A beginner’s guide to Kashmir conflict

The political will to resolve Asia’s oldest conflict remains missing.

Kashmir is a conflict that everyone overlooks until it resurfaces with fresh bouts of protests and killings. Despite being Asia’s oldest conflict, it is routinely subjected to lack of attention by the international community. Since July 8th, the region is again agitating and the right-wing prime minister, Narendra Modi-ruled New Delhi is unwilling to politically respond to Kashmiris, and instead, is blaming Pakistan for ‘instigating’ an uprising. The region is lurking in the disastrous possibility of a nuclear war as India further militarizes the civil structures in Kashmir.

Internationally, the conflict resolution has reached a stalemate as the Indian and Pakistani claims over the region obfuscate the Kashmiri political consciousness, which is routinely repressed through nationalistic narrativizing of subcontinental history. For successful conflict resolution efforts, it is important to make a rejoinder on the global understanding of the issue through engaging the repressed third party of the conflict—Kashmiris.Ieshan Delhi 20160828_021547

A Brief History

The Kashmir region which is divided between India, Pakistan, and China, was a princely state ruled by a British installed Dogra King, Gulab Singh. The popular Kashmiri uprising(s) against the Dogra monarchy paralleled the subcontinent’s anti-colonial struggle against the British rule. The region in 1947, after the British exit, was partitioned into two new countries—India and Pakistan.

According to the partition theory, Hindu-majority regions would go to India, while Muslim-majority regions would go to Pakistan. However, the Princely states had the option to join either of the newly formed countries, with due attention to their demographics. The Hindu Dogra ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, presiding over a Muslim majority, remained undecided about who to join while most others with the exception of Hyderabad and Junagadh joined almost organically either of the states. The undecidedness of the Kashmiri monarch is attributed to the complex political nature of Kashmir.

Unlike the King of Hyderabad, Hari Singh was unpopular and despotic. The region’s politics was already colored by a strong sense of nationalism of a different kind that could not simply merge with the new political formations. The logic of partition was unappealing to the leaders such as Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, a middle-class socialist Muslim from the Kashmir Valley who demanded radical reforms for Kashmiris who were oppressed during the Dogra rule.

In this situation, Hari Singh struggled to remain relevant to the politics in Kashmir given that many Muslim rebellions had already been a part of the political landscape. First, with a successful uprising of 1841 in the northern area of Gilgit-Baltistan, then in the Kashmir Valley, Shiekh Abdullah, led a Muslim uprising in 1931, and finally, the Poonch-Muslim uprising of 1947 began. The unpopularity of the Dogra ruler and the hawkish attitude of the newly formed states did not allow for a successful political transition in the region that could keep Kashmiri political consciousness central to the new nation-state project. Thus, decolonization remains a farcical reality since Kashmir was neither directly colonized nor actually decolonized.

The ethnic Poonch-Muslim revolt of 1947 in Jammu responded to the partition idea and sought the merger of Kashmir with Pakistan (Snedden 2012). However, in the Kashmir valley, the seeds of the notion of ‘autonomy’ were sown by the National Conference led by the Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The attractive socialist ideals pulled them towards India and the fear of feudalism dominating Pakistan made it an unattractive option.

It led to riots and the deaths of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslim in Jammu province. Hari Singh sought help from India to quell the attack. Many historians argue that Hari Singh himself maneuvered to maintain independent control of Kashmir but the pressure from India and the British officials forced him to sign the Instrument of Accession in 1947, in return for military help against the tribesmen. The Instrument of Accession signed by Hari Singh maintains that the entire state belongs to India including the parts now held by Pakistan. It gives India authority to control the state’s defense, foreign policy, and communications. It also calls for a referendum in the region once hostilities have ceased. The Indian forces arrived in Srinagar and the first Indo-Pak war over Kashmir territory was fought, leaving the people of Kashmir with an active Line of Control (where for last sixty years India and Pakistan have stationed their troops). The Line of Control (LoC) is the most violent line dividing villages and water-bodies in the most unrealistic ways. Many areas in the north of Kashmir suffer permanent isolation; Kargil, for instance, a city in Ladakh, historically served as a connecting town between Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan which in turn connected Kashmir to Central Asia. The severed ties affect livelihood in most brutal ways as a result of the Line of Control. Kargil suffers from terrible cultural/trade/livelihood isolation as it gets cut off from Kashmir valley for about six months during severe winters.

The important point to note about the Instrument of Accession is that it was signed by a ruler who was already shown to have been unpopular, and unrepresentative of the Kashmiri masses. On what grounds, then, is the accession valid?

The United Nations Intervention:

To end the fighting, India brought the Kashmir issue to United Nations hoping that it could get the territory controlled by Pakistan back. But the whole attempt backfired, as it was established in the United Nations that the unpopularity of the ruler demands that there must be a referendum to confirm that people have really acceded to India.  The United Nations resolution of 1948 demanded Pakistan to remove the tribesmen that had entered Kashmir to ‘liberate’ it and once that had been done to the satisfaction of the commission; India must withdraw its forces from the region in order to make way for a free and fair referendum. However, neither country fulfilled these conditions and instead through diplomatic efforts began to frame Kashmir as a bilateral issue.

Through bilateral efforts, India and Pakistan progressively dismissed all recommendations of the United Nations and continued to fight each other over territory. The intermittent bilateral treaties such as Tashkent declaration 1966, Shimla agreement 1972 and Lahore declaration 1999 continued to remove focus from the main issue —Right to self-determination, and instead were obsessed about ‘peace’ the disruption of which, was the result of warring each other for Kashmir territory.

Kashmir’s vexed relationship with India:

The popular Kashmiri leader of pre-partition era, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who presided over the National Conference, a Kashmiri secular nationalist party, had made inroads with the Indian National Congress and Jawaharlal Nehru- India’s first prime minister. He was placed as head of the Emergency Administration, and Maharaja Hari Singh was effectively deposed from power. Nehru promised Kashmiris in his historic speech in Srinagar that a referendum was the only way to seal the political future of Kashmir. The National Conference was extremely repressive and did not allow oppositional parties and individuals, including those who were pro-Pakistan, to operate. Soon after Sheikh Abdullah discovered that the Government of India was attempting to take away Kashmir’s autonomy, as detailed in the Instrument of Accession. After becoming disillusioned with the Indian leadership, Sheikh Abdullah began to make a number of speeches calling for the possibility of Kashmir’s independence. As a result, Sheikh Abdullah and his associates were arrested, under orders from the Government of India, and a puppet regime led by Bakshi Ghulam Muhammed was put in place. This illegitimate coup highlighted a trend that was to define the Government of India’s relationship with Kashmir. Each time a Kashmir leader attempted to hold on to autonomy, he was forcibly removed, and pro-New Delhi politicians would be put in place in order to curtail the political aspirations of the people. In the subsequent decades, the Government of India was to remove even the last vestiges of Kashmir’s autonomy – beat it by impeding on the state’s financial affairs, or changing the nomenclature of Kashmir’s head of state from Prime Minister to Chief Minister.

Democracy, election in a post-1953 Kashmir:

After 1953, the political processes within the state have remained fraught with tensions and violence. Despite extensive suppression from the Kashmir state leadership who favor India, a number of popular movements, including the Plebiscite Front, Political Conference, and Al Fatah, took on the cause of self-determination after Sheikh was jailed. These groups were secular nationalist groups. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Kashmir Liberation Front was organized in the territories controlled by Pakistan, which quickly gained a following in the Indian-controlled territories.  The watershed moment came when Maqbool Bhat, a Kashmiri nationalist leader affiliated with the group, was hanged in India’s Tihar jail on accusations of being a Pakistani agent. This event seriously radicalized the Kashmiri politics; several armed groups began to mushroom in Kashmir. By the early 1980’s the failure of secular nationalist politics had forced the new generation to respond to the calls of Islamic politics emanating from neighboring warn torn Afghanistan. A group of Muslim organizations, called the Muslim United Front, contested the 1989 elections, hoping to create a change through electoral politics and subsequently pass a resolution denouncing Kashmir’s accession. The election was rigged by the Government of India and led to a series of events which changed the course of Kashmiri politics. Kashmiris affiliated with both secular and religious groups, crossed the Line of Control to get arms training in the camps set up in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. After receiving their training they crossed back into Kashmir and began to fight against Indian rule. However, unlike the popular belief that most people who crossed into Kashmir were foreign mercenaries, the truth is many Pakistan-based Kashmiris who joined the ranks of the armed struggle were actually children of refugee Kashmiris who have moved to Pakistan in prior decades.

The armed uprising was to last a little over a decade, during the course of which the Government of India used the utmost brutality to quell the political aspirations of Kashmiris. After dividing and decimating the local rebel groups, and unleashing a number of violent counter-insurgency groups, the militancy began to wane in the early 2000s.

India continues to maintain that Kashmiris have a democratic system in place to create a political future. However, these claims are hugely contested on the ground. The response of counter-insurgency led to the rapid militarization of the civil society. According to India’s own admission, twenty years after Kashmir erupted into an armed insurgency, there is one Indian soldier for every 11 civilians in Kashmir. This is the highest ratio in the world. Most recently, the number is 700,000 fighting 200 active militants in Kashmir. Under such militarization, the Indian army is accused of grave human rights violations in the region by several human rights organizations. But different estimates at least 70000 to 100, 000 Kashmiris have been killed, 11000 have been subjected to enforced disappearance and sexual violence as a weapon of war is reported by 11% of the population.

India actively denies foreign organizations and journalists access to the region. Many Kashmiris have actively kept away from voting, while those who chose to vote often claim that participating in elections are not about legitimizing Indian rule, but about everyday administrative needs. The rampant militarization increased the psychological and mental health endemic and the new generation that was born and raised in this environment has suffered immensely on this account.

The minority Pandit population suffered fear and persecution due to escalated violent resistance in Kashmir that sought to target Kashmiris working for the Indian state. Many Kashmiris working for the Indian state lived under fear, which ultimately led to the mass migration of one of valley’s minority community from Srinagar to the neighboring province of Jammu. Thousands of Kashmiri Pandits suffer inhumane living conditions in the refugee camps set up in Jammu.

Since 2008, Kashmir has erupted in response to several issues concerning land rights and civilian killings. In 2010 alone, over 130 young boys were shot dead by the Indian forces and to this date, no army officer was punished. The Indian forces enjoy total impunity. The Indian army protects its soldiers with laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a British-era law that allows soldiers to shoot dead anyone on sight, on mere suspicion. The Public Safety Act is another abused law that has been used to imprison juveniles on charges of ‘stone pelting’ for up to 2 years without bail.

The militarization of Kashmiri politics has also led to the breakdown of justice systems. Many people who come in conflict with the soldiers on issues of killings, sexual violence or disappearances have cases as old as 25 years going on in the courts. Even if the courts establish that the said soldier was responsible, the cases are shifted from Kashmir courts to military courts or courts out of Kashmir. This rampant lack of justice and absence of a political will to deal with Kashmir’s young population has made a number of Kashmiri youth to only see militant ideologies as providing an answer.

Current Uprising

The brewing dismay among the youth after the 2010 mass killings paved the way for more militant aspirations. Many intellectuals had forewarned the radicalization of the youth that would follow from the lack of justice.  Thus, it was only a matter of time that a 22-year-old Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani moved into the forest of Tral in South Kashmir and began to release social media videos about his life as a militant. The young man quickly became the leader of the battered and abused teenagers in Kashmir. On 8th July, Indian authorities decided to kill Burhan Wani knowing well the repercussions of such an action. The young people thronged the streets to offer last rites and participation in the funeral prayers of their beloved leader, however, things turned ugly when the unnerved Indian army resorted to shooting pellets, tear gas and live ammunition on the protesters.

Ever since the Indian state has put Kashmir under a curfew. The internet and mobile phones are intermittently blocked. This is going to complete two months, while eighty-five civilian and protestors have been shot dead, including two hundred have been blinded due to the use of pellet guns and eight thousand or more are injured. the Government of India has also imposed an economic and financial blockade. The people on the ground report that India has gone in on an all-out war against the civilians. The United Nations issued an initial statement saying ‘it was concerned over the violence in the region’. It took the UN one month to condemn the civilian killings and mention that it was denied access to the region by India.

International stalemate

For decades, India has maintained that Kashmir is its internal matter, while Pakistan has kept raising the issue as an international one? (though oblivious to the varied political aspirations of Kashmiris living on the Indian side) and is also blamed for denying political rights to Kashmiris in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The international response to the issue has been very inadequate, while most powers have left Kashmiris to the whims and desires of the political elite in India and Pakistan who have often used the Kashmir issue for a mere point-scoring. The United Nations has served as a poor arbiter and has done little to mitigate the violence against Kashmiris.

The approach to the Kashmir issue as a mere ‘problem’ between India and Pakistan will have fatal consequences. The new generation of Kashmiris is not satisfied with this status quo and wants an effective end to the processes that deny them their rights. The people of Kashmir are genuinely emerging as a fundamental party of this historical conflict. The Kashmiris on both the Indian and Pakistani side are forming alliances to bring out narratives from on the ground to bring the world’s attention to this simmering slow war that has impacted them the most. The international community must respond through providing spaces to Kashmiris for self-representation.

The United Nations must move forward on its promise of self-determination to Kashmiris through setting up representative committees for Kashmiris on both sides of the Line of Control. It must first address the issue of lack of human rights documentation by talking to local human rights organizations like Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons working on the ground in Srinagar, the capital city of Jammu & Kashmir.

There is also a need to address immediately the on-going war crimes in Kashmir through regularly seeking to document issues from local organizations. The only way this diplomatic effort to resolve Kashmir can be successful is by recognizing Kashmiris as a genuine party of the conflict.

Kashmir continues to be under curfew; India continues to ignore the crises and as a response is increasingly further militarizing Kashmir. The Border Security Forces have reentered the city and taken over schools, colleges, and other institutions while local ministers plead Kashmiri children to go to school. The deaths are mounting and more people are being blinded through the use of pellet guns.

The recent uprising is trying to bring attention to the dangerous turn of events in the region dominated by three nuclear powers. The failure to respond to the crises will be detrimental not just to Kashmiris but to the entire South/Central Asia.

(The writer is a scholar of Political Theory and Gender Studies)

Read Also: Beyond grand narratives: is independent Kashmir viable?

(If you wish to contribute for KashmirDispatch, send your writings to editor@kashmirdispatch.com)