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Muslims in Kent speak up for rights of people living in Jammu and Kashmir, a year on from India’s revocation of Article 370
| Updated: 12:28, 05 August 2020
A Medway man found himself fearing for his children’s lives as he hatched a daring escape from military lockdown almost 4,000 miles away.
Dr Tahir Bhat, from Hempstead, was visiting his parents with his children in Jammu and Kashmir last August, but found himself scrambling to protect them as the region was placed into a mass communications blackout and military lockdown.
Jammu and Kashmir is a region nestled between India and Pakistan, and has been tirelessly fought over by both countries for years.
The state of Kashmir has been split into two parts since 1947 – Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) which is administered by Pakistan, and Jammu and Kashmir, which is administered by India.
On August 5, 2019, India revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, which granted it certain freedoms as its own autonomous territory.
When the special status was revoked, the Indian armed forces entered the border by their thousands, placed Jammu and Kashmir in lockdown and installed a curfew.
Dr Bhat describes his escape from military-controlled Jammu and Kashmir
As reported by human rights charity Amnesty International, the lockdown initiated the sudden arrest and detention of Kashmiri journalists, political leaders and some doctors.
Dr Bhat was sat at his parent’s house when at midnight everything changed.
He said: “The TV went off, radio went off, phones were dead, internet was gone – suddenly we were in the dark ages.
“In the morning I went out of the house and I was stopped, there was army everywhere and they told me there was a curfew now, which meant we couldn’t leave the house.”
“The TV went off, radio went off, phones were dead, internet was gone – suddenly we were in the dark ages…”
Dr Bhat grew up in Kashmir and had experienced similar situations of conflict before, but for his children who have grown up in Kent it was a scary new reality.
He said: “I could see the fear in the eyes of my kids, they had no idea what was happening.”
With no cars allowed to drive on the roads except emergency transport, the urologist sought the help of his brother, a doctor in the district, to drive them to a hospital where they could try and flee to the airport.
He said: “We were going through a sea of army, we could have been stopped anywhere – anything could have happened to us.”
The family stowed away in an ambulance and travelled to the airport, where Dr Bhat had to convince friends to help him buy tickets to get to Delhi – the internet blackout meant credit and debit cards were not working.
Once they safely reached Delhi and got a flight back to the UK, he continued to fear for the safety of his parents.
He added: “There was no internet, no phone, so no communication with them for 70 days, and for a very long time I had no idea whether they knew we had made it to the airport.”
The internet shutdown in the region lasted 213 days, the longest ever put in place by a government, and even then only 2G services were restored for selected areas.
Muslims in Medway speak up
Today marks a year since Kashmir’s special status was revoked by India, a move which contradicted Article 370, the legislation which granted Jammu and Kashmir freedoms as its own state.
The communications blackout has now been lifted, but many are still concerned for the welfare of friends and family living in Jammu and Kashmir under India’s control.
Charities such as Amnesty International have continued to raise awareness of the situation in the region, including the assault and intimidation of journalists and the continued detention of citizens held under no charge.
Yasrab Shah, fundraising director of charity Muslim Hands, said: “A year since the curfew in Kashmir began and many are still struggling.
“Muslim Hands through its partner organisations have supported beneficiaries in Anantnag and Pulwama since the crisis began.
Ajaib Hussain and Malik Zubair are trying to raise awareness of what’s happening in Jammu and Kashmir
“We have provided vital aid to over 78,000 beneficiaries in the worst affected areas via door-to-door and to those who live in hard to reach rural and remote areas.
“The aid distributed so far has consisted of emergency food parcels, essential medicines, winter items such as blankets and firewood as well as the running of ambulance services in vulnerable communities.”
Ajaib Hussain, from Rochester, was born in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, the side of the region which is a self-governing territory under Pakistani control.
It is also referred to by some as ‘Free Kashmir,’ in comparison to the side controlled by India.
“No-one wins in wars…”
Despite hailing from the Pakistan side, Mr Hussain feels it is crucial to make more people aware of what is happening in Jammu and Kashmir.
He said: “No-one wins in wars, only people suffer on both sides.
“Today we have Black Lives Matter, which shows that the world has moved on – all I’m saying is Kashmir lives matter also. We owe it to the people and the next generation to highlight the issues and raise the worlds conscience.”
Mr Hussain has been part of a group of Medway Kashmiris who have been trying to raise awareness about what is happening in the region.
He added: “As Muslims we have a close affiliation from a faith point of view, and we realise our brothers and sisters are suffering.
“If this happened in the UK, what would happen? It wouldn’t last a day. We wouldn’t accept this sort of suffering and taking away of our liberty and rights so abruptly.”
Malik Zubair, good friends with Mr Hussain, is particularly critical of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his removal of Kashmir’s special status.
He said: “People praised Hitler, people praised Saddam, but it takes people to stand up and say ‘you’re wrong.'”
Why did India remove Jammu and Kashmir’s special status?
Religion is said to be a major factor in the struggle between India and Jammu and Kashmir.
It is the only Muslim-majority state in India, with Muslims making up 60% of a population of almost 8 million.
According to the 2011 census, 79.8% of the population of India as a whole practices Hinduism.
Dr Aparajita Mukhopadhyay, a lecturer in 19th century imperial history at the University of Kent, said tensions have been bubbling under the surface due to these differences in faith.
She said: “There is the underlying assumption that (India) are giving Muslims certain privileges that they are not giving to other citizens, predominantly Hindus, and that it is somehow unfair.
“And for me, that is a problem – why is Indian-ness being defined as something that is this or that, and not something wider?”
Part of the support for removing the region’s special status came down to a provision in law which gave special privilege to permanent residents, which included state government jobs and an exclusive right to own property in Jammu and Kashmir.
A UK House of Commons document explains the provision was intended to protect the state’s demographic make-up as the only Muslim-majority state in India, but India’s ruling party the BJP have viewed it as discriminatory against non-Muslims.
On re-election, current Indian Prime Minister Modi promised the revocation of the Article, widely supported by nationalist Hindus across the country.
Dr Mukhopadhyay was born in India to a Hindu family, but no longer practices Hinduism.
She said while many Indians have supported their government’s moves to tighten their grip on the only Muslim-majority region, many others want to see a greater sense of unity.
Maidstone woman concerned for family living in Kashmir
She said: “I think it’s definitely a hope, to envision India in a more inclusive term.”
Dr Aaliya Majeed, of Barming, Maidstone, had no contact with her family for two months during the region’s communications blackout.
Like many other Kashmiri’s living in Kent, she was forced to wait for information to arrive, which was slow due to the internet and phone reception blackout.
Dr Majeed said: “After two months I heard my dad, and it still tears me up.
“When I heard him, we couldn’t talk – for those couple of minutes nothing was said, but it felt like loads was said.”
The consultant psychiatrist said the way the region’s citizens have been treated would not happen here in the UK.
She said: “Scotland wanted – and rightly so – had a referendum a few years back, but instead of a referendum imagine it was decided English forces would march into Scotland at midnight, Nicola Sturgeon put in prison, all Scottish political leaders and anybody ever involved in political activism.
“No internet, no phones, you are not seeing the world and the world is not seeing you – that’s how it was, and it’s unimaginable.”
Whilst some people like Dr Majeed are keen to speak up against India’s treatment of Kashmir, others are wary of the dangers of doing so.
Man speaks of atrocities anonymously for fear of repercussions
One Kashmiri, living in Ashford, did not want to give his name for fear of repercussions for his family still living under India’s curfew.
He claimed since August 5 the conditions for innocent people living in the region have significantly deteriorated at the hands of the Indian armed forces.
He said: “They can do anything they want, I don’t say that lightly at all – incarceration, torture, killings, disappearances, rape, and custodial killings.
“This is happening in this day and age, not in some barbaric country, supposedly in the world’s largest democracy of India.
“This is India’s dirty secret, this is what people need to know about.”
He added: “We’re humans and we have to be treated like humans.”
One woman, who also wished to remain anonymous, also fears for family’s safety if she openly speaks out against the Indian government.
She said: “I’m scared, it’s very dangerous to speak against the Modi government.
“They can do anything, our friends and families are back there – anything can happen in Kashmir.
“If anybody speaks up, either they are killed or arrested and put behind bars, they’re labelled as anti-nationals. Yet we want to tell the world what things are like for us, what we are going through.”
Jammu and Kashmir today
Although the communications blackout has been relaxed, India remains in control of the region.
The press are not allowed to freely report, with some journalists being summoned to police stations to explain their stories to the authorities.
A campaign by Amnesty International told of Jammu and Kashmir police using a piece of legislation called the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to stop journalists from publishing ‘fake news,’ in some instances arresting them.
“If anybody speaks up, either they are killed or arrested and put behind bars, they’re labelled as anti-nationals…”
Mr Hussain said: “Even now, we get a lot more information living outside of Kashmir. Locally all the press and tv channels are shut down.
“Journalists are afraid to say anything.”
A year on from the removal of the seven-decade agreement with the region, a further problem arrived in the form of Covid-19.
The authorities have put a strict lockdown back in place to curb the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 14,000 people.
But this measure is nothing new for Muslims living in Jammu and Kashmir, after 12 months of living in fear of what could come next for their friends and families.
And hopes now turn to offering a referendum to the Kashmiri people, for them to be part of the decision over what happens to their home.
Mr Hussain added: “We want to resolve this so we can live in peace and harmony, and I think the solution is simple – allow the people to decide.”
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