Kashmir on Fire Again as Indian Troops Shoot to Kill
As Indians prepare to celebrate the country’s sixty-third Independence Day on August 15, an eruption of deadly violence in the picturesque countryside and towns of Kashmir is a reminder that many Kashmiris still do not consider themselves part of India, and profess that they never will.
On paper, their claims are valid. The United Nations, and many countries individually, have never recognized as part of India what the Indian government calls its state of Jammu and Kashmir. The UN has its second-oldest peace monitoring mission there, after the Middle East. Both were established in 1948. In Kashmir, some forty-plus lonely UN monitors—from Chile, Croatia, Finland, Italy, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Sweden and Uruguay—have little to do except remind locals by their presence that the world knows that Kashmiris are still there, waiting.
Security Council resolutions followed the peacekeepers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, demanding that Kashmiris be allowed to choose their future by plebiscite. India has never allowed a vote to take place, and calls the issue moot.
Now every day brings reports of stone-throwing Kashmiri mobs and Indian troops firing at demonstrators with live ammunition. India’s independent but authoritative South Asia Intelligence Review said on August 2 that in the previous few days fourteen protesters, mostly armed with stones or incendiary material, had been killed in several towns in the Kashmir Valley, the heart of the Muslim-majority region, bringing the recent death toll to more than thirty in a few weeks, with scores of wounded. Of about 9 million Kashmiris, more than 60 percent are Muslims, with Hindus, a large minority, concentrated in Jammu.
Most neutral estimates put the death toll in Kashmir at about 50,000 since a rebellion erupted in 1989. Kashmiri Muslims say many more have been killed, and charge that there are mass graves yet to be opened. India maintains a force of several hundred thousand troops and paramilitaries in Kashmir, turning the summer capital, Srinagar, into an armed camp frequently under curfew and always under the gun. The media is laboring under severe restrictions. Torture and other human rights violations have been well documented, and while there may be occasional investigations, Indian soldiers are exempt from the jurisdiction of India’s Human Rights Commission and are protected by an anti-terrorism law.
India has been successful in persuading many outsiders that what is happening in Kashmir is just another case of Pakistani terror and subterfuge, with armed militants crossing the disputed border from the Pakistani part of the original princely state of Kashmir, now divided. There is no doubt that Pakistanis have found a good opportunity to needle India; there has been ample evidence of that since the mid 1990s or earlier. But the story is much more complicated.
When India split in 1947, Muslim-majority Kashmir, a quasi-independent state ruled by a Hindu maharajah under the British, was widely expected to join Pakistan. The maharajah equivocated, however, until a band of Pashtun warriors from northwest Pakistan—today’s lawless border with Afghanistan—invaded and forced the Hindu maharajah’s hand. He begged India for help and was told that he would have to accede to India in return, which he did, setting off decades of simmering resentment punctuated by outbreaks of open resistance.
The situation was worsened when the Congress Party government in New Delhi manipulated Kashmiri politics in 1951, 1983 and 1987—rigging elections and/or throwing out elected governments. By the late 1980s, when I went there as a correspondent, Kashmir was sullen and seething. Many of the complaints were economic: India controlled (and profited from) Kashmir's lucrative tourist industry, Hindu pandits got all the good jobs and university places, Kashmiri agricultural products rotted on the way to India because of poor roads and other infrastructure, Srinagar’s crummy little airport was not allowed to grow or land international flights and so on.
By 1989, Kashmiris were collecting weapons and forming armed anti-India organizations. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the collapse of the Soviet system and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Kashmiris—including many professionals and business people—suddenly thought anything was now possible, including the independence of Kashmir—not accession to Pakistan, which a recent poll indicated that only 2 percent of Kashmiris favored. (More recently, Kashmiris must have also taken note of the decision by the International Court of Justice two weeks ago to declare that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not illegal, ruling against Serbia.)
Kashmir has been called a very dangerous place by American officials, largely because of the threat of war breaking out there between India and Pakistan, which have fought over the territory several times in the past. But little attention is paid in the West, now seized by a preoccupation with terrorism and varying degrees of Islamophobia, with the Kashmiri people, once among the most moderate and mystic of Muslims, skilled craftspeople, horticulturalists and caretakers of the finest orchards in the Himalayan foothills.
More than sixty years later, the Middle East and Kashmir are still unresolved points of crisis. And the Kashmiris, hidden away in the mountains, have become to India, in a sense, what the Palestinians are to Israel: threatened and constrained in their own homeland.