India needs to step back in Kashmir: HRW

It is now ten days since the Indian parliament voted to revoke the special autonomous status provided provided to Jammu and Kashmir under India’s constitution, and to split the province into two separate federally governed territories. Human Rights Watch (HRW) deplored that Kashmiris remain mostly under lockdown, their leaders under arrest. Phones, even land lines, are still severed. The internet is shut down. Their main mosques remained closed to Muslim Kashmiris during Eid today.

HRW South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly expressed concern over reports of worried families unable to contact loved ones, and a lack of proper access to medical services. Some journalists have described mass protests  which security forces quashed with tear gas and shotgun pellets, something the government denies. There are unconfirmed reports of numerous ongoing arrests, including of activists.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi  addressed the nation last week, she reminded that  he conceded that Kashmiris are suffering due to restrictions on communications and movement, accepted that there are many who disagree with the constitutional changes his government enacted, but told critics it was nevertheless in the country’s best interests.

Since 1947, India and Pakistan have disputed ownership of the former Muslim-majority kingdom. A Pakistan-backed separatist movement in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state has already claimed over 50,000 lives since it erupted in the late 1980s. The security forces response has including killings, torture and disappearances. More human rights violations are certainly  not what the region needs, she added.

Instead of continuing repressive restrictions, Meenakshi Ganguly seeks that Indian authorities should ensure justice and accountability for human rights abuses, repeal abusive laws like the Public Safety Act or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which gives government forces immunity from prosecution, end aggressive treatment of Kashmiris at checkpoints and during search operations, and work towards the safe return of all the displaced, including Hindus displaced from the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley in 1990.

More immediately, she said that the authorities should release political detainees, lift the communications blackout, allow proper access to media and independent observers, and order security officials to respect human rights.

While international law does allow governments to temporarily suspend some rights in exceptional circumstances, she cautioned that this cannot be allowed to become the new ‘normal.’ Unless it wants to inflame tensions in Kashmir for another generation, the Indian government needs to step back, and fast.

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