Fleeing residents recount uneasy, oppressive atmosphere following New Delhi’s decision to strip autonomy of disputed region
Fear gripped India-Occupied Kashmir on Tuesday as residents leaving the restive territory spoke of a tense military crackdown and protests breaking out against the shock government move to scrap its autonomous status.
At least six people were injured in protests that erupted after a presidential decree on Monday removed the Muslim-majority region’s special status, sources said. A hospital in the main city of Srinagar had admitted six patients with gunshot wounds or other injuries caused by non-lethal weapons, a source at the facility said on condition of anonymity.
The Himalayan region has been virtually cut off from the rest of the country after authorities took down phone and internet services ahead of Monday’s announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. Public gatherings and rallies have also been banned.
In some of the first observations reported from the cut-off communities, passengers who arrived at India’s capital New Delhi on flights from Srinagar—the main city in India-Occupied Kashmir—spoke of the uneasy mood in the state.
A traveler, who asked to remain anonymous, said he heard intermittent gunfire and other weapons being fired since Monday, soldiers shouting during the night, and saw government troops deployed “every five steps.”
“My car was checked at least 25 times on the way to the airport and it took me almost four hours to cover a distance of hardly 30 minutes,” he said.
Mubeen Masoodi, who also arrived Tuesday from Srinagar, said he was at a wedding on Sunday night when suddenly the revelers realized their phones were no longer working. “While we were having our food [around] midnight, that is when the phones one by one went [off]… and that’s when people realized something big is happening and everyone just rushed back home,” he said.
Another plane passenger, Farooq Sheikh, told the Press Trust of India that he felt “caged inside in our own city.”
“Our mobile phone connection has been snapped, internet shut, even cable TVs and landlines are down. We felt like we were caged, or being jailed in our own home, our own city,” he said.
Sanna Wani, a Kashmiri poet, took to Twitter to describe the fear and panic gripping Srinagar before she managed to get a flight out. She said even those residents citing medical emergencies were not allowed to get past a security checkpoint.
The stories of apprehension felt by Kashmiri residents came as UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville said the communications blackout and security clampdown were deeply concerning. “We are seeing, again, blanket telecommunications restrictions, perhaps more blanket than we have ever seen before, the reported arbitrary detention of political leaders and restrictions on peaceful assembly,” he told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.
India-Occupied Kashmir has been in the grip of a rebellion against Indian rule since 1989. The region has been divided between India and Pakistan since their independence in 1947, and the two sides have conflicting claims on the territory, over which they have fought two wars.
New Delhi rushed tens of thousands of fresh troops to the picturesque conflict-ridden valley—already the most militarized region in the world—earlier this month in anticipation of unrest over the decision.
Authorities have denied reports of protests and said the region was peaceful after the announcement.
State police chief Dilbagh Singh told Indian television channels that “people have been very co-operative and not a single incident of violence has been reported.”
The seven-decades-old constitutional provision that was scrapped allowed only locals to buy land in the region and gave the state a separate flag and a constitution. Militant groups and many residents have fought for the region’s independence or to join neighbor Pakistan.