Facilitating the Corporate Plunder of Kashmir Under Cover of Covid19

AN online public meeting on ‘Silencing the truth-tellers: Kashmir under occupation in the time of Covid-19’ organised by South Asia Solidarity Group on 9 May highlighted the current situation in Kashmir, and in particular the intensified repression and the plunder and extraction of resources from Kashmir by corporate capital which is being facilitated by the abrogation of Article 370 and the new Domicile laws, and is taking place under cover of the Covid-19 pandemic. Talks by Kashmiri lawyer and writer Mirza Saaib Bég, Arshie Qureshi  of the Kashmir Women’s Collective and Dr Mehroosh Tak of the Kashmir Solidarity Movement provided insights into how these processes are taking place.  The speakers’ contributions can be viewed here.

The people of Kashmir are being subjected to particularly lethal risks from Covid-19 as a result of the expanded military presence and the communications lockdown since Article 370 was abrogated in August 2019. A few days before the webinar, mobile phone connections were once again snapped in the valley, further worsening conditions for a population under siege.  

Meanwhile, the abrogation of Article 370 has ushered in a new phase of Israeli-style settler-colonialism in Kashmir which is even now taking shape, in particular through the new Domicile laws being rushed through, which have the potential to drastically alter both the demography as well as access to the state’s resources, as well as introducing requirements for existing citizens which have been compared to the NRC   

And the Modi government is using the Covid-19 lockdown as a pretext to intensify repression and surveillance and silence those who bear witness to the lived realities in the Kashmir Valley. Emblematic of this are the charges brought against renowned Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zahra under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 (UAPA) on April 20.This was in relation to a nineteen-month old photograph, the property of Getty Images. Also on April 20, the Jammu and Kashmir police filed a FIR against Peerzada Ashiq, the Hindu newspaper’s Kashmir correspondent, accusing him of reporting ‘fake news’. This was done instead of following the usual practice of asking the newspaper to issue a clarification. On April 21, the Jammu and Kashmir police charged author and journalist Gowhar Geelani of ‘glorifying terrorism’ and indulging in activities ‘prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India’. The previous day he had written in support of Masrat and Peerzada.  The persecution of journalists continues: most recently the editor of the Kashmir Walla Fahad Shah was questioned by police and accused of ‘maligning’ their reputation for reporting the damaging of at least fifteen homes, rendering them uninhabitable during the pandemic, and allegations of loot against government forces by local residents, in the aftermath of the Nawakadal gunfight.

During the online meeting, Mirza Saaib Bég discussed the legislative changes which have taken place since the Covid lockdown, the Modi government’s authoritarian opportunism and its dramatic economic and political consequences in Kashmir. He pointed out that passing the Domicile Law right now during the Covid-19 lockdown was a strategic decision by the Modi government as it has meant that mass protest against it has been impossible.  He explained that the changes will allow not only demographic changes but mining and corporate plunder of Kashmir. For the first time land and mining rights in Kashmir have been given to Indian citizens and companies. Auctions of mining rights have already happened and 100% of leases went to non-Kashmiris – in fact, auctions were deliberately held online to exclude Kashmiris who are still facing an internet shutdown. This mining will have a massively destructive impact on Kashmir's ecology. He argued that conscientious Indians must refuse to participate in these processes.

Arshie Qureshi, a researcher and women's human rights defender from Kashmir who works closely with women victim-survivors of domestic violence is a member of Kashmir Women's Collective, which is a women's rights and advocacy group actively working against gender-based violence in the valley. Due to the cutting of phone networks, she was unable to directly address the meeting, underlining further the ‘silencing’ of Kashmiri voices by the Indian state. However she sent a prerecorded video of her talk. She highlighted that women’s rights cannot be understood in isolation from human rights in Kashmir despite the spurious and completely discredited claims of the Modi government to be acting on behalf of Kashmiri women in revoking Article 370. As just one example, the UAPA charges against photojournalist Masrat Zahra have prevented her from telling women’s stories which would not otherwise be told. She explained that the Indian government’s counterinsurgency approach to Covid-19 in Kashmir throws aside human rights. The mobile phone blockade has functioned as a collective punishment, denying people access to healthcare and denying support to women facing domestic violence in a context where only 1% of Kashmiris or less have a fixed landline.

Dr Mehroosh Tak, an economist specializing in agricultural policies and food systems and co-founder of the Kashmir Solidarity Movement,  pointed out that there are more than fifteen ‘Red Zones’ for Covid-19 in Srinagar at the moment. These are arbitrarily declared by Army to justify cordoning off localities and suppressing protests. She also explained how the current takeover of Kashmiri financial institutions will facilitate distress sales from Kashmiri businesses and farmers to Indian corporates. Many in Kashmir depend on forest land which is being undermined through the abrogation of Article 370. Access to food is being threatened and food insecurity is rising, exacerbated by Covid-19. However, international humanitarian relief to Kashmir is blocked as long as it is seen as a bilateral issue. Dr Tak also noted that while close economic ties between the UK and India are deterring the UK from taking a stand on Kashmir, the intensive lobbying by the Hindutva right in the UK has also played a huge role in determining policy on Kashmir, as well as blocking caste discrimination legislation in the UK.

Fund Raisers for Delhi Riot Victims and Stranded Migrant Workers:

South Asia Solidarity Group has held two fundraisers via Instagram Live since the start of the UK lockdown. The first event, which took place on 25th March, raised funds for the survivors of the February Delhi pogrom which left thousands homeless. This event featured a diverse line-up of musicians and poets including British spoken word poet Shareefa Energy, Toronto-based electronic duo LAL, Scottish singer-songwriter Kapil Seshasayee, Carnatic vocalist Janani Sridharan, and others. The funds raised were donated directly to the relief efforts.

The second event took place one month later on 25th April, and the funds raised were donated to the relief funds for migrant workers and daily-wage labourers in India that have been hit especially hard by the lockdown. This event featured a wide variety of poets, writers, musicians and speakers, including Kenyan poet Wangui Wa Goro, writer Nikesh Shukla, opera singer Nadine Benjamin and others. The funds raised were donated directly to the AICCTU relief initiatives.

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