Heightened security and anxiety in Kashmir amid fears of unrest

People queue for hours for petrol and cash, following evacuation of thousands of tourists and pilgrims

People across the Indian-administered side of Kashmir queued for hours outside petrol stations and cash machines on Sunday following a heightening of security measures that has prompted fears of unrest.

Thousands of tourists and Hindu pilgrims have been evacuated since Friday, after the Indian government cancelled the annual Amarnath Yatra, a 45-day pilgrimage to a Himalayan cave shrine. Officials said they had received intelligence suggesting an attack on pilgrimage routes, which 300,000 people have set out on since July.

Kashmir residents were told not to panic, though curfews and evacuations continued to be imposed on hospitals and educational institutions over the weekend. On Sunday evening mobile internet was cut across Kashmir valley.

Kashmir is claimed by India and Pakistan in full and ruled in part by both. An insurgency on the Indian-administered side has been ongoing for three decades, and tens of thousands of people have been killed.

Who controls Kashmir?

The region in the foothills of the Himalayas has been under dispute since India and Pakistan came into being in 1947.

Both claim it in full, but each controls a section of the territory, separated by one of the world's most heavily militarised borders: the ‘line of control’ based on a ceasefire border established after a 1947-48 war. China controls another part in the east.

India and Pakistan have gone to war a further two times over Kashmir, most recently in 1999. Artillery, mortar and small arms fire are still frequently exchanged.

How did the dispute start?

After the partition of colonial India in 1947, small, semi-autonomous ‘princely states’ across the subcontinent were being folded into India or Pakistan. The ruler of Kashmir dithered over which to join until tribal fighters entered from Pakistan intent on taking the region for Islamabad.

Kashmir asked Delhi for assistance, signing a treaty of accession in exchange for the intervention of Indian troops, who fought the Pakistanis to the modern-day line of control.

In 1948, the UN security council called for a referendum in Kashmir to determine which country the region would join or whether it would become an independent state. The referendum has never been held.

In its 1950 constitution, India granted Kashmir a large measure of independence. But since then it has eroded some of that autonomy and repeatedly intervened to rig elections and dismiss and jail democratically elected leaders.

What was Kashmir’s special status?

Kashmir’s special status, given in exchange for joining the Indian union, had been in place since 14 May 1954. Under article 370, the state was given a separate constitution, a flag, and autonomy over all matters except for foreign affairs and defence. 

An additional provision, article 35a, prevented people from outside the state buying land in the territory. Many Kashmiris believed this was crucial to protecting the demography of the Muslim-majority state and its way of life.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata party repeatedly promised to scrap such rules, a long-term demand of its Hindu nationalist support base. But analysts warned doing so would almost certainly ignite unrest.

On Wednesday 31 October 2019, the government formally revoked Kashmir’s special status. The government argued that the provision had  only ever intended to be temporary and that scrapping it would boost investment in Kashmir. Critics, however, said the move would escalate tensions with Pakistan – which quickly called India’s actions illegal – and fuel resentment in Kashmir, where there is an insurgency against Indian rule.

What do the militants want?

There has been an armed insurgency against Indian rule over its section of Kashmir for the past three decades. Indian soldiers and Pakistan-backed guerrillas fought a war rife with accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killing.

Until 2004, the militancy was made up largely of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. Since then, especially after protests were quashed with extreme force in 2016, locals have made up a growing share of the anti-India fighters.

For Indians, control of Kashmir – part of the country’s only Muslim-majority state – has been proof of its commitment to religious pluralism. For Pakistan, a state founded as a homeland for south Asian Muslims, it is the last occupied home of its co-religionists.

Michael Safi and Rebecca Ratcliffe

The deployment of 10,000 extra troops last week prompted speculation that Delhi is preparing to remove Kashmir’s special status, which prevents people from outside of the state from buying land in the Muslim-majority territory. The ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) has repeatedly pledged to scrap such rules, but doing so would almost certainly trigger unrest and escalate tensions with Pakistan.

One of Kashmir’s most prominent politicians, Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister, said he had been informed he would be placed under house arrest from midnight. Other “mainstream leaders” - meaning Kashmiri politicians who have formed alliances with parties such as the BJP - would be detained, he added.

“I believe I’m being placed under house arrest from midnight tonight & the process has already started for other mainstream leaders. No way of knowing if this is true but if it is then I’ll see all of you on the other side of whatever is in store. Allah save us,” he said on Twitter.

It was unclear why Abdullah and others would be targetted by Indian authorities for detention.

In Srinagar, the largest city in Indian-administered Kashmir, preparations for Eid, which is one week away, have been abandoned by many. “They want us to die of this anxiety,” said one man waiting at a petrol station on Saturday night. On Sunday, queues still lasted for hours, with many pumps run dry.

Naseer Ahmed, a boatman at Srinagar’s Dal lake who has been taking holidaymakers on rides for 40 years, said he had never witnessed such an alarming situation. “On one day we had so many tourists and on another everything has fallen silent,” he said.

The few remaining tourists are waiting for their turns to leave. “No one knows what will happen tomorrow,” said Ahmed.

Non-Kashmiri students from Srinagar’s National Institute board a train home in Jammu on Saturday.
Non-Kashmiri students from Srinagar’s National Institute board a train home in Jammu on Saturday. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Analysts say there is still no clear information about what has prompted the security buildup, which officials have blamed on security threats. “[Terror threats] have been there for 30 years. I don’t understand what the scope and nature of this threat is that’s so extraordinary,” said Khalid Shah, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

As Kashmir waits nervously, many fear that wedding season, as well as Eid celebrations, could be forgotten. Faizan Ahmad’s family have been preparing for months for his marriage, due to take place on 24 August. “The entire family is in a dilemma,” he said. “There is a mental trauma [about] what to do.”

On Saturday, non-Kashmiri students at the National Institute of Technology in Srinagar were sent home, while on Sunday a curfew was issued for all staff at the city’s Chest Diseases hospital. All district officers were ordered by the deputy commissioner of the Kargil district not to leave their duty stations.

Kashmir map

Authorities could impose an indefinite curfew on residents as early as Sunday night, a police official told Agence France-Presse.

Skirmishes continued on Sunday along the line of control that divides Kashmir. The Indian army said it had foiled an attempt by a Pakistani team of army regulars and militants to cross the line, killing “five to seven” attackers.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, accused India of attacking civilians across the line of control and of using cluster munitions, a violation of international law. In a statement reported by the Indian Express newspaper, the Indian army firmly denied the allegation.

Khan said the situation “has the potential to blow up into a regional crisis”, and called again for US president Donald Trump to mediate. Delhi has always refused third-party mediation and recently rejected Trump’s claim that he had been asked by prime minister Narendra Modi to broker a deal.

Pakistan’s position on Kashmir has been strengthened by the US’s eagerness to withdraw from Afghanistan, said Shah. “Pakistan will use Kashmir as a bargaining chip,” he added, as the US pushes for cooperation on a peace deal.

Analysts believe this may prompt Delhi to push back and demonstrate its regional clout. “It [the BJP] is perfectly comfortable using an iron fist in Kashmir, and has demonstrated little interest in conciliation – other than repeatedly calling for more ‘development’ in Kashmir. This is a tone-deaf call, given that for most Kashmiris, it’s not poverty, but the brutal acts of Indian security forces that trouble them the most,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center.


Azhar Farooq in Kashmir and Rebecca Ratcliffe in Delhi

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