Sunday 22 September 2019

Lonely death of a salesman in Kashmir

Under curfew: Kashmiri women protest the Indian crackdown in Srinagar. Photo: Yawar Nazir/ Getty Images
Under curfew: Kashmiri women protest the Indian crackdown in Srinagar. Photo: Yawar Nazir/ Getty Images

Ishfaq Naseem

It took several days for the relatives of Mohammad Ayoub Khan to learn of his death.

The internet and phone blackout in Kashmir meant news that the 57-year-old timber salesman had been killed in a demonstration over the decision by Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, to withdraw autonomy for the contested region, did not reach them.

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Mr Khan, according to his family, had stepped out of his house and into clashes between government forces and stone-throwing protesters in the Braripora neighbourhood of Kashmir's biggest city Srinagar, where he was overcome by tear gas and later died - alone - in hospital.

"One of my cousins came to know about the death only on the fourth day. It was a brutal killing and speaks a lot about the excesses being committed by Indian forces on Kashmiris," Mr Khan's brother Shabir, 45, said.

Only a handful of people turned up to the funeral. The roadblocks set up by Indian troops made it difficult for relatives to attend, with only a handful able to reach the family plot in a graveyard on the other side of town.

On August 5, Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist-led government revoked Muslim-majority Kashmir's decades-old special status guaranteed under Article 370 of India's constitution and sent thousands of troops to the region, which is split between arch rivals Pakistan and India and claimed by both in its entirety.

Kashmiris have seethed and protests have been gaining pace, though access for international journalists has been restricted and independent reporting has been made difficult by the blackout.

At least 152 people have been hurt by teargas and pellets since security forces launched their crackdown, data from Srinagar's two main hospitals shows. However, a local government official said the number of injured was probably higher than official figures.

Authorities intensified patrols and reintroduced an unprecedented curfew on Friday, after posters appeared calling for a public march to a United Nations office.

Police and paramilitary soldiers re-imposed restrictions on traffic in areas where they had been eased, putting steel barricades back up and laying razor wire across roads, bridges and intersections.

The mostly young demonstrators have erected their own roadblocks in an attempt to stop police from picking up protesters, largely on stone-throwing charges - lopping down trees and obstructing the roads with electric poles and sheets of tin.

Srinagar's main business hub Lal Chowk remained shut for the 19th day yesterday, as people squatted on the shut shop fronts. The authorities reopened public schools last Monday, but the attendance of students remains slim.

Although the landline services were partially restored in some areas, internet connection is still down.

"The situation was never so grave. It was not as bad as this even in 2016 when months of shutdown was observed over the killing of militant commander, Burhan Muzafar Wani. Then they allowed at least the internet access - but now it is a total blackout," said Owais Rafiq, who works in a software company in Srinagar's Rangreth district.

"We lost a lot of software business that we had been doing with the firms in US due to the internet shutdown," he added.

Due to the internet blockade, the newspapers have also cut down on the number of pages that they were publishing every day. Two leading Srinagar English dailies, Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir, are appearing only in eight-page editions, instead of 16- or 20-page newspapers before the clampdown.

The landline services have also not been resumed to newspaper offices in Srinagar.

"Due to the communication blockade I couldn't file stories and it was difficult to keep track of the happenings on the ground," said Fayaz Wani, Srinagar correspondent for the Indian daily, The New Indian Express.

The near-total communications blackout has triggered global concern, with a group of UN human rights experts warning it amounted to "collective punishment" and risked exacerbating regional tensions. They also expressed concern at the number of local political leaders, activists, businessmen and teachers, who had been arrested.

Modi has said little about what he intends for Kashmir. But in a speech shortly after the move he said new political leadership would emerge after authorities lifted controls and created a new state assembly.

Donald Trump has said he plans to discuss Kashmir when he meets Modi on the sidelines of the G7 summit in France this weekend. He has offered to mediate between India and Pakistan, will press Mr Modi on how he plans to calm regional tensions after the withdrawal of Kashmir's autonomy, and call for talks.

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