On 5 August 2019, India's BJP-led central government changed the geographical and political status of Indian-administered Kashmir. Together with the abrogation of Article 370 and 35a that protected permanent residents’ exclusive rights over jobs, education and land, Kashmir was divided into two federally administered territories. The move was accompanied by a series of measures – including the shutdown of internet and telephone networks and the arbitrary detention of reporters, activists and politicians – specifically designed to prevent and curb the expression of all forms of dissent.
On 24 March 2020, as New Delhi had just begun to ease the heavy restrictions enforced during this 7-month-long security lockdown, the imposition of nation-wide isolation and physical distancing measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 further exacerbated the precarity of daily life in Kashmir.
The confluence of the security and COVID-19-related lockdowns have made physical distancing particularly problematic for the population. The everyday experience of isolation is thus assuming new, sinister forms, while also exposing the ugly side of India’s nationalist politics.
Indeed, the question of how pandemic-induced lockdown measures are enforced in a heavily militarized context where fear and lack of trust dominate the relationship between population and security forces raises a host of very troubling questions.
How is the lockdown playing out and exacerbating systematic violations of basic freedoms and civil liberties? What are the specific forms of insecurity experienced by Kashmiri people under the present circumstances? Is the Indian government exploiting the health crisis to enhance its control over dissenting voices in the region?
All of these questions interrogate the politics behind enforced isolation in Kashmir.
On lockdown, under siege
Physical distancing – the principle underpinning COVID-19-induced lockdowns worldwide – is predicated upon the assumption that people retreat safely in private spaces. Moreover, a government’s capacity to make strict physical distancing and isolation measures acceptable seems linked to the contextual availability of alternative ways to keep people and societies virtually connected. In that sense, observers are highlighting how, where the above conditions are not met, vulnerable groups become more exposed to the virus and other forms of insecurity. Pandemic lockdowns are thus exposing and amplifying existing inequalities.
This is clearly the case in Kashmir. Activists and healthcare workers in the region are providing evidence of how the combination of military occupation, violent conflicts, a telecommunication blockade and the lockdown are making the Kashmiri population more vulnerable to both infection and political violence. Yet, so far New Delhi has been more effective in exploiting the crisis to advance its Kashmir agenda than preventing the spread of the virus in the region.
According to Omer Aijazi, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto, “the Indian government has adopted very extensive and strict pandemic lockdown measures which include arresting Kashmiris for violating the lockdown. The point to note here is that Kashmiris have been barred from public political life for a long time and even further since August last year. The lockdown measures are perceived to be camouflaged as a further crackdown on political assembly, freedom of expression and participation in political life”.
Enforcing the lockdown through political violence
On 13 May, in the Budgam district, Peer Mehrajudin, a 25-year old Kashmiri man, was shot at and killed by security forces on his way to work. According to official statements, the young man had driven through a security checkpoint. Local reporters and eye witnesses however said he was deliberately targeted and killed. The event unlashed a new wave of anti-Indian protests, as angered residents defied the lockdown to confront armed security forces who retaliated by beating up and arresting protesters. The event is telltale of what ordinary life and death look like for people living under siege.
In fact, in Kashmir, the possibility of military confrontations, outburst of violence, physical abuse and arbitrary arrests puts people at constant risk in the streets, on their way to work and also in their own homes. Yet, as on 23 March UN Secretary General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire to protect populations from the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, the security situation in Kashmir had begun to worsen by the day. Reports of security forces preventing terrified residents from fleeing villages caught in the crossfire along the Line of Control provide a grim picture of the potential side effects of the current isolation and physical distancing rules in Kashmir.
Annexation under physical and virtual isolation
In the midst of a global pandemic, Kashmir continues to run on 2G networks. Exchange of information is thus significantly compromised. Healthcare workers are denouncing how the internet blockade is heavily affecting their capacity to access critical medical updates. At the same time, decades of neglect and lack of investment have left local hospitals ill-equipped and understaffed in the face of a potential surge in infections. Enforcing the COVID-19-induced lockdown in a way that jeopardizes the healthcare system’s capacity to provide proper treatment is quite revealing of the central government’s broader colonial-style rhetoric justifying the harms of occupation in the name of greater interests.
In fact, several observers have highlighted how the global health crisis has offered India an opportunity to accelerate the process of Kashmir’s annexation. On 1 April, the Indian government announced new domicile rules introducing additional permanent residence rights to non-Kashmiri, amid fresh crackdowns on Kashmiri political figures, journalists and social media activists.
For decades, Kashmiris have been deprived of the chance to develop organized and functioning political and social lives. In that context, occupying physical and virtual public spaces through protests, social media presence and independent journalism have been key ways to make their voices heard. According to Omer Aijazi, “it seems that COVID-19, has given the Indian state an opportunity to clamp down all of these venues and mediums of expression. But journalists are still trying to write and get their stuff online, people are still trying to protest where possible”.
The scale of the health crisis is giving governments unprecedented decisional powers. India’s Kashmir policy stands out for going in the direction of further exacerbating insecurity, curbing basic freedoms and violating human rights. If the COVID-19-related lockdown is affecting the coping strategies of Kashmiri people it is also exposing the violent logic of India’s annexation strategies and the destructive effects of the military occupation. Therefore, current developments in Kashmir deserve particular attention, especially as the global health crisis has triggered new political aspirations and demands for healthier and more inclusive societies worldwide.
 Supra note.