Kashmiris still committed for plebiscite rejecting India's sovereignty: US magazine

Dunya News

Kashmiris still committed for plebiscite rejecting India's sovereignty: US magazine

NEW YORK (APP) - A respected American weekly magazine has carried a damning article in its latest issue about Indian Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s virulent push to promote Hindu nationalism in India that targets Muslims and other religious minorities, his illegal annexation of Jammu and Kashmir and the repressive lockdown of the disputed state.

“The change in Kashmir upended more than half a century of careful politics, but the Indian press reacted with nearly uniform approval,”wrote Dexter Filkins, a staff writer of The New Yorker who recently sneaked into the curfew-bound Kashmir along with an Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, whose book, “Gujarat Files,” about a massacre of Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat, has made her a target of Hindu nationalists.

“Ever since Modi was first elected Prime Minister, in 2014, he has been recasting the story of India, from that of a secular democracy accommodating a uniquely diverse population to that of a Hindu nation that dominates its minorities, especially the country’s two hundred million Muslims,” Filkins said in an in-depth article in which he also highlighted the courageous struggle of Ms. Ayyub in getting the truth out about Modi and his associates decisive move to subdue minorities and to turn India into a Hindu country.

“Modi and his allies have squeezed, bullied, and smothered the press into endorsing what they call the ‘New India’,” he wrote, citing a number of instances about how much of the Indian media now supports the prime minister’s oppressive policies, ignoring his failures and covering up his lies, especially about the Balakot operation.

“Kashmiris greeted Modi’s decision with protests, claiming that his real goal was to inundate the state with Hindu settlers. After the initial tumult subsided, though, the Times of India and other major newspapers began claiming that a majority of Kashmiris quietly supported Modi—they were just too frightened of militants to say so aloud. Television reporters, newly arrived from Delhi, set up cameras on the picturesque shoreline of Dal Lake and dutifully repeated the government’s line,” said The New Yorker article, entitled: Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India.

Although foreign journalists are banned for entering occupied Kashmir, Filkins clad himself in Indian dress and took the Srinagar-bound flight from India along with journalist Rana Ayyub. They dodged past the heavy Indian security at the airport and got into a taxi to the city two weeks after the August 5 crackdown.

“Even from a moving car, it was clear that the reality in Kashmir veered starkly from the picture in the mainstream Indian press,” he wrote. “Soldiers stood on every street corner. Machine-gun nests guarded intersections, and shops were shuttered on each block.

“Apart from the military presence, the streets were lifeless. At Khanqah-e-Moula, the city’s magnificent eighteenth-century Mosque, Friday prayers were banned. Schools were closed. Cell-phone and Internet service was cut off.

“Indian intelligence agents are widely understood to monitor the rosters of local hotels, so Ayyub and I, along with an Indian photographer named Avani Rai, had arranged to stay with a friend.

“When we got there, a Kashmiri doctor who was visiting the house told us to check the main hospital, where young men were being treated after security forces fired on them. The police and soldiers were using small-gauge shotguns—called pellet guns by the locals—and some of the victims had been blinded. ‘Go to the ophthalmology ward,’ the doctor said.

“At the hospital, we found a scene of barely restrained chaos, with security officers standing guard and families mixing with the sick in corridors. While I stood in a corner, trying to make myself inconspicuous, (Ms) Ayyub ran to the fourth floor to speak to an eye doctor. After a few minutes, she returned and motioned for me and Rai to follow. ‘Ward eight,’ she said. Thirty gunshot victims were inside.

“As the three of us approached, a smartly dressed man with a close-cropped beard stepped into our path and placed his hand on (Ms.) Ayyub’s shoulder. ‘What are you doing here?’ he said. Rai looked at me and quietly said, ‘Run.’ I turned and dashed into the crowd. The bearded man took (Ms.) Ayyub and Rai by the arm and led them away.

“When (Ms.) Ayyub and the photographer were detained at the hospital in Srinagar, I found a hiding place across the street, screened by a wall and a fruit vender; (Ms.) Ayyub would have faced serious repercussions if she was found to have snuck in a foreigner. After about an hour, they emerged. (Ms.) Ayyub said that an intelligence officer had questioned them intently, then released them with an admonition: ‘Don’t come back.’

“The next morning, we drove to the village of Parigam, near the site of the suicide attack that prompted Modi’s air strikes against Pakistan. We’d heard that Indian security forces had swept through the town and detained several men. The insurgency has broad support in the villages outside the capital, and the road to Parigam was marked by the sandbags and razor wire of Indian Army checkpoints. For most of the way, the roads were otherwise deserted.

“In the village, (Ms.) Ayyub stopped the car to chat with locals. Within a few minutes, she’d figured out whom we should talk to first: Shabbir Ahmed, the proprietor of a local bakery.

We found him sitting cross-legged on his porch, shelling almonds into a huge pile. In interviews, (Ms.) Ayyub slows down from her usual debate-team pace; she took a spot on the porch as if she had dropped by for a visit. Ahmed, who is fifty-five, told her that, during the sweeps, an armored vehicle rumbled up to his home just past midnight one night. A dozen soldiers from the Rashtriya Rifles, an élite counter-insurgency unit of the Indian Army, rushed out and began smashing his windows. When Ahmed and his two sons came outside, he said, the soldiers hauled the young men into the street and began beating them. ‘I was screaming for help, but nobody came out,’ Ahmed said. ‘Everyone was too afraid.’

“Ahmed’s sons joined us on the porch. One of them, Muzaffar, said the soldiers had been enraged by young people who throw rocks at their patrols. They dragged Muzaffar down the street toward a Mosque. “Throw stones at the mosque like you throw stones at us,” one of the soldiers commanded him.

“Muzaffar said he and his brother, Ali, were taken to a local base, where the soldiers shackled them to chairs and beat them with bamboo rods. “They kept asking me, ‘Do you know any stone throwers?’—and I kept saying I don’t know any, but they kept beating me,’ he said. When Muzaffar fainted, he said, a soldier attached electrodes to his legs and stomach and jolted him with an electrical current. Muzaffar rolled up his pants to reveal patches of burned skin on the back of his leg. It went on like that for some time, he said: he would pass out, and when he regained consciousness the beating started again. “My body was going into spasms,” he said, and began to cry.

After Muzaffar and Ali were released, their father took them to the local hospital. “They have broken my bones,” Muzaffar said. “I can no longer prostrate myself before God.”

“It was impossible to verify the brothers’ tale, but, as with many accounts that (Ms.) Ayyub and I heard in the valley, the anguish was persuasive. “I am a slightly more civilized version of these people,” (Ms.) Ayyub told me. ‘I see what’s happening—with the propaganda, with the lies, what the government is doing to people. Their issues are way more extensive—their lives. But I have everything in common with these people. I feel their pain.’

‘One afternoon, Ayyub and I walked through Soura, a hardscrabble neighborhood in Srinagar’s old city which has been the site of several confrontations with security forces. By the time we got there, the police and the Army had withdrawn, evidently deciding that the narrow streets left their men too vulnerable. The locals told us that they regarded Soura as liberated territory and vowed to attack anyone from the government who tried to enter. Every wall seemed plastered with graffiti. One bit of scrawl said, “Demographic change is not acceptable!”

The Kashmiris we met felt trapped, their voices stifled. ‘The news that is true—they never show it,’ Yunus, a shop owner, said of the Indian media. Days before, his thirteen-year-old son, Ashiq, had been arrested and beaten by security forces, just as he himself had been thirty years before. ‘Nobody has ever asked the people of Kashmir what they want—whether to stay with India or join Pakistan or become independent,’ he said. ‘We have heard so many promises. We have lifted bodies with our hands, lifted heads that are separate, lifted legs that are separate, and put them all together into graves.’

“Many Kashmiris still refuse to accept Indian sovereignty, and some recall the promise, made by the United Nations in 1948, that a plebiscite would determine the future of the state. Kashmir was assigned special status—enshrined in Article 370—and afforded significant powers of self-rule. For the most part, those powers have never been realized. Beginning in the late eighties, an armed insurgency has turned the area into a battleground. The conflict in Kashmir is largely a war of ambush and reprisal; the insurgents strike the Indian security forces, and the security forces crack down. Groups like Human Rights Watch have detailed abuses on both sides, but especially by the Indian government.

“The R.S.S. and other Hindu nationalists have claimed that the efforts to assuage the Kashmiris created a self-defeating dynamic. The insurgency has stifled economic development, they said; Article 370 was curtailing investment and migration, dooming the place to backwardness. Modi’s decision to revoke the article seemed the logical endpoint of the R.S.S. world view: the Kashmiri deadlock would be broken by overwhelming Hindu power.

“As (Ms.) Ayyub and I drove around Kashmir, it seemed unclear how the Indian government intended to proceed. Economic activity had ground to a halt. Schools were closed. Kashmiris were cut off from the outside world and from one another. “We are overwhelmed by cases of depression,” a physician in Srinagar told us. Many Kashmiris warned that an explosion was likely the moment the security measures were lifted. ‘Modi is doing what he did in Gujarat twenty years ago, when he ran a tractor over the Muslims there,’ a woman named Dushdaya said.

“The newspaper columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote that, in Kashmir, ‘Indian democracy is failing.’ He suggested that the country’s Muslims, who have largely resisted radicalization, would conclude that they had nothing else to turn to. ‘The B.J.P. thinks it is going to Indianise Kashmir,’ he wrote. “Instead, what we will see is potentially the Kashmirisation of India: The story of Indian democracy written in blood and betrayal.”

Filkins, the New Yorker staff writer, then moved to Srinagar with Rana Ayyub where they visited the neighborhood of Mehju Nagar, which many young men have left to join the militants. “The talk on the street was of a couple named Nazeer and Fehmeeda, whose son, Momin, had been taken away in the crackdown. Armed men from the Central Reserve Police Force came to the door late one night. A masked civilian—evidently an informer—pointed at Momin. The soldiers took him away,” he wrote.

“We found Fehmeeda at her house, kneeling on the floor of an unadorned main room. The morning after the raid, she told us, she went to a C.R.P.F. base, where her son was being held. He told her that he’d been beaten. ‘I begged them to give him back to me, but they wouldn’t consider it,” she said. When Fehmeeda returned the following day, the police told her that Momin had been transferred to the city’s central jail. But guards there said that he’d been transferred to a prison in Uttar Pradesh, on the other side of the country. ‘There’s no use crying, Auntie,’ they told her.

“Fehmeeda said she was not told what charges had been filed against Momin; Indian antiterrorism law allows the security forces to detain any Kashmiri for any reason, or no reason, for up to two years. In the three decades that Kashmir has been in open rebellion, tens of thousands of men have disappeared, and many have not returned. “I must accept that I will not see him again,” she said.

At Fehmeeda’s house, her friends had gathered around her, while men from the neighborhood stood outside open windows. Ayyub sat facing her, their knees touching.

As Fehmeeda spoke, some of the men talked over her, and each time (Ms.) Ayyub told them to shut up: “Don’t scold her, Uncle, she has problems of her own.”

“Fehmeeda had begun stoically, but gradually she lost her composure. (Ms.) Ayyub gripped her hands and said, ‘Your son will return to you. God is very big.’ Fehmeeda was not consoled. Momin, a construction worker, had paid for the entire family’s needs, including her medicine for a kidney ailment. Fehmeeda’s thoughts began to tumble out in fragments: ‘I told him, don’t throw stones, somebody took him, somebody was paid—’ Then she started to sob and heave. (Ms.) Ayyub began to cry, too. ‘I can’t take any more,’ she said. ‘This is too much.’

“(Ms.) Ayyub said goodbye to Fehmeeda, promising to return with medicine for her kidneys. (A few weeks later, she did.) We were both gripped by a sense of foreboding, that we were witnessing the start of something that would last many years. ‘I feel this as a Muslim,’ Ayyub said. ‘It’s happening everywhere in India.’

“We rode in silence for a while. I suggested that maybe it was time for her to leave India—that Muslims didn’t have a future there. But Ayyub was going through a notebook. ‘I’m not leaving,’ she said. ‘I have to stay. I’m going to write all this down and tell everyone what happened’.”

A large part of the huge article was devoted to journalist Rana Ayyub’s investigative work had once gone undercover to expose the ruling BJP’s ties to sectarian and extrajudicial violence against the Muslim minority. the article also carries details of the rise of Narendra Modi from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of power and his ruthless machinations and intrigues to push forward his anti-Muslim agenda and turn India into a Hindu state.

Filkins wrote, “A feeling of despair has settled in among many Indians who remain committed to the secular, inclusive vision of the country’s founders.”

“Gandhi and Nehru were great, historic figures, but I think they were an aberration,” Krishna Prasad, the former Outlook editor, told Fikins. “It’s very different now.

The institutions have crumbled—universities, investigative agencies, the courts, the media, the administrative agencies, public services. And I think there is no rational answer for what has happened, except that we pretended to be what we were for fifty, sixty years.

But we are now reverting to what we always wanted to be, which is to pummel minorities, to push them into a corner, to show them their places, to conquer Kashmir, to ruin the media, and to make corporations servants of the state. And all of this under a heavy resurgence of Hinduism. India is becoming the country it has always wanted to be.”