December 10 marks the anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and is marked as such around the world, but with a degree of attention that varies from country to country.
In India, a day after the Human Rights Day 2019, the Upper House of Parliament, Lok Sabha, passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which, in the words of the UK’s Financial Times, is a “controversial law offering fast-track citizenship to non-Muslims from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries — a turning point in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s drive to redefine the country as a Hindu homeland. The move marks the first time that India — officially a secular state with a religiously diverse population — has set religious criteria for citizenship. Its naturalisation process will give preference to Hindus and adherents of other South Asian religions over Muslims in a sign of the growing marginalisation of India’s largest minority.”
India’s governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has said that the Act will enable sanctuary to be given to migrants fleeing religious persecution, but this is not the way the legislation is regarded in much of the country, and especially the north-east, which is most directly affected by illegal immigration. Of the eight north-eastern states, Assam is the most concerned about the changes that will be brought about by the government’s actions, as it is in a sensitive condition, being one of India's most multi-ethnic regions. Not incidentally, as noted by the BBC, “Some third of its 32 million citizens are Muslims, the second-highest number after Indian-administered Kashmir.”
It has not only been international media which has commented on the new decree with less than approval. Intriguingly — and gratifyingly — the Indian Express newspaper declared in an editorial that passage of the Act was a “tragic moment” for the nation, as it was “a political signal of a terrible narrowing, a chilling exclusion, directed at India’s own largest minority. India is to be redefined as the natural home of Hindus, it says to India’s Muslims.”
But the signal about impending official discrimination against India’s Muslims had been given well before the Amendment Act was passed. For example, in April 2019, in the run up to the general election, the BJP issued a manifesto stating amongst other things that “We are committed to annulling Article 35A of the Constitution of India as the provision is discriminatory against non-permanent residents and women of Jammu and Kashmir.” The BJP also declared its intention to scrap Article 370 which since 1954 had ensured the region’s special status, and was elected in a landslide victory in May.
Then in early August the government told tourists and Hindu pilgrims to leave Indian-occupied Kashmir and ordered deployment of 38,000 regular army and para-military soldiers to the area to join the half-million already there.
The reason for the security clampdown and the massive increase in the number of troops was that protests were expected following the announcement on August 5 that the president had signed a decree abolishing Article 370 that had established and safeguarded an important degree of autonomy for the citizens of the region in which Muslims are by far the majority.
Article 35A, the Permanent Residents Law, had forbidden Indians from outside the state to permanently settle there, to buy land, hold local government jobs and be eligible for education scholarships. It complemented Article 370 which permitted the region’s elected legislators to pass laws in all matters except finance, defense, foreign affairs and communications. Their annulment was reinforced by the Delhi government’s decision to split the region into union territories — Ladakh, and Jammu and Kashmir — to be governed directly by the central government without local involvement.
On learning that the President of India had issued an order invalidating all special status provisions applying under the constitution, the former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah chaired a meeting of local political leaders who issued a warning “against any tinkering with the special status of the region” as specified by Article 35A. Abdullah, aged 82, with a heart pacemaker, was straightaway arrested and detained, along with (as estimated by the BBC) some five thousand other political leaders and activists, under the provisions of the all-embracing Public Safety Act (PSA) which applies only to Indian-occupied Kashmir. Should the central government consider there can be threats to ‘public order' or ‘security of the state’ those suspected of posing such dangers can be detained without trial for three and two years respectively.
On August 5 Omar Abdullah, Vice-President of the National Conference party and former Chief Minister of the region, issued a statement saying that the government’s actions were “a total betrayal of the trust” of the people and that the decisions were “unilateral, illegal and unconstitutional” so he was also detained. Concurrently, internet and landline communications were shut down, mosques were closed, and mobile phone access blocked. In mid-December 2019 the Washington Post noted that the shutdown, by then in force for over four months, was “the longest ever imposed in a democracy… The 7 million people in the Kashmir Valley were abruptly returned to a pre-Internet era. They are unable to operate online businesses or read this article. In early December, they began disappearing from WhatsApp because accounts are automatically deleted after 120 days of inactivity.”
The stance of the BJP government is that it ordered the thousands of arrests and the communications blackout because, in the words of the foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, “Our intention is that politicians do not engage in any activities that could serve as a magnet for violence, as it has been the case in the past. A related issue is that social media and the internet have been used to radicalise. We want to prevent the loss of life.” From this it is apparent that the government was fully aware that revocation of articles 370/35A would not meet with the approval of citizens and had already planned the strongest measures to foil legitimate protest.
In the period in which the Indian government instituted its communications’ shutdown in Kashmir, the western mainstream media were publicising protests in Hong Kong, where reporting was permitted by foreign journalists — unlike in Kashmir about which pliant domestic media outlets carry little but supportive comment in regard to central government’s actions. For example, in August the news channel Republic TV showed a reporter in Srinagar stating “The situation makes you feel good, because the situation is returning to normal, and the locals are ready to live their lives normally again.” Nothing could have been further from the truth.
In order to bring objectivity to reporting of the situation in the Valley the reporter (and Pulitzer Prize winner), Dexter Filkins, managed to fly into Srinagar undetected by the security services and observed in an article published in The New Yorker Magazine on December 2 that “it was clear that the reality in Kashmir veered starkly from the picture in the mainstream Indian press. Soldiers stood on every street corner. Machine-gun nests guarded intersections, and shops were shuttered on each block. Apart from the military presence, the streets were lifeless. At Khanqah-e-Moula, the city’s magnificent eighteenth-century mosque, Friday prayers were banned. Schools were closed. Cell-phone and Internet service was cut off… Economic activity had ground to a halt. Kashmiris were cut off from the outside world and from one another.”
According to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, the lockdown has resulted in economic loss of at least USD1.5 billion since August 5, but in spite of overwhelming evidence that the lives of the citizens of Indian-occupied Kashmir continue to be severely disrupted there has been little international criticism of the draconian political action that resulted in financial and personal crises. The shutdown of communications has caused widespread unemployment, most notably in the hundreds of small workshops making exquisite handicrafts of which enormous quantities are advertised and sold online. Other sectors most adversely affected are agriculture and the hospitality and tourism industries, but there has been almost no impact on the wider world, and, therefore, very little international concern about the plight of Kashmiris.
There is no freedom in Kashmir, and instead of enjoying a modicum of self-governance and being permitted a referendum on its future, Indian-occupied Kashmir has suffered lockdown without there being any official indication of disapproval by western governments which have been energetic in criticising other countries for taking less repressive domestic measures. Certainly, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said on September 9 that she was “deeply concerned about the impact of recent actions by the government of India on the human rights of Kashmiris” and “alarmed” about “restrictions on internet communications and peaceful assembly, and the detention of local political leaders and activists” — but there was no reaction by governments in such strongholds of democracy as London and Washington.
It is notable that there were high-level U.S.-India discussions in Washington on December 19, when the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, observed that “Our common values of democracy, freedom, respect for the rule of law are a great foundation for our expanding partnership.” During the conference it was reported that in India “Two people died in Mangaluru after the police opened fire on protesters, while one person died in Lucknow, reportedly after being shot. It brings the death toll to nine.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s discriminatory political actions in the north-east of the country were similar in intent to those in Indian-occupied Kashmir, but although the United Nations issued a statement that it “is concerned that India's new Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 is fundamentally discriminatory in nature” there were no indications of official disapproval concerning the recorded brutality of police forces in their assaults on peaceful protesters.
The BJP’s spokesman, Sudhanshu Trivedi, told Dexter Filkins that the key to understanding modern India was accepting that “Hinduism is not basically a religion — it is a way of life.” He stated that anyone born in India is part of Hinduism. Therefore, all other religions found in India thrive because of Hinduism, and are subordinate to it. “The culture of Islam is preserved here because of Hindu civilization.”
There is a drive in India to subordinate all beliefs to that of Hinduism, and to marginalise Muslims by unethical but skilful political manipulation. One of the most effective weapons in the Delhi government’s arsenal is the power to stop citizens communicating with each other and with anyone overseas. In Kashmir this has proved markedly effective in disguising from the world the undemocratic nature of the present government in Delhi. Indian Muslims are being treated as second-class citizens, and provisions of the Indian constitution are being revoked in order to enforce the supremacy of Hinduism. India is no longer an equitable state, as intended by the constitution, and the future is dark for democracy.
The writer is a France based retired officer of Australian Army and is an expert on South Asian affairs. He is also author of various books, and contributes extensively in international media.
E-mail: [email protected]
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