements that were emanating, or not emanating, from Donald Trump about wanting to mediate on Kashmir, which is a reflection of the American haste and urgency to get out of Afghanistan, probably played a part, too. So, in a sense, the decision to impose this despite the proximity to the festival of Eid, despite the fact that it threw panic into the citizenry of Jammu and Kashmir for no rhyme or reason, I think it has to do with a combination of many factors. But ultimately, I think it has all the characteristics of —

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that meeting in Washington between the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House with President Trump, who said India had asked him to mediate the conflict in Kashmir.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago, and we talked about this subject. And he actually said, “Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?” I said, “Where?” He said, “Kashmir.” Because this has been going on for many, many years. I was surprised at how long. It’s been going on long.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I think they’d like to see it resolved, and I think you’d like to see it resolved. And if I can help, I would love to be a mediator. It shouldn’t be — I mean, it’s impossible to believe two incredible countries, that are very, very smart, with very smart leadership, can’t solve a problem like that. But if you would want me to mediate or arbitrate, I would be willing to do that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mirza Waheed, can you respond to what President Trump said? I mean, it’s been long-standing Indian policy that the issue of Kashmir can only be resolved bilaterally between India and Pakistan.

MIRZA WAHEED: Yeah, that has been at the heart of the dispute, that they have been intransigent over the years. I mean, they always insisted it’s a bilateral issue, it’s an internal matter, but it is not. I mean, that’s not a matter of opinion; that’s a matter of fact, because it can’t be an internal matter if you have ended up incarcerating an entire population as we speak. It can’t be an internal matter if you — you know, the incidents of torture in Kashmir has not been talked about enough. So, if you have a population which you’ve subjected to endemic torture for 30 years — you know, one in six Kashmiris, one out of six Kashmiris, has faced some kind of torture in their lives. A recent report by MSF established that 49% of the population in Kashmir suffers some form of PTSD. That is unheard of in any part of the world, you know? So, India might insist that it’s our bilateral issue, it’s to do with, you know, internal stability and so on, but that’s just positioning. That’s just posturing. India knows it is an international dispute; it just doesn’t want it to be solved. And I don’t think peace will come to the region, to India, Pakistan or to Kashmir, until they solve Kashmir. This, yes, it’s a big setback for the Kashmiri people, in that now they have to wage another battle to preserve their basic sense of identity and place in the world, but the dispute is not going to go away.

With regard to mediation, yes, if Mr. Trump wants to mediate, now is the time, because you don’t want a conflagration in the region, because this is not going to be — it’s not going to be limited to the Kashmir Valley with regard to the repression and subjugation as we see now. It will escalate. Pakistan is next door. India and Pakistan are nuclear neighbors, as we all know. A part of Kashmir is under Pakistan, you know, which — and the border between the two parts is not really a border. It’s a de facto border. This is where the troops stopped when they last time fought over Kashmir.

And Sanjay is very right, there is the Afghanistan connection. Pakistan is a key player in negotiations with the Taliban in trying to establish a long-lasting sort of peace in Afghanistan. But Pakistan has always said to Americans, as far as I’ve read recently, that, you know, “We can’t do much if we are busy on the other front with India.” And I see this playing out in the next few weeks. But what I do hope is that it doesn’t end up in renewed violence in the region, because that inevitably results in killings of Kashmiri protesters on the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you all for being with us, and, of course, we’ll continue to follow this. Mirza Waheed, a Kashmiri journalist, award-winning novelist — his books include The Collaborator, The Book of Gold Leaves, most recently, Tell Her Everything — joining us from London. Sanjay Kak, joining us from New Delhi, just back from Kashmir, author of Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir. He returned on Sunday night from Kashmir. And Siddhartha Deb, award-winning Indian author and journalist. His recent piece for The New Republic, which we will link to, “India’s Looming Ethno-Nationalist Catastrophe.” His book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, was a finalist for the Orwell Prize and the winner of the PEN Open Award. He’s also the author of two books of fiction.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, President Trump continually making the connection between mental illness and gun violence, saying it’s not guns, it’s mental illness that pulls the trigger. In fact, people who are mentally ill are most often the victims of violence. Also, suicide accounts for two-thirds of gun deaths in the United States. We’ll speak with an emergency room doctor. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Nights That Won’t Happen” by Purple Mountains, a new project by the songwriter and poet David Berman, who died Wednesday at the age of 52.

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