Clashing Over Kashmir

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Tauseef Mustafa / AFP / Getty

Kashmiri Muslims protest against rule in Kashmir on August 22.

"Azadi!" has been the cry across the stunningly beautiful Kashmir Valley for two weeks now. Shouting the word for "freedom," hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris have been marching to demand liberty from India. Schools and businesses across the region have been closed, as the central government in New Delhi has mobilized thousands of troops into the area to assert its control. So far, at least 23 people have been killed and 500 injured in clashes with Indian security forces. A three-day respite to allow locals to stock on essentials ended on Aug. 22 with a resumption of protests and hundreds of thousands drove or marched on foot through the provincial capital Srinagar shouting anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans. Some were waving Pakistani flags, as people lining the roadsides offered them refreshments and encouragement. On Aug. 24, two leading separatist leaders were arrested by Indian police on the eve of more demonstrations.

The scenes were painfully reminiscent of the worst days of the insurgency, which has raged for two decades and has witnessed the deaths of as many as 11,000 people as bands of Islamist guerrillas, encouraged by Pakistan, fought Indian troops. That crisis, which at many points brought New Delhi and Islamabad to the brink of war, had seemed to pass as the 21st Century took hold. But the old embers of discontent remained, indeed almost structurally preserved by the very way Kashmir is governed. It is part of a single Indian state called Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), where Jammu is a majority Hindu area which waters down the numbers of Kashmir's majority Muslims. And so, it took just one spark for the old fire to come roaring back.

The Valley had been on edge since June this year over the local government's move to "divert" 100 acres of land to a trust managing a Hindu pilgrimage. Muslim protests led the provincial government to rescind its order. That decision, however, infuriated Hindus, who blocked the highway to Srinagar, which while less than successful as an economic weapon led to the Muslims of the Kashmir Valley exploding in anti-India protest. Kashmiris saw the blockade as a symbol of Hindu India's willful ability to hold Muslim Kashmir in a vise. "The blockade was made out to be much worse than it probably was," says Navneeta Chadha Behera, author of Demystifying Kashmir. "In effect it was like a psychological war. A fear psychosis was created where people panicked about shortage of medicines and milk for children, about truckloads of apples rotting. How much was fact and how much rumor, no one knows."

The depth of Kashmiri anger, however, runs deep. For two decades, Kashmiris have lived in one of the most militarized regions of the world, with 800,000 troops stationed in the 15,520 sq km (5,992 sq mile) Kashmir Valley and operating under laws that give them impunity from prosecution. Charges of extrajudicial killings, rapes, abductions and torture were leveled against them with chilling regularity during the 1990s. The Indian government has consistently denied Kashmiri calls to demilitarize, saying the terror infrastructure across the border in Pakistan has yet to be dismantled. Resentment continues to simmer over the "disappearance" of more than 8,000 Kashmiris during the insurgency. Human rights organizations claim the missing were killed by security forces. Kashmiri demands for greater cross-border travel and trade relations with Pakistan have also seen slow progress due to continuing distrust between the two countries. Meanwhile, Kashmiri aspirations for greater autonomy have also remained largely unrealized. That has been particularly galling because Kashmir acceded to India in the 1947 partition of British India into Pakistan and India based on carefully negotiated terms giving the region the right to self-governance on all issues except foreign relations, communication and defense.

The chaos has enveloped the Jammu side of the province. Since the government rescinded its diversion of land, the Hindu-dominated area of the state has seen widespread protests, in which at least 10 people have lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands have protested what they say is the special treatment given to the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley. While J&K receives the highest per capita financial assistance from the federal government in New Delhi, they claim, most of those resources are channeled into the Valley. They point out that J&K is the only state with its own constitution and with a special status in the Indian constitution, where outsiders cannot buy land and whose demographic balance — roughly 70% Muslim and 30% Hindu — that is is solicitously protected.

New Delhi thus has two political fronts to deal with, one Muslim and one Hindu. Any concessions it might offer to those protesting in Srinagar will provide fodder to the equally vociferous protesters in Jammu. What's more, the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has taken the issue beyond the state of J&K into the rest of India, and seems set to make it an election issue during the general elections expected at the beginning of next year. Due to the protests, the state elections have been put off until next year.

The problem of separatism is completely different. "The only solution is to get people back on the table to talk," says A.S. Dullat, a former chief of India's external intelligence agency, the R&AW, and a former incharge of Kashmir affairs in the Prime Minister's Office, "But for that they need to wait for passions to cool." With general elections round the corner, the talks are more likely to be an exercise to buy time than to find a meaningful solution. Chadha Behera says the separatists themselves are to blame for the deadlock with New Delhi: "They themselves are not agreed on whether they want freedom or merger with Pakistan." Furthermore, she says, they are inflexible. "They won't give up their personal security but will demand troops be removed from the valley."

While opinion columns in Indian newspapers have, rather remarkedly, for the first time started talking of letting Kashmir have independence, the fact remains that no government facing an election is likely to take any hard decision on Kashmir. For the moment, the situation looks likely to fester.