A choice denied

Since the partition of India and Pakistan, Kashmir’s voice has been largely ignored.

Women in Kashmir protesting
Kashmiris are getting tired of having their voices ignored [EPA]

In stampless envelopes, without an address
Dead letters at the post office are we
– Zareef Ahmed Zareef, contemporary Kashmiri poet

What do the people of Indian-controlled Kashmir want?

It’s a question as old as you want it to be, but one that it is alive today, six decades after the decolonisation of the Indian subcontinent left Kashmir divided between India and Pakistan, clearly suggesting that Kashmiris themselves have not even been asked. Or been offered a credible mechanism to determine their collective will.

Instead, the general experience in Kashmir has been that of a repressed subject population ruled by a coercive and militarised governing structure, mainly constituting a client political class cultivated by New Delhi, and which therefore cannot represent the dominant Kashmiri aspiration of an end to Indian rule.

One of the manifestations of that aspiration is a deep yearning among the people of Kashmir for freedom. For a social, political and moral order that is free from suspicion, from invasive state surveillance and the constant threat of incarceration and violent death. Attributes that stem from Indian military dominance of the disputed region.


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Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent that aspiration has not remained unchanged. In the aftermath of decolonisation, and right up to the late 1980s, the yearning for freedom in Kashmir, in the main, meant being a part of Pakistan. But a significant educated political class has all along espoused an independent state of Jammu and Kashmir, free from both the rival claims of the two neighbouring countries.

The past two decades saw the political movement inside Kashmir transformed, from an armed militancy to intifada-style array of stone throwing street demonstrations – but accompanied within Kashmir by a consistent assessment of what freedom means for its people. The long experience of being a “part” of India, and a new understanding of the Pakistani state, has apparently led to a desire to be free from both.

Kashmir has a centuries-long history of struggle against rulers from outside the Himalayan region, the last being its subjugation by the Dogra rulers from the Punjab who had bought the people and their land from the British colonial authorities in 1846 with the Treaty of Amritsar.

When the British left the subcontinent in 1947, the people of Kashmir believed their moment in history had also arrived. But freedom from Dogra autocracy was soon to be replaced with India and Pakistan, both claiming the territory, and, after fighting a war over it that same year, dividing it between themselves. The Kashmiri nation, which had rallied against the Dogra regime for decades, often alongside the Indian freedom movement, was left wounded and undermined.

Resistance to the Indian rule of Kashmir has also transformed during the past six decades. After a brief five-year period of relative self-rule ended in 1952, the client Kashmiri ruling class ensured the political arm-twisting of those political groups who – in accordance with the principles of partition – wanted Kashmir to be a part of Pakistan. It paved the way for Al Fateh, an embryonic armed movement for freedom from India, but this was neutralised at an early stage during the 1970s.

This latest phase of the Kashmiri struggle to find its own place in the world turned militant in 1989, when thousands of Kashmiri Muslims – backed by Pakistan – took to arms against Indian rule. This phase also signalled the miserable failure of a several decades-long Indian attempt at emotionally integrating Kashmir with New Delhi. They fought for freedom from being misrepresented, and with the aspirations of a future outside Indian sovereignty.

Up until decolonisation of the Indian subcontinent, Kashmir’s culture, language, economy, identity, religious and social order had been a continuum of major influences from western India – now Pakistan – from central Asia, and further afield, even from Persia. That immense civilisational backyard had significantly informed the Kashmiri people’s worldview. But now Kashmir was amputated from that body and another dimension of spiritual suffering was added for its isolated inhabitants.

For generations, Kashmiris had journeyed for trade and spiritual gratification to the fabled Central Asian cities of Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand and Lhasa. All that suddenly came to an end. Kashmiris are struggling today in the hope of a chance to restore the nation to the world that had historically nurtured its identity and soul.

For the people, taking to arms meant a sharp surge in militarism by India, making Kashmir the world’s most militarised zone. That armed conflict has – so far – left 70,000 people violently killed and an unending saga of humiliation, disappeared young men, orphans, widows – and silence from the outside world.

Two decades later, the armed rebellion has received a crushing blow, but the extreme militarisation of Kashmir remains unchanged. Official estimates suggest 627,000 Indian armed forces personnel, protected with impunity laws, are deployed to control an acutely alienated population of a little more than ten million.

Strategy for independence

To regain self-rule, Kashmiri resistance groups had tried the electoral route that the Indian constitution held out, despite a long history of a lack of credibility of that process. Elections held ostensibly for administrative purposes had always been interpreted by New Delhi as repeated referendums in its favour. But all that changed in 1987 when elections to the state legislature were massively rigged in favour of the expressly pro-India parties. For many of those who later picked up arms, and others who would be called “separatists”, that election meant the end of constitutionally permissible ways to determine political destiny, and marked the beginning of an armed uprising.

The heavy cost of two decades of this war, and the post 9/11 global “war on terror” have also forced Kashmiris to re-assess their strategy to avoid being branded as “terrorists”. The armed rebellion has for the most part today metamorphosised into mass anti-India street protests, which, since 2008, challenges Indian rule in ways that are more acceptable internationally. But, like the harsh military response to armed militancy and the resultant militarised scenario, the government’s response to street protests has been brutal. Two years before Tahrir Square, Kashmir had its own “million-man-march” against Indian rule. Government forces killed 60 unarmed protesters during the mass rally.

In 2010, during anti-India stone throwing street protests against Indian rule, government action added more than 100 youths to the body count in Kashmir. Enraged Kashmiri people responded by memorialising their loss, struggle and sacrifice – forcing New Delhi to change its approach, if only superficially.

Deeply resented by Kashmiris, the invasive presence of the incredibly high concentration of armed forces among them now seeks acceptance among the population as coercive partners for their future within India. The army and other federal paramilitary forces have started a new “hearts and minds” campaign in the hope of winning acceptability among the Kashmiri youth at the forefront of the new movement for freedom. It clearly indicates the absence of any intention to demilitarise Kashmir, even as it is becoming increasingly unbearable for everyone – except those among the pro-India political elite.

Harsh Indian rule

For the immediate future, Kashmiris want an end to a situation that in the Indian perspective necessitates draconian laws such as the Public Safety Act (PSA) and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to keep its hold over the Kashmiri people. Under the PSA, described by Amnesty International as a “lawless law”, a political dissenter can be jailed for up to two years without formal charges or a trial. Hundreds of protesters arrested on charges of throwing stones at government forces have also been slapped with PSA charges. The law is wantonly used as a revolving door to keep dissenting voices “out of circulation”.

The AFSPA, on the other hand, grants sweeping powers and impunity to the federal armed forces deployed in Kashmir in their hundreds of thousands. Its provisions allow armed forces personnel to arrest or kill people and destroy private property on the mere suspicion that of actions against the state.

Armed forces’ personnel accused of grave human rights violations such as custodial killings of civilians and rape cannot be tried in civilian courts unless specifically permitted by New Delhi. Human rights defenders and police themselves have established hundreds of such cases prima facie against army and paramilitary forces’ personnel, but not a single prosecution has been possible since 1990 – for want of the mandatory sanction from New Delhi.

But demands for demilitarising Kashmir and the repeal of laws such as AFSPA have started coming from within Indian civil society as well. The Indian army has declined to operate in Kashmir without the cover of AFSPA by calling the impunity law its “holy book”.

With the bitter national memory of loss and humiliation caused by the militarisation of Kashmir, New Delhi is unlikely to succeed in attempts to normalise this extreme situation.

Meanwhile, Kashmiris are feeling ever more politically choked after the mass upsurge of the summer of 2010 – which was followed by a massive security crackdown, large scale arrests of protesters and resistance leaders alike from across the region – including some who are charged with protesting on Facebook.

The renewed stifling conditions have pushed the new generation of youth to force open new spaces amid the enforced “surface calm” which prevails now, after three years of mass protests against Indian rule and retaliatory killings by government forces. They have begun representing themselves by writing about their condition using the internet and social media such as Facebook and Youtube to reach out to a wider world. However, there is yet no sign of any significant change visible on the horizon.

Status quo

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently hoped that “Pakistan will leave Kashmir alone” he also revealed the Indian state’s will to maintain the status quo, in the face of a decades-old mass movement for the right to self-determination in the part India holds in the disputed region.

In the autumn of 2010, New Delhi also appointed three interlocutors to engage “all shades of political opinion” in Kashmir. They lack credibility in Kashmir, as the main resistance leadership continues to refuse to meet them – mainly because the interlocutors are working for a political solution to the issue of Kashmir within the Indian Constitution.

An approach to resolve the dispute without the participation of Kashmiri resistance leadership presents a cul-de-sac. The region remains a keg of bitter and unforgiving memory, likened by many observers now to a live bomb – connected to a fuse that is already lit. The military establishment is constantly trying to lengthen the fuse.

Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers recently resumed a bilateral dialogue, but nothing more than enhancing a few existing Kashmir-specific confidence-building measures between the nuclear-armed rivals was achieved. The Kashmiri demand of inclusion in that dialogue process has again been ignored.

While people in Kashmir are waiting for the two countries to agree to end their political and existential uncertainty, they continue a lonely journey – pushing for, and hoping to win, a chance to decide their own future. 

Parvaiz Bukhari is an independent journalist reporting from Indian-controlled Kashmir.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera