I recently participated in the Harvard Pakistan Forum (HPF) 2017. I was invited as a keynote speaker to present my views on the Kashmir issue. While my views are public, I was certain that no one in the audience, mostly young students, had any idea of what I was to talk about. The conference organisers, who were very earnest and warm, made a last-minute change to include Mirwaiz Umar Farooq in the discussion. Apparently, they had received feedback that my “mainstream” views should be balanced by a “separatist” voice from Kashmir. I believe these divisions along “mainstream” and “separatist” camps and further divisions within these camps are constructs that help perpetuate the conflict in Kashmir. But I am a believer in listening to different perspectives and I welcomed the Mirwaiz’s participation. Sadly, he was under house arrest and could not join by video conference. He recorded a video message for the event, largely sticking to the Hurriyat’s stated positions.
When it was my turn to speak, I did not dwell much on the usual history of the Kashmir issue, going back to the 1947 Partition or even earlier. I confined myself to the conflict of the last 30-odd years and how that has affected ordinary Kashmiris. According to official estimates, since 1989, about 45,000 people have been killed in Kashmir. Unofficial estimates are much higher. For context, the death toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the first intifada in 1987 is about 10,000. Just last summer, about a hundred people were killed by government forces, many blinded due to the use of pellet guns and over 12,000 were injured, making it one of the worst periods in Kashmir’s troubled history. Violence continues unabated in 2017. A 2016 survey by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) revealed that 40 per cent of Kashmiri adults suffer from depression and 20 per cent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Beyond these statistics is a grim tale of life at a standstill; gloom and helplessness are pervasive.
Kashmir is bleeding. More appropriately, Kashmiris are bleeding. I reminded the HPF audience that Pakistan calls Kashmir its “jugular vein” and India calls Kashmir its “integral part”. I pointed out that while Kashmir is bleeding, neither India, nor Pakistan seem to be in a terribly bad way. What kind of an integral part or jugular vein bleeds, but causes no serious damage to the main organism? Is it the case that Kashmir, as opposed to Kashmiris, is important? Because if Kashmiris matter, their anger, misery and hopelessness should shake both India and Pakistan to their core. Sadly, the opposite is happening. The policies adopted by India and Pakistan vis-à-vis Kashmir appear to help each other’s case while keeping Kashmiris in limbo.
Over the last three decades, India has typically pursued policies that have engendered terrible alienation in Kashmir. The government views Kashmir exclusively from a security angle. Reliance on force and repressive tactics like internet shutdowns is common. In recent years, influential opinion makers and sections of the national media have stereotyped Kashmiris as violent jihadis. Kashmiris living in the rest of the country have become victims of prejudice and violence. Worse, some high-ranking government officials and politicians, especially those belonging to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, have called for harsher methods to deal with protests in Kashmir. A prominent member of the ruling party has suggested that Kashmir be “depopulated” and Kashmiris be sent to refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. In Kashmir, a sense of injustice and humiliation is deeply entrenched, a fear psychosis has set in and an ever-widening chasm is staring us in the face. I can imagine the Pakistani establishment being grateful for policies and tactics that push Kashmiris further away from India and closer to the Pakistani narrative. If all this is not pro-Pakistan, I don’t know what is.
Paradoxically, the Pakistani establishment has done all it can to keep the conflict going. In the process, it has grievously harmed Kashmiris and helped promote India’s stand on Kashmir. In 1989-90, at the peak of the insurgency, Pakistan moved to clip the wings of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which had successfully tapped into Kashmiri sub-nationalism and pushed the idea of “azaadi” (freedom). Perhaps because Pakistan was no longer perceived to be the popular choice in Kashmir, pro-Pakistan
alternatives to the JKLF were propped up. A religious dimension was injected into the conflict, even if most Kashmiris didn’t want that to happen. The mass exodus of Pandits took place in this context.
With time, radical Islamist ideologies began to gain worldwide attention, especially after the 9/11 attack on the United States. In such an environment, Pakistan promoted a “Muslim Kashmir versus Hindu India” narrative that had few, if any, international takers. Strangely, the Pakistani establishment promoted those voices as representative of Kashmiri aspirations who are linked to designated international terrorist organisations. Furthermore, suicide attacks such as Badami Bagh, Kaluchak, Akhnoor, Pampore, Uri, Pathankot, and others, painted Kashmir as a terrorist hotspot. This approach also helped the Indian establishment caricature the problems in Kashmir as those of jihadi radicalism as opposed to political aspirations and justice. If this is not a pro-India policy framework, I don’t know what is.
One could write a book about how India and Pakistan end up helping each other in Kashmir. This symbiotic relationship may suit some perverse logic of policymakers in both countries, but it has real costs for Kashmiris. What happens in Kashmir has very little impact in mainland India or Pakistan. Yes, families of dead and injured soldiers suffer even as opportunistic politicians and media use the Kashmir issue for political or personal gain. But there is no broader, negative impact. The pursuit of growth and prosperity is in full swing in both countries, and that is a good thing. But, in this perplexing India-Pakistan cold war, real damage is done to the integral part and the jugular vein. Lest you forget, I mean the people of Kashmir.