Suhail Ahmad Shah stood despairingly in front of the wreckage that for two decades had been his livelihood. Just hours before, he had been busy in the workshop when he heard an ominous crunch above him and the metal roof began to fall.

“No notice was served to us,” said Shah, 38. “The officials suddenly came and demolished our workshop. Nobody listens to us. We have paid rent. Isn’t this an atrocity? They have taken our livelihood.”

His workshop selling used car parts in Srinagar, the summer capital of the besieged Indian state Kashmir, was just one of dozens of structures across the region caught up in a sweeping demolition in February. Many of these occurred with little notice, even to those who had occupied the land for decades. The purpose, according to the government, was to “retrieve” government land as illegal trespass. More than 50,000 hectares of land were confiscated before the drive was suspended.

But in Kashmir, the drive has been condemned to have a more nefarious purpose. Many have condemned it as part of a wider agenda by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modito displace and expel Kashmiris from their own land and change the demographics of India’s only Muslim-majority state.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a rally in Mumbai on January 19, 2023.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a rally in Mumbai on January 19, 2023. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

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 smash homes belonging to Muslim activists accused of involvement in protests and to communities of alleged illegal immigrants.

Panic spread in Kashmir that the BJP’s so-called “bulldozer policy” was being deployed against its Muslims. Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Kashmir, called the demolition campaign “a ploy to further push people to the economic margins by demolishing their homes and livelihoods”.

Fayaz Ahmad, 52, whose junkyard of 30 years was demolished without notice or warning, agreed. “All this 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 several times for control of the disputed territory, which is divided between the two countries. On the Indian side was the state of Jammu and Kashmir where, from the early 1990s, a violent separatist insurgency arose loyal to and funded by Pakistan.

Successive governments struggled to bring the violence under control. But in August 2019, the Modi government, fulfilling a long-standing promise to its right-wing base, took unilateral action against the state, stripping it of its long-held autonomy and divide it into two territories under state control. Thousands of troops were moved into the state, the state government was dissolved, local politicians were jailed and the world’s longest internet blackout, lasting 18 months, was imposed.

Since then, the BJP has opened the doors to 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 many who believe the government is trying to change the state’s demographics from its current Muslim majority.

A redrawing of the electoral map has led to accusations of acting after it became clear that the redrawn constituencies would divide the Muslim vote in Kashmir, to the likely electoral advantage of the BJP.


The BJP says its actions since 2019 have created an era of peace for Kashmir. “Investments are coming and tourists are flocking,” Home Minister Amit Shah said in a speech. “Kashmir is slowly getting back to normal to stand in unity with the country.”

But those in the state tell a very different story – one of systematic repression under increasingly authoritarian laws and where democratic freedoms, including freedom of speech, political representation and the right to protest, have been crushed. Kashmir is now one of the most militarized zones in the world, with more than half a million soldiers to police over just 7 million citizens, with army checkpoints every few miles on the roads.

Those living in the state say censorship, both of ordinary citizens and the media, is standard practice by the government, police and military, and anyone who expresses criticism through activism or on social media is immediately taken in by the police.

While private individuals in Kashmir will rage against the Modi government and speak fearfully about the future, most are too afraid to speak out publicly. “There is fear. If someone speaks out, even on social media, they face police action. Nobody wants to go to jail,” said a student who asked not to be named. His friend was recently jailed under draconian security laws just for writing a posts on Facebook that had provoked the police.

Journalists have become a particular target. New laws were passed to strictly control their reporting, and the few journalists still producing critical coverage of the region have been subjected to harassment and interrogation, and had their phones and laptops confiscated.

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Journalists have been publicly beaten by police while some have been put on no-fly lists, preventing them from leaving the country. At local newspapers, editors and owners have deleted years of coverage critical of the government because of the mounting pressure, and once-independent papers 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, Sajad Gul’s brother. “He’s been put in a high-security cell and treated like a dangerous criminal. He’s not allowed to call home. They didn’t even allow him a pen and a diary.”

A bulldozer demolishes a shed allegedly built on government land by the owners of the Nedous Hotel, on January 31 in Srinagar, India.
A bulldozer demolishes a shed allegedly built on government land by the owners of the Nedous Hotel, on January 31 in Srinagar, India. Photo: Hindustan Times/Getty Images

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 without any political representation or outlet to express their discontent.

Political leaders who had devoted their careers to promoting pro-India politics in Kashmir but were among those jailed after 2019 accused the BJP government of authoritarianism. Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister in the region and India’s former junior foreign minister, said government-appointed administrators in Kashmir had “absolute power without accountability”.

Former Chief Minister Mufti said she and those in her party were “harassed to no end”. “I am put under house arrest quite often and not allowed to do political activities or reach out to people in need,” she said. “No one here, be it a political leader, activist or even a journalist, enjoys the freedom of speech to articulate the reality on the ground.”

The BJP has proudly proclaimed that the record number of tourists now visiting the state’s famous tulip gardens, lakes and snowy slopes is evidence of peace and prosperity. But the boom in commercial investment in the state – a justification for the measures taken in 2019 – has still not arrived, and private investment in Kashmir remains less than half of the level of 2018. Meanwhile, economic problems, including high unemployment, continue to bedevil the region.

Militants have changed strategy and carried out more targeted killings of non-locals and minority Hindus in Kashmir. This has spread fear among Kashmiri Hindus, commonly known as Pandits, 65,000 of whom fled the valley in the 1990s when it became the target of a violent pro-Pakistan insurgency. In recent months, yet another exodus of Pandits has begun.

“We don’t feel safe in Kashmir,” said Rinku Bhat, who is one of those who fled her home after the killings. “Our people are being killed in broad daylight by gunmen, inside their offices, homes. We are demanding to be placed in safer places 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. The militancy had come under control, he said, while assuring that state elections would soon take place on an unspecified date.

“There is peace in Kashmir. This is evident from the fact that people are not protesting on roads and pelting stones, unlike in the past,” Gupta said. “The people who promoted Pakistan’s agenda and raised its flag were given a free hand by previous governments. The measures taken in Kashmir were necessary, and the results are before us.”