How does a pandemic play out in the most densely militarised place on Earth, already inured to curfews and other military operations that restrict movement and disrupt the flow of everyday life?

As confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kashmir cross 4,500, the Valley’s residents have had compromised access to telephone and high speed internet services, despite coming out of a seven-month communication blackout only recently.

In August 2019, the autonomy of Jammu & Kashmir was abrogated and the state was bifurcated into two union territories, to be directly governed by New Delhi.

Into already fraught political circumstances comes the COVID-19 pandemic. In Indian-controlled Kashmir, many locals feel that the Indian State is using the pandemic as a cover to implement massive structural changes – to carry out highly aggressive military operations in civilian neighbourhoods, as well as bring new domicile laws into effect, which they fear will bring about massive demographic changes to India’s only Muslim-majority state.

A representative of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) says, “Since the lockdown, there has been an exponential increase in violence in Kashmir, with frequent encounters leading to the killing of militants and destruction of scores of properties [sic] during encounters. In fact, violence has been at a peak in the current lockdown, as compared to the first two months of this year. The government of India has disregarded the UN General Secretary’s call for a ceasefire in conflict zones and has instead taken advantage of the pandemic to scale up its counter-insurgency efforts.”

This photo essay documents the recent wave of state violence in the region, and the mental and emotional trauma and destruction left in its wake.

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During the pandemic, Indian security forces have increased their presence in the Valley, including in neighbourhoods in downtown Srinagar – already some of the most militarised areas in Kashmir. In the early hours of 19 May, 2020, Indian security forces allegedly launched an aggressive cordon and search operation of the neighbourhood, followed by an armed confrontation, known as an “encounter,” against militants in the densely populated neighbourhood of Nawakadal.

However, the military “encounter” became an excuse for widespread and indiscriminate destruction and violence.

Many people said that in the past, they did not believe that Indian security forces could carry out an intensive military operation in downtown Srinagar because of its congested, densely populated areas.

However, on that day in May, Nawakadal’s residents awoke to loudspeakers blaring messages, indicating the imposition of a curfew under Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code.

Gun-toting forces allegedly stood on top of jeeps surveying the streets, and razor-wire spikes in the middle of streets blocked movement. The sounds of explosions from somewhere close kept many residents awake.

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A young boy in his night clothes, along with his family, is seen moving to a safer place in the wee hours of 19 May, 2020. Some residents also reported being asked to forcibly evacuate their homes in the middle of the night, without their belongings.

“We heard army vehicles rumbling up and down the street,” says Mubeena, a woman who has grown up in this neighbourhood, and who was one among many rendered homeless by the military’s actions. “Around 1 am, we heard a series of loud knocks on the doors in the neighbourhood. I thought they had come to quarantine a suspected COVID-19 case in the area,” Mubeena adds.

Sixteen-year-old Sajid was asleep at midnight when security forces allegedly barged into his house. “I heard my father’s trembling voice waking me up. It’s rare that my father wakes me up. The moment I opened my eyes, I couldn’t believe it, I saw men in uniform pointing their guns towards me, shouting 'Gun nikalo' [give us your gun].”

Sajid couldn’t tell if it was a nightmare or reality. “I was perplexed and didn’t know what was happening, I gathered courage and said 'Yahaan kuch nahi hai mere paas, mai bahar aaunga, mujhe kapde pehenne do’ [There is nothing here, let me put on my clothes and I will come outside]. The soldiers searched every nook and cranny, and every resident. It was only after some time had passed that I realised we were under cordon [a cordon and search operation, or what in Kashmir is colloquially referred to as a ‘crackdown’].”

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Shaista, a mother of twins, says she heard shots being fired in the lawn of her home that afternoon. “Security forces stormed into our house. What we witnessed that day will haunt us forever. Throwing social distancing for a toss, they entered our house — there were too many of them to count — and they pointed guns at us and forced us to assemble in the kitchen," she says.

She adds that they took off the curtains from the kitchen door, and that the family saw some troops allegedly dragging a person by his hair in the house. “They hurled him against the sill of the door and started abusing and kicking the body. We shivered and watched helplessly. They warned us to not utter a word and made us witness [the proceedings]. Some soldiers went upstairs and started breaking window panes, while others surrounded the body and started shooting indiscriminately. The crashing, loud gunshots left us deaf and feeling helpless. Within a few seconds, the body was lying in a pool of blood.”

Shaista says the image of the person allegedly killed that day gives her nightmares. “Witnessing this brutal killing continues to haunt me and my seven-year-old twins… They are using trauma to suppress the feelings of people.”

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She also alleges that a trooper snatched the dupatta that she was wearing around her neck. He wrapped it around an injury sustained by a fellow trooper, she adds.

The Nawakadal operation eventually claimed the lives of two militants and three civilians. The dead include Hizbul Mujahideen’s commander Junaid Sehrai, the son of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat Conference chairman Ashraf Sehrai.

The operation also rendered dozens of families homeless in the middle of a pandemic.

Over 15 houses have been damaged, contradicting DGP Dilbagh Singh’s statement at a press conference about the encounter being a “clean operation” with minimal collateral damage. “Ghar ko bhi koi khaas nuksaan nahi hua hai [even houses haven’t been particularly damaged],” he said.

One witness claims he saw Indian armed forces set several houses on fire in the aftermath of the gunfight. Eyewitnesses report having heard a loud bang, suggesting that several homes were destroyed with IEDs (improvised explosive devices). More than a dozen houses were allegedly razed to the ground, and residents have alleged several homes were looted by the forces.

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At least four people were critically injured after a damaged house collapsed on them in the aftermath of the encounter. Three civilians — Manzoor Ahmad (55), Fayaz Ahmad (25), and 12-year-old Basim Aijaz — eventually succumbed to burn injuries in a Srinagar hospital.

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The family of 12-year-old Basim Aijaz mourns his death at his residence in the neighbourhood of Nawakadal.

Basim’s father recalls their last conversation, where he asked his son’s forgiveness for being hard on him and stopping him from wandering around with his friends. His father recalled how Basim forgave both him and his mother. “We also forgave you. We couldn’t recognise you. We were blessed to have you after six years. You [Basim] left us on this blessed day, they [the grave diggers] said, 'How pious was he, his grave was filled with fragrance!'” the father says.

Basim’s demise is symptomatic of the severity of violence in the Valley, which has not left children untouched, as demonstrated by a 2018 JKCCS report. With 318 child deaths between 2003 and 2017, the report, through studying the pattern of killings, suggests that children are in fact direct targets of state violence.

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The houses that were destroyed in the encounter smouldered for days.

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“I haven’t seen anything as horrifying as this in my entire life,” says Heemal, another resident whose house was destroyed. “We have lost everything — our life’s savings, jewellery, and our home. We have also lost the will to live. For the third consecutive day, houses continue to burn and have turned into dunes of black charcoal and ashes. Ye cha zindagi amie khotie behtar chu marun [Is this how life is supposed to be? It is better to die than to live in the current circumstances],” she murmurs, while looking around at the ashen neighbourhood.

When asked about the killing of a militant and civilians' allegation that they were made witness to it, CRPF PRO Pankaj Singh said that witnesses and investigations are handled by the civil police. He termed the operation as being "clean" and added that there was no collateral damage. "Militants enter civilian houses and make civilians their scapegoat. We have to release them [civilians], following which the operation can start, because there is firing going on (sic). This is all part of operations, what can we do? There were some houses which were destroyed, and this was also reported in the news. Luckily, during the operation, there was no collateral damage — there was not a single scratch on any civilian. We make it a point that not one civilian is touched," he said. When this correspondent reached out to IGP Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, for comment, he directed us to SSP Srinagar, Haseeb Mughal. Mughal did not respond despite several attempts to contact him.

Journalist Anuradha Bhasin says the upsurge in violence and counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir after the announcement of the COVID-19 lockdown is a matter of concern, because it is drawing attention away from the pandemic, to the law and order situation. "The problem is that during the encounters, excessive use of violence has been seen, while the militants are also engaging the security forces during the operations; the security forces will obviously counter the attacks. Counter-insurgency operations can be carried out if there is a major threat. But there are certain standard operation procedures. Unfortunately, these do not appear to be followed," she says.

She adds that the encounter in downtown Srinagar is a sign of "immense insensitivity" on the part of government agencies. "Usually in these counter-insurgency operations, if militants are hiding in a certain building, the security forces destroy that building to ensure that there are no booby traps — part of the warfare strategy. However, SOPs have been violated in this particular case. An entire neighbourhood was brought down... The government has done nothing by way of compensation, shelter for the people who were wronged.”

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As a resident put it, while dousing the flames at one home, "This approach has a clear purpose. This is how India wants to control Kashmir and its people. It is a de-facto military occupation: they are finishing off Kashmiris, throwing them out of their homes, taking away their shelter. In the name of ‘collateral damage,’ they justify anything and everything!”

— All photographs by Sanna Irshad Mattoo

Sanna Irshad Mattoo is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer based and working in Kashmir. Visual stories, reports,and articles by her have been published in various international, national and local media outlets. 

Twitter: www.twitter.com/mattoosanna | Instagram: www.instagram.com/sanna.irshad.mattoo