Delhi turning occupied Kashmir into surveillance state

SRINAGAR: In Indian occupied Kashmir, shopkeepers are spending hundreds of dollars each to install security cameras mandated by authorities in a move activists say is aimed at creating a surveillance state — and outsourcing the cost.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has struggled to strengthen its hold over the Muslim-majority region, where a large number of people do not want to be part of India.

Half a million soldiers are stationed in the occupied territory and a 2019 crackdown has seen unprecedented restrictions on protest and press freedoms.

Already there are security cameras on almost every street in Srinagar and in other towns.

Shopkeepers made to install CCTV systems inside their premises at own expense

But last month, local administrators instructed shopkeepers to install CCTV systems inside their premises — at their own expense — to enhance the police’s ability to watch people’s every move.

The orders say the scheme will “deter criminals, (and) anti-social and anti-national elements”, while outlining minimum standards for camera resolution, infrared capability and range.

Always on, the systems should record and store footage for 30 days to be produced on demand from “police and any other law enforcement agencies” without a court order. Failure to abide by the orders, which took effect last month, is punishable by a fine or a month’s imprisonment.

Surveillance system dealers in Srinagar said meeting the CCTV standards would cost every store upwards of 40,000 rupees.

“The specifications given in the order make it unaffordable for me at a time when business is down,” Bilal Ahmed, who runs an ice cream parlour in Srinagar’s main business area, said.

Bilal Ahmed said he was waiting to see whether others would abide before deciding what to do, but many are already installing the system to avoid potential punishment.

“This order is wrong. But if this is what they want, then the government should pay for it,” another Srinagar shopkeeper said while begrudgingly installing a camera system, speaking anonymously for fear of government reprisals.

Snooping techniques

India has long relied on an array of surveillance techniques to tackle Kashmiri fighters and combat dissent against its rule.

Prime Minister Modi’s government nullified the occupied region’s limited autonomy in 2019, with authorities arresting thousands and imposing the world’s longest internet shutdown to forestall a backlash. It has also imposed a rigid security framework that has rendered public protest virtually impossible.

Aakar Patel, former head of Amnesty International in India, said the CCTV order “is a worrying development”.

It will legitimise “a complete surveillance of their civic life, threatening their human rights to privacy, freedom of assembly, autonomy and dignity”, Patel said.

Already soldiers regularly confiscate Kashmiris’ cell phones to scrutinise their activities. Arrests over social media posts criticising the Indian government are common and police have a robust network of paid civilian informers.

Residents, including journalists, are regularly summoned for “background verifications”. If someone does not show up, their relatives can be held until the person reports to police.

But snooping techniques have become more sophisticated, with Indian forces installing an expansive network of cameras to monitor Kashmiri fighters.

An official document says this will include 1,100 cameras with facial recognition capabilities and centralised command centres for live police monitoring.

Repeated requests to authorities for comment on the legality of the CCTV order to shopkeepers went unanswered. “But the government describing it as related to Kashmir’s security trumps every other consideration,” one lawyer said.

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