India detains local politicians in Kashmir, deepens crackdown
SRINAGAR, India — Ever since India announced a move to strip Kashmir of its autonomy one week ago, residents of this disputed region have been unable to make phone calls, access the Internet, or move freely.
They also have heard nothing from local political leaders because many of them have been detained and held incommunicado, part of an unprecedented clampdown that has helped muffle the public response to India’s decision.
On Monday, the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha was a tense and muted affair instead of a joyous occasion as security forces flooded the streets of Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital. The festival passed without violent protests, as some had feared.
The region has remained on edge ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked autonomy for Indian-controlled Kashmir, fulfilling a major campaign pledge of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party but raising the likelihood of unrest in India’s only Muslim-majority region.
To maintain control in the wake of the decision, India has sent thousands of additional troops to Kashmir and detained hundreds of local politicians and party workers. They include two of the highest-profile leaders in the state: Mehbooba Mufti, who until last year was the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, and Omar Abdullah, one of her predecessors in that post.
‘‘I’ve no idea what is in store for our state, but it doesn’t look good,’’ wrote Abdullah to his 3 million Twitter followers in the wee hours of Aug. 5. He has not been heard from since.
Kashmir is home to a long-running insurgency against Indian rule waged by militant groups seeking independence or merger with Pakistan. But the politicians who have been detained since Aug. 5 are not militants or separatists but mainstream leaders who advocate for Kashmir’s future inside India with a degree of autonomy.
A hotel and conference hall on the shores of Srinagar’s Dal Lake has been converted into an improvised detention center. On a recent afternoon, the metal entrance gates were draped in black plastic to obscure the view. Nuzhat Ishfaq, 34, came to try to find her husband and father, both members of the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference party. Her husband was a member of the state legislature from the district of Ganderbal.
She said her husband was put under house arrest on Aug. 5. Two days later, the police arrived at their home and told him to pack some clothes. Since then, the family has not gotten word from him. The guards allowed her and her two sons, 12 and 14, inside the center for 45 minutes. She said she was taken into a conference hall and glimpsed her husband from a distance, but officials did not permit her to speak to him.
‘‘There is a volcano waiting to erupt,’’ she said. ‘‘Earlier militants or separatists were picked up, but now India has taken away those who were pro-India.’’ She continued, ‘‘This is injustice. We are not militants. What is our crime?’’
Adnan Ashraf Mir, a spokesman for the Jammu & Kashmir People’s Conference, said that its leader, Sajjad Lone, was placed under house arrest on Aug. 4. The following day Lone was transferred to the makeshift detention center on Dal Lake and has been held incommunicado ever since.
The party’s entire top leadership is either detained or under house arrest, said Mir, and he estimated that more than 200 party workers across the state had also been taken into custody. ‘‘It’s just appalling how they have treated these people,’’ said Mir, who left Srinagar several days ago. The government is ‘‘trying to silence every voice they think would be able to mobilize opinion on the ground.’’
Mrinal Sharma, a policy adviser with Amnesty International India, said that the authorities could be using two statutes to carry out the detentions. The first is Kashmir’s Public Safety Act, which activists say facilitates arbitrary detentions. The second is a provision in the Indian criminal procedure code that allows police to take people into custody to prevent breaches of the peace.
The latter is often used to prevent possible riots, said Sharma. But ‘‘detaining political leaders while a decision is being made on the fate of their constituencies is just unprecedented.’’
Outside a hillside home belonging to former chief minister Mufti, security personnel declined to answer questions about her detention. They also refused to allow The Washington Post to meet with her daughter, Iltija Iqbal. In previous interviews, Iqbal said that her mother was detained on Aug. 5 and she has not been able to communicate with her since.
A spokeswoman for India’s Home Ministry did not reply to requests for comment on the detentions or the whereabouts of Mufti and Abdullah. A senior government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters with reporters, twice declined to answer queries about the detained politicians.
The police are ‘‘effectively maintaining peace and public order, taking local decisions on detentions,’’ the Jammu & Kashmir government said in a news release Monday. A senior police official said there had been ‘‘minor localized incidents’’ during Eid and two people were injured in the clashes.
On Friday, things turned ugly when police fired tear gas and pellets at a crowd of thousands of protesters, according to a half-dozen eyewitnesses and interviews with the injured at a hospital. The government has denied any firing incidents took place.
Government officials declined to say when the restrictions on communication and movement would be lifted, repeatedly stating that the situation was fluid. Fizalah Kawoosa, a 32-year-old immunologist in Srinagar, said that recent events had left her ‘‘blood boiling.’’ She has not been able to reach her mother, who lives in the same city, and three attempts to visit have been thwarted at police checkpoints.
Kawoosa said she hopes and prays that her infant daughter will grow up in peace.
‘‘There is no family in Kashmir that has not lost a relative to violence,’’ she said. ‘‘I wanted to see a calm future for our children. But it is only going to be worse.’’