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The Coronavirus Crisis: India is Using COVID-19 to Advance its Hindu Settler Colonial Enterprise in Kashmir

With the world’s attention on the Coronavirus pandemic, India’s Government is introducing more draconian measures to advance its nationalist aims.

Women peep out of their windows as students leave after completing their Coronavirus quarantine period in Kashmir
India is Using COVID-19 to Advance its Hindu Settler Colonial Enterprise in Kashmir

With the world’s attention on the Coronavirus pandemic, India’s Government is introducing more draconian measures to advance its nationalist aims.

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It’s easy to forget in the fog of chaos and confusion around COVID-19 that the threat of a nuclear armed war remains ever present, with tensions continuing to simmer in the world’s hottest flash points – a reality brought full-frontal when North Korea fired a test missile into the Sea of Japan on Tuesday.

A cruise missile landing harmlessly in an empty body of water is one thing, but Indian military aggression along Kashmir’s Line of Control, which pits two nuclear armed forces within shouting distance of one another, is something entirely different and constitutes an alarming threat.

On 8 April, videos emerged on social media showing Indian forces moving heavy artillery into the village of Panzgam in Kupwara district – to use the area as a base from which to target Pakistani military positions on the other side of the border, despite such a move constituting a war crime. But then the Indian military has a long history of using Kashmiri civilians as human shields to blunt retaliatory attacks.

On Sunday, the two armies traded heavy fire, just as the Indian Army had hoped and initiated, leaving three civilians dead, including a woman and a child. A statement given by an Indian military spokesperson in the aftermath of the engagement typifies New Delhi’s sinister and duplicitous actions in the occupied territory.

“Pakistan today at 5:00pm (local time) initiated unprovoked ceasefire violation in Keran sector,” said Rajesh Kaila, an Indian Army spokesman in Srinagar, in a statement. “Pakistan now targeting civilian population in Kupwara sector near the LoC [Line of Control] resulting in killing three innocent civilians including one woman and a child.”

It takes a special kind of bravado to mobilise your military and then move units into a civilian neighborhood before shelling opposition forces, only to later claim that you were the victim of an “unprovoked attack” while using human shields along the way. But human rights groups have spent more than three decades documenting how India uses terror as an “instrument of control” in Kashmir.

“If we knew they would one day enter this area also and make us all human shields we would not have invested our lives into these houses,” a resident of Panzgam told Middle East Eye. “We are crying with fear. Our children and elders are panicking.”

Property Rights for Government and Military Officials

At the same time as the world is battling the Coronavirus, India’s right-wing Government is seeking to capitalise on the pandemic on multiple fronts.

At home, the Narendra Modi regime is giving life to conspiracies that blame Muslims for spreading the virus as a means to bolster the Government’s’divide-and-rule strategy. In Kashmir, it seeks to further its aim of subjugating the territory’s eight million Muslims to Hindu minority rule.

With little fanfare and next to zero international media attention, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs made a stunning declaration when it announced that Kashmir would now be subjected to a new domicile law, granting any individual who has resided in Indian-Administered Kashmir for 15 years or longer the right to own property. By “individual” the Government actually means any military or Government official.

When New Delhi scrapped Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status on 5 August last year, it marked the Government’s first step in transforming the occupied territory into a Hindu nationalist settler colonial project. In granting property rights to Indian Government and military officials, it has now moved onto stage two.

“It should be no secret to anyone by now that the Government of the Bharatiya Janata Party wishes to do to Kashmir what Israel has done to the Palestinian territories,” Mr Shifat, a school teacher in Srinagar who wished only to be identified by his first name out of fear of Indian military reprisal, told me by phone. “Giving land, homes and jobs to Indian soldiers and their families is how India will try to change the demographics here – no different to what Israel has done with its settlers in the West Bank.”

His sentiments were echoed by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who condemned the new domicile law as an “illegal action” and accused New Delhi of exploiting the “international focus on COVID-19 pandemic to push BJP’s Hindutva supremacist agenda”.

The Indian Government is also using the Coronavirus crisis as a pretext to implement even more draconian measures against Kashmir’s eight million Muslims. On 10 March, the Government set up a “24×7 control room with heat maps and phone trackers to locate people”. While such mass surveillance laws are ordinarily deemed unconstitutional and thus unlawful in India, they are being carried out in the name of fighting the pandemic. 

Naturally, every resident of Indian-Administered Kashmir worries that these hi-tech surveillance measures will become a permanent feature, invoking fears that Indian security forces will monitor and control every aspect of their daily lives – mirroring the way Beijing rules over 13 million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

All this comes on the back of a lockdown and a communications blackout that has been enforced in the territory by the Indian military to varying degrees since 5 August last year.

If weaponising the COVID-19 pandemic to further repress 200 million Muslims in India and ethnically cleanse eight million more in Kashmir – while putting the region on the brink of nuclear war – does not make India a rogue or threatening state, what will?

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