By Muhammad Rabbani
Over the past 70 years, Kashmir has been the stage for the historically tenacious conflict between India and Pakistan – a dramatic performance of micro-aggressions and relentless propaganda against each other. Both countries control significant dividends of Kashmir but have fought three wars to gain each other’s half. This has transformed Kashmir into one of the most disputed regions on this planet. Along with each country’s security forces, the region is currently occupied by a deadly assortment of militias and terrorist groups. However, concentrating on just India and Pakistan can create a misleading fog over the real concern amidst the conflict. This is the voice of the Kashmiri people who have lived trapped in an endless cycle of violence and have been denied the liberty and independence that was promised to them by the United Nations (UN).
In order to understand this conflict, it is imperative to start when the borders were first being drawn. From the mid-1800s until 1947, India was a patchwork of several hundred provinces and princely states under British rule. When India won independence from the British Empire in 1947, it was decided to split the region into two. Pakistan became a new Muslim majority country and India was for the most part Hindu but secular. Partition was a deadly affair; there was widespread communal violence and mass deportations. It is estimated that at least 15 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were displaced because of their religion. Amidst the mayhem, some royal states were given the choice to join either country. The state of Jammu and Kashmir was unique because it was right along the new border and had a Muslim dominant population but was ruled by a Hindu monarch. When asked to choose a side, the ruler, Hari Singh, chose to remain neutral and refused to pick either side. Fearing the ruler would join India, the Kashmiri populace revolted in 1947 and before long, armed Pashtun tribesmen from Pakistan had joined the fight. The monarch turned to India for military assistance and in exchange agreed to join them, sparking the first Indo-Pakistan war. The UN Security Council brokered a ceasefire in 1949 which established a line of control and additionally asked the Pakistani tribesmen to pull back and Indian soldiers to follow so Kashmir could hold an immediate plebiscite to let democracy determine its future. However, neither side held up their end of the deal.
On the political front, in 1987, India rigged an election, announcing a pro-India party as the victor. This was a defining moment for Kashmiris, who felt they were once again denied the opportunity to make a free choice. Thousands rioted in Indian-controlled Kashmir and decided to fight the Indian security forces. However, India met the movement for independence with harsh resistance and security forces opened fire on demonstrating separatists, turning a struggling movement into a full-blown popular uprising. More recently in 2014, a right-wing Hindu nationalist political party called the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. Since then, we have seen the gradual rebuilding of India in accordance with their Hindutva ideology. In response to protests, the Indian military has extensively utilized pellets as a crowd control measure in Kashmir. This has left more than a thousand civilians injured and visually impaired. Even children as young as 19 months old have been hit by metal pellets and blinded for life. Though police brutality exists throughout India, pellet guns are almost exclusively used only in Kashmir. In addition, half of all internet shutdowns in India have been reported from the Kashmir Valley as authorities keep on suspending internet services. This has developed into a critical instrument of censorship used by a government which increasingly utilizes shutdowns under the guise of security. In 2019, the UN published a report on the human rights situation in Kashmir. It stated that in the decade since 2008, at least 1,081 civilians have been killed by security forces in Indian administered Kashmir.
Pakistan administered Kashmir is made of two administrative regions: Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). The human rights violations in Pakistan-administered Kashmir are of a different calibre and are more structural in nature than those in Indian-administered Kashmir. The interim constitution places several restrictions on anybody who argues or condemns the region’s accession to Pakistan. It states, “No person or political party in Azad Jammu and Kashmir shall be permitted to propagate against, or take part in activities prejudicial or detrimental to, the ideology of the State’s accession to Pakistan.” In 2018, the Azad Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly passed the 13th amendment which gave the Prime Minster of Pakistan the power to appoint and dismiss judges in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. In addition, Pakistani security forces repeatedly utilize the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 (ATA) to target individuals who they suspect are involved in terrorism. However, often these individuals are not affiliated with terror groups but are political figures or human rights activists advocating for independence. All such individuals are threatened by intelligence agencies and are subjected to enforced disappearances or are detained in military centres for a prolonged period of time. In addition, human right activists point out that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws continue to define who is a ‘real Muslim’ and such laws are used to discriminate and victimize minorities such as the Ahmadiyya community.
This vicious cycle of violence in Kashmir has driven some to join militant groups who carry out acts of violence against security forces. The parents of the militant who carried out the 2019 attack on the Indian convoy said that their son carried out the attack after being subjected to torture by the Indian armed forces. Every pro-independence party is either threatened, intimidated, or silenced. Both countries pride themselves for being able to lay claim to a portion of Kashmir. However, they both fail to recognize the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination, a right that continues to be marred by violence.