The day the story of Kashmir changed forever

India unintentionally internationalised the Kashmir issue when it revoked the region’s special status in August.

New York Kashmir Protest Reuters
Demonstrators protest in solidarity with the people of Kashmir outside the United Nations headquarters in New York, US, September 27, 2019 [Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

On October 22, the US House Subcommittee on Asia held an historic hearing on Human Rights in Asia. While the hearing covered human rights concerns in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Indian state of Assam, the bulk of the discussion was on the ongoing siege in Indian-occupied Kashmir. It was the first time so much attention had been devoted to Kashmir in the US Congress. 

Ever since the Indian government revoked the region’s special status on August 5, imposed a communication blockade and precipitated fears of a settler-colonial project, the world’s most militarised zone has been internationalised in an unprecedented way.  

The US hearing marks a critical shift in how the Kashmir issue has been discussed in policy circles.

Witnesses were able to highlight the immense amount of state repression in Kashmir, and not just after August 5. Amnesty International’s representative, Francisco Bencosme, spoke of the detentions, the lack of press freedoms and the worrying attacks on religious freedom in India. Members of Congress asked difficult questions about the justification for the communications blockade. As Susan Wild, a representative from Pennsylvania, stated: “To me, if there is no transparency, there is something that is being hidden.” Expert scholars on Kashmir, including Nitasha Kaul and Angana Chatterji, spoke about the rise of Hindu majoritarianism and its relationship to Nazism, as well as the prevalence of enforced disappearances, rape, extrajudicial killings and torture in Kashmir.

While admitting that US diplomats had not been allowed into Kashmir since August 5, officials from the State Department, including assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells and assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert Destro,  demonstrated an apologetic approach to India’s talking points, emphasising the importance of US relations with India.

Nonetheless, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did for Kashmir overnight what the movement for Kashmiri self-determination had struggled for more than seven decades to do.

Last month, for the first time in 50 years, the United Nations Security Council held a closed-door session on Kashmir. During his visit to the US, Modi was met in Houston and New York with the largest protests ever seen in the US over Kashmir.

Dozens of elected officials in the US have spoken out against the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

Modi’s actions have also reinvigorated an otherwise politically complacent Kashmiri diaspora, who are now fully aware of the existential threat their families face under the Hindu nationalist government. They have been at the forefront of urging the international community to centre Kashmiri perspectives and aspirations, and to move away from seeing the issue solely through the lens of a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan.

Hundreds of cities around the world have held protests, vigils, marches and teach-ins. People who might have never heard of Kashmir before August 5 are now mobilised and want to take action. Progressive and interfaith coalitions are becoming aware of the links between Kashmir and other anti-fascist, anti-colonial, anti-occupation and anti-war struggles around the world.

Most importantly, however, India’s miscalculation has managed to highlight the right to Kashmiri self-determination, and the realisation that Kashmir is indeed a disputed territory awaiting a political resolution.

For years, India hid behind the rhetoric of the so-called war on terror, treating Kashmir as an “internal” law and security concern. It bragged of its status as the world’s largest democracy, while brutally repressing the pro-freedom sentiments of the Kashmiri people.

Given that the international community rarely spoke out when dozens of Kashmiris would be killed or pelleted, or when reports of torture and human rights violations were released by human rights organisations, the Indian government, perhaps, thought that this time the response to such state aggression would be no different.  

Instead, US presidential contenders like Bernie Sanders are calling for the implementation of UN resolutions on Kashmir that “respect the wishes of the Kashmiri people,” and the Labour Party in the United Kingdom has also passed an emergency motion on Kashmir calling for party leader Jeremy Corbyn to seek international observers to “enter” the region and demand the right of self-determination for its people.

Despite its best efforts, the Hindu nationalist government in India has struggled to combat the international condemnation. While they have certainly been on the diplomatic offensive, they have been unable to provide coherent answers for the gagging of over eight million people, besides resorting to the age-old tropes of Pakistani interference and terrorism.

It has become difficult for even the most vociferous allies of India to justify a siege that is implemented in the interest of the region’s people. Amnesty’s Bencosme said as much during the hearing when he stated: “It’s completely unthinkable that you will detain children, political leaders and youth adults, close down all communication, put people under a curfew to bolster tourism in a region.”

Nonetheless, the Indian lobby and its apologists never fail to raise the bogey of Pakistan. While India’s talking points on Kashmir have always been to posit mass civil resistance as “proxies for Pakistan,” they now parrot the same narratives for those mobilising outside of Kashmir. Indian journalist Aarti Tickoo Singh, who defended India’s actions at the hearing, described the Kashmiri diaspora-led grassroots solidarity group Stand with Kashmir as “Pakistan’s ISI team.” 

It is this kind of attitude, and the inability or sheer refusal to see the writing on the wall, that has marked India’s position on Kashmir. But the unravelling of this position is giving way to a new movement – one that can no longer be contained.

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