Revoking Article 370 Made Kashmiri Identity StrongerBloombergQuintOpinion
“Blood is powerful,” says political cartoonist Mir Suhail whose friend was killed by security forces when the two boys were teenagers in high school. “I try hard to remember his face but I can’t, the memory of blood is so powerful it erased his face.”
Suhail married his longtime love Mahum in Srinagar a week before August 5 , 2019—the day India revoked Jammu & Kashmir’s special status under Article 370. It also repealed Article 35A, split the state into two union territories, and unleashed a security crackdown that was stifling even by Kashmir’s grim standards. In December, the couple left for New York.
Thousands were detained including prominent politicians, many tortured. In the midst of a global pandemic, the fledgling union territory faced one of the longest internet shutdowns. There was unprecedented media censorship and bullying. Schools have remained shut since August 2019. I spoke to three Kashmiris about the year gone by.
Away from home, free from the censoring glare of Indian editors and far from the reach of the state that has, in recent times, displayed only contempt for peaceful dissent, Suhail’s cartoons now bleed freely.
“Before I had to think what to draw. Now it’s become so easy I can’t stop,” he says, referring to the daily news that inspires his cartoons (@mirsuhail on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook).
Red stands out in the 31-year-old’s depictions of bodies, wounds, and death. It pours out of objects such as televisions and skulls and meat grinders; it’s the pool around bodies over whom media vultures hover; it splashes on shawls and kurtas, and is the preferred colour of skies and earth, not the kind that smells fragrant in pouring rain.
As we mark one year of the dissolution of Article 370, a few things differentiate the events of this past year from other terrible years such as, say, 2016, when The Guardian newspaper asked about a summer of pellet gun atrocities: “Is this the world’s first mass blinding?”
For one, India’s attitude towards Kashmir has been clearly codified, recognisable to all in black and white.
“Before it was like being eaten by termites from the inside, slowly and over a period of time. Now, it’s a visible, straight bite,” says Habeel Iqbal, a lawyer who lives and works in south Kashmir’s Shopian, often described as the nucleus of militancy or the hub of resistance, depending on who you’re speaking to.
Adds 43-year-old Nusrat Jahan, a medical doctor and an associate professor of anaesthesiology and critical care at SMHS Hospital in Srinagar, “It used to be like this before too, but we had a voice. Before 5 August nobody was stopped from protesting. This was different, you were not allowed to talk, you were not even allowed to hold a placard.”
Nusrat wanted to tape a sign on her car that said, simply, “I protest” but her friend who was married to an IPS officer advised against it. “You will be detained under the Public Safety Act.” The PSA, a preventive detention law that allows the state to imprison you for two years without a trial, was used against hundreds this past year. An FIR (first information report) was filed against Iqbal in June after he tweeted his legal opinion on a J&K High Court judgement and he says he has begun self-censoring his words. “We’ve seen how Sudha Bharadwaj and others have been in jail for two years. Why would anyone care if that happened to someone in Shopian?”
“In this Project Silence, the only thing they can’t control is the social media narrative on Kashmir,” says Iqbal. Suhail says he mostly ignores the “same slogan they use when they lynch people” in comments under his posts.
Also read: The Spirit Of Article 370
In addition to becoming a father, Iqbal, who works with Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, spent the year listening to and trying to help the poorest families in Shopian who had no money or means of transport to reach their loved ones imprisoned during the crackdown. Many were detained 56 km away in Central Jail Srinagar or transported to jails in states they had never visited before. Iqbal says many were illegally detained too. “Nobody has a number for this second category because there is no documentation, and families don't speak after their loved ones are released because they fear a backlash.”
“One mother who had never spoken any language other than Kashmiri somehow made it to a Uttar Pradesh jail where she was told she has to speak in Hindi and only then they would allow her to meet her son,” he says. “She had never spoken Hindi in her life and they didn’t let her meet him.”
According to Iqbal, there were more torture cases than Kashmir has ever seen including one where a man was tortured publicly and his screams were broadcast on loudspeakers to intimidate the village. “This had never happened here before 5 August,” he says. Recently, Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations referenced such cases in a letter to the government.
On 5 August, Iqbal’s family was glued to the television. “Mamu (mother’s brother) had come to our place. Very few Kashmiris adore Gandhi but mamu believed in Indian institutions, the constitution and thought that Kashmir should follow Gandhi’s satyagraha model.” Ignoring all the panic buying in the run up to the announcement, Iqbal’s uncle hadn’t stocked up on any supplies, even medicines.
After Home Minister Amit Shah’s announcement, he sat frozen. “I thought something would happen to him. He didn’t speak for an hour or so,” says Iqbal. “We had to get him some water and tell him life will go on.”
At Nusrat’s house, the television, internet and phone stopped working the day before. “The night of 4 August was terrifying. I was awake all night, listening to the planes and helicopters over me.” Many people thought that India was going to go to war against Pakistan. Nusrat only found out what had happened by late afternoon on 5 August, when her father visited. “This is the end. We are gone,” she thought and cried. “I don't remember how many times I have broken down and cried in the last one year,” she says.
In Kashmir, the dreams that parents have for their children are as basic as wanting them to attend school regularly. Iqbal’s daughter was born on Jan. 14, 2020. Putting aside how scary the future looks to him, he named her Aash. In Kashmiri, that means hope.
Nusrat describes herself as a moderate who didn’t dwell too much on Kashmiri identity before. Now she speaks on behalf of every Kashmiri. Her “blood boils” when she hears ill-informed views about her home. “Come live like us you will know what it means to live under siege,” she tells people. Words pour out of her at a frantic pace, almost like she’s making up for the silences of the past year. “Now when I think about Kashmir, I think about my land. I am proud to be a Kashmiri. My whole mindset has changed,” she says.
“The article was a relationship between Kashmir and India,” says Suhail. “There is no relationship now, only military occupation. We have to speak about our people.” In his cartoons, blood tells the stories that mainstream media now ignores.
Priya Ramani is a Bangalore-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.