NEW DELHI — On Aug. 5, at 1:15 a.m., Asifa Mubeen was woken up by the sound of barking dogs as police officers began pouring into her yard.
Her husband, Mubeen Shah, a wealthy Kashmiri merchant, stepped out onto their bedroom balcony in the night air. The officers shouted that he was under arrest. When he asked to see a warrant, his wife said, the officers told him there wouldn’t be one.
“This is different,” they said. “We have orders.”
It was the start of one of the biggest mass arrests of civilian leaders in decades carried out by India, a close U.S. partner that bills itself as one of the world’s leading democracies.
Local officials say that at least 2,000 Kashmiris — including business leaders, human rights defenders, elected representatives, teachers, and students as young as 14 — were rounded up by the federal security forces in the days right before and after the Indian government unilaterally stripped away Kashmir’s autonomy.
The detainees have not been able to communicate with their families or meet with lawyers. Their whereabouts remains unknown. Most were taken in the middle of the night, witnesses said.
Critics say that even under India’s tough public safety laws this is illegal, and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is bending the Indian legal system to cut off any possible criticism in Kashmir and go after anyone with a voice — be that a successful merchant like Mubeen Shah, a politician or a professor.
“Kashmir is silent as a graveyard,” said Vrinda Grover, a human rights lawyer.
The Indian government isn’t sharing what charges the detainees face or how long they will be held. Some were reported to have been flown on secret air force flights to jails in Lucknow, Varanasi and Agra.
On Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Office said it was “gravely concerned.”
Political analysts say the mass roundup was the final piece of a detailed plan that Modi’s government set into motion last year. This included postponing state elections in Kashmir to create a gap in local leadership. Indian officials then changed India’s Constitution and moved to erase Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood without any input from Kashmiris — though many lawyers have said that might not be legal, either.
Bringing Kashmir to heel has been a Hindu-nationalist dream. It was India’s only Muslim-majority state (it is now to become two federally administered territories) and a place where Pakistan, India’s archrival, enjoys some support. Kashmir was an obvious sore for the nationalist political movement that has flourished among India’s Hindu majority, powering Modi’s stunning rise.
For decades, Kashmir has been racked by militancy, oppression and unrest. Kashmiris are feeling especially demoralized and cornered now. The fear is that the area is about to ignite; even with phone lines cut, leaders in jail and soldiers on every street, protests are erupting. Some are peaceful. Others descend into stone-pelting clashes.
But the fury is there, always.
“There is only one solution!” the crowds cheer. “Gun solution! Gun solution!”
Modi’s move instantly raised tensions with Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation that also claims part of Kashmir. Its prime minister, Imran Khan, harshly criticized Modi on Wednesday, saying he had rebuffed Khan’s requests to talk.
Large numbers of troops have been moving on both sides of the border, fortifying positions in the Himalayan mountains, according to Western intelligence officials.
Both nations are armed with nuclear weapons, and President Donald Trump has urged them to reduce tensions and to avoid tipping the crisis over into war.
But Modi seems intent on digging in, and he has the Indian public firmly behind him. Many Indians see Kashmir as an integral part of India, and this move has stirred up jingoist feelings. Indian news channels have referred to the detainees being flown out of Kashmir as “Pakistani terrorists” or “separatist leaders,” toeing the government line.
The Indian Home Ministry will not answer questions about the mass arrests, including how many people have been taken into custody. The Foreign Ministry won’t say why foreign journalists continue to be blocked from setting foot in Kashmir, even when government officials insist the situation is returning to normal.