At the time of writing, 634,835 people have been confirmed to have Covid-19 also known as “Coronavirus”. 29,957 deaths have been confirmed from the pandemic and the situation is worsening as it spreads across the globe. This is an indiscriminate threat that targets populations regardless of where they live, their gender, age, race, ethnicity and so forth. As countries around the world prepare for a lockdown, or are already in a state of lockdown, the media is fixated on the consequences Covid-19 is having on the West (UK and U.S in particular). But, what about Kashmir? Does Covid-19 change the already fraught situation in Kashmir, or is it making it worse?
Kashmir’s Fraught Situation
The status of Kashmir has been contested by nuclear powers India and Pakistan ever since Partition in 1947. However, as of August 2019 Kashmir’s special status was no longer valid as India’s Home Minister Amit Shah introduced the ‘Reorganisation Bill’ and revoked Article 370. This put the now ‘union territories’ of Jammu and Kashmir under the full control of India and the power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
As a result of the decision, Kashmir was once again put under curfew and there occurred a total communications block with social media accounts being limited and the internet being cut off, as well as the detention of local politicians and limited public movement. Further, the human rights situation in Kashmir has worsened since the revocation with increased reports of torture, Cordon and Search Operations (CASOs), enforced disappearances, as well as reports of widespread violence. This lockdown is one of many that have occurred over the years and it is not exactly a surprise. However, what is a surprise is that civilians already in a state of lockdown are now facing a global pandemic.
It has been 11 days since the first case of the virus was confirmed in Kashmir and it is believed that another 5 people have tested positive for Covid-19 and 2 people have died. This takes the toll of positive patients to a total of 38 so far. The statistics are ongoing, and this demonstrates the persistent threat of Covid-19 to the Kashmiri population. However, is this threat worse than the situation Kashmiris already find themselves in?
In a similar fashion to other countries, Modi has imposed a 21-day countrywide lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. Now that Kashmir is officially under the control of India, this calling also applies to them. As we already know, Kashmir has been under curfew since August 2019. However, is this too little too late to stop Covid-19? Modi has been distracted not only with the controversy caused by the revocation of Article 370, but also with increased demonstrations and protests across Delhi that have led to numerous deaths.
Some would argue that Kashmir already being in a state of lockdown will help prevent the spread of the virus and thus Modi’s measures are justified. Also, it could be argued that they have had years of lockdown experience and know what to expect in upcoming weeks. However, since the revocation of Article 370, civilians have struggled to get basic supplies and groceries. Roadblocks have prevented ambulances from reaching patients in need and people have been unable to gain access to basic medical facilities. Also, scheduled medical procedures such as surgeries have not been able to go ahead due to the curfew. All of these challenges were present before Covid-19, so one questions, how will Kashmir manage now?
In a way, Kashmiri civilians are being punished twice; firstly, for a decision that was made beyond their control, and now for a public health emergency that they have had no time to prepare for. Despite claims that there is a $22 billion relief fund in place for those who will be impacted by Covid-19, it is highly unlikely that Kashmiris will receive the benefits of it. Shops that have already been closed since last year will be unable to provide civilians with basic essentials. People who are already struggling with mental health issues will further suffer from anxiety due to the lack of communication in the region. If the measures in place continue to prevent healthcare workers from doing their job, the crippling situation will only get worse.
This puts Modi in a rather difficult predicament. If the lockdown continues for the sake of national security, the potential for violence is exacerbated due to the pervasive tensions that already exist between civilians and armed forces personnel. If the curfew in Kashmir is lifted, the virus will undoubtedly spread across the union territories and potentially across neighbouring borders. However, there are other options that can help the situation if India can prioritise healthcare over security threats and improve matters for Kashmiri civilians.
It has already been reported that the internet connection is being restored (albeit slowly). This will increase transparent communication and provide civilians with the most accurate information about the situation. If healthcare professionals can return to work, civilians will be able to receive any necessary medical attention. But when they do return to work there is still a need for manpower and equipment in Kashmir in order to deal with the influx of patients that are expected to be infected. Also, if shops are allowed to re-open then they can provide locals with any necessary groceries and food supplies.
The future of Kashmir is just as uncertain as it is for all countries facing Covid-19, yet they face a significant number of additional challenges that most other states never have to experience. It seems that an already dire situation is now worsened by a global pandemic. Although some measures may make life easier for civilians, such as the return of the internet, this may not last for very long. Besides, in the event of the pandemic becoming another lesson for the history books, it is unlikely that Kashmir will ever return to a state of normalcy.
Perhaps, there is a silver lining in the midst of this chaos. Although reports are contested, the majority of human rights abuses that occur in Kashmir are a product of the tensions that exist between civilians and armed forces personnel. If civilians are no longer being held under draconian laws such as the AFSPA and the PSA and the armed forces personnel that usually operate under those laws are needed elsewhere to combat the pandemic, perhaps this could alleviate some tensions in Kashmir.
Finally, if there is one realisation that can come from this entire situation is that the world now knows how it feels to be in a state of lockdown; isolated, anxious and separated from friends and family with an aura of uncertainty hanging over them. This is how Kashmiris have felt for 7 months.
Leoni Connah is an Associate Lecturer in the Department: Politics, Philosophy and Religion at the University of Lancaster.