Kashmiris struggle to reach families amid lockdown

Reuters . Bangkok | Published: 00:00, Aug 15,2019


With no phones and internet for 10 days, Indians are using their feet, cars and planes to move essential supplies into Kashmir as it deals with a communications blackout on a scale rarely seen in today’s world.

India revoked the special status of its portion of Himalayan Kashmir, known as Jammu and Kashmir, on August 5 and moved to quell widespread unrest by shutting down communications and clamping down on freedom of movement.

‘Most of us have not spoken to our relatives there in 10 days,’ said Faiq Faizan in Delhi, adding that people in Kashmir are trekking and waiting for hours to make calls from a few phone lines  in government offices and police stations.

‘My grandmother, who is over 70 years old, was finally able to call a relative to say she was ok ... We are sending messages, food and medicines through people who are going there, like in the old days.’

India eased restrictions in Jammu but said on Tuesday a clampdown on communication in the Kashmir valley would remain in place to restore order.

Security has been heightened for Pakistan’s Independence Day on Wednesday followed by India’s on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan vowed Wednesday the time had come to teach Delhi a lesson and promised to ‘fight until the end’ against any Indian aggression in the disputed region of Kashmir, reports AFP.

The warning represented a dramatic escalation in rhetoric after Islamabad said last week that they had ruled out a ‘military option’ over the Kashmir dispute. 

‘The Pakistani army has solid information that they (India) are planning to do something in Pakistani Kashmir, and they are ready and will give a solid response,’ Khan said during a televised speech in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

‘We have decided that if India commits any type of violation we will fight until the end,’ Khan added in the speech marking the country’s Independence Day.

‘The time has arrived to teach you a lesson.’

India’s move to carve up Kashmir and curtail its autonomous powers has caused division and anger in parts of the far-flung Himalayan region even as followers of prime minister Narendra Modi rejoice.

Since Modi’s shock decree last week, protests and celebrations in many towns have widened religious fault lines between communities in the strategic region.

International focus has remained on the Kashmir valley, where tens of thousands of troops have enforced a lockdown and cut off phone lines and internet connections to head off opposition to the government move.

But tensions have spread to other parts of the state, which will be cut in two under the new administrative arrangements.

In remote Ladakh, perched on a steep mountain border with China, the region’s Buddhist minority welcomed Modi’s decision to split the territory from the Muslim-majority valley.

‘Ladakh has finally gained freedom,’ exclaimed Phunchok Stobdan, a former Indian diplomat and now head of a conference centre in Leh, the region’s largest town.

He added that Buddhists had felt excluded from government posts and other opportunities.

Despite Ladakh’s sparse population and thin air, its border with China’s regions of Tibet to the east and Xinjiang to the north make it strategically important to New Delhi.

Stobdan said the region was underdeveloped and needed a shake-up.

‘You can’t keep the area in a frozen state when the entire land mass across on the other side (in China) is getting roads and railways under the Belt and Road project,’ he said.

‘New Delhi had to do this to change the status quo. This is a masterstroke.’

At the other end of Ladakh, many in the Shia Muslim majority town of Kargil are in shock.

Traders kept their stores closed for several days after the government announcement, amid showdowns between demonstrators and police.

Police have used tear gas to fight back thousands of protesters in Srinagar, the main city in Kashmir where militants have been fighting Indian rule for nearly three decades.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist party has long campaigned to end Kashmir’s special privileges, which it sees as appeasing Muslims and hindering development, and to fully absorb the Himalayan region into India.

The latest spike in tensions, though, has been particularly disruptive for Kashmir residents because nearly all contact with the outside world, including postal services, has been severed.

Kashmiri businessman Syed Nazakat posted photographs of smashed windows in Srinagar on Twitter on Wednesday, as he flew back from a visit to check on his parents.

‘I haven’t been able to contact them since the lockdown started,’ he tweeted from the airport at the start of his trip.

The shutdown has brought Kashmir’s economy to a halt, with farmers, herders, small businesses and daily wage labourers worst-hit, said Kavita Krishnan, a civil society activist who returned from a five-day visit to Kashmir on Tuesday.

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