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RESPECT FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN JAMMU & KASHMIR

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August 5th will mark five years since the Indian government withdrew the status of Jammu & Kashmir (India’s only Musim majority state) under which, in the same way as other states, it had its own parliament and Chief Minister, with autonomy in domestic matters under the umbrella of the Indian Federal government.

The abrogation of article 370 ended this arrangement, downgrading the state to two Union Territories governed directly from Delhi. Other changes include permission for Indian citizens from other states to purchase property and businesses, which, if not properly managed, risks marginalisation of Kashmiris in their own land and significant increase in inequities. During the last five years, freedom of expression and movement for Kashmiris has been increasingly curtailed, with arbitrary arrests and daily harassment in the form of checkpoints and night visits common. Aakar Patel, Chair of the Board at Amnesty International India has said “For decades, the people of Jammu & Kashmir have faced grave abuse of their rights to physical and mental integrity, including arbitrary detention and unlawful killings, and to their freedoms of expression, movement and from discrimination.

The situation was exacerbated following abrogation of Article 370 in 2019.” In December 2023, a Supreme Court of India ruling upheld the abrogation of article 370, but also ordered the restoration of statehood of Jammu & Kashmir as soon as possible and directed the Election Commission of India to hold elections to the Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly by 30 September 2024. In a concurring opinion, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul also recommended the setting up of an impartial Truth and Reconciliation Committee to investigate and report on the violations of human rights both by state and non-state actors, at least since the 1980s and to recommend measures for reconciliation. This provides an opportunity to the Indian government to right the wrongs of many years and to demonstrate a strong political will to ensure there is a transparent and consultative process with a strong legal foundation, and funding and powers consistent with international law and standards.

As national elections are taking place across India, which look set to provide another victory for Narendra Modi and his BJP government, it is important that the people of Jammu & Kashmir are not forgotten. The Modi government portrays the situation there as “normalised”, with increasing “development” for Kashmiri people, but the reality is very different. Tourists and pilgrims from other Indian states and beyond are encouraged to visit, which they are doing in increasing numbers, but this brings its own environmental cost with little benefit to the average Kashmiri citizen. Voter turnout is likely to be very low in Jammu & Kashmir because Kashmiris they have no real voice in the affairs that affect their lives.

This campaign is focused on restoring the rights of freedom of expression and movement to the people of Jammu & Kashmir and ensuring their voices are heard in the decision-making process.

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