by Paul Cochrane in New Delhi, October 15 - dissidentvoice.org
I was sitting with some Kashmiri friends in their apartment in the New Delhi area of Lajpat Nagar, just a stone’s throw away from the Nehru Stadium, one of the sports complexes India has shelled out $9 billion to host the Commonwealth Games (CWG). The CWG, which brings together the 71 countries and territories of the former British Empire, was about to launch, and on a national TV channel the slogan was “Go India Go.”
Sprawled out on Kashmiri carpets, we were discussing the grave situation in Kashmir over the past four months. Since June 11, when the Indian army shot at unarmed demonstrators, over 100 Kashmiris have been killed, including women and children, and the Kashmir Valley has been under total curfew. Half a million Indian soldiers carry out patrols, raise check points and bunkers, ID anyone out and about, and shoot to kill without any hindrance or worry about being hauled up in front of a military tribunal – the diabolical Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has seen to that, letting soldiers, quite literally, get away with murder.
The conversation turned to how different this summer had been from the violence, protests and strikes of previous years. “It’s the worst it’s been in 20 years,” said Hamid, who is in his early 50s. “People are totally fed up with being stuck inside, the schools closed, and food supplies running out. Kashmiris have had enough.”
In 1989, a popular rebellion – a Kashmiri intifada – against Indian misrule began, further stoked by militant Islamic groups funded and supported by Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) in the wake of the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, sending scores of Afghan veterans and Azad Kashmiris across the Line of Control (LoC) that separates Indian Jammu and Kashmir, and the Pakistani Azad (free) Kashmir (China has the remaining 20%, Aksai Chin, claimed by India). This proxy war between Pakistan and India, that remnant of Partition in 1947, put the Kashmiri populace in the middle. Intifada after intifada has occurred since 1989 and the Indian army has cracked down hard, notably in 2001, when over 1,000 civilians were killed. Over 45,000 Kashmiris have been killed over that 20 year period. Last year 72 civilians died at the hands of the Indian armed forces.
One major difference this year from former crises, when feelings simmered to a boiling point and Kashmiris took to the streets, is that this time there has been minimal militancy – apart from of the stone throwing kind and rioting. Sympathy with the militants has waned – particularly for Pakistani-backed groups – but anger with New Delhi’s political dillydallying and iron fist policy in tackling the “Kashmir issue” has spiked. The youth are not interested anymore in siding with New Delhi or Islamabad. The youth want independence, or, at worst, autonomy from India. The slogan at the huge protests that filled the streets of the summer capital, Srinagar, was “Go India Go,” particularly by the Quit Kashmir Movement and All Parties Hurriyat Conference. As we talked of this, the slogan flashed up on Times News channel as part of its CWG coverage. We all spotted the irony and started laughing: “GO India, GO!”
My friends are like many Kashmiris, forced to leave the valley for New Delhi some 1,000 kilometers away or even further afield in search of employment, selling carpets and other Kashmiri handicrafts, that major money earner that disappeared as the tourists stayed away. Indeed, the situation has been so precarious over the past decade that numerous guidebooks on India don’t even have a section on Kashmir anymore. It was a place once called the Switzerland of Asia due to its mountains, rivers and forests, giving the inspiration to that great Led Zeppelin song, Kashmir, in the 1970s when rock stars rented palatial boats on Dal Lake in Srinagar and Bollywood filmed dance numbers on the Alpine slopes. Now it is paradise lost.
So instead of investing billions of dollars on improving the infrastructure and livelihood of Kashmiris, or for the other 830 million Indians that live on less than 20 Rupees a day ($0.45), Delhi spent – and officials pocketed – $9 billion on the CWG. An event that – other than negative coverage by the international media in the lead up when a bridge collapsed, a cobra was found in an athlete’s room and so on – has garnered minimal attention worldwide. The Indians themselves seem far more focused on watching cricket matches.
While people starve, the healthcare system privatized, and people forced off their land for new real estate projects, mines and special economic zones, more is being spent on India’s military industrial complex. And Kashmiris, along with other “insurgents”, the Maoists, the Naxalites, keep getting killed by trigger happy soldiers with a licence to kill.1
In terms of global media coverage, Kashmir is a largely unheard of conflict, especially when placed next to neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan. The bleeding wound that is Kashmir is very much tied into Bush’s and now Obama’s war on Afghanistan, which is spilling over into Pakistan.
Kashmir is part of a regional game, a victim of its geography and religious make up – a mix of Sunni and Shia, the one million Hindu Pandits that lived there forced out over the years due to religious extremism and the perception that the Pandits were overwhelming with the predominantly Hindu national government rather than with Kashmir per se (a controversial government paper has shown that Muslims are under-represented politically and socially disadvantaged in India).
Kashmir has played directly into the ISI’s hands and to countries such as Saudi Arabia keen to export its brand of Islam (Kashmir had a large Sufi following while its Buddhist past also played its part in Kashmiri Islam). The religious dimension is the proverbial spanner in the works to a solution, the hatred so deeply ingrained over the past 63 years between the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and Hindu majority India. Pakistan is against an independent Kashmir that unites both sides, losing as it would its border and access to China, not to mention a major dent to its pride and the all powerful military that forms the backbone of the Pakistani nation. India’s Hindu populace – which has become far more radical and militant over the past 20 years – would equally be against losing a major part of the Northern provinces, especially to Muslim rule.
Srinagar during curfew
While international observers are calling on the LoC to become an international border, joint institutions to be developed and for the United States to partake in ‘quiet diplomacy’ and utilize its relations with Islamabad and growing alliance – particularly militarily and on nuclear power – with New Delhi, a far more radical solution is called for. One fitting with what India champions itself as, “the world’s largest democracy” – a referendum on what the Kashmiri people want, not Delhi, its puppets or the Kashmiri dynasties that have ruled the valley: independence or autonomy? This is in line with a 1948 UN resolution which called for a plebiscite to determine the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, but Delhi has repeatedly rejected the idea. In the meantime, the extrajudicial killings have to stop, and the AFSPA totally abolished.
As for Pakistan, that Frankenstein country propped up financially by the unlikely trio of China, Saudi Arabia and the US, it must end its 30 year funding of Kashmir-driven militant groups. Indeed, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf admitted earlier this month in London, that the ISI – before his rule, he made clear to point out – set up such groups in the 1980s and early 1990s to attack India. Evidence has also surfaced that the Kashmir-linked, ISI funded militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba was behind the November, 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Pakistan’s support for such groups has fuelled Islamic resistance in the Valley and provides a pretext for the Indian army to shoot unarmed protestors, labelling them terrorists and eyeing all Kashmiris as potential militants. Such an attitude was starkly conveyed to me a few years ago when trekking up in Gulmarg in the Kashmir Valley. I was talking to an Indian soldier, alone at his post overlooking the small town, and he pointed down and said: “All terrorists.”
It is time for the Kashmiris to decide if they want India to stay or to go. The same applies for Azad Kashmir. The Kashmiris should no longer be stuck between the Indian hammer and the Pakistani anvil.
Photographs courtesy of Sarwar Bazaz