HR violations in IOK

By: Syed Tahir Rashdi

The United Nations has called for an immediate global ceasefire to “put armed conflict in lockdown” and focus on protecting the most vulnerable from the spread of COVID-19. Yet tragically, there are cases around the world where violations have occurred.

Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has been under a “10-month digital and physical lockdown” since last Aug. 5 when India imposed a military lockdown to scrap the region’s limited autonomy.

Tens of thousands have been placed under quarantine. J&K reported its first case in mid March when a woman from downtown Srinagar who had just returned from Umrah (a shorter pilgrimage to Mecca) was found to be COVID-19 positive. Although she has since recovered, the number of cases accelerated after a religious leader from the city’s uptown area was diagnosed with the virus. He, along with an unspecified number of clerics, had returned from attending a Tablighi Jamaat gathering in New Delhi and visited some mosques in Kashmir. He later died and four of his contacts were also found to be infected.

After enforcing a total communications blackout across the Valley following the withdrawal of Article 370 last August, the government has yet to restore high-speed mobile internet for the general population. It took the government six months after the August move to open up 2G internet and seven months to restore fixed-line internet, but it has yet to restart 4G services. Similarly, access to social media has also only recently been restored. Citing the potential “misuse” of high-speed internet, the government has justified the ban on 4G on security grounds, saying it is “in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state and for maintaining public order.”

However, the continued internet restrictions have denied the population of Kashmir easy access to necessary information on how to combat the spread of COVID-19. With only 2G speeds, it remains a time-consuming process for doctors to download important guidelines, such as from the World Health Organization, on preventing the spread of the virus, while conducting appointments over video is all but impossible. Further, for the section of society that cannot read or write, videos are essential for information sharing, but these cannot be streamed with restrictions on internet speeds. There are implications beyond healthcare as well, with the continued internet restrictions impacting students who need to attend classes online or those who need to work from home.

But even as the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus continues to rise in J&K, the residual restrictions from the post-Article 370 shutdown continue to be in place, negatively impacting the pandemic response as well as intensifying the existing conflict.

Ongoing developments in Kashmir include a crackdown on Kashmiri journalists, rising policing powers and enhanced curfew measures. These actions suggest that the Indian government may be exploiting the pandemic to accelerate its settler-colonial ambitions in the disputed territory.