In 1957, U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz, appointed as a United Nations envoy to mediate the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, described the conflict in the following terms: “In our rapidly shrinking world there are few people left unaffected by disturbances in other areas, even though such upheavals are remote or far removed. Certainly a dispute that involves one-fifth of the world’s population, and that can erupt into a world war, bears careful watching.”

The world has shrunk a great deal further since 1957, the number of people living in the subcontinent has dramatically increased, and there is greater interdependence of nations. Therefore, one would expect the Kashmir conflict to be a key focus of modern international politics. Instead, it has been allotted a back burner position, leaving the populace of Kashmir ignored in the midst of untold suffering. Even when millions march nonviolently on the streets of Kashmir and many die as a result, there is barely a mention in the Western media, let alone talk of any “Kashmir Spring.”

Historically, Kashmir was a stop on the Silk Route and was known as a paradise on earth. Stretching over 225,000 square kilometres, with the Karakoram Himalayan range and important waterways such as the Indus River crisscrossing the region, Kashmir has a rich culture and is a home for people of various ethnic and religious groups, speaking several different languages. The 1947 partition of the subcontinent left Kashmir a disputed territory divided into three parts – Azad Kashmir (“Free Kashmir”), under Pakistani control; the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (which includes Ladakh); and areas under Chinese control (Aksai Chin and the Shaksam Valley).

In the intervening years, Kashmir has earned its fame as one of the world’s longest standing conflict zones. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir (1947, 1965 and 1999), and Kashmir now houses the largest military presence in the world. Both India and Pakistan possess nuclear arsenals and, along with Israel, have not signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. The danger of a nuclear war in the subcontinent over Kashmir almost became a reality in 2001 and 2002 as both countries prepared for a fourth war. It is predicted that one more war between India and Pakistan bears the prospect of use of nuclear weapons, leading to unimaginable death and destruction.1

Nevertheless, even among the major players in world politics, there appears to be at best halfhearted interest in resolving the Kashmir dispute. In the post-9/11 Islamophobic hysteria, India has succeeded in colouring the indigenous movement for self-determination as a terrorist movement. The emerging role of India as the superpower of South Asia and a lucrative consumer of weaponry2 has further contributed to the world’s silence on the issue of Kashmir.

Political scientist Kamal Chenoy of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi views Kashmir as hostage to the “bitterly contending nationalisms” of India and Pakistan, the two nations caught in a struggle to win the hearts and minds of Kashmiri people.3 On the one hand, Pakistan uses the Islamic faith of the majority community as its claim to the territory, citing rules of division of the Princely States in 1947. On the other hand, India fears damage to its secular ideals if it lets go of Kashmir, a Muslim majority territory. Over time, both countries have continuously attempted to reduce the issue of Kashmir to a bilateral issue, disregarding the most important contender – the Kashmiri people. Over time, both countries have continuously attempted to reduce the issue of Kashmir to a bilateral issue, disregarding the most important contender – the Kashmiri people.

Muslim majority, Hindu Maharaja

The people of Kashmir have been occupied and manipulated for centuries by outsiders who have exploited their land and the people. The current crisis has its roots in the Treaty of Amritsar of 1846 under which the British created the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir, installing Maharaja Gulab Singh, a Hindu Dogra ruler, who had attained great influence in the reign of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab. The Maharaja was installed to serve British interests in a region strategically located at the crossroads of Russia, Afghanistan, China, Tibet and India.5

The British sold the land and people of Kashmir to Gulab Singh for the meagre sum of US$150,000. The Maharaja in turn expressed his subordination to the British by presenting annually to the British government one horse, twelve shawl goats of approved breed (six male and six female) and three pairs of cashmere shawls, in exchange for receiving British protection for his territories from external enemies.6 The stories of exploitation and oppression and untold miseries inflicted on Kashmir’s population by the Hindu Maharaja ruling a Muslim-majority region are deeply rooted in the Kashmiri psyche. Local resistance and all-out revolt in the 1931 Quit Kashmir Movement was the first rebellion against Dogra rule,7 yet the rule of the Dogras continued for a hundred years until the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

In 1947, one third of the British Empire in India was made up of more than 560 Princely States, one of which was Jammu and Kashmir. The relationship of the British monarch to the Princely States was known as “Paramountcy.” In June 1947, Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, stated that “those who recognized British Paramountcy had to all intents and purposes been abandoned by their liege lord to the mercies of the successor regimes of India and Pakistan.”8 The British devised a plan for the Princely States to join either India or Pakistan on the basis of geographical contiguity and religious majority of the state.

As a Muslim-majority region with a Hindu ruler, Kashmir was an anomaly. Maharaja Hari Singh, the Dogra ruler at that time, equivocated for the longest time over which country to join, while leaning strongly toward declaring independence from both. Unable to defend the territory from attack by Pakistani tribesmen, who were not controlled by the Pakistani government,9 the Maharaja eventually sought the help of the Indian government, which agreed to his request only after he signed an Instrument of Accession in October 1947, which Pakistan contested and deemed fraudulent. The Instrument of Accession was a conditional document to be ratified by the people of Kashmir through a referendum, a pact that India in spite of promises by the leadership of the time has failed to honour. Instead, it has used the Instrument of Accession ever since as what historian Alastair Lamb describes as “the most powerful public justification for the Indian decision to retain at all costs those parts of the State of Jammu and Kashmir which it now holds; Kashmir is an internal matter.”10

Betraying Kashmiris, the Maharaja fled Kashmir and sought refuge in Bombay for a lavish pension from the Indian government. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, a Kashmiri by heritage with strong emotional ties to Kashmir, immediately airlifted Indian forces to Kashmir. Recent research shows that the army may even have arrived in Kashmir prior to signing of the Instrument of Accession.11 Eventually the United Nations brokered a ceasefire and a ceasefire line was drawn up between two parts of Kashmir. This imaginary line, now called the Line of Control, divides Kashmiri territory and families, much like the erstwhile Berlin Wall. It remains a dividing line between the Pakistani side of Kashmir, called Azad (Free) Kashmir, a self-governing state under Pakistani control but under a separate constitution, and the Indian-controlled side, which is the heart of the recent conflict. The tragedy of this unnatural division of families on either side of the imaginary border and the misery it has brought Kashmiris was stark during the 2005 earthquake that struck Azad Kashmir when families with relatives on the other side could not reach out to them.

In Karen Parker’s words, Kashmir represents “an imperfect de-colonization process in which United Nations also got involved.”12 Ironically it was Nehru who, rejecting any third-party involvement in the dispute, referred the issue to the United Nations, which mediated the ceasefire in 1948, culminating in a Security Council resolution on Kashmir calling for demilitarization of the territory and a free and fair plebiscite.

Nehru acknowledged that the people of Kashmir were the ultimate deciders of their fate. In a report to the All India Congress Committee on July 6, 1951, he said, “Kashmir has been wrongly looked upon as a prize for India or Pakistan. People seem to forget that Kashmir is not a commodity for sale or to be bartered. It has an individual existence and its people must be the final arbiters of their future.”13 He reiterated this promise numerous times to the Pakistani government, the United Nations and the people of Kashmir. Yet six decades later, the promise remains unfulfilled.

Twenty years of violence

Over the years, as India established its grip on Kashmir, people’s survival needs trumped the revolutionary zeal that had had its beginning in 1931, although there were pockets of discontent all along. Any serious rebellion was met with severe punishment including death by hanging. Kashmiris by nature are passionate people and political discussions are the norm even among the most illiterate. As a child I was bewildered by ever-present subtle warnings, including in public transportation, that political discussions were not allowed. Nonetheless, no one could patrol the heated discussions among locals. Most would occur over cricket matches between India and Pakistan or, indeed, between India and any other nation in the world. Almost always, Kashmiri Muslims would side with any team playing against India, and even this subtle expression of resentment of India was seen as a seditious act, sometimes even landing people in jail.

Exacerbated by open rigging of state assembly elections by the Indian administration in 1987, resentment culminated in a mass insurrection in early 1989. The Indian government was unprepared and surprised by a sudden uprising when a million people gathered peacefully on the streets of Srinagar, the capital, in February 1990. These demonstrations immediately turned violent when people were gunned down, beaten and arrested. Thus began an open struggle between Indian forces and Kashmiri fighters, young men who chose to pick up the gun and were often referred to as “militants.”

Pakistan has denied any open involvement in arming the young men who took up arms in 1989, but as Steve Coll reported in the New Yorker, there is evidence that the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI, “which had used Islamic militias during the anti-Soviet campaigns in Afghanistan, reacted opportunistically by arming those Islamic factions of the rebellion which sought to join Kashmir to Pakistan.”14 However, after September 11, 2001, the United States put intense pressure on General Pervez Musharraf, then President of Pakistan, to end support for militancy in Kashmir, and this support waned dramatically.

Many leaders of various militant organizations were killed, and others – those who supported an independent Kashmir as well as those who favoured joining Pakistan – voluntarily gave up arms, opting for peaceful political struggle instead. Some such as Yasin Malik, a prominent leader of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), adopted a Gandhian nonviolent approach to the struggle. The 2009 report of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir documents that the armed struggle of the 1990s abated between 2004 and 2007, giving way to nonviolent resistance. And in 2009, official Indian figures claimed that there were only 700 to 800 militants in Kashmir and that the process of reducing 667,000 Indian troops was underway. While there have been no signs of troop reduction, a recent report of the Jammu and Kashmir police chief indicates that indigenous militant groups have been almost wiped out.15

The rise of militancy in 1989 and India’s heavy-handed response to the initial uprising, based on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, changed the history of Kashmir forever. Instantly, the Valley of Kashmir, where the uprising was mostly confined, turned from paradise on earth into a living hell.

In the early years of the insurrection, the Indian authorities did their best to hide the atrocities by isolating Kashmir from the rest of the world, denying access to journalists and human rights groups. And they succeeded. It is during those days of complete news blackout that some of the most horrific crimes were committed, some of which I documented personally.

On the night of February 23, 1991, 800 men of the 4th Rajput Rifles sealed off the village of Kunan Poshpura in the Valley of Kashmir and systematically raped 60 women, many of them multiple times. A year later, I met a 60-year-old woman who was raped by nine soldiers, a three-year-old boy trying to describe the rape of his mother with words he did not know, a father who was living with the shame of failing to protect the honour of his daughters, a mother who had lost three sons and a husband, a schoolteacher whose wife was gang-raped and murdered in front of him.

This teacher’s words left an indelible mark on me. Referring to an incident in which the British murdered hundreds of unarmed Indians in Punjab on April 13, 1919, he said, “While India mourns the massacre of Jallainwallah Bagh even after 50 years of their independence, she is creating a Jallainawallah Bagh in every street of Kashmir.” To add insult to injury, the officer who led these horrific crimes, and who was later transferred and promoted, came back and forced the women and other victims to sign papers absolving the army of any responsibility. The saga of torture, rape and murder had just begun. After two decades of denial, the State Human Rights Commission of Kashmir has finally admitted the wrongdoing of the security forces in the village of Kunan Poshpura and recommended the opening of this case.16

Kashmiris have lived with violence every day of their lives for the last 20 years, and it is safe to say there is not a single person who has not been affected by this violence. The impact of violence on the populace has been well documented. One such study was conducted by independent researchers for Doctors without Borders. In their findings, the authors, all Europeans, found through their extensive interviews with 510 people in two districts (30 villages) that “the civilian population in Kashmir is exposed to high levels of violence, as demonstrated by the high frequency of deliberate events such as detention, hostage, and torture. The reported violence may result in substantial health problems, including mental health problems.”17 They found that people had

frequent direct confrontations with violence since the start of conflict, including exposure to crossfire (85.7%), round up raids (82.7%), the witnessing of torture (66.9%), rape (13.3%), and self-experience of forced labour (33.7%), arrests/kidnapping (16.9%), torture (12.9%), and sexual violence (11.6%). Males reported more confrontations with violence than females, and had an increased likelihood of having directly experienced physical/mental maltreatment (OR 3.9, CI: 2.7-5.7), violation of their modesty (OR 3.6, CI: 1.9-6.8) and injury.18

Suicide, unheard of in Kashmir until the eighties, has increased tenfold since the beginning of conflict, becoming commonplace for people suffering with severe depression. Justine Hardy, a British journalist who has established a trauma clinic in Kashmir, notes that suicide is most common among the young. “It’s the under-30s who have suffered the psychological impact of constantly living under the threat of attack,” Hardy says. “The previous generation picked up the gun, this generation is frustrated in every way.” The infrastructure to deal with trauma is severely lacking. In 2007 alone, Kashmir’s only hospital with mental health facilities received 68,000 patients.19

Mass graves and half-widows

In complete contravention of international humanitarian laws, several laws in existence since 1990 have granted absolute impunity to Indian armed and paramilitary forces: the National Security Act under which a person can be detained without any reason for a year for antinational activity; the Armed Forces Special Powers Act allowing the Indian forces to search houses without warrant, arrest Kashmiris without warrant, destroy property and shoot at unarmed civilians, all with absolute immunity from prosecution; the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act, treating every Kashmiri as a combatant and a terrorist; and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, allowing the state to arrest anyone for expressing their views on Kashmir’s disputed nature or publishing any documents. Such legislation facilitates crimes against the Kashmiri people such as enforced disappearance, rape, torture, imprisonment and even murder. The International People’s Tribunal report describes the violation of human rights in Kashmir:

Since 1989. Kashmir’s militarization has resulted in crimes against humanity and the fabrication of a culture of grief through extrajudicial or “fake encounter” executions, custodial brutality and deaths (70,000 + between 1990–2005), enforced disappearances (as many as 8,000+), unknown, unmarked, and mass graves, landmines used as weapons, and bodily disablement by the military, with 60,000+ tortured, 100,000 orphaned, and a very high rate of people with suicidal behavior. In Kashmir, lawyers have reportedly filed 15,000 petitions since 1990, inquiring, largely unsuccessfully, into the location and health of detainees and the charges that have been filed against them. Civilians have experienced the condoning of extensive surveillance, the practice of illegal long detentions by the legal system, the perpetration of torture in detention camps and interrogation centres.20

The report documents the acknowledgement by international human rights organizations of widespread use of torture by military and paramilitary forces. Two more recent reports further highlight gross human rights violations in Kashmir.

The first is a report published by the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission about the discovery of mass graves, a fact documented by local civil society groups for years.

Many of the recently discovered graves are likely to be those of civilians who disappeared more than a decade ago. The inquiry is the result of three years of investigation by senior police officers working for the State Human Rights Commission and confirms a 2008 report by a Kashmiri human rights organization that found hundreds of bodies buried in the Kashmir Valley. While a number of militants were killed in the insurgency that started in 1989, the report identified 574 of the 2,156 bodies buried in unmarked graves as those of local residents, not militants. Additionally, the report states that “there is every probability that these unidentified dead bodies buried in various unmarked graves at 38 places of North Kashmir may contain the dead bodies of enforced disappearances.”21

The second report deals with the half-widows of Kashmir.22 Thousands of people, mostly young men, have disappeared. Some went to train as militants in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and were killed. Others were arrested by Indian security forces, leaving behind wives who have come to be known as half-widows, women in limbo, not knowing whether their husbands are alive or dead. Indian security forces who have been found responsible for the disappearances and subsequent deaths of Kashmiris have never been prosecuted, despite years spent fighting in courts by the families of the deceased men.

One such case is that of Parveena Ahanger’s son Javed, who was taken by police on August 18, 1990, and was never seen again. I met Parveena a few years ago. She is a very unassuming illiterate woman with gigantic determination, an example of courage and patience that has mobilized all people with a relative who has vanished. She is the Chief of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), a group that brings together relatives of all who have disappeared in custody of Indian armed forces. Parveena and other members of APDP, much like the Argentinian Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, hold a sit-in on the 25th of every month. Amidst this gathering are half-widows, semi-orphan children, mothers and relatives holding pictures of their loved ones who have vanished.

Another serious impact of the events of the last 20 years has been a complete change in the social fabric of Kashmiri society, a society that took pride in people living in harmony with one another. Kashmiri Muslims and Hindus share a common past, a common language, social customs and traditions, literature and even family names. At the time of the partition of the subcontinent, which left millions of Muslims and Hindus dead, Gandhi hailed Kashmir an island of secularism and the beacon light in the dark subcontinent. This harmony was completely disrupted with a mass exodus of the small Hindu minority to India from the Valley of Kashmir; many Hindus have been living in squalor in the refugee camps of Jammu. This divide will take generations to heal, even though many families never left and others have returned to the Valley.

Children of war

In the mass uprisings of 2008 and 2010, once again millions of Kashmiris marched nonviolently on the streets of Kashmir, demanding their basic rights of liberty, self-determination, personal security and due process. They were protesting against organized violence, detentions and torture, arbitrary arrests and exile and excessive and violent military occupation.

These uprisings were organized mainly by the youth of Kashmir, the “children of war,” who have witnessed unprecedented violence and death in their lives. Their resilience and courage to fight back nonviolently was completely ignored by the world, which is in awe of India’s rise as a superpower of Asia. The youth of Kashmir paid dearly for their nonviolent struggle. Thousands have been languishing in prison for standing up against repression and asking for freedom, justice, accountability and peace. More than a hundred, mainly teenagers and young children, were killed by the Indian armed forces in the summer of 2010.

Although they grew up in an atmosphere of war, these children of the uprising are different from the generation of their parents and grandparents. They are tech-savvy and seem to have learned to channel their pain through art, poetry, music and peaceful revolt. They are in no mood to pick up the gun. Focused on showing the world that Kashmiris deserve peace, they are asking for it through peaceful means. The idea of azadi (freedom) for the youth of today is different from that of former generations. It is no longer about just India or Pakistan. They see the struggle being about the basic right to live with dignity, freedom of thought and expression, life and liberty. Their freedom is devoid of fear – freedom from fear of being shot at sight for no reason, tortured, raped and molested.

This new way of thinking has confounded many, including the intelligentsia in India and all those who benefited from keeping hatred alive. The Indian armed forces are skilled at shooting on sight, not at suppressing dissent by millions who take to the streets of Kashmir without guns. The only tool left for them is imposing a curfew for weeks and months and choking the population. Such brutalization and suppression serves only to further alienate the Kashmiri populace from India.

For peace to arrive in the region, it is time to assess the root cause of discontent. India and Pakistan have both failed to admit that their insistence on keeping the issue of Kashmir a bilateral issue and ignoring the wishes of the Kashmiri people furthers the alienation of Kashmiris. Without equal participation of all three parties – India, Pakistan and Kashmir – any peace plan and confidence building measures will most likely fail, as evidenced by the failure of back channel negotiations between India and Pakistan in 2007.23

The solution to the Kashmir quagmire calls for a resolute grassroots movement with leaders of all sides – historians, peacemakers, political leaders and experts in social psychology. The mix of the psychological and the social is important since the scars that the violence has left in the last 20 years are deep. The crimes committed will have to be investigated, the truth documented, perpetrators brought to justice, victims rehabilitated and adequate reparations paid to them. Most importantly, Kashmiris will also have to engage in a process of self-examination and honest introspection, asking difficult questions about the nature and goals of the struggle – religious, territorial or a struggle for justice and dignity of human life?

In 2011, reports abound of normalcy returning to the Valley of Kashmir. However, it is a mere façade which the Indian government presents to the international community, and the Indian media play a complicit role by covering up injustices carried out in Kashmir. Superficial change such as jobs and pouring large sums of money into Kashmir will only satisfy the corrupt few who directly benefit from this aid. It will not suffice to change the hearts and minds of Kashmiris, nor erase the pain of the populace. Truth and reconciliation are far more powerful aids than monetary incentives.

Vir Sanghvi, an Indian intellectual, urges India to think the unthinkable and let Kashmiris determine their destiny. He urges his leaders to give Kashmiris the right to self-determination and end this painful saga for the people of Kashmir and in turn get rid of the strain Kashmir puts on the resources, lives and honour of India.24 Following the democratic principles enshrined in the Indian constitution, and upholding the mantra “Truth alone triumphs,” the national motto of India, the time to take a fresh look at the Kashmir conflict has arrived.

May this national motto of upholding the truth guide Indian leaders who have tried to hide the truth about Kashmir from Indians as well as others. Living up to the truth in Kashmir will take courage, self-examination and a great deal of humility. Yet truth alone will free India from the burden of Kashmir. As Arundhati Roy so eloquently said it, “India needs azadi from Kashmir just as much as – if not more than – Kashmir needs azadi from India.”25

Continue reading “Kashmir’s untold story: In the struggle between India and Pakistan, the Kashmiri people have been ignored”