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Caught Between Virus and Violence in Indian Kashmir

An Indian Army convoy moves along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer in Kashmir's Ganderbal district, June 18, 2020.
An Indian Army convoy moves along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer in Kashmir's Ganderbal district, June 18, 2020.

As 12-year-old Basim lay on a hospital bed, his father Aijaz Ahmad asked him to recite some verses from the Quran.

“Papa, am I going to die?” Basim inquired innocently.

The only child of his parents had suffered ninety-percent burn injuries in an explosion. Doctors had told Ahmed his son would not survive.

Basim was one of hundreds of people who had visited Nawakadal, a densely populated area of Srinagar in Indian administered Kashmir to see the destruction suffered by locals in a thirteen-hour-long gunfight in which two militants were killed, eleven houses were damaged, and four completely destroyed.

Eyewitnesses said they heard an explosion, most likely from a left-over explosive, before a house collapsed on five people. Four out of the five, including Basim, died.

Ever since the Indian government enforced a lockdown in Kashmir following the outbreak of COVID-19, violence has surged in the area.

Figures provided by Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, an umbrella organization of human rights groups, reveal more than 200 people have been killed this year due to the conflict, compared to only 95 people killed in the last half of 2019.

Rights activists blame the increase on the Indian government ratcheting up its security operations against militants during the coronavirus pandemic.

The region has faced a secessionist movement for decades that often turns violent.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, residents of Indian controlled Kashmir said Indian forces used to face strong resistance to their anti-militancy operations, mostly from disgruntled youth who would rush out of their houses and pelt them with stones, allowing the militants to flee.

The fear of the pandemic is keeping people home. In addition, the world is pre-occupied with the coronavirus and international media’s attention is diverted. Due to fears of COVID-19, many foreign journalists are either not traveling or traveling less than before.

Neither an army spokesperson for the region nor the Kashmir police chief responded to repeated requests for comment.

However, in a joint presser, they said they will declare south Kashmir a militant free zone by the end of June before turning their focus on curbing militancy in north Kashmir.

Speaking to VOA on a condition of anonymity, a top medical expert of the valley, who is at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, said conducting operations during the pandemic can cause a medical catastrophe as large numbers of people assemble at the encounter sites.

"People assembling at the encounter sites after the operations could be one of the reasons that we saw a rise COVID-19 patient in south Kashmir."

Many army and paramilitary personnel, including the local police in Kashmir, have tested positive for COVID-19, giving rise to concerns they could spread the disease.

“Imagine if a trooper is positive for COVID-19 and he conducts a door-to-door search. What will happen?” the doctor questioned, adding that he can infect a large number of the population.

Pervez Imroz, the chairman of JKCCS and himself a Rafto award-winning human rights lawyer, believed India was using this as an opportunity to take unpopular actions or pass unpopular legislation without resistance.

“The major concern for India is there should not be any public uprising and that is why they are hastily passing laws which are perceived to be changing the demography of Kashmir,” Imroz said.

One such law, unpopular among the majority Muslim population of Kashmir, is the domicile law passed in May. The new law allows Indian citizens living in the region for 15 years to apply for residency benefits including purchasing land.

Previously those benefits were limited to people who were born in the erstwhile state. In the past one month after the passage of the law, 25,000 people have been granted domicile certificates.

Leaders of India’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party justify the step by saying it will benefit long term residents and will not change the demography.

“Let people who live here for 15 years get the benefits, no other outsiders will get it," said Ashok Kaul, the general secretary for the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir.

An Indian soldier drinks water as they return from the site of a gun-battle in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, June 21, 2020.
An Indian soldier drinks water as they return from the site of a gun-battle in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, June 21, 2020.

While the inland population is suffering due to the operations against militancy, the population living near the Line of Control, the de-facto border between India and Pakistan in the disputed region, are suffering, and often dying, due to cross LoC shelling.

The neighboring nations have been at odds over Kashmir since 1947, when they declared independence from the British. Both countries claimed the scenic Himalayan region as their territory and have fought several wars over it. Today, each controls part of it.

Last August, tensions flared when India revoked partial autonomy granted to the area under its control and put it under direct New Delhi rule.

Jawahira, a resident of Kupwara district on the Indian side, remembered the day when a shell fired by Pakistani troops landed inside her village, Chokibal, killing three people, including an eight-year-old boy.

“The area looked like a war zone. We saw our houses turning to rubble, people getting killed and artillery all around,” she said, adding, “The villagers did not know where to take shelter.”

When the shelling intensified, Jawahira and people in her village looked for shelter in neighboring villages but people refused to help them due to fear of coronavirus.

“Everyone said, we don’t know whether or not you are free from COVID-19,” Jawahira said. She said her family was forced to move tens of kilometers away from their village to the homes of their relatives.

Both India and Pakistan accuse each other of starting the cross-LoC shelling and killing their civilians. Last week, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson said Indian shelling had killed a 13-year-old and wounded two others.