So, where did it all start?
Back in 1947, British India was divided into India and Pakistan. All ‘princely states’ were given the choice to merge with either country. Maharaja Hari Singh, the Monarch of J&K, chose to stay neutral.
In August 1948, an uprising against the Maharaja gained traction in the western part of the state; this was fuelled by Pakistani raiders.
The situation became impossible for the Maharaja to deal with alone, and he requested assistance from India. They agreed to help on one condition – Kashmir would accede to India. The Maharaja signed the famous Instrument of Accession, saying that in future, Kashmiris would get to choose their sovereign status through a plebiscite.
Soon, both countries went to war, leading to a ceasefire brought about by the UN Security Council. After over 70 years, the plebiscite has still not been held.
Why are people protesting now?
Decades ago, Kashmiris were promised autonomy- autonomy that was never delivered. At first, this led to wide-spread demonstrations against the Indian government.
Yet, over time, this has developed into a wider agenda against certain laws which allow blatant ill-treatment of residents; one such law is AFSPA.
AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) grants immunity to the army in ‘disturbed areas.’ Under this legislation, the Indian army is authorized to open fire if they ‘suspect’ someone to be a security threat. They may use pellet guns, teargas, live ammunition, and they may even arrest a person without a warrant.
In November 2019, the pellet-injury of a 19-month-year old infant in Kashmir shocked the entire region.
What could an infant have done to become a security threat to the public? Moreover, what justification could the army possibly give for injuring a child?
Such questions raised doubts regarding the authorization of pellet guns as a crowd-control weapon for protests, which are mostly comprised of the youth.
In fact, the Home Ministry has stated that between 2015- 17, 17 people had died from pellets. According to IndiaSpend, 139 people had been blinded between July 2016 and February 2019. However, Indian authorities maintain that they use these guns only when necessary.
Also, it is near impossible for a member of the armed forces to face prosecution as that would need to be sanctioned by the Central government. Besides, such sanctions are very rarely granted.
In conclusion, members of the armed forces are not only allowed to fire at people on mere suspicion, but are also allowed to escape the consequences if they happen to harm innocent civilians. Even so, AFSPA isn’t the only such law, it is often accompanied by the infamous Public Security Act (PSA).
What is the Public Security Act?
PSA on the other hand, is a legislation that allows for detention without trial for up to two years.
In 2016, following the killing of a militant group leader, protests engulfed J&K. Between July and August that year, over 400 people were detained under this law, including children.
Structures of Violence , a case study by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), is based on the torture suffered by 432 detainees- 24 of whom were women, and 27 minors.
As a matter of fact, many of the testimonies mention being stripped naked, beaten with sticks, held under water, trampled under heavy rollers, hung upside down and electrocuted.
This isn’t an excerpt from the accounts of Nazi camps or prisons in Syria. This is the reality of the cruelty that young Kashmiris are subject to.
In relation to these detentions, Mir Shafqat Hussain, a lawyer representing 200 PSA youth detainees, said, ‘in a number of cases the families have not been informed about the grounds of detention. Arresting minors and booking them under PSA is definitely going to have an effect on their psyche.’
In 2018, a law was introduced to prohibit the detention of minors, yet some cases still exist.
Internet restrictions & online education
In August 2019, the Parliament in New Delhi stripped J&K of its semi-autonomous status.
In order to silence dissent, they imposed a lockdown as well as internet restrictions across the region.
This has had a severe impact on students, who haven’t been able to attend school since 5th August 2019- as compared to the rest of the world that had to stay under lockdown only after the COVID-19 outbreak.
When it comes to online education, they have had a tough time attending classes, downloading course materials, and writing exams. In fact, after militant encounters in South Kashmir, students there couldn’t even access low speed 2-G services.
To put children at ease, J&K’s education board reduced the high school syllabus by 40%, but there is no such concession for Kashmir students appearing for national competitive exams.
In February 2021, after 18 months of public outcry, 4G internet was finally restored. This move was highly welcomed by all Kashmir students, who claimed that it made online schooling much easier, so better late than never.
A growing mental health crisis
Living in a highly militarized zone has inculcated a deep sense of fear and misery among the young Kashmir population.
According to a survey by Médecins Sans Frontières in collaboration with Kashmir University, nearly 1.8 million or 45% of the total adult population there show symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As per some reports, more than 100 people, mostly young, have committed suicides in the valley during the last six months.
Dr Yasir Ahmad Rather, a Psychiatrist and Associate Professor at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Srinagar), said that the armed conflict in Kashmir and COVID-19 are the main factors in the rising number of suicides.
Last month, a helpline initiative called ‘Sukoon’ (Relief) was launched to guide young people experiencing anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, and panic attacks among other mental health problems. To access this 24×7 service, people may dial the toll-free number 1800-1807159.
Over the years, the people of J&K have survived three wars, oppressive legislations, human rights violations, and more.
While there are many youngsters who are picking up arms against the authorities, there are those who do not need weapons. Some believe in the power of peaceful protests to end this conflict.
Even though it may be difficult to calmly demand change in such situations, those who choose peace over violence end up setting an example for the rest of humanity to follow.
As Shah Faesal, former civil services officer and politician, said, ‘Kashmir is a very unpredictable place. I can only hope that we see a future that is free of violence and J&K gets to fully be a part of the country’s developmental journey.’
To demand peace in the region of J&K, please sign a petition here!