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Viewpoints: Six weeks in the world's biggest open-air prison

By Khalid J. Qazi

The last 10 days in July were productive. I spent them at Shafqat Rehabilitation Center in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, where my brother had been admitted with serious conditions. But he was steadily improving. I was glad I was with him during his difficult time.

But there was an eerie feeling in the center. Fear gripped the facility on Aug. 4 as every visitor mentioned “something bad” was happening. India had brought in tens of thousands of additional troops, on top of the 750,000 already stationed there. Kashmiris were afraid that the Indian prime minister and his fundamentalist party were planning to usurp the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, which has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan since their independence in 1947. Three wars have already been fought. The next one could be nuclear, with catastrophic results.

About 50 patients were under treatment at Shafqat, most with major neurological problems. The exodus of patients started that afternoon. Because my brother was making good progress, we decided to stay.
The next day, everything changed.

Government loudspeakers announced the imposition of a complete curfew. Disregarding its own constitution and international commitments, India’s ruling party unilaterally and capriciously abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which grants semi-autonomy to the Indian-administered state. The legislature was dissolved, elected officials were imprisoned and sweeping restrictions were imposed.

The state of 12 million people was turned into a virtual open-air prison. A round-the-clock lockdown was imposed. Power was cut off, along with all communications – internet, phones lines, mail services. Public transportation, banks, schools, government offices and businesses were shut down. Thousands were sent to jails across India with no information given to their families. Human rights groups and international media were denied access.

Kashmir was cut off from the world.

Not a single employee was able to come to work. By noon, the Shafqat Center was empty and the night watchman locked the facility. We were the last to leave.

As we drove through the “ghost town,” we were repeatedly stopped by troops. The omnipresence of Indian military on every street was overwhelming and intimidating.

Confined to the house, we were unable to contact our family in the United States. Weeks later, we learned how disturbed our children were when we finally contacted them through an intermediary in Delhi. They had contacted the U.S. Embassy for help.

The worst nightmare was the inability to communicate. With very limited reading material and entertainment, we were left pacing the floor and cursing the government. Life under the curfew is miserable, but Indian official media beamed news only of “normalcy” in the state.

After the first week, the local bakery and grocery shops opened for an hour each in the morning and evening. Only a few private cars were on the road for emergencies. By then, I had finished reading everything that was available and had done all the puzzles, many times over.

Life for everyone was extremely challenging. Pharmacies ran out of stock and were unable to place orders for lack of phone service and internet. Private hospitals and clinics closed, overburdening poorly staffed public hospitals. Women couldn’t go to a hospital for deliveries. Surgeries were cancelled. Dialysis and cancer treatments were interrupted. Together, these problems created extreme anxiety, stress and deaths. Horror tales of patients walking tens of miles to reach hospitals were front-page stories.

We were unable to fill my brother’s prescriptions or continue his therapies. Despite our best efforts, he lost much of the progress he had made.

There was hope, however, that curfew would be lifted on Aug. 12 for Eid-ul-Adha, one of the holiest days in Islamic calendar. Alas, that was not to be.

Instead, restrictions were reinforced with additional deployment of troops. The government closed main places of worship and people were unable to perform the obligatory animal sacrifice required on this occasion.

Daily protests are promptly dispersed with teargas, pellet guns and occasional shootings that lead to injuries and deaths. Families accuse authorities of refusing to issue death certificates for civilians killed in such clashes.

Police do not officially release the number of detainees, although newspapers report 10,000 are imprisoned. Families are desperate and travel long distances – 300 to 600 miles – if they are lucky enough to locate their loved ones.

International media has reported the use of torture by the Indian military. Such examples highlight India’s disregard for human rights and are meant to instill fear in the population. In an interview with The Indian Express, the director general of police, Dilbag Singh, sadistically mentioned that detentions are part of a “strategy” to “bond” with the community.

With the heavy military presence in every nook and corner of the state, the indiscriminate arrests of youth, a complete gag on all forms of communication and the use of massive force for the slightest of infractions, people are unable to express themselves.

On the surface, we found an uneasy calm but inside, people are seething with anger at everyday humiliations. At their peril, they defy the curfew to challenge what they perceive as an existential threat and Indian plans for major demographic changes.

So, where do we go from here? How do we prevent a catastrophic war that will destroy much beyond India and Pakistan and will shut investment and trade opportunities in India – opportunities that may be the reason for major powers to stay quiet at this crucial time?

As India presents a rosy picture of Kashmir to the international community, world leaders must insist on lifting the inhumane curfew and restrictions on internet, phones and assembly of people, now in its third month. It must also release all the innocent youth and leadership arrested in last three months.

If this time bomb between nuclear India and Pakistan explodes, it will engulf the region and beyond. The explosion will be, to a great extent, due to indifference of the international community that has pledged the right of self-determination to the people of Kashmir and was promised by the founding fathers of India and Pakistan.

Khalid J. Qazi, M.D., is a professor of clinical medicine at the Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. He is the founding president and senior adviser of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York.

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