As the brutal and iron-fisted blackout in Jammu and Kashmir entered its second month, international rights group Amnesty International on Thursday launched a global campaign in a bid to highlight the human cost of the month-long lockdown in the state. The group described the lockdown as an “outrageous protracted assault” on the civil liberties of the people of Kashmir and demanded the immediate end of restrictions.
“The blackout has now been a month old and cannot be prolonged any further by the Indian Government as it has grossly impacted the daily lives of Kashmiri people, their emotional and mental well-being, medical care, as well as their access to basic necessities and emergency services. It is tearing families apart,” said Aakar Patel, head of Amnesty International India.
“In response to this indefinite communication blackout, Amnesty International India has launched the campaign #LetKashmirSpeak on 5 September 2019 – which marks a month of the communications blackout, to ask for the immediate lifting of the lockdown,” stated Amnesty International India.
“While the region of Jammu has begun to see easing of the lockdown in many districts, most of Kashmir still remains under a severe communications blackout. Depriving an entire population of their right to freedom of expression, opinion and movement for an indefinite period is akin to taking the region back to the dark ages. ‘Naya Kashmir’ cannot be built without the Kashmiris. The country is yet to hear from Kashmir after a month of being repeatedly been told by the Indian government that all is normal. This is not normal. Let Kashmir speak,” said Aakar Patel.
On 2 September 2019, the Indian Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar in an interview with Politico Magazine said, “It wasn’t possible to stop communications between militants without impacting all of Kashmir. How do I cut off communication between the terrorists and their masters on the one hand, but keep the Internet open for other people? I would be delighted to pass on the information.”
Responding to the minister’s comments, Amnesty International said while it acknowledges that the Government of India may have legitimate security concerns which may merit reasonable restrictions on right to freedom of expression in certain circumstances, it does not believe the current shutdown complies with requirement of necessity, proportionality and legality set out under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party.
Instead, it deprives the entire population of Kashmir of their right to freedom of expression and opinion and access to crucial information, thus inflicting a form of “collective punishment” on the 8 million people of Kashmir, it added.
Lack of transparency on the criteria used to cut off all communication services and what mechanisms are available to challenge the sweeping restrictions puts India in a clear violation of its international obligations, it further said.
Reports of medical emergencies, arrests, torture
“Meanwhile, sketchy reports coming out of the region have highlighted unattended medical emergencies, mass arrests and detentions, children and youth being picked up in the middle of the night, torture of civilians, indiscriminate use of tear gas, rubber bullets and pellet guns at protestors”, Amnesty stated.
All this with the backdrop of heavy military presence and a history of serious human rights violations in the region. This adds to the heightening of tensions and feelings of insecurity at a time when families are unable to contact each other and ensure their wellbeing – as many young and aged remain locked in their homes.
Muzzling the media
Aakar Patel also said the attempts to restrict the freedom of the press, like in the case of journalist and author Gowhar Geelani who was arbitrarily stopped at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi from boarding his flight to Germany, have further compounded the effect of the communication blackout.
According to a recent Kashmir Press Club statement, at least three senior Kashmiri journalists were asked to vacate government accommodations as soon as possible, which is ‘nothing but harassment aimed at coercing journalists to toe a particular line’. The government’s attempts to create a public opinion of ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir while curbing the freedom of the independent press have usurped the voice of the people.
This excessive censure has not only affected the public’s right to know and threatened basic freedom of expression norms but also put the lives of journalists, health practitioners and service providers at risk, increasing their chances of being harassed, intimidated and detained in connection with their work.
“Given the chronic impunity for abuses committed by security forces in the past in Kashmir and a lack of unconditional and unconstrained access to the news from the valley, the situation calls for lifting of the communications blackout without any further delay and to listen and engage with the people of Kashmir. This is no more a clampdown on just the communication systems of Kashmir, but a clampdown on the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris,” Amnesty India said.
Amnesty International’s global campaign can be accessed here.