Kashmir: “I could end up in prison if I express myself freely”

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Suhail Naqshbandi quit her job after her newspaper refused to publish her work


On August 5 last year, India revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, divided it into two federally-controlled territories and imposed an unprecedented lockdown. Jehangir Ali reports from Srinagar on why this decision struck a blow at freedom of expression in the valley.

Months after Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party stripped the region of its autonomy, a Muslim-dominated valley housewife told a friend of her son to be careful.

“Swear on me, son,” Shameena Bano said to Ishfaq Kawa, “I want you to stay home. ”

The fears of an apple grower’s 58-year-old wife were not unfounded.

His son Ashiq Hussain Dar left for work from his home in the troubled Shopian region in 2014. The 27-year-old has never returned home.

Ashiq was among thousands of people who have gone missing over the past 20 years amid an insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir.

Ms. Bano believes the security forces have recovered her son. The Indian military has always denied such accusations.

For Bano, the August crackdown was just a grim reminder of the ongoing unrest in the Muslim-dominated valley, home to eight million people.

Immediately after the decision, the valley was strangled by a communications blockade. Thousands of political leaders, businessmen and activists have been arrested. Protests were prohibited. The security forces have been accused of beating and torturing. India has consistently characterized the allegations as “unfounded and unfounded”.

Mr. Kawa took Ms. Bano’s advice seriously.

He had lost his job as a marketing manager for an automotive company. So he crouched down and started writing poetry.

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Ishfaq Kawa’s lockdown songs have been viewed over a million times on YouTube


He dug into his savings and borrowed from friends, and with the money he bought equipment and turned his bedroom into a makeshift recording studio. He wanted to turn his poems into songs.

One of Mr. Kawa’s songs was:

One day you will look for me everywhere / You will mourn the visit of the sympathizer / But keep your heart turned to me / I will come back like a dream

“I tried to capture the pain of the separation. It could be an expression of a mother’s desire for her son, or lovers or friends who have been separated due to the lockdown, ”Mr. Kawa said.

He recorded another song called Nund Bani (Beloved), a painful song of a mother yearning for her missing son. The video for the song has been viewed over 1.5 million times and garnered more than 8,000 comments on YouTube.

Many like Mr. Kawa have quietly resumed their jobs during the lockdown, now exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic in the state. Jammu and Kashmir has so far reported more than 7,500 infections and more than 400 deaths from the disease.

Months before Kashmir’s autonomy stripped, Suhail Naqshbandi, a Srinagar-based cartoonist, quit his job after the newspaper he worked for began refusing to publish his work.

With the lockdown being enforced, Mr. Naqshbandi was unable to draw. He had to deal with the anxieties of his seven-year-old son who kept wondering about not being able to go to school or play with his friends. He returned to work a few months later.

One of his recent works shows a cluster of houses in Srinagar on fire. A plume of smoke rises with the words of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that Delhi will respect the right to self-determination of the people of Kashmir. Her work has been widely shared on social media.

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Journalist Peerzada Ashiq was arrested by police for one of his reports


Another shows a Kashmiri man, gagged and tied to a tree in a garden marked “Stay Home Stay Safe”, turning his head to look at an Indian photographer taking pictures of tourists in traditional Kashmiri dresses.

“It helps me to exteriorize the pain of being a Kashmiri, of being a victim of oppression,” Naqshbandi said. “I know I could end up in jail if I express myself freely. But if I don’t speak up, it will affect me more. ”

Most artists and journalists say their freedoms have been curtailed since last August.

In April, police filed a complaint and called Peerzada Ashiq, a journalist with influential newspaper The Hindu, for reporting that the government had allowed two families to exhume the bodies of their militant sons from a cemetery after ” had refused the authorization “.

In February, Outlook magazine reporter Naseer Ganai was questioned by police for reporting on a statement by a banned separatist group.

When a young journalist wrote about alleged attacks on civilians by government forces during combing operations, a police officer called her.

“Right now, being a mature person,” the officer told him, “you should write positive stories about Kashmir. ”

One recent morning in July, a relative of the journalist was manhandled at a police checkpoint. The reporter posted an article about the incident on Twitter.

Soon, a police officer called the reporter, asking her to report there within an hour.

At the police station, the cops demanded to file a complaint, which the journalist denied. “There was no point in complaining. Our colleagues have been targeted for years. Many of them have complained, but has the government taken action? ”

The officer then dictated a tweet and asked the reporter to post the “clarification” on Twitter, which she did. When the reporter left the police station, the policeman told him that he would follow his work in the newspapers.

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Mr. Naqshbandi started drawing again during the lockdown


“The episode took a heavy mental toll and I had to visit a psychiatrist,” said the journalist, who prefers to remain anonymous.

Human rights group Amnesty International has documented at least 10 cases where journalists have been arrested for their reporting.

“Harassment and intimidation of journalists through draconian laws threatens efforts to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic and creates an atmosphere of fear and retaliation in Kashmir,” Amnesty said. Dr Sheikh Showkat, who teaches law at the Central University of Kashmir, says there is “an illusion of normality, but undeclared censorship is in place.”

Kashmiris are no strangers to lockdowns. According to a recent report from the Kashmir Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the valley has been closed for more than 3,000 days since 1989 when an armed insurgency against the Indian regime erupted in the region.

But the lockdown since last August has been more crippling than those in the past.

The ban on mobile broadband Internet has wiped out businesses. Students struggled during online lessons due to poor connectivity. Tech lawyer Mishi Choudhary says “365 days of no to slow down the internet in” digital India “is unwarranted interference by the government in the basic rights of a population.” Some 80% of jobs in the once thriving tourism industry have been lost in the past year, according to a report from the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir.

“The mood [in Kashmir] cannot be described as a matter of hope or optimism, ”says Dr Aijaz Ashraf Wani, who teaches political science at the University of Kashmir.

“This will increase the mistrust that has become the immediate cause of young people who take up arms to fight Indian domination. I don’t know how this is going to be resolved or if there are any real concerns about this in Delhi. ”

Jehangir Ali is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar

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