Three years after losing autonomy, hopelessness and fear grow in Kashmir

Special Three years after losing autonomy, hopelessness and fear grow in Kashmir
Indian paramilitary troops stand guard in Srinagar, Kashmir, Oct. 12, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 05 August 2022

Three years after losing autonomy, hopelessness and fear grow in Kashmir

Three years after losing autonomy, hopelessness and fear grow in Kashmir
  • Indian government revoked Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy on Aug. 5, 2019
  • Press freedom, basic rights have since been restricted in country’s sole Muslim-majority region

SRINAGAR: Terrified to step out from his home in Srinagar, Sanjay Tickoo says he has not felt for decades as unsafe as he is now, three years after the Indian government stripped the Kashmir region of its limited autonomy, promising security and reform.

A leader of the minority Hindu community known as Pandits, he remained in Kashmir Valley when most Hindus fled after an armed anti-India rebellion broke out in 1989 and gripped the region until the early 1990s.

Now, three decades later, he is feeling the same sense of fear and uncertainty, which for both Hindus and Muslims alike has become a reality after the Indian government revoked the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and split the state into two federally governed territories on Aug. 5, 2019.

“During the last 32 years it’s the first time I feel under threat,” Tickoo, who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, the largest Kashmiri Pandit group in the region, told Arab News.  

Located in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, the territory is part of the larger region of Kashmir, which has been the subject of dispute since 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Both countries claim Kashmir in full and rule in part.

Indian-controlled Kashmir has for decades witnessed outbreaks of separatist insurgency to resist control from the government in New Delhi.

When New Delhi abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, which granted Indian-administered Kashmir its autonomy, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said a “new era” of development was beginning in the region where the scrapped provisions “had only given terrorism, separatism, nepotism and massive corruption.”

The move was accompanied by a total communications blackout, severe restrictions on freedom of movement, and detention of hundreds of local political leaders.

Many of the detainees have been released since then but some still remain in prison. The Internet has been restored, but in turn authorities have intensified a crackdown on media and civil society groups, often resorting to counterterrorism laws.

In a report released earlier this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that at least 35 journalists in Kashmir have faced “police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault, restrictions on freedom of movement, or fabricated criminal cases for their reporting” since August 2019.  

Thousands of government troops have also been sent to the region, the world’s most militarized zone, where already over 500,000 soldiers were stationed before 2019. They have been implicated in numerous abuses, among which HRW has listed routine harassment, ill-treatment at checkpoints, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings.

“If everything is fine, why such an unprecedented presence of security forces in the valley,” Tickoo said.

His own community has been shaken by an unprecedented spate of targeted killings and for months has been on strike, demanding that the government relocate them.

At least 20 Kashmiri Pandits have been shot dead by gunmen in Kashmir Valley since August 2019, after a series of administrative measures allowing more outsiders to settle in the region raised fears of an attempt to engineer demographic change in the Muslim-majority area.

“A volcano is growing,” Tickoo said. “We don’t know when it will burst and what would be the impact in Kashmir and India.”

For HRW, both the targeted attacks by militants and raids by security forces in Kashmir are “grim reminders of the unending cycle of violence linked to repressive Indian government policies and the failure to bring abusive forces to account.”

Not only has security worsened in Kashmir since the suspension of its statehood — any political activity in the region has ceased to exist.

“People in Kashmir don’t have the same democratic rights as people in other parts of India,” Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a Srinagar-based civil rights activist, told Arab News.

The last state elections in Kashmir were held in 2015, when a regional pro-India party, the People’s Democratic Party and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party agreed to form the government.

But local assemblies have been empty since 2019 and no legislative elections have been announced so far.

“We want our own legislators,” said Bhat. “Why can’t we have our own democratically elected government? Today officers are ruling the region.”

Tension in the region is also growing along another line that never existed before.

When Hindu-dominated Jammu and Muslim-majority Kashmir formed one state, they could be shown as an “example of democracy and secularism in the country,” Subhash Gupta, political analyst and lawyer from Jammu, told Arab News.

But the situation has changed since their division into two union territories under direct administration from New Delhi.

“We are torn apart and the distance and difference between Jammu and Kashmir has widened, economically, socially and religiously,” Gupta said.

“People like me feel that the scrapping of the Article 370 was not called for, it was not needed. This article was a gateway between India and Jammu and Kashmir, and New Delhi demolished that gateway.”

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir
Updated 6 sec ago

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir
  • Soldiers responded to the attack, triggering a gunbattle that lasted for at least three hours
  • Rebels in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir have been fighting New Delhi’s rule since 1989
SRINAGAR, India: Three Indian soldiers and two suspected militants were killed Thursday after rebels stormed a military camp in disputed Kashmir, officials said.
At least two assailants armed with guns and grenades attacked the camp in the remote Darhal area of southern Rajouri district early Thursday, said Mukesh Singh, a senior police officer.
The soldiers responded to the attack, triggering a gunbattle that lasted for at least three hours, Singh said.
A reinforcement of soldiers and counterinsurgency police encircled the camp as the fighting raged inside, officials said.
In addition to the five deaths, two soldiers were injured in the fighting, Singh said.
There was no independent confirmation of the incident.
On Wednesday, police said government forces killed three rebels in Budgam district during a counterinsurgency operation.
India and Pakistan claim the divided territory of Kashmir in its entirety.
Rebels in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir have been fighting New Delhi’s rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal of uniting the territory, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
India insists the Kashmir militancy is Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Pakistan denies the charge, and most Kashmiris consider it a legitimate freedom struggle. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul
Updated 11 August 2022

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul
  • Kim Jong Un's powerful sister blamed leaflets from the South for causing the COVID outbreak in her isolated country
  • Seoul expresses regrets over the groundless claims and  threatening remarks by North Korea's leader

SEOUL, South Korea: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered preventive measures eased just three months after acknowledging an outbreak, claiming the country’s widely disputed success would be recognized as a global health miracle.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency also reported Thursday that Kim’s sister said her brother had suffered a fever and blamed the North Korean outbreak on leaflets flown from across the border from South Korea, while warning of deadly retaliation.
Some experts believe North Korea has manipulated the scale of the outbreak to help Kim maintain absolute control of the country amid mounting economic difficulties. They believe the victory statement signals Kim’s aim to move to other priorities but are concerned his sister’s remarks portend a provocation.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, issued a statement expressing strong regret over North Korea’s “extremely disrespectful and threatening comments” that were based on “ridiculous claims” about the source of its infections.
Since North Korea admitted to an omicron outbreak of the virus in May, it has reported about 4.8 million “fever cases” in its population of 26 million but only identified a fraction of them as COVID-19. It has claimed the outbreak has been slowing for weeks and just 74 people have died.
“Since we began operating the maximum emergency anti-epidemic campaign (in May), daily fever cases that reached hundreds of thousands during the early days of the outbreak were reduced to below 90,000 a month later and continuously decreased, and not a single case of fever suspected to be linked to the evil virus has been reported since July 29,” Kim said in his speech Wednesday, according to KCNA.
“For a country that has yet to administer a single vaccine shot, our success in overcoming the spread of the illness in such a short period of time and recovering safety in public health and making our nation a clean virus-free zone again is an amazing miracle that would be recorded in the world’s history of public health,” he said.
For Kim to declare victory against COVID-19 suggests that he wants to move on to other priorities, such as boosting a broken and heavily sanctioned economy further damaged by pandemic border closures or conducting a nuclear test, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
South Korean and US officials have said North Korea could be gearing up for its first nuclear test in five years amid its torrid run of weapons tests this year that included its first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017.
The provocative testing activity underscores Kim’s dual intent to advance his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled negotiations aimed at leveraging its nukes for badly needed sanctions relief and security concessions, experts say.
Kim Jun-rak, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday the South Korean military was maintaining firm readiness and prepared for “various possibilities” of North Korean provocations.
The bellicose rhetoric of Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, is concerning because it indicates she will try to blame any COVID-19 resurgence on the South and is also looking to justify North Korea’s next military provocation, Easley said.
North Korea first suggested in July that its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with objects carried by balloons flown from South Korea — a questionable and unscientific claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival responsible.
Activists for years have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of Kim, and North Korea has often expressed fury at the activists and at South Korea’s leadership for not stopping them.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Kim Yo Jong reiterated those claims, calling the country’s virus crisis a “hysteric farce” kicked off by South Korea to escalate confrontation. She claimed that her brother had suffered fever symptoms and praised his “energetic and meticulous guidance” for bringing an “epoch-making miracle” in the fight against COVID-19.
“(South Korean) puppets are still thrusting leaflets and dirty objects into our territory. We must counter it toughly,” she said. “We have already considered various counteraction plans, but our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory one.”
Kim Yo Jong’s reference to Kim Jong Un’s illness wasn’t further explained.
Outside experts suspect the virus spread after North Korea briefly reopened its northern border with China to freight traffic in January and surged further following a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang in April.
In May, Kim prohibited travel between cities and counties to slow the spread of the virus. But he also stressed that his economic goals should be met, which meant huge groups continued to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.
At the virus meeting, Kim called for the easing of preventive measures and for the nation to maintain vigilance and effective border controls, citing the global spread of new coronavirus variants and monkeypox.

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home
Updated 11 August 2022

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home
  • Supporters of President Donald Trump have been using violent rhetoric in the wake of his agency’s search of his Mar-a-Lago home
  • Trump is being investigated by the US Justice Department for potential mishandling of classified information

OMAHA, Nebraska: The director of the FBI had strong words Wednesday for supporters of former President Donald Trump who have been using violent rhetoric in the wake of his agency’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home.
Christopher Wray, who was appointed as the agency’s director in 2017 by Trump, called threats circulating online against federal agents and the Justice Department “deplorable and dangerous.”
“I’m always concerned about threats to law enforcement,” Wray said. “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with.”
Wray made the remarks following a news conference during a long-planned visit to the agency’s field office in Omaha, Nebraska, where he discussed the FBI’s focus on cybersecurity. He declined to answer questions about the hours-long search Monday by FBI agents of Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida resort.
It has been easy to find the threats and a call to arms in those corners of the Internet favored by right-wing extremists since Trump himself announced the search of his Florida home. Reactions included the ubiquitous “Lock and load” and calls for federal agents and even US Attorney General Merrick Garland to be assassinated.
On Gab — a social media site popular with white supremacists and antisemites — one poster going by the name of Stephen said he was awaiting “the call” to mount an armed revolution.
“All it takes is one call. And millions will arm up and take back this country. It will be over in less than 2 weeks,” the post said.
Another Gab poster implored others: “Lets get this started! This unelected, illegitimate regime crossed the line with their GESTAPO raid! It is long past time the lib socialist filth were cleansed from American society!“
The search of Trump’s residence Monday is part of an investigation into whether Trump took classified records from the White House to his Florida residence, according to people familiar with the matter. The Justice Department has been investigating the potential mishandling of classified information since the National Archives and Records Administration said it had received from Mar-a-Lago 15 boxes of White House records, including documents containing classified information, earlier this year.


Shock, shame among some Muslims as Afghan accused of New Mexico murders

Shock, shame among some Muslims as Afghan accused of New Mexico murders
Updated 11 August 2022

Shock, shame among some Muslims as Afghan accused of New Mexico murders

Shock, shame among some Muslims as Afghan accused of New Mexico murders
  • 51-year-old Muhammad Syed denied being involved with any of the four killings

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.: Muslims in New Mexico interviewed on Wednesday said they felt shock and shame at the arrest of a Muslim immigrant from Afghanistan in connection with the murders of four Muslim men.
Police on Tuesday said they detained 51-year-old Muhammad Syed. A motive for the killings remains unclear, but police said he may have acted on personal grudges, possibly with intra-Muslim sectarian overtones.
Syed denied being involved with any of the four killings when questioned by police, according to the New York Times.
“We’re in complete total disbelief. Speechless. You know, kind of embarrassed to say he was one of our own,” said Mula Akbar, an Afghan-American businessman who said he had helped Syed settle in the city.
“His hatred of Shiites might have had something to do with it,” Akbar said.
Syed was from the Sunni branch of Islam and prayed together at Albuquerque’s Islamic Center of New Mexico mosque with most of the victims, three of whom were from the Shiite branch of Islam. All four victims were of Afghan or Pakistani descent. One was killed in November, the other three in the last two weeks.
Syed, who made his first appearance in court Wednesday, was formally charged with killing Aftab Hussein, 41, on July 26 and Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, 27, on Aug. 1.
Police said on Tuesday they were working with prosecutors on potential charges for the murders of Naeem Hussain, 25, a truck driver killed on Friday, and Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, shot dead on Nov. 7, 2021, outside the grocery store he ran with his brother in southeast Albuquerque.
It was not immediately clear if Syed had retained a lawyer. His family did not immediately respond to a request for comment but local television station KRQE News 13 quoted them as saying they believed he was innocent.
Palestinian-American Samia Assed said the Muslim community of around 4,000 in the city of over half a million people had work to do to prevent violence they left behind in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“This took me back to 9/11 when I just wanted to hide under a rock,” said the human rights activist after she hosted an interfaith memorial at the Islamic Center of New Mexico (ICNM) in Albuquerque, Albuquerque’s oldest and largest mosque.
“For this to happen it’s like setting us back 100 years,” she said.
The mosque is nonsectarian, serves mainly Sunnis from over 30 countries and has never before experienced violence of this kind, according to congregants interviewed by Reuters.
Police on Tuesday declined to comment on rumors Syed was angry one of his daughters had eloped and married a Shiite man.
Syed is a truck driver, has six children, is from Pashtun ethnicity and arrived in the United States as a refugee about six years ago from Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province, said Akbar, a former US diplomat who worked on Afghan issues and helped found the Afghan Society of New Mexico.
Syed developed a record of criminal misdemeanors over the last three or four years, including a case of domestic violence, police said.
Video from February 2020 showed him slashing the tires of a vehicle at the ICNM believed to be owned by the family of the first known victim, Ahmadi, according to the mosque’s president, attorney Ahmad Assed.
“We’re in a surreal time trying to make sense of these senseless killings we’ve suffered,” he said.

9 Russian planes destroyed in ‘first Ukraine attack’ on Crimea

9 Russian planes destroyed in ‘first Ukraine attack’ on Crimea
Updated 11 August 2022

9 Russian planes destroyed in ‘first Ukraine attack’ on Crimea

9 Russian planes destroyed in ‘first Ukraine attack’ on Crimea
  • Strike on occupied territory is major escalation
  • Kyiv officially silent but military say ‘it was us’

KYIV: Ukraine’s air force said on Wednesday that nine Russian warplanes were destroyed in a deadly string of explosions at an air base in Crimea, amid speculation of a Ukrainian attack that would be a significant escalation in the war.

Russia denied any aircraft were damaged in Tuesday’s blasts, or that an attack even took place. But Ukrainian officials mocked Russia’s explanation that a careless smoker might have caused ammunition at the Saki air base to catch fire and blow up. Analysts also said that explanation made no sense and that the Ukrainians could have used anti-ship missiles to strike the base.

“Officially Kyiv has kept mum about it, but unofficially the military acknowledges that it was a Ukrainian strike,” military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.

If Ukrainian forces were responsible for the blasts, it would be the first known major attack on a Russian military site on the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized from Ukraine by the Kremlin in 2014.

Crimea holds huge strategic and symbolic significance for both sides. The Kremlin’s demand that Ukraine recognize the peninsula as part of Russia has been one of its key conditions for ending the fighting, while Ukraine has vowed to drive the Russians out of all occupied territories.
After the blasts, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — its liberation.”

The explosions, which killed one person and injured 14, sent tourists fleeing in panic as plumes of smoke rose over the coastline near by. Video showed shattered windows and holes in the brickwork of some buildings.
One visitor, Natalia Lipovaya, said: “The earth was gone from under my feet … I was so scared.” Sergey Milochinsky, a local resident, recalled hearing a roar and seeing a mushroom cloud from his window. "Everything began to fall around, collapse,” he said.
The base on the Black Sea peninsula is at least 200 kilometers from the closest Ukrainian position and beyond the range of missiles supplied by the West for use in HIMARS launchers.
Ukraine has repeatedly asked for longer-range missiles for HIMARS that can strike targets up to 300 kilometers away. The explosions raised speculation that it had finally obtained them.
Zhdanov said Ukrainian forces could also have struck the air base with Neptune or Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said simultaneous blasts in two places at the base probably ruled out an accidental fire, but not sabotage or a missile attack. “The Kremlin has little incentive to accuse Ukraine of conducting strikes that caused the damage since such strikes would demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems,” it said.