ashmir has been under a siege since August after the revocation of its special status. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which in-principle ensured the autonomy of the Jammu and Kashmir state government in all matters other than defence, foreign policy, and communications, has been diluted. In the aftermath of this dilution, little thought has been spent on how this shutdown affects women in Kashmir.
With the weakening of Article 370, by extension the application of Article 35A, which determined “permanent residents” of the state giving them certain privileges and rights, including restricting the right to purchase property to permanent residents, stands nullified. Among the explanations offered by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Indian establishment, has been that this move will give more rights to Kashmiri women, i.e. the conditions of Article 35A were such that it denied Kashmiri women who married men from outside the state and their children the right to property in Kashmir. This explanation, that the women and girls of Kashmir are “being saved” is in itself patriarchal and problematic. But, this explanation is even more difficult to digest given the Bharatiya Janata Party’s very troubling trajectory with human and minority rights in India.
The state of siege in Kashmir since August 5 further challenges the establishment’s claims of helping Kashmiri women. Since the scuffling of Article 370, a heightened military presence has been patrolling the state, movement and communication have been extremely curbed, and access to internet has been indefinitely suppressed, while few landlines remain functional. These restrictions have further affected the delivery of emergency services, mobile banking, e-commerce, transportation, schools, and health services.
Particularly, one primary concern has been the increased physical health vulnerabilities amidst compromised access and availability of healthcare. Ambulances have been difficult to contact due to phone lines not working. Those who have tried to reach hospitals are detained as a result of many barricades and hospitals have constrained medicinal supplies. The results of this undermined access have manifested in the form of miscarriages and stillborn babies, and in difficulties reaching hospitals to receive necessary treatment, including chemotherapy and dialysis.
In one case, a pregnant woman had to walk 6 kilometres to a public hospital, only to be taken to a private, and expensive, hospital when she was close to giving birth. Speaking with Democracy Now, one Kashmiri woman Ishrat described her life: “for 12 days, we have been locked inside our houses. We cannot go out of our homes. We cannot go and get medicine.”
The ramifications of this siege are not limited to physical health. One teenage girl left Srinagar to go to New Delhi since she could not cope with the anxiety at home. In the same conversation, Ishrat said this, “We have relatives outside… We have absolutely no information about their well-being.” More recent anecdotal reporting indicates that the number of patients seeking mental health assistance is on the rise.
Additionally, there is the anticipation of potential physical and sexual assaults and trauma following perpetrated incidents. During security raids of their homes, women have reported molestation or threats of molestation by armed forces, albeit the former remains unverified. This anxiety is not emerging in a vacuum though. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which empowers armed personnel to maintain order, has provided impunity to human rights violations, including sexual assault, committed by personnel in Kashmir since 1990.
What can be done to address this multitude of effects in the aftermath of a decision which has denied individuals any agency?
First and foremost, the Indian state must ensure the comprehensive provision of essential services, which includes health and emergency services. Access to public healthcare is contingent on access to communication and movement. The government must work to ease the effects of the shutdown on daily life.
Subsequently, the state must begin to deliberate on the provision of mental healthcare. Given the long history of conflict and resultant trauma and agony, it is imperative that healthcare be thought of in a more comprehensive manner.
Additionally, the Indian government should allow news coverage of events in Kashmir by independent media. The government has claimed that the situation in Kashmir is not as dire as it has been portrayed, a version of events that is contradicted by the international media and those who are at the receiving end of the shutdown.
Kashmiri poet Basharat Peer in Letter to an Unknown Indian in 2010, reflecting on a tendency of the Indian media to toe the line of the establishment on Kashmir, wrote that Indian journalists are in contempt of “not showing the video of the women in Anantnag (Kashmir) of washing the blood of the boys who were killed outside her house.” This aspect of “acceptable” collateral damage has been amplified in the recent context. Enabling independent media coverage will address the lack of accountability, in contrast to the present, where an extreme security presence combined with a malleable media ensures little or no checks on the abuse of force.
Finally, Indian authorities should direct their security forces to act on par with international principles of human rights. The culture of impunity, resultant of AFSPA, needs to be addressed through checks and balances, and serious deliberation must occur on its continuation.
While the finality of this decision remains contingent on the Indian Supreme Court’s review of the various petitions filed to oppose the dilution, the following steps must be taken immediately; the severe constraints on healthcare should be eased and the lack of accountability amidst an extreme security presence should be addressed by allowing independent media access. In the long-term, a policy discussion on the continuation of AFSPA must take place.