SRINAGAR, India — Insurgents and Indian security forces ambushed each other nearly every day this week in the disputed territory of Kashmir, despite calls for a ceasefire during the pandemic.
On Tuesday, a fierce gunfight erupted in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital city, where police killed a top commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant outfit that’s thought to be supported by Pakistan. In the process, security forces destroyed about a dozen civilian homes.
“They kicked down the door to our house. They told us ‘put your hands up!’” Beba Bashir, a homemaker, told VICE News.
Bashir says the police accused her family of harboring terrorists, beat her two sons, and forced them to take a video of their home to prove there were no militants hiding inside. All the while, she said, they threatened to shoot them.
Eventually, Bashir and her children were allowed to leave. But when they returned the next day, their house was completely destroyed.
“We lost everything,” Bashir said. “They did this during this pandemic. Where should we go?”
The violence is only ratcheting up an already tense situation; Kashmir has been under lockdown since long before the coronavirus hit. Last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed the country’s constitution to do away with the disputed region’s special autonomy, jailing opposition leaders and restricting internet and phone services as a way to prevent a mass uprising against him.
Though he promised his reforms would bring economic prosperity to the valley, the unending political lockdown has made life in the pandemic near impossible.
“Throughout the world, people are saying work from your houses. Unfortunately, we are not able to do such things here in Kashmir; there is no internet,” Sheikh Ashiq, the president of Kashmir’s Chamber of Commerce, told VICE News.
And during the lockdown, Modi’s government passed a new law allowing outsiders to acquire property in Kashmir.
Pakistan, which also lays claim to Kashmir, accuses India’s Hindu nationalist leadership of using the coronavirus lockdown to engineer demographic change in its largest Muslim-majority region.
For business leaders like Ashiq, the timing of the new law shows the government is focused on controlling the political climate rather than caring for the well-being of Kashmiris.
“This [decision] is too much in haste,” Ashiq said. “At this time, I think one has to think about how to support people, how to give them a humanitarian touch, rather than going for all these things where they feel more insecure.”
Cover: Beba Bashir hugs a friend amidst the rubble of her home in Srinagar, Kashmir's capital city.
Video produced by: Angad Singh.
Video edited by: Danny Card