by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 9, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1431)
Beyond the clichéd-ridden rhetoric on Kashmir, real people — men, women and children — are getting killed and maimed by one of the most ruthless military machines in the world: India’s 1.2 million-strong army, of whom 700,000 are deployed in Kashmir. Amid all the talk about India’s role as an emerging power — “India is not emerging, it has emerged”, in the groveling words of US President Barack Obama during his visit last month — what is conveniently ignored is that India still has 800 million people living in absolute poverty. These people earn less than a dollar a day and sleep on sidewalks, in gutters or in hovels that are unfit even for animals. Yet, India is proclaimed as the “emerging” power because it has 300 million people with surplus cash that a fast-declining West covets. It is also being pumped-up against the truly rising power, China, much as the US had used Beijing in the 1970s and 80s against the erstwhile Soviet Union.
While India may be unwilling to fulfill the US-assigned role, it is India’s internal contradictions — a rigid caste system that is akin to religiously sanctioned apartheid, and insurgencies that are raging in at least 28 different states — that make India unsuitable for such a role. Amid its myriad problems, there is one trouble spot that refuses to go away: the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. It would be tedious to repeat the tortuous history behind this sad affair but suffice it to say that it is a legacy of the manner in which the British partitioned India in 1947 leaving a number of unsolved problems.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir is the most glaring example of British intrigue and has been a source of conflict between India and Pakistan leading to three wars. The state remains divided, India occupying two-thirds of it while the rest is administered by Pakistan. For 60 years, the people under Indian occupation have demanded the right to hold a referendum to determine their own future. There are also two UN Security Council resolutions from 1948 and 1949 reaffirming the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination. Initially, India accepted these but has gradually moved away from these and today insists that Kashmir is an integral part of India. It argues that if it were to allow a referendum it would result in Kashmir’s separation, thus undermining Indian secularism. Thus, the people of Kashmir are held hostage to validate Indian secularism.
There have been numerous uprisings a-gainst the Indian occupation of Kashmir. The most sustained uprising began in 1989 and lasted nearly 20 years causing immense suffering to the people because of a brutal Indian crackdown. The struggle subsided somewhat after 9/11 because of American ire against anyone struggling for independence. Far from using this as an opportunity to redress the long-festering grievances of the Kashmiris, the Indian government took this as a green light to crackdown even harder. Its trigger-happy troops have indulged in gruesome acts of murder, rape and kidnappings in Kashmir. Statistics about Kashmir read like a horror story (see box on next page), yet India’s brutalities go largely unreported in the Western media because India is seen as a lucrative market by the West.
In the past, India tried to deflect attention away from its own horrible record by accusing Pakistan of aiding and abetting the Kashmiri freedom fighters. There is some truth to this; after all, Pakistan is an interested party. Kashmir is the unfinished business of partition but more importantly, it is the question of the lives of 12 million people. That the rest of the world, particularly the Muslim world has not paid adequate attention to the suffering of the Kashmiris is to their lasting shame. Justice, human rights and freedom are indivisible; one cannot be concerned about the plight of the Burmese people while ignoring the plight of the Kashmiris. Whether India is a democracy or not is beside the point; democracy is not a license to indulge in wanton killings and rape.
The latest uprising began last June when India’s trigger-happy troops fired on unarmed protesters killing a 17-year-old student who was merely a bystander. A tear-gas shell fired from close range hit him on the head, blowing his brains out. Since then, Kashmir has been in turmoil again. So far, an estimated 120 people have been killed, hundreds arrested and as usual, the heavy-handedness of the Indian occupation troops that have a carte blanche under the Public Safety Act (PSA) to indulge in every illegal act, has continued.
Last September, the Indian government sent in a parliamentary delegation headed by Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram to review the situation and make recommendations.
On September 25, Delhi announced a policy shift calling for the release of jailed student protesters, easing security strictures in major cities, reopening schools and universities, and offering financial compensation to the families of the more than 100 civilians killed since the recent protests erupted in June. Chidambaram also said a high-level government committee would be established to open a dialogue with political parties, students and civil society groups in Kashmir.
Few people take such pronouncements seriously. When under pressure, the Indian government has made soothing noises about dialogue and easing restrictions only to rescind them and arrest top leaders of the Kashmir freedom movement. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the most senior and elderly leader of the movement has been in and out of prison. He is currently facing sedition charges for demanding that the heavily armed military forces should be withdrawn and a referendum held in the state.
The Kashmir Valley, including its capital city Srinagar, remains choked under a stifling curfew enforced with barbed wire and hundreds of thousands of troops. Shops are frequently shuttered to protest military brutality and most people struggle to get medicines and even milk. Most people describe the situation as “collective punishment.”
Even the pro-Indian Chief Minister of Kashmir, Omar Abdullah was forced to say in the legislature on October 7 that Jammu and Kashmir had never merged with India and that it was an international dispute. This was a direct challenge to the parrot-style repetition from Delhi that Kashmir is its “integral part” and outsiders must not interfere since it is primarily for India and Pakistan to resolve.
Yet Delhi stubbornly refuses to countenance any proposal that would lead to its peaceful resolution while taking into account the wishes of the people. Abdullah said Kashmir was a dispute between two neighbours and the explosive situation in the valley needed a “political solution”.
What forced Abdullah to make such a statement? The situation is rapidly spinning out of control and he realizes that unless he makes some soothing noises to placate the angry, stone throwing youth, he would soon become irrelevant. He was forced to distance himself from military brutality although as the state’s chief minister, he also has a say in how force is used. He also rubbished the Indian government’s claim that periodic elections have made the issue of referendum redundant.
His emphasis on Kashmir being a “political issue” that “…cannot be addressed through development, em-ployment and good governance” was a slap in the face of India. The political issue Abdullah spoke of revolves around a principle that cannot be denied to the Kashmiri people — their right to self-determination.
How alienated and angry the people of Kashmir are with Indian brutality and how much they wish to have nothing to do with India can be gauged from one of the most popular slogans heard in Srinagar these days: “Nanga, bhooka Hindustan; jaan se pyaara Pakistan: Naked, starving India; more cherished than our lives is Pakistan.” For upstart Indians this must be the ultimate insult. They dream of becoming a superpower and are already claiming the status of a regional power with vast military forces, the fourth largest air force and navy in the world but if they cannot feed 800 million of their own people, then India deserves rejection and condemnation. A country is judged not by the number of its jet fighters but by the number of hungry mouths it can feed.
In any case, for the Kashmiris, no amount of economic development in India and globalization will bring any solace as long as they remain under the boot of the unruly Indian army that has made rape a standard policy of dealing with the Kashmiris.
Is it surprising that the Kashmiris do not wish to have anything to do with such an entity?