As the graphic images of Israeli airstrikes on Palestinians in Gaza reached 32-year-old Mudasir Gul in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, the artist in him was compelled to express his pain.
Upon deliberation with his peers, Gul went ahead and began painting a solidarity mural “We Are Palestine” on a nearby wall on 14 May.
The picture of youngsters waving Palestinian flags near the mural went viral on social media. However, the gesture of solidarity didn’t go down well with the New Delhi-led administration controlling the disputed Jammu and Kashmir territory.
In August 2019, India revoked Article 370, which had guaranteed Kashmir’s autonomy, unilaterally turning the Himalayan region into a union territory.
Ever since, the densely militarised territory has seen repeated communication blackouts, censorship, mass arrests, torture, and public harassment to curb any sort of dissent.
Despite these challenging circumstances, Gul was still shocked by the police response. On the night of 14 May, police conducted raids across the Padshah-e-Bagh locality in Srinagar city and detained at least 21 young Kashmiris who had shown solidarity with Palestine, including the artist.
“The densely militarised territory has seen repeated communication blackouts, censorship, mass arrests, torture, and public harassment”
His cousin, who asked to remain anonymous, told The New Arab that “police had kept the Public Safety Act (PSA) dossier ready, but luckily there was some procedural delays and the immediate hue and cry around Gul’s arrest prevented them from taking it further.”
Under the draconian PSA (introduced in 1978) suspects can be held in custody for four years without trial by the authorities.
“The international media attention and the condemnations that poured across social media compelled the state police to release him after three days on May 17,” his cousin said.
Gul later admitted he was “fearful,” and “sure they would slap me with a PSA for expressing pain.” He was then ordered to deface the graffiti with black paint.
Police told him that “making graffiti, sloganeering, and burning flags is illegal in Kashmir.”
For drawing a mural that showed a woman sobbing with her head wrapped in the Palestinian flag, the artist was detained in custody for three days in a cell with eight other people.
Kashmir’s police chief, Vijay Kumar, justified the arrests in a statement and said that they are keeping a close watch on “elements who are attempting to leverage the unfortunate situation in Palestine to disturb public peace and order in the Kashmir valley.”
According to Kumar, the police want to stop what they call the “cynical” exploitation of public anger to “trigger violence, lawlessness, and disorder” on Kashmir’s streets.
While a social media campaign created pressure on authorities to release the artist, others remain in detention.
Among them is cleric Sarjan Barkati, who had expressed solidarity with Palestine during a Friday sermon at a mosque in south Kashmir’s Shopian district.
Hours later, on the morning of 15 May, 40-year-old Barkati was detained by police in a raid on his home. The cleric continues to be imprisoned in the town of Zainapora in Shopian.
“What was the need to carry out the night raids just two days after Eid? The police action speaks for itself”
Still behind bars
According to Barkati’s wife, Shabroza Jan, the police have cracked down on gatherings since his arrest for condemning oppression in Palestine.
The cleric had previously spent four years behind bars after he was detained under the PSA and released last year on 28 October. Barkati, also known as Azadi Chacha (freedom uncle), had been the face of the mass civilian uprising in 2016, becoming famous for his passionate speeches and liberation songs.
Shabroz lamented that her 13-year-old daughter, Shugra Jan, has been unable to see her father properly for the past five years because of his prolonged detention.
So far, police haven’t provided evidence for his recent arrest, which has only created more apprehension about his potential release.
“I am very scared for his life. The officials in the police station ordered me categorically not to visit him anymore. I am unable to sleep because of this anxiety. Police haven’t said anything about his release, what if they book him again under PSA?” Shabroza told TNA.
According to local resident Abid, 25, who wished to withhold his last name, authorities in Kashmir want to instil fear among the masses.
“Otherwise what was the need to carry out the night raids just two days after Eid – the police action speaks for itself.”
A bond of solidarity
Kashmiri solidarity with the Palestinian cause is not a new phenomenon. This bond dates back to 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, with a large number of people protesting at the time. Ever since, Kashmiris have expressed solidarity through murals, graffiti, posters, slogans and strikes in support of Palestinians.
The emergence of an armed rebellion against Indian rule in the 1990s, and the shift towards peaceful street demonstrations that erupted in Kashmir in 2010, have only amplified the sentiment of solidarity and sympathy towards Palestine.
In the summer of 2014, during Israel’s devastating war on Gaza, a series of pro-Palestine protests erupted across the Kashmir region. In one such protest in July, Indian forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing teenager Suhail Ahmad, a ninth-grade student from southern Kashmir’s Khudwani village.
“Kashmir, too, is involved in a similar type of struggle”
Kashmiri pro-independence parties such as Hurriyat Conference often hold demonstrations over Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the last Friday of Ramadan, while slogans and posters reading ‘Save Gaza’ and ‘Support Palestine’ are seen throughout the congested lanes of downtown Srinagar.
“Kashmir, too, is involved in a similar type of struggle,” Professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a prominent political analyst and scholar of international law in Kashmir, told TNA.
“Locals here understand the intricacies of subjugation and marginalisation from their lived experiences which is why they are more sensitive and emotional towards the Palestine issue.”
Hussain says the parallels also extend to the security forces. “The state police appear to be scared, thinking that Kashmiris may imbibe the Palestinian traits of resistance and puncture the balloon of enforced normalcy that they are trying to market desperately in the region.”
While authorities have made it clear in their statements that they are trying to avoid a trigger that could serve as a catalyst for wider social unrest, for many, the crackdown on pro-Palestine solidarity in Kashmir only reflects the parallels in both struggles.
“Kashmir is an open-air prison where people’s thoughts are being monitored and they are punished for it,” the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, wrote on Twitter.
“There is no outlet left to express one’s opinion and this is a deliberate attempt to push Kashmiris to the wall.”
Umer Beigh is a journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir. He is a graduate of the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.
Follow him on Twitter: @_umerbeigh
— Courtesy The New Arab