(GUEST) Surveillance In the Age of the Coronavirus: India's Tightening Grip on Kashmir

In the name of public health, India has significantly expanded its surveillance tools.

📝 Monthly Round-Up

How Indian Surveillance Disrupts Ordinary Life and Lives in Kashmir, Uzma Falak — “‘It is difficult to evade the police dragnet after one falls into it,’” a businessman tells Falak in this article detailing how Kashmiris are surveilled. If you are unfamiliar with the region and its history, this is a good place to start.

“My Phone Haunts Me”: Kashmiris Interrogated and Tortured by Cyber Police For Tweeting, Aakash Hassan — Police surveilling social media is a popular tactic to target — and ultimately silence — political dissent. This article outlines how it’s taking place in Kashmir.

‘Born In a Curfew’: Childhood in Kashmir, Masrat Zahra and Zara Bakshi — In conversations on surveillance, children can be easily forgotten. Through their photoessay, Zahra and Bakshi bring children to the center and “examines the various ways in which children of the valley navigate their (extra)ordinary childhood.”

In this guest article, Ria Mazumdar explores how the excuse of protecting public health allows India to tighten its grip on Kashmir.

The Legacy of Lockdown

Since the Partition of 1947 sliced the subcontinent into independent India and Pakistan, Kashmir has faced military occupation by both countries, its citizens bearing the brunt of the unresolved dispute borne from Britain’s colonial legacy. The Indian state has justified controlling Kashmir since its inception in the name of national security. In 1988, bombings by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front marked the beginning of an insurgency that persists to this day. Shahla Hossain, Assistant Professor of History at St. John’s University, told NAZAR that surveillance reached a new level after the 1988 insurgency as India attempted to quash the resistance.

Since then, India’s repressive surveillance operations have intensified dramatically along with political developments in the region. With the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, the Hindu nationalist government in India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, stripped Kashmir of its autonomous status and cleared the way for additional state control. To preempt dissent, India sent in thousands of troops. Suchitra Vijayan, founder and Executive Director of the Polis Project (a hybrid research and journalism organization), told NAZAR that in the capital, Srinagar, “Overnight, check posts came in; the entire city was now remade by barbed wires.” Vijayan relayed a story of her friend in Kashmir, who said, “It looks like they have completely erased my city from my memory.”

In an effort to quash resistance, India imposed curfews and enforced a total communication blackout, cutting internet connections, landlines, and mobile phone connections. In August, the New York Times reported that this was part of “a broader plan to erode Kashmir’s core rights and seed the area with non-Kashmiris, altering the demographics and eventually destroying its character.” In line with this strategy, the government has restricted free movement and has implemented a heavily militarized surveillance operation. Amid Covid-19, the Indian state has only further legitimized these tactics.

Heightened Surveillance Amid Covid-19

As of December 7, 2020, the death toll due to Covid-19 in Kashmir exceeded 1,700. Thousands of Kashmiris are under home surveillance but this is not unique to the pandemic. As Professor Hossain told NAZAR, “The concept of lockdown is not new to Kashmir, but is an extension of the months-long restrictions imposed after August 2019.” However, in the name of public health, India has significantly expanded its surveillance tools, with police drones and CCTV cameras tracking civilians. Journalists have been detained, persecuted, and forced to delete images. Ground surveillance and increased physical barriers have exacerbated the restrictions on free movement. Vijayan noted, “This is very similar to what was done in Palestine, starting with the second intifada. Every day you went to work, and the way you went could not be the way you came back.” 

Continued Internet restrictions mean that Kashmiris are unable to access crucial information such as World Health Organization protocols and social distancing guidelines. Professor Hossain stated that the restrictions on high-speed Internet also carried healthcare and education implications: “Doctors cannot access critical medical research or updated guidelines by the WHO, while the students face difficulties in utilizing the internet for online learning. Due to the ongoing political turmoil and the complications created by the pandemic, an entire generation of students is being negatively impacted.” 

To Vijayan, the pandemic has created the conditions for the complete annihilation of the people. She told NAZAR, “There is not enough information, not enough hospitals…Imagine the worst possible situation and multiply it by infinity is what places like Kashmir are going through.”

Solidarity and the Diaspora

In a global climate of right-wing nationalism, practicing solidarity is difficult. However, Kashmir has been particularly sidelined, especially in comparison to the occupation of Palestine which has received relatively more international attention. “There are a lot of liberal Indians who will talk about Kashmir but the conversation will end with Kashmir being a case of human rights violations -- not as a case of long-term military occupation. So even in the liberal discourse, it's incredibly difficult to get solidarity,” Vijayan explained. 

This can partially be attributed to the fact that, due to the history of immigration, the American diaspora tends to be caste-privileged. In Brahmin Hindu communities, Islamophobia and Hindutva ideologies have been carried over from the subcontinent, evidenced by the 50,000-strong crowd at the “Howdy Modi” rally featuring Trump and Modi. Nonetheless, Vijayan notes that the publicity post Article 370 in the New York Times, Washington Post, and highlighted by Pramila Jayapal and Bernie Sanders is causing a shift. 

"India is no longer the world's largest democracy. The Hindu Rashtra is here. You already have a full-blown authoritarian state. The strategies that a resisting population can use in a democracy are very different from [those used] under a fascist, authoritarian regime,” Vijayan said. This has global implications. Democratic institutions are far from infallible, especially when the state is armed with such tools of surveillance. As Kashmiris face some of the most stringent surveillance in the world, with journalists being routinely arrested and murdered, privileged members of the diaspora have an increasing responsibility to amplify the issue.

“Dissent is natural,” Vijayan said. “It’s being quiet that is unnatural. That’s why it takes a hundred years to program a people to not say anything.”

Ria Mazumdar is a Bengali-American writer originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. A recent graduate of Tufts University, her interests include politics, economic development, and postcolonial thought. Ria is currently working as a Research Associate in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Instagram: @ria.maz  / Tweets: @riamaz

📌 Organizing

Stand With Kashmir — I posted a call on IG when putting together the lists for this article. Almost every person who replied recommended Stand With Kashmir, “a global citizen action group committed to ending the unjust military occupation in Kashmir.”

The Kashmir Podcast — Produced in collaboration with Stand With Kashmir, this is a biweekly podcast bringing “stories of resilience and resistance from the people of Kashmir.”

Internet Freedom Foundation — As mentioned in Mazumdar’s article, part of India’s crackdown in Kashmir included internet blackouts. So lastly, I wanted to highlight the Internet Freedom Foundation, which defends online freedom.