After authorities declared that the highway linking Udhampur in Jammu to Baramulla in Kashmir will be closed to civilians for two days every week until May 31, Jammu and Kashmir residents reported extreme hardship in transporting products and getting services, including critical health care. In a letter to the Home Minister, 26 members of civil society and retired public officials, many of whom have been associated with Jammu and Kashmir, warned that the decision “undercuts our democratic credentials and attracts the charge of military rule”. Many blamed the government’s approach towards the Kashmir insurgency and towards Pakistani support for armed groups — an approach that both admirers and critics have described as “muscular”.
Armed attacks and human rights violations have soared in Kashmir in recent years. The violence has taken a heavy toll on security personnel and civilians. Over 800 alleged militants have also been killed in the last five years, and security experts have reported increased recruitment of young Kashmiris by armed groups. There are allegations that security forces use excessive force to quell protests, causing serious injuries including permanent blindness. Hundreds have been held under the draconian Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, which permits up to two years in preventive detention. Kashmiris also complain about rude treatment by security forces during search operations.
The “muscular” approach may also have encouraged a culture of collective punishment against Kashmir’s Muslim citizens. On social media, admirers of the ruling party no longer distinguish between protesters armed with stones and militants armed with guns — they are all called terrorists. Kashmiri students, traders and street vendors in various cities across India have been threatened in mob attacks. In a shocking case of communal hate, following the rape and murder of a Muslim child in Kathua, a hard-line Hindutva group publicly supported the accused.
Kashmiris have expressed concern that the restrictions on civilian use of the highway is another form of collective punishment because of the attack in Pulwama in February. The State Human Rights Commission noted that “schoolchildren, medical patients, government and private employees, as well as other civilians, will not be able to reach their destinations well in time.” Under international law, measures such as closing a crucial highway that undermine fundamental rights to movement, food and health must be narrowly tailored and proportionate to a legitimate governmental aim. While the authorities have a responsibility to provide security, they need to recognise that respecting human rights is not at odds with providing security, but an essential component of it. What should occur is a muscular approach to minimise the hardships Kashmiris face and ensure that protecting their fundamental rights is a priority.
The writer is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch