Understanding Kashmir: navigating through the most militarised zone in the world

Kartik Maini provides an incisive critique of India and Pakistan’s power games in Kashmir.

The Kashmir ‘issue’ is a territorial and political conflict between the post-independence nation states of India and Pakistan, and is an issue of identity for Kashmiris, both Muslim and Hindu. Given its geographical position, Kashmir has always been a distinct social ‘zone’. In 1846, the Treaty of Amritsar, building on an earlier Treaty of Lahore which transferred Kashmir to the East India Company, further transferred it to Maharaja Gulab Singh. Kashmir then became the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu, with a Hindu ruler governing Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist subjects.

At the time of Indian independence, in 1947, Kashmir was ruled by Maharaja Hari Singh, and it faced a crucial political decision – the independence of the subcontinent was dovetailed with its bloodied partition into the states of India and Pakistan. This necessitated that the princely states choose whether they want to ‘accede’ to India, Pakistan, or remain independent. By the rationale of the colonial transfer of power, Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. The Maharaja, however, fearing that acceding to Pakistan would endanger the thriving Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist minorities, chose independence. Unfortunately this was not to be –  Kashmir saw an attempted invasion by Pathan tribesmen, fostered by Muslim League officials in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. Maharaja Hari Singh sought assistance from India, but this assistance, he was told on the insistence of Lord Mountbatten1, was predicated on the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India.

Kashmir acceded to India on 26 October 1947, although Maharaja Hari Singh was promised that once the state was protected from invaders, the political destiny of Kashmir would be decided by its people, for ‘only the people, not the Maharaja, could decide where Kashmiris wanted to live.’ However the Indian state retained most of the region, as it subsequently backtracked on its promise of holding a plebiscite to ascertain Kashmiris’ will, and some of it remained with Pakistan as ‘Azad Kashmir,’ ‘Free Kashmir.’ Kashmir had to contend with Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which claims to grant autonomous status to the state of Kashmir.

In reality, this has been far from true. Given the Indian state’s apprehensions regarding secessionist groups gaining power, Kashmir’s political system has been excessively manipulated, establishing the fundamental conviction that the Indian state would never allow the Kashmiris to rule themselves, let alone be an autonomous state.

Since 1989, both a popular protest and armed insurgency have marked Kashmir, particularly the Kashmir Valley, with some, if not significant, help from Pakistani forces. The nature of this armed insurgency is particularly contested. Many believe, justifiably so, that this insurgency, especially since the rise of the Hizbul Mujahadeen2, is Islamic fundamentalist in nature. An assertion that was only validated by the post-1990 ‘exodus’ of Hindu Kashmiri Pandits3 from the Valley amidst acts of violence and repeated threats from the insurgent forces.

Read Marium Rafiq’s reflections on Kashmir here.

The Indian state’s response to the Kashmiri insurgency, both popular and armed, has been the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act , granting unrestrained and unconditional power to armed forces in the state. Kashmir has since been entirely militarized: it is, by all global security records, the most militarised zone in the world. Most Kashmiris today live in terror of the Indian state and its armed establishment in the region with countless reported and unreported instances of disappearances, human rights abuses, and rape.

This article was written in the context of the recent unrest in Kashmir. The unrest began with the killing of Burhan Wani, a popular commander of the Hizbul Mujahadeen, and the state response to the ensuing peaceful protests – pellet guns, assault rifles, rubber bullets. 85 people were killed and over 13,000 civilians injured. A curfew is ongoing, having recently crossed 100 days, in an attempt to quell the worst outbreak of violence in the Valley in a decade.

I must confess it is rather hilarious for me, as a Kashmiri Hindu, to be questioned on the infamous premise of “what-about-ery”. What about Kashmiri Hindus? What about our armed forces? Do their lives not matter? People who ask such questions include, to my bewilderment, even those who recognize the significance of saying “Black Lives Matter”, as opposed to “all lives matter.”

I’d like to remind them of what Judith Butler explained in an interview:

“When some people rejoin with “All Lives Matter” they misunderstand the problem, but not because their message is untrue. It is true that all lives matter, but it is equally true that not all lives are understood to matter which is precisely why it is most important to name the lives that have not mattered, and are struggling to matter in the way they deserve.”

This ties in with the violence in Kashmir. Violence in Kashmir is not primarily a physical assault. It is a consistent, almost ceaseless attack on the human spirit. It is widely understood that the lives of Kashmiri Hindus and our armed gentlemen matter, but only because they have publicly recognized selves to present, articulate and defend. This discursive marginalization has rendered Kashmiri lives unintelligible, and robbed Kashmiris of everything, even their selfhood in the name of the Indian state. The Indian State today has the impunity to murder unarmed protesters in order to protect the Indian “union”. As Indian politicians across the spectrum delight in the gore, let us forget not that nationalism built on corpses is never ours, never anyone’s. We must stop invisibilizing people.

It is tragic that the message of the Kashmiri Pandits and the armed forces is carried by people with dubious integrity, little to no awareness of the Kashmiri context, and absolutely no concern for the lives they endorse. If you only talk about the Kashmiri Pandits and the armed forces to silence Kashmiri Muslims, you are the problem. Much as I strain to hear it, there is not one sincere voice grieving for the Kashmiri Pandits’ pain of leaving a homeland no longer theirs, for the difficult lives that many of them still spend in refugee shelters. Where is the concern for the pittance foot soldiers receive in the name of monetary compensation? For the inhumane conditions many of them are subjected to by their officers? For the state negligence of their mental health, when it has been established that many of them deal with post-traumatic stress disorders? We have stripped ourselves of our democracy, and we delight in wearing the blood of our countrymen as nationalism.

Burhan Wani is not my martyr. He is not my Che Guevara. I condemn his method. I despise his organization. I do not condone his violence. But I do not equate it in magnitude or brutality to the Indian State’s onslaught on Kashmir. It is only liberal philosophy which has the calm, the intellectual distance to free itself from contexts, to be so universalist that substance becomes parody. The Gandhian ethos requires a performance. It requires an audience which cares. We have long surrendered Kashmir to nationalism, and washed our conscience with their corpses in the Jhelum. Who is watching? Who cares?

Do not let Umar Khalid3 stand for all Kashmiris. We do not grieve for Wani as the embodiment of perfect convictions. We grieve him as one of ours, as yet another Kashmiri whose life did not escape the aegis of entitlement. As long as Kashmiris see basic human courtesy as something so distant that it has to be wished for, there will be no peace.

Political independence is not one of knowledge, even cognition; we are still part-benevolent, part-autocratic. The question of Kashmiri independence is complicated. It comprises several strands of thought, and there is immense disagreement. To claim to have had the last word on the Kashmir issue by highlighting the difficulty of surviving independently is anathema to millions. To grieve for Kashmir as an Indian, then, is never to unsee the vulgarity of violence, to try listening to screams the that the powerful try to muffle, and to achieve the simple act of conversation. Of empathy. In that is the hope of Kashmir, of India, of this world.


Kartik Maini is a second-year History student at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.

This article was first published online by Huffington Post India.

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