By Umar Lateef Misgar
Why you should care
Banning civilian traffic on the only highway connecting Kashmir to the world could rupture India’s connection with the conflict-torn region.
No one asked them, but it was in the name of Kashmir’s people that the Indian government recently introduced a partial ban on civilian traffic along the only highway connecting the Indian-controlled part of the disputed region to the rest of the world. An ironic government order said that “to mitigate the inconvenience to the civilians” it was dedicating two days a week — Sundays and Wednesdays — solely for movement of security forces and banning all civilian traffic on the highway.
The other, equally amusing rationale? Democracy, no less. The regional government attributed the need for additional security to the ongoing general elections. The vote will also be conducted in the volatile Kashmir region, where 70,000 people have been killed over the past three decades, most of them after the Indian forces heavily cracked down on secessionist armed rebels backed by neighboring Pakistan.
The highway ban follows the worst-ever bombing targeting Indian forces in Kashmir. Earlier this year, on a stretch of the same highway, 40 security personnel were killed when a local Kashmiri resident drove a minivan packed with explosives into an Indian paramilitary convoy. But the blanket nature of the ban has drawn widespread criticism from all quarters of Kashmiri society, including traders, students and both unionist and separatist leaders. It’s also undermining a central pillar of India’s own argument over Kashmir.
New Delhi has always bristled at comparisons between Kashmir and Palestinian territories. While parts of the latter are recognized by the U.N. and most in the international community as being under Israeli occupation, the Kashmir narrative has been more complex. The former princely state legally acceded to India in 1947, though New Delhi then reneged on a promised referendum for Kashmiris to decide whether they wanted to stay with India. While Indian forces have been repeatedly accused of carrying out systematic human rights abuses in the region, including torture and sexual violence, armed rebels also face accusations of kidnapping, torturing and killing civilians.
But the highway ban is making comparisons with Israel’s settler highway system in the occupied West Bank hard to ignore. Unlike in the Palestinian territories, the Kashmir highway ban does not deprive local communities access to their farmlands. But it does represent collective segregation on free movement, especially since the Indian security installations, into and from which the convoys on the highway move, occupy around 112 square miles of land in the region.
India might be tearing down the very bridge it wants to showcase to Kashmir.
The ban is already having a debilitating effect on the daily lives of residents. Trader unions say that the daily losses incurred by the region’s businesses will amount to almost half a million dollars, a crippling prospect for an already fledgling economy. Orchardists, who form a central part of Kashmir’s economy, are complaining that their fruits are prone to rot if not exported freely. Ambulances en route to hospitals in the regional capital have been halted multiples times, hastening the death of one terminally ill patient. In addition to the two-day ban, the civilian traffic — private vehicles, school buses, bicycles and even pedestrians — on this highway is also frequently halted during additional convoy movements on other days, which I’ve personally witnessed.
To be sure, encroachment on public spaces is nothing new for Kashmir. Around 700,000 Indian troops remain deployed across the world’s most militarized region. The military occupies schools and colleges, public parks and cinemas, roads and intersections, orchards and paddy fields, public squares and playgrounds, hotels and even places of worship.
Moreover, draconian legislation like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives the armed forces personnel in Kashmir unquestioned authority to search or occupy any premises without oversight, make even private spaces like kitchens, bedrooms and closets susceptible to pervasive militarization. So-called “cordon and search operations” under this law are common and have led to accusations of gendered and sexual violence when armed male personnel sift through intimate belongings of the women of a household.
But traditionally, India has tried to project — at least externally — a sense that it’s working toward establishing normalcy in Kashmir, encouraging trade and facilitating the movement of Kashmiris to other parts of the country. Recent attacks on Kashmiri students in other parts of the country, coupled with the highway ban, threaten to rupture that narrative. With the highway ban, India might be tearing down the very bridge it wants to showcase to Kashmir.
This also comes at a time when more and more Kashmiris are moving away from protests that could place them in harm’s way to instead adopt less obvious forms of popular resistance against Indian rule. This involves diverse strategies of collective disappearance from day-to-day activities, rather than demonstrating in public protests. This means global onlookers trying to gauge public reaction to the highway ban need to look more closely. Explicit demonstration of political resistance, or any politics, is still a privilege that few in the world can afford. Presuming a lack of public discord is a sign of acceptance would be as much of a fallacy as the Indian government’s suggestion that the highway ban is aimed at helping Kashmiris.