A just world won’t come about by magic
Ongoing developments in Kashmir, including a crackdown on Kashmiri journalists, rising policing powers, and enhanced curfew measures, suggest that the Indian government may be exploiting the pandemic to accelerate its settler-colonial ambitions in the disputed territory.
For the past six years, I have worked as a researcher along the Line of Control (LoC) -- the de-facto border that divides Kashmir into India and Pakistan. I am also on the board of directors for the advocacy organization, Canadians for Peace and Justice in Kashmir.
Thousands of Kashmiris live within a 10-kilometre radius of the LoC, which is so heavily militarized that it is visible from space. Kashmiris are vulnerable to both the contagion and the violence of the ongoing conflict.
War during a pandemic
In April, the Indian army set up artillery weapons deep in Kashmiri villages, as far as 60km from bunkered areas, to launch long-distance fire on Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
This encroachment created widespread panic and anxiety. Locals protested the shifting of heavy artillery guns into their communities, fearing retaliatory fire from the Pakistani army.
It is an intentional strategy to station soldiers and artillery among communities to make it difficult for the Pakistani army to retaliate. The blurring of civilian and military targets amounts to a war crime.
As Indian and Pakistani forces continue to exchange fire, widespread loss of civilian life and property is being reported on both sides of the LoC. During the exchange of cross-border fire, families are forced to take shelter in community bunkers. These small enclosed spaces make social distancing practices impossible to follow.
Furthermore, people trying to escape their villages during bombardment are prevented from leaving by the police as they enforce Covid-19 lockdown measures. The number of civilians killed on each side of the LoC is challenging to document, given a lack of government transparency.
The UN’s Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) is responsible for monitoring the ceasefire. India stands accused of blocking UNMOGIP’s access to the LoC. This year alone, India has committed 882 ceasefire violations.
Pandemics do not occur in a vacuum but exacerbate pre-existing inequalities.
Kashmir is ill-prepared to handle the pandemic. In Indian-occupied Kashmir, there is one soldier for every nine people but only one ventilator for every 71,000 people, and one doctor for every 3,900 people.
Health facilities along the LoC are severely deficient, reflecting India and Pakistan’s neglect of the sub-region. Given the current suspension of high-speed 4G internet, Kashmiris are prevented from accessing necessary public health information needed to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Internet and telecommunication services are restricted on both sides of the LoC.
Amid the pandemic, on March 31, India introduced a new domicile law. This is one of the many legislative changes set by India following the unilateral abrogation of Article 370 in August last year.
The domicile law paves the way for demographic flooding in Kashmir, which will allow non-Kashmiris to obtain property, compete for government jobs, and impact the outcomes of a referendum on Kashmir’s future should it be held.
Demographic flooding as a colonial strategy has been used by Israel along with the West Bank as well as China in the Xinjiang autonomous region.
A Kashmir yet to come
The pandemic has inspired thinking on the complete restructuring of our world. It has shed light on the centrality of care workers and those at the forefront of our food systems.
It is forcing us to imagine “a world we do not yet know and cannot describe” as scholar Vafa Ghazavi recently wrote.
A just world won’t emerge as if by magic. We will need to fight for it.
Omer Aijazi is Research fellow, Religion and Anthropology, University of Toronto. A version of this article is available in The Canadian Free Press