BALHAMA, Kashmir — As the sun slipped behind the Himalayas, the poet picked his way down to the rocky riverbed. He looked left and right to make sure nobody was watching. Then, to the burbling water, he began to read:
Each word spoken here meets censors and checks
Yesterday the ones sermonizing on dignity
Have today rude daggers kissing their necks.
All his life, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat has read the poetry of resistance to anybody who would listen. During the mid-1990s peak of the insurgency in his home of Kashmir, the starkly beautiful land long claimed by both India and Pakistan, he sang eulogies for militants at their funerals.
For that, the local government dragged him to detention centers, where he wrote poetry and read it to fellow detainees after they were hung by their wrists and forced to stare at high-voltage lamps. All he needed, he said, was a pen and a piece of paper.
Now, more than two decades later, Mr. Bhat — who writes under the pen name Madhosh Balhami — reads and composes poetry in secret.
“In the last 30 years I have never seen this kind of suppression,” he said. “There is silence everywhere, as if the silence is the best cure for our present crisis.”
Indian forces now keep the largely Muslim region under a tight grip. New Delhi poured additional soldiers into Kashmir two years ago as it stripped the region of about eight million people of its semiautonomy.
And in cracking down on free expression, the authorities have muzzled the region’s poets, practitioners of a centuries-long tradition. Three Kashmiri poets told The New York Times that they were questioned recently for hours by police officers for speaking to journalists.
In interviews, more than a dozen others said increased surveillance has left them with no choice but to stop writing resistance poetry or forced them to read it in places far from the gazing eyes of the agents of the state.
“We are not allowed to breathe until and unless we breathe as per the rules and the wishes of the government,” said Zabirah, a Kashmiri poet who uses only one name. “The silencing of voices, the freedom to speak and vent grievances, all is gone, and it is suffocating.”
Ms. Zabirah now takes inspiration from Kashmir’s military checkpoints, bristling with soldiers and endless roadblocks:
The pathways leading to and from
my worn-out heart are sealed
with concertina wire
Stay put till the heart rebels
we will both escape one day
and leave behind a vibrant nation
The Indian government, which has grown weary of the region’s persistent violence, has argued that it can better guarantee individual rights by taking firm control and said it has a plan to reinvigorate the regional economy. Officials in Kashmir did not respond to requests for comment.
Nirmal Singh, a top leader of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and former deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, the formal name for the India-controlled territory, said officials want to curb the separatist activities that have long flourished in the Kashmir valley.
“Be it poets or anyone else, questioning India’s territorial integrity will not be allowed. If you speak about azadi or Pakistan, that will not be allowed,” said Mr. Singh, referring to the Kashmir term for independence. “You can speak anything within the limits of the Indian constitutional framework. Nobody will be stopped.”
Local officials have taken a tough stance on where those limits lie. Journalists are told what to write, and some have been barred from flying out of the country. The police have threatened to slap antiterrorism charges on reporters who tweet about conditions there.
Since 2019, more than 2,300 people have been jailed under stringent sedition and antiterrorism laws, which criminalized such activities as raising slogans or posting political messages on social media, according to one Indian media outlet.
Even peaceful protests are quickly stopped by police. On Aug. 5, the second anniversary of India’s crackdown, many Kashmiri shopkeepers locked their doors in protest. Then in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, plainclothes men armed with long iron rods and blades began cutting the locks on the doors and gates of shuttered shops, forcing owners to return.
The police appeared with the men cutting the locks and did nothing to stop them. When asked by a reporter why the police were there, one officer said they were protecting shopkeepers. Another shooed journalists away.
Kashmir has long stood as a crossroads between the Hindu and Muslim worlds. Its poetry reflects that rich history and celebrates the land’s ivory-tipped mountaintops, crystalline lakes and dazzling wildflower fields.
But for centuries, Kashmir’s poets and politics have been intertwined. Lal Ded, an influential poet who wrote in the 1300s, has been claimed by Hindus and Muslims alike. A 14th-century mystic, Sheikh Noor-ud-Din, used his writing to spread Islam as well as his idea regarding social reform and individual mores in Kashmiri society.
Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet who died in 2001, brought contemporary recognition to the region’s poetic traditions — and used the violence of the 1990s uprising as inspiration:
I am writing to you from your far-off country.
Far even from us who live here
Where you no longer are.
Everyone carries his address in his pocket
At least his body will reach home.
The militants sought full independence from India, sparking years of violence. Though the fighting eventually ebbed, separatists have lingered in the region for years and enjoyed support among large parts of the population.
Then a suicide bombing killed more than 40 Indian soldiers and a subsequent military clash between Indian and Pakistan erupted near their disputed Kashmir border, leading to New Delhi’s crackdown in the summer of 2019.
On a recent afternoon, Zeeshan Jaipuri, 26, a Kashmiri poet, sat with his friends inside the ruins of a fort overlooking Srinagar, reading verses inspired by years of violence:
Riding on the domain’s fierce winds, the clamoring heart
Went around dejected seasons.
Saw the blood of yearning here and there.
Found restless hearts here and there.
Found every speck drowned in mourning.
Mr. Jaipuri, grandson of a famous Kashmiri poet, grew embittered in 2010, when a tear-gas canister killed his 17-year-old neighbor. He grew to hate his school textbooks, which portrayed Kashmir as a happy tourist place.
Still, he said, in past years artists and poets did not need to struggle so hard to find places to express themselves.
“Now we read our poetry to ourselves, or to a few close friends,” Mr. Jaipuri said. “Our throats are pressed because the government doesn’t want us to breathe in fresh air,” he said.
Conflict, too, had touched Mr. Bhat, the poet who writes as Madhosh Balhami. In early 2018, militants pushed their way into his home. Indian soldiers arrived to battle them. He lost his house and more than a thousand pages of poetry. Watching the flames, he said later, felt like watching his own body burn.
Later, he wrote:
The tyranny that Kashmir has had to endure
Deserves never ever be forgotten, be unknown
Inside our hearts enshrouded we have kept
Wounds, as such, too ugly to be shown
Today he keeps his poems largely to himself. Over the past two years, the police had summoned him several times and told him he was trying to sow discord.
In these times, he said, silence is golden.
“Fingers are not trembling, but the brain says no,” Mr. Bhat said as he sat on the bank of the river, wary of the sight of others. “India has largely prevailed to choke our voices, but the cry of freedom inside our hearts will remain. It will not die.”