The coronavirus pandemic has, understandably, consumed the world’s bandwidth. But as grave as the threat is — with the virus having infected nearly 19 million people around the planet, killing 700,000 of them, with no end in sight as the fall flu season approaches — other crises have not magically disappeared. In fact, many have been compounded by the coronavirus.
That goes for Kashmir, the disputed territory in the Himalayas that both India and Pakistan claim as their own. It was exactly one year ago that India revoked the territory’s longstanding special status, which gave the Indian-administrated portion of Jammu and Kashmir (a smaller slice is controlled by Pakistan) a level of autonomy from New Delhi that it had enjoyed since the 1940s.
Many speculated that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stripped Kashmir of its autonomy to divert attention away from economic troubles at home and to appease his Hindu nationalist base, which has long pushed to take away the special privileges accorded to Kashmir following the 1947 partition that established India and Pakistan.
Modi argued that revoking Article 370 would pave the way for greater economic investment in the impoverished, restive region. Critics say the true aim is to allow Hindus to buy land in Kashmir in a bid to dilute its Muslim-majority population.
The decision was coupled with a communications blackout, curfews and arrests, ostensibly to prevent violence following India’s declaration, although the crackdown ignited international condemnation.
One year later, however, Kashmir remains in the dark — and now it’s shut off from the world in the midst of a global pandemic.
Shortly after India’s controversial decision last year, we interviewed Pakistani Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan for the cover of our September 2019 issue. In that article, he expressed optimism that India’s unilateral actions in Kashmir would expose the international community to the “reality on the ground — “and the reality is that India is using excessive force in Kashmir, India is using a lot of repression in Kashmir.”
We caught up with Khan recently for our Global 360 webcast to get an update on the situation in Kashmir, which on Aug. 5 marked the one-year anniversary of the revocation of Article 370. But despite Khan’s initial hopes that the international community would forcefully come down on India, the “reality on the ground” remains much the same, if not worse.
“I would say that this is probably the bleakest year in the history of Kashmir,” the ambassador said, noting that arbitrary arrests have increased, as have violent clashes.
“Since the beginning of this year, around 110 Kashmiris have been killed,” he told us. “Just since January this year, there have also been close to around 1,600 violations across the Line of Control — clearly in breach of the 2003 ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan.”
Khan said another fear that he voiced a year ago is gradually becoming a reality.
“We had said that India is doing this to bring about demographic change in Kashmir and that is precisely what they are doing. They have just changed their domicile laws for Kashmir and have granted 25,000 Indians [the right to buy land in] Kashmir, which is again clearly an attempt to alter the demography of Kashmir.”
Another, more immediate, concern is the possibility of violence during the anniversary, which has been dubbed the “black day” by Kashmiris. To prevent protests, India has imposed another curfew and internet ban and blanketed the territory with a heavy security presence. Hundreds remain in prison or under house arrest.
“And this is happening on top of the COVID-19 lockdown,” Khan pointed out. “So I think Kashmir is perhaps today the only territory in the world which is suffering — and Kashmiris are suffering — from a double lockdown.”
Last year’s security lockdown — which included restrictions on free speech, movement, information, health care and education — largely succeeded in quelling a mass uprising. And it’s likely to do so again this year, despite criticism from groups such as Human Rights Watch.
“Indian government claims that it was determined to improve Kashmiri lives ring hollow one year after the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in an Aug. 3 release. “The authorities instead have maintained stifling restraints on Kashmiris in violation of their basic rights.”
In addition to criticism from rights groups, there are persistent fears of a military confrontation between India and Pakistan. (The two nuclear-armed rivals have already fought two wars over Kashmir since their independence, and the three-decade-long insurgency has cost an estimated 70,000 people their lives.)
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has warned that Modi’s abrogation of Kashmiri autonomy could trigger renewed violence in the region, and he’s repeatedly pressed the United Nations and governments to take action against India.
Yet, for all the condemnation and concern, the international community has not responded with much force.
Some experts speculate that after years of being on the receiving end of criticism for allegedly harboring terrorist groups, Pakistan’s pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Others say close economic and military ties with India have prevented some governments from speaking out.
For his part, Ambassador Khan (no relation to the prime minister) says the issue has received significant attention by bodies such as the U.N., the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress, as well as in the American media.
But he concedes that the “international reaction and response has not been commensurate with the level of repression that we are seeing in Kashmir,” adding that Pakistan will continue to “extend political, diplomatic and moral support to the Kashmiris.”
“The prime minister has written letters to all the heads of state and governments of the U.N. Security Council member states, raising these issues,” he said. “We are hopeful that it will result in political action, if not now then maybe in the near future.”
On that note, Khan admits that at the moment, the international community is preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, which means that issues like Kashmir have been put on the backburner.
But that also means the pandemic presents a double whammy for already-struggling hotspots like Kashmir.
Khan said India’s information blackout — during a time when the world is relying on virtual connectivity more than ever — has only “added to the Kashmiris’ misery.”
One doctor in Kashmir told Human Rights Watch that the lack of internet access was hurting the COVID-19 response. “The internet helps doctors to keep a tab on developments around the world, but we cannot access video lectures or other information in the absence of high-speed internet,” the doctor said.
The group also disputed India’s claims that revoking the territory’s autonomy would result in greater prosperity, citing statistics that the first three months of India’s security lockdown cost the Kashmiri economy an estimated $2.4 billion. “Losses have nearly doubled since the government imposed further restrictions to contain COVID-19 in March,” it wrote.
The financial toll of the pandemic is something Pakistan itself is painfully aware of.
Like many developing countries, Pakistan has had to grapple with the question of whether economic lockdowns to contain COVID-19 are deadlier than the disease itself.
Khan said it’s a dilemma all countries are facing, but it’s especially acute for poorer countries. “If I have a family of five and I have to bring food for my kids every evening, and for that I have to go and make a living as a daily wager, that’s the biggest challenge.”
Prime Minister Khan imposed a nationwide lockdown relatively early in the outbreak. In May, however, he lifted those restrictions despite warnings from the World Health Organization that he was moving too fast. But the prime minister argued that the lockdowns were devastating the country’s poor. So instead he instituted what the ambassador calls “smart” or “selective” quarantines that are applied to cities and neighborhoods that have been identified as COVID-19 hotspots.
“And that has frankly resulted in producing at least good results, although the jury’s still out in terms of good empirical data,” Khan told us. “But the fact of the matter is that this has allowed us to open those sectors which were less vulnerable to COVID-19 — sectors where you could go work and earn yourself living, such as the construction sector. And so that has alleviated the pain, the economic suffering, that vulnerable people were going through.”
Khan’s assertion that the jury is still out on the empirical evidence dovetails with what many experts say — that the coronavirus picture in Pakistan is mixed.
Poverty, limited health capacity and cramped urban quarters make the country — and South Asia in general — fertile breeding ground for the virus. At the same time, Pakistan has not been as ravaged by COVID-19 as many had initially feared.
According to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, Pakistan has had 280,000 cases of the coronavirus and 6,000 deaths. That compares to over 1.8 million cases and nearly 40,000 deaths in India next door (although India’s population of 1.35 billion is much larger than Pakistan’s 200 million).
In recent weeks Pakistan has also experienced a gradual decline in its number of cases. But some experts attribute that to a drop in daily testing, which was relatively low to begin with.
Still, as the ambassador pointed out, Pakistan’s case count and mortality rate is still relatively small compared to the size of its population.
“Being a poor country, obviously our resources are limited, but we are trying to do [our best], and we have also developed indigenous capacity now,” Khan said.
That includes ramping up testing from 1,000 tests a day to 30,000 a day, converting stadiums into medical wards, procuring personal protective equipment (enough that, according to the ambassador, the country now exports its own masks) and developing breathing assistance devices.
He adds that despite reports of overcrowded hospitals having to turn patients away, most hospitals are managing the influx fairly well.
“Obviously our health system is fragile and is under a lot of pressure. But I think overall, the capacity of the system has not been exhausted as of yet.”
Khan also noted that the government has invested in education campaigns to prevent the spread of the virus and passed a stimulus package worth 1.2 trillion rupees to cushion the financial blow.
He said that by Pakistani standards, the stimulus package is “historic” and will pump $8 billion into the economy to support the “poorest of the poor” with direct cash transfers, grocery subsidies and other assistance.
Meanwhile, the prime minister has been reaching out to organizations like the IMF to provide developing nations with debt relief.
On that note, Khan says there’s only so much countries like his can do to combat the pandemic, which is why he urges wealthier governments to not ignore the plight of poorer nations, especially in the race to develop a vaccine.
“I think that’s absolutely critical because we are all in this together and as we have seen, the infection next door is my infection. If it was next door yesterday, it will be mine tomorrow. So you cannot keep countries in isolation while only protecting yourself,” he said.
“So I think the international community and world should come together like never before, because I don’t think that we have experienced a pandemic like this, at this scale, ever before. And we will not be able to come out of it — whether medically or financially — unless and until the whole international community comes together and extends support and a helping hand to each other.”
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.