Suhail Ahmad Shah stood despairingly before the wreckage that for two decades had been his livelihood. Just hours before, he had been busy at the workshop when he heard an ominous crunch above him and the tin roof began to cave in. He barely made his escape before a bulldozer flattened the entire place.
“No notice was served to us,” said Shah, 38. “The officials came suddenly and demolished our workshop. No one is listening to us. We’ve been paying rent. Isn’t this an atrocity? They have snatched our livelihood.”
His workshop selling secondhand car parts in Srinagar, the summer capital of the beleaguered Indian state of Kashmir, was just one of dozens of structures across the region caught up in a widespread demolition drive in February. Many of these took place with little notice, even for those who had occupied the land for decades. The purpose, according to the government, was to “retrieve” state land that had been illegally encroached on. More than 50,000 acres of land were seized before the drive was paused.
But in Kashmir, the drive has been condemned as having a more sinister purpose. Many have decried it as part of a wider agenda by the Hindu nationalist government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by prime minister Narendra Modi, to displace and dispossess Kashmiris from their own land and shift the demographics of India’s only Muslim-majority state.
Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, bulldozers have been a popular tool for BJP leaders to target the Muslim minority in their pursuit of a religious nationalist agenda to establish India as a Hindu, rather than secular, country. In states such as Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, bulldozers have been used to crush the homes of swathes of Muslim activists accused of involvement in protests and of communities alleged to be illegal immigrants.
Panic spread in Kashmir that the BJP’s so-called “bulldozer politics” were being deployed against its Muslims. Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Kashmir, termed the demolition drive “a ruse to further push people to economic margins by demolishing their homes and livelihood”.
Fayaz Ahmad, 52, whose scrapyard of 30 years was demolished without notice or warning, agreed. “This all is being done to suppress Kashmiris,” he said.
Since independence in 1947, the Kashmir region has been the touchstone issue between India and Pakistan. They have gone to war multiple times for control over the disputed territory, which is split between the two countries. On the Indian side was the state of Jammu and Kashmir where, from the early 1990s, a violent separatist insurgency with an allegiance to, and funded by, Pakistan emerged.
Successive governments struggled to bring the violence under control. But in August 2019 the Modi government, fulfilling a long-held promise to its rightwing base, took unilateral action against the state, stripping it of its long-held autonomy and severing it into two territories under central government control. Thousands of troops were moved into the state, the state government was dissolved, local politicians were imprisoned and the world’s longest internet shutdown, lasting 18 months, was imposed.
Since then the BJP has thrown open the doors of the state, allowing outsiders to buy property and register to vote in Kashmir for the first time. More than 2 million new voters have been registered, a source of great concern to the many who believe that the government is trying to change the demographics of the state away from its current Muslim majority.
A redrawing of the electoral map has led to accusations of gerrymandering after it became clear the reshaped constituencies would split the Muslim vote in Kashmir, to the likely electoral advantage of the BJP.
The BJP says its actions since 2019 have brought an era of peace for Kashmir. “Investment is coming and tourists are flocking,” said home minister Amit Shah in a speech. “Kashmir slowly is getting back to normal to stand in unity with the country.”
But those in the state tell a very different story – one of systematic oppression under increasingly authoritarian laws and where democratic freedoms, including free speech, political representation and the right to protest, have been crushed. Kashmir is now one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world, with more than half a million troops to watch over just 7 million citizens, with army checkpoints every few miles on the roads.
Those living in the state say that censorship, both of ordinary citizens and the media, is standard practice by the government, police and military, and anyone expressing criticism through activism or on social media is immediately taken in by police.
While privately people in Kashmir will rail against the Modi government and speak fearfully of the future, most are too terrified to speak out publicly. “There is fear. If anyone speaks up, even on social media, they face police action. No one wants to end up in jail,” said a student who asked to remain unnamed. His friend was recently jailed under draconian security laws simply for writing a post on Facebook that had angered the police.
Journalists have become a particular target. New laws were passed to strictly control their reporting, and the few journalists who still produced critical coverage of the region have been subjected to harassment and interrogation and had their phones and laptops seized.
Journalists have been publicly thrashed by police while some have been put on no-fly lists, barring them from leaving the country. In the local newspapers, editors and owners have deleted years of coverage that was critical of the government due to the increasing pressure, and once-independent newspapers have been reduced to pamphlets for government press releases. At least three Kashmiri journalists, Asif Sultan, Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul, have been jailed under terrorism laws.
“My brother is in a very difficult situation,” said Javaid Ahmad, brother of Sajad Gul. “He has been put in a high security cell and is being treated like a dangerous criminal. He is not allowed to make phone calls home. They did not even allow him a pen and a diary.”
Democracy remains elusive. The state government was never restored after 2019 and regional elections have not been held for more than five years, leaving Kashmiris with no political representation or outlet to express their discontent.
Political leaders who had spent their careers promoting pro-India policies in Kashmir but were among those imprisoned after 2019 accused the BJP government of authoritarianism. Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of the region and India’s former junior foreign minister, said government-appointed administrators in Kashmir had “absolute power with no accountability”.
Former chief minister Mufti said she and those in her party were “harassed endlessly”. “I am placed under house arrest quite often and not allowed to carry out political activities or reach out to people in distress,” she said. “No one here, be it a political leader, activist or even journalist, enjoys the freedom of speech to articulate the ground realities.”
The BJP has proudly proclaimed that the record number of tourists now visiting the state’s famed tulip gardens, lakes and snowy slopes is evidence of peace and prosperity. However, the boom in commercial investment in the state – one justification for the actions taken in 2019 – has still not arrived, and private investment in Kashmir is still less than half the level it was in 2018. Meanwhile economic problems, including high unemployment, continue to blight the region.
Militants have shifted strategy, carrying out more targeted killings of non-locals and minority Kashmiri Hindus. This has spread fear among the Kashmiri Hindus, commonly referred to as Pandits, 65,000 of whom fled the valley in the 1990s when they were targeted during a violent pro-Pakistan insurgency. In recent months another exodus of Pandits has begun.
“We do not feel safe in Kashmir,” said Rinku Bhat, who is among those who fled his home after the killings. “Our people are being killed in broad daylight by the gunmen, inside their offices, homes. We are demanding that we should be posted to safer locations but the government has not helped us so far.”
Kavinder Gupta, senior BJP leader and former deputy chief minister of the region, dismissed the allegations. Militancy had been brought under control, he said, while making assurances that state elections would soon take place at an unspecified date.
“There is peace in Kashmir. That is evident from the fact that people don’t protest on roads and pelt stones, unlike in the past,” said Gupta. “The people who were promoting Pakistan’s agenda and raising its flag were given a free hand by past governments. The actions taken in Kashmir were necessary, and the results are in front of us.”