Foreign Policy Blogs

Kashmir – A backgrounder

By Aarti Tikoo Singh

Twenty years ago, “freedom struggle” in Kashmir meant seeking the political rights and political justice that had been denied by India since Jammu & Kashmir’s accession to the Indian union in 1947. But before the idea could even evolve into a mass awakening movement, it burst into religious extremism and cross-border terrorism from Pakistan.

As the concept of “freedom struggle” kept alternating between rebellion against India on the one hand and radical violence against Kashmir’s minorities and moderates on the other, India deployed a large number of troops to stamp out terror. As a result, the ‘independence crusade’ in Kashmir attained a new meaning: a fight against Indian troops and the ensuing human rights violations at their hands.

But one consistent aspiration prevails: Kashmiris want to secede from India. This desire comes mostly from the Muslim dominated Kashmir valley — one of the three regions of the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) state in India. Some of the Muslim dominated districts in the other two regions, Jammu and Ladakh, also feel sympathetic toward the Kashmiri goal. The Kashmir valley insists that it speaks for the whole of J&K in seeking independence because J&K has a Muslim majority and the majority’s will should triumph.

This argument has provoked at least two major demands from the minorities in the state of J&K. First, Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) – who were driven out of their homes in the valley and who continue to live in exile in Jammu or other parts of India – are striving for a separate homeland within Kashmir under Indian sovereignty. Second, Jammu, a Hindu majority region that feels discriminated by the successive Kashmiri Muslim-led state governments is seeking a separate state within the Indian set up. Buddhist dominated Ladakh, economically the most backward region, has also been aspiring to have a Union Territory status within India.

The minorities in J&K contend that if the majority has a right to demand independence without respecting minority aspirations, then their pursuit of political space is also well founded. This polarization, precipitated by political ideologues, has deepened to the extent that the division of the state along religious lines is unsettlingly gaining ground among common people.

The Indian federal government who takes comfort in the belief that its sovereignty over J&K is legitimate rejects the idea of secession as well as demands for any sort of territorial division. It cites two main reasons for its stance. First, J&K, a Muslim majority state, rejected the two-nation option at the time of partition in 1947 and chose to be a part of India based on its secular principles. Therefore, J&K’s secession will undermine India’s founding tenets. Second, if India grants independence to Kashmir, it will set a precedent for mass up risings and secession movements in other states like Assam, Nagaland and Punjab among others.

Many pro-independence supporters in Kashmir argue that if superpowers like the Soviet Union could break-up in the past, then India, which is only a developing country, can certainly suffer a similar fate. However, the difference between India and the Soviet Union is blatant. The latter was an authoritative state and the former is a functional democracy. Even though Indian democracy has some serious shortcomings, its underlying fundamentals are strong and as such, there are innumerable possibilities for political resolutions to conflicts like the one in Kashmir.

Given these arguments, it is very unlikely that J&K will be able to secede or achieve territorial re-organization or division as demanded by Kashmiri Muslims, Kashmiri Pandits, Jammu Hindus and Ladakhi Buddhists. However the social, ethnic, religious and ideological schisms will have a long-lasting impact on future generations. The incessant hatred, suspicion, mistrust and anger among all the communities will consume J&K and prevent it from moving forward on the socio-political level. The conflict will become perpetual.

India has done very little to bridge this gap in J&K even as it has moved forward to improve its diplomatic ties with Pakistan. The goal should not be to merely stabilize bilateral relations or open up borders for trade with Pakistan, but also to facilitate an intra-regional dialogue within the three regions of the state of J&K. To achieve this, India must address the primary concerns of both the majority and minorities in J&K.

It may not be able to deliver justice to minorities, which have been ethnically cleansed and displaced, but the least it could do is not reward their culprits. India fails to create a sense of justice when people who have been charged with the murder and massacre of minorities are granted political amnesty and political space. This is a major impediment to any inter-community or intra-regional dialogue. It also generates a false perception that violence is the only tool to attain one’s ends.

Another hurdle to reconciliation and peace building is India’s failure to improve the human rights of Kashmiri Muslims, a community that is already politically alienated. Any innocent civilian who gets killed or tortured at the hands of J&K police or Indian troops in the Kashmir valley instantly increases exasperation and disgruntlement. It also allows the Kashmiri people to define such violations as a “state war” against one community alone – even if it may not be the case. This in turn provides a fertile atmosphere for political rhetoric and an opportunity for separatist political elites to harden the religious and ethnic identity of their communities. It is the Indian government’s obligation to ensure zero tolerance towards human rights violations against the Muslim community in J&K.

Alongside facilitating intra-regional dialogue, India must also pursue a serious and consistent dialogue between the federal government in New Delhi and J&K in which all three regions of J&K are represented. Any decision that undermines the concerns and aspirations of even one region or one minority community will not be a long lasting solution. Only a resolution that is reached through consensus will ensure peace.