SUhail Ahmed Shah stood despondently in front of the wreckage that had been his livelihood for two decades. A few hours earlier, he had been busy in the workshop when he heard an ominous crunch above him and began to cave inside the tin roof. He barely managed to escape before the bulldozer flattened the entire place.
“We were not given any notice,” said 38-year-old Shah, “Suddenly the officer came and demolished our workshop. No one listens to us. We have been paying the rent. Isn’t this atrocity? They have taken away our livelihood.”
His workshop selling secondhand car parts in Srinagar, the summer capital of the troubled Indian state of Kashmir, was just one of dozens of structures across the region caught up in a massive demolition campaign in February. Much of this happened without notice, even to those who had occupied the land for decades. According to the government, its purpose was to recover illegally encroached state land. More than 50,000 acres of land were captured before the campaign was halted.
But in Kashmir, the drive has been denounced as having a more sinister purpose. Many have condemned it as a broader agenda by the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to uproot and displace Kashmiris from their land and change the demographics of India’s only Muslim-majority population. State.
Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, bulldozers have become a popular tool for BJP leaders to target the Muslim minority in pursuit of a religious nationalist agenda to establish India as a Hindu rather than a secular country. In states like Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, bulldozers have been used on the homes of Muslim activists accused of being involved in protests and being illegal immigrants.
Panic spread across Kashmir that the BJP’s so-called “bulldozer politics” was being deployed against Muslims there. Former Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti called the demolition drive “a ploy to push people to the economic margins by destroying their homes and livelihoods”.
Fayaz Ahmed, 52, whose 30-year-old scrapyard was demolished without notice or warning, agreed. “All this is done to oppress the Kashmiris,” he said.
Since independence in 1947, the Kashmir region has been a touchstone issue between India and Pakistan. They have repeatedly gone to war to control the disputed territory shared between the two countries. On the Indian side was the state of Jammu and Kashmir where, from the early 1990s, a violent separatist insurgency emerged loyal to and financially supported by Pakistan.
Successive governments struggled to bring the violence under control. But in August 2019, the Modi government, fulfilling a long-held promise to its right-wing base, took unilateral action against the state, stripping it of its long-held autonomy and splitting it into two central government-controlled territories. Thousands of troops were moved into the state, the state government was dissolved, local politicians were imprisoned and the world’s longest internet shutdown lasted 18 months.
Since then, the BJP has opened the state’s doors, allowing outsiders to buy property and register to vote for the first time in Kashmir. More than two million new voters have been registered, a source of great concern for many who believe the government is trying to shift the state’s demographics away from its current Muslim majority.
Allegations of gerrymandering have been raised after it became clear that the redrawing of the electoral map would divide the Muslim vote in Kashmir for BJP’s possible electoral advantage.
The BJP has said that its actions post 2019 will usher in an era of peace for Kashmir. “Investment is coming in and there is a rush of tourists,” Home Minister Amit Shah said in a speech. “Kashmir is gradually returning to normalcy to stand united with the country.”
But those in the state tell a very different story – one of systematic repression under increasingly authoritarian laws and where democratic liberties, including freedom of speech, political representation and the right to protest, have been crushed. Kashmir is now one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world, with more than half a million troops to watch over 7 million civilians, with army checkpoints every few miles of roads.
Residents of the state say that it is standard practice for the government, police and military, both from ordinary citizens and the media, and that anyone who criticizes activism or social media is immediately arrested by the police.
While people in Kashmir will privately protest against the Modi government and speak out for fear of the future, many are afraid to speak publicly. “There is fear. If someone speaks even on social media, the police will take action. No one wants to go to jail,” said the student, who asked not to be named. His friend was recently jailed under strict security laws for writing a Facebook post that angered the police.
Journalists are particularly targeted. New laws were passed to tightly control their reporting, and some journalists still producing critical coverage of the region have been subjected to harassment and interrogation, and have had their phones and laptops confiscated.
Journalists have been publicly beaten by the police and some have been put on the no-fly list without being allowed to leave the country. In local newspapers, editors and owners have deleted years of coverage critical of the government due to mounting pressure, and once independent newspapers have been reduced to pamphlets for government press releases. At least three Kashmiri journalists, Asif Sultan, Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul, have been jailed under terrorism laws.
“My brother is in a very difficult situation,” said Sajad Gul’s brother Javed Ahmed. “He is kept in a high security cell and treated like a dangerous criminal. He is not allowed to call home. They don’t even give him a pen and a diary.
Democracy remains incomplete. The state government was never restored after 2019 and regional elections have not been held for over five years, leaving Kashmiris with no political representation or outlet to express their discontent.
Political leaders who spent their careers promoting pro-India policies in Kashmir but accused the BJP government of authoritarianism are among those jailed since 2019. Omar Abdullah, the region’s former chief minister and India’s former junior foreign minister, said government-appointed administrators in Kashmir had “absolute power without any accountability”.
Former chief minister Mufti said she and her party members were “persecuted endlessly”. “I am often put under house arrest and not allowed to do political activities or reach out to people in crisis,” she said. “No political leader here, not even an activist or a journalist, enjoys freedom of speech to narrate the reality on the ground.”
The BJP has proudly announced that record numbers of tourists are now flocking to the state’s famous tulip gardens, lakes and snow-capped slopes, a testament to peace and prosperity. However, a boom in business investment in the state – one justification for the actions taken in 2019 – has yet to materialize, and private investment in Kashmir is still less than half of what it was in 2018. Meanwhile economic problems, including high unemployment, continue to plague the region.
The insurgents have changed tactics, with more targeted killings of non-locals and minority Kashmiri Hindus. This has sparked fear among Kashmiri Hindus, commonly known as Pandits, 65,000 of whom fled the valley in the 1990s when they were targeted during pro-Pakistan insurgencies. Another exodus of pundits has begun in recent months.
“We don’t feel safe in Kashmir,” said Rinku Bhat, among those who fled their homes after the killings. “Our people are being killed in broad daylight by gunmen inside their offices, homes. We have been demanding that we be sent to a safe place but the government has not given any help so far.”
Senior BJP leader and former deputy chief minister of the region Kavinder Gupta dismissed the allegations. Militancy has been brought under control, he said, assuring that the provincial elections would be held soon on the scheduled date.
“There is peace in Kashmir. It is clear from this that people are not protesting on the streets like in the past and throwing stones,” said Gupta. “People who promoted Pakistan’s agenda and hoisted the flag were given freedom by previous governments. The action taken in Kashmir was necessary, and the results are before us.