Story Publication logo June 19, 2020

Valley of Unrest


Indian paramilitary forces set up a barricade in Srinagar. Image by Abid Bhat. Kashmir, 2019.

In August 2019, India scrapped Kashmir's special status, moving in extra troops, suspending...

Baramulla, a city on the Jhelum River, thirty miles northwest of Srinagar, Kashmir. Image by Abid Bhat. Kashmir, 2019.
Baramulla, a city on the Jhelum River, thirty miles northwest of Srinagar, Kashmir. Image by Abid Bhat. Kashmir, 2019.

One winter’s night in the Kashmir Valley, the power went out. A bone-piercing cold swept through my hotel room in Srinagar. The next morning, the radiator, the water heater, and all the light switches were useless things. I knew that I would feel isolated in the Valley, given that India had imposed a communications blockade three months earlier, snapping internet, cellular, and landline connections for seven million people. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the feeling of total solitude that the absence of connectivity—and now power—provoked in me, mere hours after arriving. I was unmoored, like I belonged to nothing.

I lay in bed, wearing two sweaters, a hat, and gloves. The hotel room was spacious and carpeted, with ornate wooden furniture in the Kashmiri way. I decided to walk over to the window. Perhaps I thought that seeing another person would root me to the place. I was taken aback by the sight that greeted me. Everything was white—the lawn, the garden umbrella, the chairs, the flower beds, the chimney pots of nearby homes. The chinar trees that just yesterday had been aflame with golden leaves were flexing and bending under the weight of the snow that had fallen overnight. I watched a gardener in a thin raincoat tenderly scrape the ice from some roses. Then a waiter knocked on my door to say that the kitchen had canceled breakfast. I was the hotel’s only remaining guest.

Few people had been able to visit the Valley since the blockade was imposed last August. Foreign journalists were explicitly barred, and national reporters were closely monitored. Even Indian politicians were prevented from coming in to survey the situation. Still, the government kept promising that everything was “normal.” At a summit of business leaders in November, the home minister, Amit Shah, made light of the situation. “Why don’t you go see for yourself?” he said with a smile. “You’ll see peace up and down the Valley.” I decided to take him up on his suggestion. I knew Kashmir wasn’t “normal.” India and Pakistan had fought three wars there over the second half of the twentieth century, and a Pakistan-supported insurgency had been advancing and receding since the Eighties, resulting in the deaths of more than seventy thousand people. Now India had amended its constitution in order to annex the section of Kashmir it controlled, and had imposed a stringent curfew to prevent resistance. Life in the Valley hadn’t been normal for decades. What I wanted to see was exactly how abnormal it had become.

With no phone service, it was impossible to confirm my interviews for that morning, but I decided I would venture out anyway. I got into the back seat of a hotel car, and we crawled across one of the eight bridges that span the Jhelum River, a tributary of the Indus. Over the next few days, the river would freeze to form a broad sheet of white ice, but for now the green ribbon of water still flowed, gently rocking the houseboats. I was calmed by the sight until I remembered that a seventeen-year-old boy had drowned here in August, becoming the first civilian casualty of the siege. Chased by security forces for violating the curfew, he had leaped into the river, even though he couldn’t swim.

Above us, dead power lines dangled like loose threads. The snow was falling hard, in what seemed to me to be an outpouring of feeling. The driver was worried we’d skid. We had already seen a man fly over the handlebars of his motorcycle.

At first glance, the weather was just one more burden for the Kashmiris to bear, but it also presented an unexpected gift. The sudden cold drove security forces into their bunkers. Left alone, ordinary Kashmiris nipped out with shovels to clear the tall drifts of snow. Women holding umbrellas hurried in search of milk and bread. Children threw snowballs. Watching all this, in the shadow of the snowcapped mountains that ring the Valley, it was possible to imagine what peace might look like in Kashmir.

Indian paramilitary forces set up a barricade in Srinagar. Image by Abid Bhat. Kashmir, 2019.
Indian paramilitary forces set up a barricade in Srinagar. Image by Abid Bhat. Kashmir, 2019.

Last July, when the most recent phase of the conflict began, a surge in Indian security forces had been the first sign that Delhi was planning something big. There are now nearly one million Indian troops stationed in Kashmir—more than at the height of the insurgency in the Nineties—including members of the army, the air force, the special forces, the police, and paramilitary groups. In a state where the government doctor-to-patient ratio is 1 to 3,060, the troop-to-civilian ratio stands at 1 to 7. The police had set up checkpoints with razor-wire coils and sandbags, and refused to let anyone pass without demanding, “Kahan jaana hai, kya karna hai?” (“Where are you going and why?”).

On August 2, Indian authorities, claiming to have received intelligence about a Pakistani jihadi threat, canceled the annual pilgrimage to Amarnath, a Himalayan cave situated about forty miles outside Srinagar, which each year draws hundreds of thousands of Hindus to pay their respects to a stalagmite that is said to be the phallus of Lord Shiva. Over the next two days, foreign tourists were tracked down and expelled. Police officers in shikaras rowed up to houseboats on the city’s fabled Dal Lake and others rounded up hikers trekking in the mountains. Around twenty thousand people boarded flights and buses out of the Valley.

On August 4, police vans equipped with public-address systems rumbled up and down the streets of Srinagar declaring a curfew. This was not unusual. In Kashmir, curfews are frequently imposed to keep people from protesting. Three years earlier, after security forces killed Burhan Wani, an enormously popular young commander in the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, a curfew to punish protesters stretched on for fifty-one days. This time, however, there was no hint of what was to come. Was this a “night” curfew? Would it extend only to “troubled” areas? Kashmiris were given no further direction, so they began enacting the rituals they had perfected during previous crackdowns. They withdrew cash from ATMs and filled their gas tanks with fuel. They stockpiled rice, water, medicine, and candles. They checked in on their vegetable gardens. On market streets, bakeries dampened their fires and pomegranate vendors rolled away their carts. The city’s most famous bookstore pulled down its shutters.

At seven o’clock that evening, the politician Omar Abdullah tweeted that he was being detained. “I believe I’m being placed under house arrest,” he wrote. “The process has already started for other mainstream leaders. No way of knowing if this is true but if it is then I’ll see all of you on the other side of whatever is in store. Allah save us.” Abdullah was a third-generation Kashmiri politician and a staunch supporter of the Indian government—a “mainstream,” “pro-India” leader, to use the political language of the Valley. He believed that Kashmir should remain a part of India, which put him at odds with the more than 75 percent of Kashmiri Muslims who wanted independence. In the past, governments in Delhi had worked hard to develop local allies like Abdullah, if only for appearances. By detaining him and his ailing, eighty-one-year-old father, Delhi made an unambiguous statement: they didn’t need him anymore.

Citing the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, which allows authorities to hold anyone deemed a threat to the state for up to two years without formally charging them with a crime, the police then targeted other Kashmiri leaders, including Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who led services at Jamia Masjid, the Valley’s largest mosque. Farooq was the head of an influential pro-independence alliance that issued weekly “protest calendars” inspired by the first Palestinian intifada, which told shop owners when to close. A top police official in Kashmir, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, alleged that all the detainees had prior offenses, but in fact many of them, like the Abdullahs, had clean records.

Map by Dolly Holmes for Harper's Magazine.
Map by Dolly Holmes for Harper's Magazine.

Any doubt that the government’s real aim was to stifle powerful voices was laid to rest with the detention of Shah Faesal, a charismatic young doctor who had become a top Kashmiri bureaucrat and formed his own political party to protest government atrocities in the Valley. In 2010, Manmohan Singh, then prime minister of India, invited Faesal to his official residence and praised him as a shining example of the state’s young leadership. But as last summer’s crackdown escalated, Faesal told the BBC that India had “murdered the constitution.” Abdullah’s arrest, he said, proved that there was no place for mainstream politicians in Kashmir. One could be either a “stooge or a separatist.” “I’m not going to be a stooge,” he said. The Indian government seized Faesal at the airport in Delhi, where he was boarding a flight to the United States for a fellowship at Harvard, and sent him back to Kashmir, where he remains in detention in a hotel.

On the night of August 5, Kashmiri TV channels suddenly went off the air. Mobile-phone service was blocked. And then, in a final stroke that has yet to be completely undone, Kashmir went offline. The United Nations considers the imposition of internet shutdowns a human rights violation, but India has been switching off the net in Kashmir for years. In 2018, Delhi cut the internet sixty-five times. Earlier shutdowns had affected life in all the usual ways—it was impossible to keep up with the news, pay bills, or stream video—but people had reassured themselves that the interruptions were temporary. Now there was no way to know.

“We pulled out our Philips radio, which we hadn’t used in God knows how many years,” Badrul Duja, a law student in Srinagar, told me. It was only then that he and his family realized what had happened. “I cried,” he said.

The Indian Parliament had revoked Kashmir’s semiautonomous status with overwhelming support in both houses, dividing the region into two territories that would henceforth be controlled directly by the federal government in Delhi. In doing so, it had annulled Articles 370 and 35A, provisions in the constitution that gave Kashmiris certain protections, including guarantees related to property, education, and government jobs. Article 370 had also empowered local politicians to make decisions without Delhi’s approval.

On August 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on TV to address the nation. He claimed that the vote would finally bring peace to the region and encourage economic development. “The dream of . . . patriots is now fulfilled,” he said. His supporters were jubilant. They danced in the streets. They set off firecrackers. They posted memes about buying land in Kashmir. At a rally, a leader in Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) congratulated Indian Muslims on the opportunity to marry “white-skinned Kashmiri girls.” The actor Anupam Kher, a well-known Hindu nationalist and one of Modi’s most vocal supporters in Bollywood, tweeted: the “Kashmir Solution has begun.”

Kher was not the only person to draw a parallel with Nazi Germany. One human rights activist in Srinagar told me that Modi’s “final solution for us is the same as [Germany’s] was for the Jews.” Others said the government was copying the Chinese model in Xinjiang, where more than a million Muslims have been detained in camps. Although the Kashmiris I spoke to invoked various comparisons, they all believed that, during this crackdown, they would die.

Snowplows hadn’t yet cleared the roads when I arrived at my destination, a tall, unobtrusive house in a lane near a public hospital in Srinagar. At the door, Masrat Yousuf, a thirty-three-year-old media relations officer, engulfed me in a tight embrace. Her affection struck me as deeply gracious, given that my presence could only have been a reminder of how bad things had become. Yousuf, who has a warm face, pale skin, and glossy black hair that she had pulled back into a loose bun, led me into the house. It was lunchtime and she was preparing a meal of sun-dried turnips with cheese to serve with Kashmiri rajma dal and rice. She whispered that her newborn baby was sleeping upstairs.

In the living room, I sat down on a thick purple carpet, with cushions for support. Yousuf threw a blanket over my knees and slipped a kangri, an earthen pot filled with charcoal embers, underneath. “I can’t tell you what we’ve faced,” she said, settling down next to me.

When the siege began, Yousuf was eight months pregnant. She had no choice but to venture out—every ten days she had to drive to a clinic for maternity care. There was a checkpoint every mile, and she was routinely stopped four or five times along the way. Sometimes, security officers demanded that she step out of her car and show them her belly to prove she was pregnant. “I could not think straight,” she told me. “Would I be allowed to deliver my baby? Would my baby be normal?” She said that the phrase “aetheum gav krutheum” (“the eighth month of pregnancy is the hardest”) rang ominously in her ears.

As the curfew drew on, families started to run low on supplies. They threw onions and potatoes from one window to another to reach neighbors in need. They played board games, watched DVDs, and wrote letters. Even after the curfew was lifted, in the second week of August, the sight of heavy patrols convinced many people to stay inside. They locked their doors and peeked out from behind drawn curtains.

The situation took a frightening turn when, on August 15, the post office stopped delivering mail, threatening to isolate the region further. Watching from afar, members of the Kashmiri diaspora circulated snippets of a 1996 poem by Agha Shahid Ali. “Today I went to the post office,” it reads,

Across the river. Bags and bags—hundreds of canvas bags—all of undelivered mail. By chance I looked down and there on the floor I saw this letter addressed to you. So, I am enclosing it. I hope it’s from someone you are longing for news of.

Yousuf’s three-year-old son, Zaayef, came bounding into the room wearing a wool hat. The house hadn’t had power since the snow started falling the previous night, and the temperature was below freezing. They relied on extra layers of clothing and kangris to stave off the cold. “Here baby, come!” Yousuf cooed, throwing open her arms. “Come, say as-salaam-alaikum, say hello!” The little boy waved a kerchief in my face. “People call my children ‘curfew children,’ ” she said with a rueful smile. “They were both born in curfews, in terrible times. What can I do? It’s God’s mercy.”

Across the Valley, at least a million children Zaayef’s age and older were at home. The schools had initially closed in response to a government order to shut down until further notice, but when the order was lifted, two weeks later, parents refused to let their children out of sight because they had no way of keeping in touch. Then bus drivers went on strike, to show their opposition to the siege, which meant there was no way to get kids to school. Yousuf told me that Zaayef sang to himself to pass the time.

I later met a psychiatrist at a government medical center in Srinagar who told me that the number of children he was seeing had multiplied many times over since the start of the siege. The predictable environment of school gives kids stability, he said. With that gone, the condition of patients who’d been doing fairly well had worsened. Smaller children communicated their distress by refusing to eat; they experienced aches, pains, and sleeplessness. Older ones “expressed rage.” He was concerned that the children would grow up to feel “vengeful.”

Such effects were widespread. Even in 2015, when the situation in Kashmir was relatively stable, a survey by Doctors Without Borders found that nearly 45 percent of adults in the Valley showed symptoms of significant mental distress.

Yousuf and I talked about her health. She had delivered her daughter, Zukhruf, via C-section two weeks earlier, and she was still finding it painful to walk. She moved into this house with her parents, she told me, because it was closer to the hospital—fewer checkpoints. Her husband, Peerzada Ashiq, a journalist with The Hindu, was staying with his own elderly parents across town. This was a family that used to stay in constant communication with laptops and smartphones. Now they had to wait days to see one another face-to-face.

Families in Kashmir are typically close-knit, with multiple generations living together, and the blockade had badly frayed those ties. At one Kashmiri wedding, to which a thousand guests had been invited, only thirteen showed up. Funerals went unattended. Relationships withered. Yousuf spoke of these things bravely, as though they did not affect her. “We are sher dil log,” she beamed, “lionhearted.” Then, as though that one statement had taken all her energy, she sighed. “We don’t know what’s going to happen to us. We don’t know what’s going to happen to Kashmir.”

Whenever her husband, Ashiq, visited, Yousuf cooked his favorite food—chicken tikka, mutton yakhni, kebabs—but he just picked at his plate, she said. After he wrote a story about the arrests of 1,500 boys, the police brought him to the station to demand that he reveal his sources. He refused and was released, but he no longer felt safe reporting on human rights abuses. Ashiq had even started to think about leaving Kashmir. Going anywhere in India was out of the question. Since Modi had come to power, hundreds of Muslims had been beaten to death by Hindu-nationalist mobs, and Kashmiris, with their distinctive fair skin, were easy targets.

Yousuf and I sat in silence, feeling the warmth of the kangri under the blanket. The muezzin’s call to prayer sounded. “I’ll get my baby,” Yousuf said, rising to her feet with a painful grimace. She returned with an armful of woolen blankets in which her sleeping daughter was nestled. “Ashiq wanted to call her Azaadi, which means ‘freedom,’ ” Yousuf said, but she had swatted away the suggestion with a laugh.

“Wait until we’re free,” she told him.

Kashmiri protesters march through the Anchar neighborhood of Srinagar. Image by Abid Bhat. Kashmir, 2019.
Kashmiri protesters march through the Anchar neighborhood of Srinagar. Image by Abid Bhat. Kashmir, 2019.

Kashmiri Muslims have been fighting for their freedom ever since the British withdrew from India, leaving the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to choose between joining India, joining Pakistan, or remaining independent. The Valley’s beauty—its apple orchards, purple saffron fields, and sparkling rivers, which are bounded by the Pir Panjal Range on one side and the Himalayas on the other—enhanced Kashmir’s value, but it was first and foremost a geopolitical prize, a buffer zone between India, Pakistan, Russia, and China. In 1947, the British governor-general proposed a plebiscite to decide the region’s fate, but the vote never took place. An army of Pashtuns, covertly supported by the Pakistani government, threatened to overrun Srinagar, and the Dogra maharaja, the Hindu ruler of Muslim-majority Kashmir, hurriedly chose to sign an Instrument of Accession to India to protect his kingdom.

The accession papers, which were signed in October of that year, stipulated that India’s jurisdiction would be restricted to military aid, foreign affairs, and communications. This agreement was later enshrined in the Indian constitution under Articles 370 and 35A. Although the plebiscite wasn’t mentioned, many Kashmiris took for granted that as soon as law and order was restored, they would make the final decision about their future.

Pakistan, which disputed the accession, launched a war with India, and in 1948, India approached the United Nations Security Council about monitoring a plebiscite. The Security Council agreed on the condition that India reduce its forces and Pakistan withdraw from the area. Pakistan refused, and the fighting continued. Although India won the war in 1949, Pakistan managed to gain some territory. Since then the region has been divided into Pakistani-controlled areas in the west and the north—Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan—and Indian-administered territories in the south, which include the much larger Jammuand Kashmir and Ladakh. The ceasefire line from the 1949 war was later renamed the Line of Control and remains in place today.

The loss of territory angered Hindu nationalists in India, who had, two decades earlier, formed a paramilitary organization known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Its slogan was “Hindi, Hindu, Hindusthan”—a Hindu nation unified by the Hindi language. One of the group’s earliest leaders was a Nazi sympathizer named Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, who described Hitler’s ideology as “a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.” Golwalkar stated plainly that when India became “Hindusthan,” “non-Hindu people . . . may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizen’s rights.”

Although the RSS wanted to rid India of all its religious minorities, the group harbored a particular animus toward Muslims. Islam had existed in India since around the twelfth century, but the RSS referred to Indian Muslims as “foreign invaders,” linking them to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mughal Empire, whose historical domination of India was seen by the RSS as an affront to the nation’s dignity. The RSS demanded the abrogation of Article 370 and insisted that Jammu and Kashmir be fully integrated into India. In 1948, an RSS member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for his “constant and consistent pandering to the Muslims,” and the group was briefly banned, but once reinstated, it became hugely popular through the succeeding decades, spawning a seemingly endless number of offshoots—including the BJP—that are collectively referred to as the Sangh Parivar, the RSS Family.

By the Fifties, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an ethnic Kashmiri himself, had grown quiet on the subject of a plebiscite, fearing an outcome disadvantageous to India, and successive governments in Delhi followed his lead. In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi, Nehru’s grandson, openly rigged the state elections in Kashmir to maintain control and stop the rise of homegrown leaders. Gandhi’s men captured polling stations and even arrested winning candidates if they happened to belong to opposition parties.

This electoral fraud was the chief impetus for the violent insurgency that followed, but a cataclysmic event in a nearby Indian state also played a part. In 1990, the prominent Hindu nationalist politician Lal Krishna Advani took a monthslong journey to Ayodhya, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. His destination was the Babri Masjid, a Mughal-era mosque that he declared, without proof, had been built atop a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Ram. Riding in a motorized chariot, Advani passed through hundreds of villages, where he argued that Muslims should “either have faith in Lord Ram or else leave the country.” Thousands of Advani’s supporters—who had accompanied him on his journey armed with knives, bows and arrows, maces, and swords—descended on Muslim families, killing more than two thousand people. The chief architect of the spectacle, who dutifully held Advani’s microphone at rallies along the way, was the forty-year-old general secretary of the Gujarat BJP, a then little-known man named Narendra Modi.

Modi joined the RSS at the age of eight. The group has been his religious and political North Star for the entirety of his career. Modi was conveniently elsewhere when, in 1992, Advani led another march to Ayodhya and his supporters demolished the mosque with their bare hands. The demolition, writes journalist Kapil Komireddi, “was the greatest affront to India’s secular core since the foundation of the republic.” And yet, “It was possible to detect relief, even rejoicing. India had, finally, crossed the Rubicon.”

Watching these events, people in Kashmir concluded that a government that failed to protect Indian Muslims was unlikely to protect them, either. “It triggered desperation,” said Mohamad Junaid, a cultural anthropologist at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who was then living in the Valley. “We wondered what our future was going to be like.” Young Kashmiri men started slipping into Azad Kashmir, where Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence welcomed them, trained them, and plied them with arms.

By the late Eighties, the Soviets had left Afghanistan, where the ISI had supported the resistance. In search of a new war, jihadis from all over the world rallied around the Kashmiri cause. Militants targeted symbols of the Indian state, killing policemen and kidnapping their family members. They raped and murdered the Valley’s Hindus, known as Kashmiri Pandits; in 1989, an estimated 250,000 people were forced to flee. Hindu homes were looted, occupied, and burned down. Fewer than three thousand Pandits chose to stay. Sanjay Tikoo, a Pandit activist who was in his early twenties at the time, told me he woke up one day to find that all but two of the more than twenty Hindu families on his street had fled during the night.“It felt as though the wind was our enemy,” he said. “The water was our enemy, even the streets were our enemy. We had no one.”

In the mid-Nineties, the insurgency entered its fidayeen (“death squad”) phase. According to the historian Sumantra Bose, this period saw “frontal assaults” against Indian security forces in Kashmir that were “usually carried out by two-member teams firing semiautomatic rifles and lobbing grenades.” The perpetrators weren’t Kashmiris fighting for independence; they were Pakistani militants committed to destabilizing India. The majority of these attacks were conducted by the Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (“Army of the Pure”), which in later years would unleash terror across India. In 2001, members of another group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (“The Army of Mohammed”), entered the grounds of the Indian Parliament in a car modified to look like an official vehicle. The militants emptied bags of grenades in the midst of hundreds of lawmakers, killing nine people. “How dare they assume our decency is a sign of weakness,” thundered a member of Parliament. “Now we have to fight back.”

And India did fight back, but with disproportionate force, pulling ordinary Kashmiris into the violence. Not one life was left untouched. Soon, night raids, torture, rape, disappearances—trademarks of a dirty war that had begun in the Nineties—became all too common. In the past three decades, the human rights group Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) has documented more than eight thousand forced disappearances and more than seven thousand unmarked mass graves. “The government used violence in a performative way to create fear,” Khurram Parvez, the group’s senior activist, told me. Two generations of Kashmiri children have grown up under these conditions. “By harassing them,” a journalist in Srinagar said, “the Indian government manufactured more militants. Every season, boys slipped over the border to Pakistan.”

During my trip to Kashmir, I traveled with Mir Iqbal, a journalist for a prominent newspaper, from Srinagar to Shopian, a hilly district some hours south, to investigate the economic damage caused by the occupation. Shopian is famous for its apple orchards, and as we drove, Iqbal told me that his family owned orchards of their own. He launched into a loving description of the variety they grew, Red Delicious. “It has so much life and vitality,” he said proudly. “It can survive any weather.”

The heavy snowfall had continued, but that wasn’t the reason the markets were shut. The store owners were observing a strike. If they kept to their usual schedule, they felt, they would be playing into the hands of the government, which continued to insist that everything was “normal.” Militants had been sliding threatening notes under shutters, warning against any behavior that might suggest normalcy. A few days before I arrived, they had fatally shot a truck driver for showing up to work. They had pulled five construction workers out of their apartment and executed them. They even shot a five-year-old girl whose father, a wealthy apple trader, had defied the strike.

Iqbal and I drove over a bridge, past a stream, and through some fields filled with snow. The landscape was pristine and empty. There were no people, no birds in sight. We passed through numerous checkpoints, but the soldiers didn’t stop us. I suspected that my conspicuously Indian face was somehow responsible for our freedom of movement. About an hour into our drive, Iqbal pointed to a playground with brightly colored swings and slides. “Shahid Park,” he said. When I looked more closely, I realized that he wasn’t talking about the playground at all, but the plot with which it shared a wall: a graveyard for local militants. The cemetery was full of ornately carved headstones garlanded with fresh flowers. “Shahid,” Iqbal clarified, means “martyr.” He thought the playground’s proximity to the graveyard was appropriate—it was the trajectory of so many young lives.

Iqbal told me that many Kashmiris regard local militants as the heroes of a necessary struggle. At Eid, when families typically exchange gifts, parents buy children toy guns and watch them play at killing army soldiers. As social media has proliferated, it has become popular to follow one’s favorite militant on Facebook and, upon his inevitable death at the hands of the security forces, to participate in his funeral procession.

Soon after passing the cemetery, Iqbal and I pulled up to an apple mandi, a market where three steel-gray trucks were spilling over with security forces, there to guard the thousands of boxes of apples that were being inspected, packaged, and sent off to wholesalers beyond Kashmir.

Inside a prefab office, apple growers were bad-temperedly crowding the government’s marketing officer, Anayatullah Khanji, who was huddled in a rickety chair wearing a sweater and gloves. There wasn’t any heat. Given the size of the apple industry, Khanji’s tools were surprisingly basic—he had some pens, notebooks, and a pocket calculator that I soon realized was the source of the conflict. Each of the growers wanted a turn with it to total the cost of the boxes he was selling. “Everything is normal,” Khanji told me pleasantly as the growers bickered over his head.

“There has been no loss, as such,” he went on. The phone rang, and he started shouting into the receiver. “Arre bhai, why are you saying I won’t send it, I’m working, aren’t I? Just wait. Sit tight. You wait! Be patient.” He turned wearily to a colleague who had control of the calculator. “Listen, how many boxes are there in the truck? Ask the driver.” I overheard a grower named Zaid, who was dressed in a camel-colored pheran, complaining that the government was so disorganized that he had been waiting twenty days to have his apples inspected. I could see his boxes sitting in the snow.

Zaid and I went outside to chat, but he was in low spirits. He wanted to be paid. We sipped tea and watched the bored-looking soldiers. Iqbal was chatting with some growers in the distance. “They’re doing it on purpose,” Zaid told me, with a nod toward Khanji. The government officers were Kashmiri, he said, but their loyalties didn’t lie with people like him. “Their greatest achievement will be to shut down our economy,” he said. “Kashmiris on their knees—that’s what India wants.” In the months to come, Zaid’s words would prove catastrophically true. According to the BBC, the Kashmiri apple market contributes $1.5 billion annually to India’s economy and employs 3.5 million people. Last year, more than half of the fruit wasn’t even picked; it was left to rot under the trees.

Similar losses played out in other industries. At the time of the siege, according to the economist Jean Drèze, Kashmir’s economy was more developed than that of most Indian states. India’s national poverty rate was 22 percent; in Kashmir it was less than half that. But it was impossible to run a twenty-first-century economy under twentieth-century conditions. Without the internet, Kashmir’s IT industry collapsed. The blockade led to a 95 percent drop in tourism, according to analysis by IndiaSpend, a data journalism website. Without tourists, the Valley’s hotels, restaurants, and handicraft stores foundered. Nearly 150,000 people lost their jobs. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated the losses at more than $1 billion in four months.

Zaid and I were joined by some other growers. They made polite conversation, but their faces were puffy with exhaustion. The harvest was their one shot to make enough money to last the next few months; to buy grain, oil, and firewood; to fix broken fences; to prepare the land for the new season; to pay school fees; and to save for sweetmeats and clothes at festival time. Now everything was in doubt, and they looked bereft.

Back in the car, Iqbal was pleased with himself. These growers were “opportunists,” he said. They were selling their fruit to the government. Iqbal was proud that his village had decided to put everyone’s apples in cold storage units until the blockade ended. It was their contribution to the strike. “My father will be very happy to hear that these men are still waiting to sell their fruit,” he said. He pointed out an orchard that militants had attempted to burn down. The trees that survived still had apples on their branches, but the fruit was charred.

A Kashmiri woman walks through the Anchar neighborhood of Srinagar. Image by Abid Bhat. Kashmir, 2019.
A Kashmiri woman walks through the Anchar neighborhood of Srinagar. Image by Abid Bhat. Kashmir, 2019.

Later that week, I visited a working-class neighborhood known as Anchar, near a lotus-filled river on the northern outskirts of Srinagar. I had heard it spoken of in admiring terms as the “Gaza of Kashmir”—the headquarters of the resistance. The men in the neighborhood worked as day laborers, carpenters, and masons. The women wove shawls and carpets and grew vegetables to sell. It was a quiet and orderly place, with narrow, sloping streets, a mosque, a playground, and a graveyard. But every Friday, it erupted in protest. Hundreds of boys and men poured out of the mosque shouting for freedom. The women were waiting for them, having gone out ahead to collect stones that the men would hurl at police officers. Then they stood ready with packets of salt, which can be used to counteract the effects of tear gas. After the siege began last summer, the men of Anchar dug trenches to keep the security forces from driving their armored vehicles into the neighborhood. At night, sharp-elbowed boys in skinny jeans stood guard around roaring bonfires.

When the police discovered that their vans were unable to enter the neighborhood, they sent in helicopters that whirred over the chimney tops, whipping up the leaves of the chinar trees. At least three drones hovered over the demonstrations and photographed the protesters. Then, one Friday, the police opened fire. People in Anchar had been shot at before, but this time the assault seemed like it would never end. They crawled on all fours to escape. They begged, “Allah! Allah! Allah!” but the police kept firing, injuring an unknown number. Many victims refused to go to the hospital for fear of being arrested.

According to its own figures, the government made 5,116 “preventive” arrests across the Valley in the months after the siege began. This was more than the area’s prisons could hold, so many people were flown to prisons in Uttar Pradesh. “They don’t release anybody,” said Mir Shafqat Hussain, a human rights lawyer in Srinagar who was handling several hundred cases by himself. Even in the rare instances when the Jammu and Kashmir High Court ordered a prisoner released, Hussain said, the person’s family had to cajole the police to follow the court order. Sometimes, they had to ply them with bribes—cash, saffron, and almonds. The official figures don’t account for the people who were picked up for protesting and taken to jail but not formally arrested, including a group of elderly women and a doctor who was riding his bicycle with a politely worded placard hanging from his neck: “This is not a protest. This is a request,” it read. “Please restore landline and internet connectivity to hospitals.”

When I was in Kashmir, a high-ranking police officer assured me that there had been no casualties during the siege, but soon afterward, the JKCCS published a report alleging that security forces had killed at least six civilians, although it didn’t specify the circumstances. At the very least, the checkpoints had indirectly led to several deaths by preventing people from getting to the hospital in time: I heard about a pregnant woman who lost her baby, and a twenty-two-year-old who died from a snakebite. One person, a sixty-nine-year-old activist, died in prison in Uttar Pradesh.

The detentions had a chilling effect. Almost everyone I met on my trip refused to speak on the record. “I’m a journalist and I can’t talk to you,” said a photographer in Srinagar. “The police will pick us up,” his friend told me. The editor of a prominent weekly newsmagazine smiled at me apologetically: “This is not the time to be quoted.” He leaned in and whispered, “Everyone knows you’re here.” On two occasions I noticed men dressed in civilian clothes monitoring my movements. They were waiting for me when I returned to my hotel late one night, and they showed up again as I was talking to the human rights lawyer outside the district court. As I watched from afar, they took pictures of the license plate of my hotel car and sped away on a motorcycle.

There was now a hush across the Valley. Even the people of Anchar had stopped protesting. When I arrived in the neighborhood, the only signs of conflict were a few scattered sheets of tin and some coils of razor wire lying in the road as though they had fallen from the back of a truck. There was no one around. I stood in the street with snow falling on my head. I thought I was being watched, but when I looked up, all the tiny windows of the tall brick houses were as tightly shut as sleeping eyes.

Suddenly, a man appeared in a doorway and beckoned at me to come in quickly. A kerosene lamp illuminated his heavily bearded face. He introduced himself as Ajaz Ahmed Kak, a car mechanic, and brought me into his living room, where his wife served tea and their children gathered on the carpet, pulling heavy woolen blankets up to their chins. Kak told me that most people in Anchar were refusing to speak to outsiders. They couldn’t be sure I was who I said I was.

The siege had taken a heavy toll on Kak and his family. He pointed to his chest, where he had been hit with at least twelve pellets while attending a protest. Since Modi took office, in 2014, the Indian government has stepped up its use of pellet guns—twelve-gauge pump-action shotguns that fire shells loaded with metal pellets. The UN high commissioner for human rights has called these shotguns “one of the most dangerous weapons used in Kashmir.” Although the government claims that the guns are used only to disperse crowds, protesters say that the police aim for the eyes. More than twelve hundred Kashmiris have been blinded by them since 2016. According to the JKCCS, in 2019, four people died because of pellet injuries.

I met five pellet-gun victims, including Kak. He told me that even after his injury, he continued to throw stones at the security forces. Then, one day last August, the police went to the playground and picked up his son, Mohammad Ali, along with two other children. “He’s eleven years old,” Kak said, gesturing to a little boy under the blanket. “And he spent a night in jail.”

Mohammad Ali chewed on his lip. “I was playing cricket,” he told me. He said the police threatened to keep him in jail until his father gave himself up. Kak had refused. “I straightaway said, ‘I won’t come in. Why should I?’ ” Instead, Mohammad Ali’s grandfather went to get the boy. Over the next few weeks, the police picked up eleven other minors in Anchar on charges of stone pelting. Across the Valley, they detained 144 children in two months.

These reported figures may not reflect the full picture. The human-rights lawyer in Srinagar told me that when the police arrest minors, they sometimes list them as twenty years old in official records. And although Mohammad Ali was released, police don’t always let children return to their parents. There were reports that teenagers were being sent to prisons outside the state. Eventually, the head of the local police in Anchar suggested an informal settlement: if the Friday protests stopped, he said, his officers would leave the neighborhood alone. The people of Anchar agreed.

“We know they’re toying with us,” Kak told me. Despite the agreement, he’d seen police squads patrolling at night. But the fight was more than the community could bear. “If other Kashmiris elsewhere had come out on the streets, the way we had, then something might have changed,” he said. “But we can’t sacrifice everything for them.”

Over the next few months, as the snow melted, the government slowly lifted some of the restrictions it had imposed on Kashmir. Landline service was restored, and cell service followed, but only for people with annual plans. Because most Kashmiris use cheaper pay-as-you-go plans, millions of people were left without working phones. Then, in January, nearly six months after the siege began, the government made a show of lifting internet restrictions. In fact, all it did was restore access to around three hundred websites, including Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, had visited India a few days earlier. Most Kashmiri news sites and all social-media platforms were still unavailable. Whereas India enjoys 4G wireless internet, the connection speed in Kashmir was restricted to 2G. When Kashmiris started to use VPNs to access restricted sites, the government threatened to investigate them. “We are not even being allowed to speak,” said Amir Kabir Beigh, a twenty-nine-year-old who was one of the first pellet-gun victims to be blinded in both eyes. “We are being treated like animals.”

Elsewhere, Modi continued his push for the Hinduization of India. In August, the same month as the shutdown in Kashmir, his government had completed a citizenship check in the northeastern state of Assam that could potentially render nearly two million people stateless. The purpose of the check was ostensibly to root out undocumented immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, but it was no coincidence that the majority who found themselves suddenly without a home were Muslims. The Economist called it “ethnic cleansing by bureaucracy.” The government then declared that Indians in every state would have to prove their citizenship. Those who couldn’t would be sent to detention camps like the one in Assam, which has already reported twenty-eight deaths.

In December, at Modi’s behest, the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which put persecuted minorities from neighboring countries on a fast track to citizenship. All the major religions practiced in South Asia were on the list except for Islam. It was a matter of connecting the dots. If, say, a Hindu was denaturalized by a citizenship check, he could apply for citizenship through the CAA. A Muslim could not. “Everything the RSS dreamt of is coming true,” said Akshaya Mukul, an expert on the organization. The CAA was viewed by many as the most serious threat to secularism and democracy in the history of India. Mass protests broke out across the country. One of the most popular call-and-response slogans—“What do we want? Freedom!”—originated in Kashmir.

When spring arrived in the Valley, the chinar trees filled with leaves again. In public gardens, tulips bloomed. On March 18, Kashmir, still reeling from the economic and psychological impact of the communications blockade, reported its first case of the novel coronavirus. The Valley faced a severe shortage of resources—doctors, hospital beds, and personal protective equipment—and local authorities placed additional restrictions on public gatherings. Despite the pandemic, the Indian government refused to increase the internet speed. At the Government Medical College in Srinagar, where many of Kashmir’s COVID-19 patients were being treated, one doctor shared his frustration on Twitter: “Trying to download the guidelines for intensive care management as proposed by doctors in England,” he wrote. “It is as many as 24 MBs. It has been one hour . . . still not able to do so.”

Delhi also declined to release the thousands of Kashmiris who were in detention. Rather than focusing on people’s health, Modi’s government used the shutdown to tighten the net, this time targeting journalists. Authorities opened another investigation into Ashiq, Yousuf’s husband, who had reported that the families of two slain militants had been prohibited from performing last rites. A second journalist and a photographer were charged under an antiterrorism law, which carries a punishment of up to seven years in prison. Meanwhile, the Indian Parliament passed new domicile rights for Indian citizens, making it possible for them to buy land and acquire permanent residency in Jammu and Kashmir.

Demographic change was now only a matter of time. The fear that Kashmiri Muslims had harbored all these years—of becoming a minority in a majority-Hindu region, of having their language and culture trampled by Hindu nationalists—seemed to be coming true. Even as Indian opposition politicians were refused entry into the Valley, the government welcomed its second delegation of far-right leaders, who stayed at a luxury hotel, cruised the lake in a shikara, and told reporters: “Everything is normal.”


war and conflict reporting


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