MITRIGAM, India – For more than two decades, Peerzada Lateef Shah risked his life in a high-wire political process to bring peace to Kashmir, the mountainous, predominantly Muslim region that has long chafed under India’s rule.
He organized rallies and encouraged Kashmiris to vote for a political party that did not want to fight India and would instead accept some degree of Indian authority. He even took five bullets for the cause, narrowly surviving an assassination attempt last year by Kashmiri separatists who saw him as a traitor.
Now, a little more than a year after India revoked Kashmir’s statehood and upended years of policies that granted Kashmiris some autonomy, Shah is among a growing group of political moderates who feel betrayed, disillusioned and disenfranchised. For years, he and others sought a middle path that would bring stability to one of Asia’s most volatile regions. Today, Shah wonders whether his life’s work was a waste.
“We used to tell the world that Kashmir belongs to India,” Shah said, “And then we were crushed under its jackboots.”
India fully brought Kashmir, which also borders Pakistan, under its authority a year ago when it stripped away the region’s special semi-autonomous status. Prime Minister Narendra Modi justified the move by saying that Kashmir’s status had impeded development and boosted separatism.
Instead, Modi’s move seems to have further undermined the class of democratic political moderates long sympathetic to the Indian state who were already targets of Kashmiri militants. Without them, experts say, the Indian government will find it harder to bring peace and stability to the region.
Of the dozens of moderate political leaders and thousands of other Kashmiris arrested last August, more than 400 still remain in jail. To get released, some had to post bond and sign agreements stipulating that they would not “make any comment, issue statements or make public speech,” according to documents they showed The New York Times.
Men and women who worked with the government say Kashmir is now run like an occupied territory by police officers and government functionaries, the majority of whom are not Kashmiri. In an April meeting held to discuss developmental projects, out of 19 officials, only one was a Kashmiri Muslim.
“By brutally dispensing established intermediaries,” said Sumantra Bose, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, “the government has severely weakened the already shaky Indian hand in Kashmir.”
The region has been left dispirited by the Indian government’s tightened grip. Outside investment has slowed to a standstill, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, a local business group. Many shops remain closed, and the streets are full of soldiers.
Military bunkers removed years ago are back. On a new highway meant to better connect the region with the rest of the country, the passage of military convoys takes precedence, even over medical emergencies. Kashmiris are stopped, and the halts can last for hours.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes the restive Kashmir Valley, was India’s only Muslim-majority state. For decades, it was seen as an important symbol of India’s commitment to secularism. But as Hindu nationalism continues its march across India, many such symbols are increasingly under attack.
Many in Kashmir’s political class were realists. They may not have loved being under Indian control. But they accepted that they would never succeed in driving out the Indian Army, which keeps hundreds of thousands of troops in Kashmir, or break away and form their own country as some Kashmiris, especially the militants, had dreamed.
The moderates felt the best path was to make peace with the Indian government and serve as a bridge between India and Pakistan, which also claims Kashmir.
Other Kashmiris, especially the militants, saw these moderate politicians and political party workers as threats. Rights activists say that, since the early 1990s, more than 7,000 political moderates have been killed.
Now many of the moderates say their cause is no longer worth the effort. In interviews with The Times, more than two dozen Kashmiri politicians, including six former Cabinet ministers, said the move by Modi’s government has alienated the local population by making them feel they are bystanders with no hand in Kashmir’s destiny. One of them, Farooq Abdullah, a former chief minister who was under house arrest for months, said that he might as well have been a terrorist for the lack of respect he has received.
Should the authorities permit an election in the future, said Yasir Reshi, a former member of the Kashmiri legislature, the moderates may not take part.
“Why should you participate in elections when you know even after winning you could still be thrown in jail?” said Reshi, who had been jailed by Indian authorities. “We were just puppets. Onstage, we read only what New Delhi allows us to read.”
In their homes, Reshi said, family members taunt them for being jailed by the authorities from the same country they once supported. Outside, he said, ordinary Kashmiris remind them that India was never trustworthy.
Militant attacks continue. About half a dozen moderates and other local leaders have been killed in recent months, according to the police. Dozens have fled to mountain retreats. Many have resigned from their political parties.
The coronavirus seems to have helped the government in its fight against the militants. Before, when forces would close in on the fighters, civilians poured onto streets, blocking entire neighborhoods and inserting themselves between the Indian soldiers and the militants. Now, the lockdown has confined people to their homes, leaving the militants with no friendly support able to rally for their defense.
Since the region’s autonomy was rescinded last year, Indian forces have killed more than 155 militants in 71 gunfights, according to the police.
The authorities have begun to focus on Kashmiris who protest on social media. Some social media users have said they had been detained for expressing their opinions. At least six Kashmiri reporters have been called in for questioning, while two were briefly detained under anti-terrorism laws.
One recent afternoon, Naeem Akhtar, 68, a former education minister who had been imprisoned for nearly a year, described how local police officers who once saluted him searched his jail cell just to humiliate him.
Akhtar, who was released in June, said he reached a low point when his son and granddaughter brought him warm clothes while in custody. His granddaughter kept asking why he was in jail. He could not answer.
“Those innocent questions,” Akhtar said, “are part of my being now.”
Akhtar’s eyes welled with tears. He said that by robbing Kashmir of its special identity, India did not just disenfranchise Kashmiris, but also dishonored those who stood for it.
“We are living under the smoke screen of a democratic system.” he said. “I don’t want to be part of it now. That would be treachery.”
The region’s political system, which functioned even during the difficult years of insurgency, has been upended. In recent months members of the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, the Hindu nationalist party governing India, have been methodically hunted by militants.
Sajad Ahmad Khanday, a member of the BJP, was leaving his house after having tea in August when two boys on a motorcycle stopped him and fired five rounds into his abdomen. He died minutes later.
Shaheen Sajad, Khanday’s wife, said that her husband took precautions but that Kashmiris associated with BJP have become pariahs.
Peerzada Lateef Shah, the onetime moderate leader, saw his life and his political views change in almost an instant. In June 2019, he was returning from his apple orchard in southern Kashmir’s Pulwama district when a young man appeared in front of his house. The young man pulled out a pistol and fired five bullets at him. Shah, 49, collapsed but managed to whistle to his brother working in a nearby orchard. He was rushed to the hospital.
After eight days in intensive care, he awoke to discover that the Indian government had seized control of Kashmir. Mehbooba Mufti, Shah’s party president and the most recent chief minister of the region, and thousands of others, had been thrown in jail.
“That day Kashmir was turned into a colony,” he said.
If New Delhi finds new leaders to fill the political vacuum, Shah said, they would be considered bigger stooges than the previous generation of politicians who could still pull people to polling booths on voting day.
Shah has returned to his orchard, though he has not been able to sell many apples following the twin hits of the security crackdown and the coronavirus pandemic. But he will not return to his previous political life.
“We painted a horse into a zebra. But when it entered the water, the color came off,” Shah said. “I am tired of painting that horse again and again. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
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