On Monday, the Central government and several journalists took to the skies over Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, to prove that the city was calm. Never mind that it was the day of Bakrid, when normalcy would have meant a bustling city with lots of traffic and movement. Despite the empty streets and shuttered establishments, officials claimed – as did several new organisations – that the situation was normal.
Here is what is not normal: having the internet and phone communication shut down. Preventing people from gathering in numbers. Imposing a de-facto curfew. Banning most sources of information. Making it difficult for residents to travel, even to hospitals or the airport.
Even if you accept the claim that the visuals show a calm city, this peace and quiet has only been achieved by severely curtailing the civil liberties of residents. In other words, there should be nothing normal about this situation at all.
Families have not been able to wish each other for Eid. Children have not heard from their parents for weeks. Every trip outside the home is difficult. Some have had to fly to Delhi or elsewhere, just to buy essentials like medicine.
This pretend normalcy has come at a severe cost, with fundamental rights and the lives of ordinary people being trampled upon.
The government has sought to deny the claim that people are unhappy with its decision last week to revoke the special status enjoyed by Jammu and Kashmir and to split the state into two Union Territories. The authorities insist that the reports by foreign news organisations about protests are exaggerated are false. Propaganda videos showed National Security Advisor Ajit Doval ambling around on the streets, chatting with residents.
An obvious question emerges: if the situation is so normal, why is the government not allowing Kashmiris to talk to each other, to travel to the hospital and school and work, to access the internet?
But even this question is slightly fraught. It presumes that if the situation was volatile, the communications shutdown would be justified. India is among the very few countries that have gone so far as to cut off landlines, a club that includes China, Myanmar, Syria and Israel. In other places, even in the midst of all-out war, governments rarely snap the landlines, knowing that such communication is crucial for basic requirements, particularly health emergencies.
India has become too comfortable with the idea of shutting down the internet, itself a severe attack on individual rights. Cutting off all communications represents a new level of repression, and obvious sign that the government is afraid that trouble will follow because Kashmiris do not agree with its decision.
There is no doubt that, in an area affected by militancy, security is a consideration. But it is one of many factors that need to be balanced. In any democracy, the suspension of civil liberties – if it must happen at all – ought to be a carefully deliberated effort, with legislative and judicial oversight and for extremely limited periods. Yet most Indians do not seem to be bothered that fellow citizens are living in a state where the government has sent them back to the Stone Age, as one resident put it. Allowing this to happen also allows the government to repress any democratic pushback against its policies, a slippery slope.
The complexity of the Kashmir issue means almost all of India, including in many cases the Opposition and civil society, is simply falling in line with the Centre. But it is important – and actually patriotic – to ask tough questions of the government: is there a good explanation for why land lines are down? Did the government consider the human impact of its repressive actions? Has it attempted to mitigate them? Will statutory and Parliamentary bodies demand oversight of this trampling of civil rights? How long will Kashmir be cut off from the rest of India and the world?