‘A total blackout’: Kashmiri-Canadians unable to contact relatives since India cut internet

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Several Kashmiri-Canadians say they’ve been unsuccessful in contacting their relatives in the region following an unexpected political move by India.

The Indian government announced it would revoke the disputed region of Kashmir’s special status on Monday, putting much of its future into question. Hours before that, thousands of newly deployed troops arrived in the Indian-controlled region, and internet and phone services were cut without warning.

Binish Ahmed, who was born in Kashmir and now lives in Toronto, told Global News she has been trying to contact her relatives since the news spread but hasn’t found a way to reach them.

“There’s a complete blackout. There are no voices coming out of Kashmir,” Ahmed said, noting she and others with family in the region are “distraught” and constantly trying to reach those living in Kashmir.

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“There’s also no communication between Kashmiris, like family members, neighbours — the landlines are not working. People are basically on house arrest across Kashmir. They can’t go in and out of their house.”

Binish Ahmed in a photo she provided. Binish Ahmed

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, and both claim the region in its entirety, although each of them controls only part of it. Two of the three wars the nuclear-armed neighbours have fought since their independence from British rule were over Kashmir.

On Monday, a presidential order removed Article 370 from India’s constitution, which provided for Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and had been part of the country’s constitution since 1949.

Just a day later, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government submitted the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill for a vote by the lower house of Parliament on Tuesday. The removal of Article 370 had been one of Modi’s 2019 election pledges, but details were unclear.

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Article 370 gave the Muslim-majority state a special status and autonomy on most governing matters, with the exception of military, communications and foreign affairs.

The Indian government also revoked one other related article.

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Article 35A was added to the constitution in 1954 under Article 370 and empowered the Jammu and Kashmir state parliament to provide special rights and privileges to permanent residents of the state.

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The removal of this article means outsiders will likely be allowed to buy property in the region now, and state residents will likely lose their control of state government jobs and college places.

Several Indian officials, including veteran politician Arun Jaitley, praised Modi’s move, saying the government was “correcting a historical blunder.”

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“A historical wrong has been undone today,” he tweeted.

Ahmed, who is currently completing a PhD on Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty, self-determination and governance at Ryerson University, explained the move undermines Kashmir’s identity as an Indigenous nation.

“It’s actually a sovereign Indigenous nation that has always had its own customs, language, land relations, culture and ways of living,” Ahmed explained, adding that this has often been overlooked by India.

Ahmed noted that India is a signatory of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Amid rising concerns, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties to show restraint, said spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

“We are following with concern the tense situation in the region,” Dujarric said. “We’re also aware of reports of restrictions on the Indian side of Kashmir, and we urge all parties to exercise restraint.”

Some legal advocates also spoke out following India’s removal of Article 370, saying the move will be challenged.

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Malavika Prasad, a constitutional lawyer from India, told Reuters it will face several lawsuits. One group of lawyers in New Delhi is already working on a possible petition.

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India’s Supreme Court is the likely venue for petitions against the government’s revocation of the state’s special rights.

Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has responded to the criticism, saying the changes will pass “every legal scrutiny.”

As disputes over the legality continue, other Canadian residents are also in situations similar to Ahmed.

Idrisa Pandit, who lives in Waterloo, Ont., hasn’t been able to contact her parents or siblings.

“All my family is there, and I have had absolutely no touch since Sunday morning,” she told Global News.

“It’s a total blackout. There’s no word, no way to tell what’s going on.”

Pandit said those in Kashmir had noted some strange occurrences but had no idea what was coming.

“There were certain signs of abnormality. People were rushing to gas stations to get gas, but there was no gas available. People were trying to go to the bank, but there was no money. The ATMs were empty,” she explained.

“Most of the loved ones of everyone just said goodbye to everybody because they didn’t know what was happening.”

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Pandit, who is an academic at Wilfred Laurier University, is trying to seek answers amid the uncertainty.

On Monday, she co-signed a letter sent to UN officials by the Kashmir Scholars Consultative and Action Network.

“Given the current emergency situation, we urge the United Nations to immediately intervene in and prioritize the resolution of the disputed status of Kashmir,” the letter read.

Pandit said she also intends on calling upon Canadian officials over the issue.

Amara Hakak in a photo she provided. . Amara Hakak

Amara Hakak, who was born in Kashmir’s Srinagar region, immigrated to Canada when she was 12 years old. She told Global News much of her extended family still lives there, including her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

“We have experienced shock, grief, outrage, anger, disbelief and everything in between at the events that unfolded on Monday morning,” Hakak said, noting she, too, has not been able to contact anyone.

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Hakak added she’s scared for her relatives who aren’t able to leave the house and wondering whether they even have enough food to eat.

Currently in Geneva for work, Hakak says she has sent letters to the UN and other international organizations asking for action.

“I don’t want the people of the valley to remember our silence, the silence of their friends, when they needed our voices the most.”

In an email statement to Global News, Global Affairs did not respond to questions on how Canadians with family in Kashmir can deal with the unfolding situation.

“We are closely following developments in Jammu and Kashmir. We are concerned about escalation and reports of detentions. We encourage discussion with people in affected communities,” the statement read.

“We call on all parties to maintain peace and stability along the Line of Control and respect civil rights. The federal government encourages Canadians travelling to the region to consult our travel advice, which is to avoid all travel.”

Meanwhile, an advocacy group called Stand with Kashmir has organized vigils across several countries, including Canada.

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A vigil, which Ahmed is helping to organize, will be held at Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square on Saturday, Aug. 10. The organization has asked attendees to wear red and bring a candle.

Pandit explained that many Canadians often don’t have much knowledge on Kashmir’s decades-long unrest, but she hopes that will change.

“I don’t know how many Canadians know that Kashmir is the most militarized zone on Earth. There is a soldier for every six people in Kashmir,” she explained.

“The reality is that it’s been ignored.”

— With files from Reuters, The Associated Press

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