As India moves towards a majority Hindu backed rule, the situation in Kashmir has further deteriorated.
Kashmir, the disputed mountainous region, is currently in the midst of the longest internet and phone lockdown in history. Lockdowns are not new; Kashmiris know of them all too well. They have been subject to them regularly in their history. However, the magnitude of the most recent lockdown has reached heights never seen before. Kashmir has a history of violence and it shows no signs of slowing down. Prime Minister Modi’s 2019 controversial citizenship bills passed last year and the decision to revoke the privileged status Kashmir had held under the Indian constitution for 70 years have shattered the founding fathers’ vision of a secular and democratic India. To add insult to injury, amidst the global pandemic and a spike in cases, Prime Minister Modi and the BJP marked the August 5th anniversary of revoking the special status by inaugurating a Temple, believed to be the site of birth of the Lord Rama (a Hindu deity) upon the demolished site of the Mughal-era Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, that was razed to the ground by Hindu nationalists in 1992. As India moves towards a majority Hindu backed rule, the situation in Kashmir has further deteriorated.
Kashmir, the rooftop of the world, is also the most militarized area in the world. India, Pakistan and China all claim sovereignty over: all of Kashmir or parts of it. The region is located at a geopolitical vantage point in South and Central Asia. Nation-states and political actors have fulfilled their agendas at the behest of Kashmir and its people. As pandemic related lockdowns are carefully being lifted globally, the question must be asked: when will the lockdown in Kashmir end?
The population of Kashmir can be divided into five major regions. There is Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistani-administered Kashmir, the valley of Kashmir where the capital Srinagar (administered by India) is located, and on the Eastern front there is Ladakh and Aksai Chin. While Kashmir’s history dates back thousands of years, it’s vital to consider historical events of import to understand the situation today. Kashmir’s modern history began in the fourteenth century with the spread of Islam during the Kashmir Sultanate when Persian replaced Sanskrit as the main language. During the Mughal period, emperors exalted Kashmir and built gardens, palaces and mosques throughout the region. After Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, Mughal influence waned and Kashmir was conquered by the raiding Durrani Empire until it came under Sikh control in 1819 after Ranjit Singh gained control. Around this time, British influence had grown considerably in India and the Anglo-Sikh War of 1845–46 fought between the Sikh Empire and the East India Company resulted in the defeat of the Sikhs and the British assumed control of Kashmir and other regions in a fractured India.
The British pliantly installed Maharaja Gulab Singh, a Hindu Dogra ruler, who bought Jammu & Kashmir (including Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan) from the British after signing the Treaty of Amritsar. As early as 1931, Kashmiri Muslims began protesting against Maharaja Hari Singh’s policies, which were seen to be prejudiced against the majority Mulsim population. This movement was actively suppressed by the British backed state at the time. In 1932, Sheikh Abdullah founded the All Jammu & Kashmir Muslim Conference, which vowed to fight for the rights of the region’s Muslims. The 1934 Elections saw the AJKMC win 14 out of the 21 reserved Muslims seats but control of the princely state still remained in the hands of the Dogra rulers.
The Second World War brought about the end of British rule in the Indian subcontinent. A new nation, Pakistan, also came into existence. The premise for its creation was that the Muslims of the subcontinent had their own distinct culture, language, religion, history and tradition and were entitled to protections from majority Hindu rule after the British left. However, the allocation of land was a tricky matter. The British brought in a civil servant who had never visited India before, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, to partition the subcontinent on the basis of the communal divide. Princely states around 600 at the time of Partition), like Kashmir, had the option to choose which country to cede to. Kashmir, in 1947, had a Hindu ruler and a ninety percent Muslim population. Pandit J. Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister, traced his family’s heritage to Kashmir and wanted Kashmir to be a part of India. Muslims already within and those moving to Pakistan, viewed Kashmir as an integral part of Pakistan, given its overwhelmingly Muslim population, which had been the basis for the Partition in the first place. Pashtun tribes crossed into Indian-held Kashmir and stirred a revolt against the ruler of Kashmir. Singh asked India for help against the tribal invasion. India, only vowed to help militarily if Kashmir acceded to India.
Kashmir’s ruler, under pressure from V. P. Menon and with the looming threat of an attack, fled Srinagar for Jammu and signed the Instrument of Accession on October 26, 1947 which made Kashmir a part of India. Kashmir was given special status through Article 370 under the constitution which stipulated that Kashmir would have autonomy over everything save communications, foreign affairs and defence. In 1956, Article 35A was ratified which provided ‘permanent residents’ protections in employment, scholarships and the right to buy and own property. Both laws have since been revoked.
In late 1947, conflict continued until the United Nations passed Resolution 47 that called on Pakistan to withdraw its troops and India to cut its military presence. A ceasefire was declared, leaving India in control of the Kashmir Valley, Jammu and Ladakh. Pakistan acquired control of Gilgit-Baltistan and a portion of Kashmir. The U.N. called for an independent plebiscite on the Kashmir question allowing the residents of Kashmir to decide their own fate. 73 years later, their voices are still unheard. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir in 1947, 1965 and 1999, and have clashed in countless skirmishes along the Line of Control. They have fought through proxy outfits which have destabilized the region. India has also fought a war with China in 1962 over Aksai Chin: an area where tensions recently flared up in May 2020 over vital communication lines.
Pakistan, India and China and other foreign entities continue to play politics over Kashmir. While the powers that be take their time, Kashmir suffers. Under the constant threat of a curfew, Kashmiris are unable to voice their opinions. They are barred from accessing the internet or making phone calls. Citizens are killed with impunity, denied basic human rights and are seized and shot in their own homes. Instead of exchanging mithai (sweets), shelling and pellet guns are their mode of communication. Journalists are killed and activists go missing. Insurgencies have been launched, bombs have exploded, Pandits have fled the region and the militarization has intensified. Adventures in Siachen and Kargil have taken the lives of young soldiers. Mothers mourn the death of their young sons who lived and died under the shade of this dispute. India and Pakistan have severed ties on several occasions since 1947. They have even stopped playing cricket against each other.
Surgical strikes have been launched, pilgrims have been targeted and national elections have been won on both sides over the years on the basis of empty rhetoric that has alluded to Kashmir.
Nationalist rhetoric trumps human rights concerns when it comes to Kashmir. Pakistan’s entire foreign policy is centered around making Kashmir azad (f ree). India wants complete control of the region and with a Hindu nationalist agenda gaining momentum in Delhi under the rule of the BJP, the prospects of Kashmir’s independence diminish. China also claims part of Aksai Chin. The situation is extremely convoluted.
The longer the delay in carrying out the proposed U.N. referendum, restoring human rights and lifting the lockdowns and the curfews, the harder this dispute becomes to unravel and solve. British divide and rule policy has effectively penetrated every facet of the subcontinent’s society, including its mind and psyche. And this has made Kashmir a very sensitive and religiously charged issue. The Neelum and Jhelum Rivers have been soiled with the blood of its own people. Protests have been waged in Times Square and Shaheen Bagh, but authoritarian governments have paid no heed. The plight of the Kashmiris is mirrored by the growing hatred between the nations and people of the subcontinent. The explosion and prevalence of nationalism in South Asia has undercut any serious attempts at solving the Kashmir dispute.
The issue is an emotional one and is currently the major bone of contention between two nuclearly armed neighbors. Kashmir could serve as the starting point of normalizing relations between India and Pakistan. Instead, regional powers choose to fight through proxies and words. If the two neighbours normalized relations, the subcontinent could begin to look like East Asia, where economic concerns are primary and military ones are afterthoughts. A major portion of South Asia’s population lives below the poverty line. We compete in the global market against each other, and with so little. What little the region does possess is largely funding an arms race and a military conflict that has no foreseeable end in sight. The 1947 migration between India and Pakistan has produced communities that are struggling to settle and come to peace with their surroundings. India’s denial of the situation is exploiting lives, human rights and property. Pakistan’s outdated position is exacerbating an already strained situation without offering practical solutions.
One can hope that the day comes when the people and leaders of India, Pakistan and China actively work to find a solution that works for the entire region, but especially for the Kashmiris. On that note, Eqbal Ahmad had offered a proposal in Confronting Empire whereby Pakistani administered Kashmir remains with Pakistan and Jammu and Ladakh remain under Indian sovereignty. Most importantly, the valley of Kashmir would be given independence. This necessarily means that it would not come under the control of either country. Pakistan and India must envisage uniting Kashmir with divided sovereignty. This would entail getting rid of the Line of Control and Border Patrols, enabling trade and creating a government answerable only to Kashmiris. This government would be solely responsible for the defense of the mountains. This proposal sought to create a bridge of peace, which would allow each community maximum autonomy with divided sovereignty. Kashmir has been under lockdown for far too long and it is the responsibility of all the involved powers to reach a solution that resolves the tensions and gives the South Asian region a chance at peace.
Until the Kashmir question is addressed properly, the Indian subcontinent will not know peace. Nationalism, on both sides of Radcliffe’s line, has curbed human development, friendly relations and social progress. The Kashmir issue hinders India’s rise as a world power and does not allow it to become a permanent member of the U.N. security council. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s security state grows stronger as its Kashmir-centric policy dominates national discourse. In both countries, nationalist rhetoric further militarizes civil society and the war-mongering and perceived hatred of ‘the other’ reaches new heights on prime-time television shows while religiously backed government policies actively mobilize the hatred of the masses.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s movie, Haider ( an adaptation of Hamlet, set in Kashmir), sheds light on the insurgency and civilian disappearances carried out in Kashmir during the nineties. As you watch the film, you realize how easy it must be to lose touch with reality when an entire region lives under the fear of oppression and domination. Haider shows how the perpetual cycle of revenge goes on unchecked in the valley. The way things currently stand, the quote famously attributed to Gandhi seems fitting for South Asia and the entire globe: an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. And if we cannot see, what will we be able to achieve?