Kashmir: the struggle for independence

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 Joy Bose

The struggle for Kashmiri independence is central to Indian and Pakistani politics and the conflict between the two nations. Both countries claim Kashmir as their own, with no regard to the wishes of the Kashmiri people. Its partition in 1947 was the inevitable outcome of the manoeuvres of British imperialism in the first half the last century as it attempted to split the Indian independence movement along religious lines. Today, two-thirds of the 10 million population of Indian-occupied Kashmir are Muslims.

When the British left India in 1947, 77% of Kashmiris were Muslims, but its ruler was the Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh. At the time of independence India was to be divided into two states, with Muslim-majority regions going to Pakistan. Accordingly Pakistan claimed Kashmir, but Singh was reluctant to accede. To put pressure on him, Pakistan launched a guerrilla invasion, only to drive him into Indian hands. The arrival of the Indian army in Kashmir led to the India-Pakistan war of 1948, ending in a UN-sponsored ceasefire agreement, the demarcation of a line of control between India and Pakistan and since then, de-facto partition. The UN resolution included a promise to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir about its future, which Nehru and subsequent rulers of India ignored. The unresolved situation has led to three further wars between India and Pakistan: 1965, 1971 (mainly over Bangladesh but also involving Kashmir) and 1999.

In Indian-ruled Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah, founder of the National Conference Party, was the most popular political leader. Initially having good relations with Indian PM Nehru, he was appointed Prime Minister of Kashmir but was subsequently jailed for taking an independent line. The accession of Kashmir to India was later formalised in the Article 370 of the Indian constitution, under which Kashmir has a special status and certain privileges: these are opposed by Hindu nationalists. India has conducted regular elections in the part of Kashmir under its rule, fostering an illusion of peace and democracy. However, they were rigged to make sure India-friendly puppets were elected, and the state governor appointed from Delhi often held real power.

The illusion of peace was shattered in 1987. One factor was the blatant rigging of the Indian-sponsored assembly elections when it seemed that an unfriendly face might win. Ordinary Kashmiri people got tired of Indian control and repression and many youth took to arms. A second factor was that the military in Pakistan, flush with US funding and arms meant for the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union, was running training camps in the part of Kashmir under its control, so youth could cross over, receive training, and then return to the Indian part of Kashmir. A number of separatist organisations, from the pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front under Yasin Malik to the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen and Islamic militant groups such as Lashkar e Toiba sprang up. Attacks on Indian soldiers and government officials, as well as tourists and the Hindu minority, increased.

The Indian government responded with putting the state under direct rule from India, bringing in thousands of troops and increasing repression of the Kashmiri youth, jailing many and conducting arbitrary arrests and house to house searches. Many youth were picked up and tortured on the flimsiest of grounds, having no legal protection due to draconian anti-terrorist acts. Only recently thousands of unmarked graves were discovered in Kashmir, many of them civilians killed by the Indian army over the last 20 years. Kashmir remains the most militarised region in the world today, with more soldiers per unit of land than any other conflict zone on this planet. Incidental victims of the situation were the Hindu Kashmiri pandits, most of who had lived for hundreds of years in the Kashmir valley and were forced to flee to refugee camps in India. However, an overwhelming majority of Kashmiris today want their safe return to their former homes.

After peaking in the early 1990s, the struggle for self-rule exhausted itself for want of progress in the face of the Indian army's brutal tactics and Pakistan's ambivalent support. This prompted the Indian government to lift president's rule in 1996 and organise new elections. The outcome was a victory once again for National Conference under Farooq Abdullah, son of Sheikh Abdullah. In 1999 India and Pakistan again came to war over Kashmir when Pakistani soldiers occupied the peaks of a mountain pass overlooking a major strategic highway built by India.

Since 2004, Pakistani support for the insurgency in Kashmir has waned due to its internal politics. However the issues underlying the Kashmiri people's right to self determination and oppression of Kashmiris by the Indian army are still not resolved. In 2008, in response to a decision by the Indian government to transfer a huge amount of forest land in Kashmir to a Hindu pilgrimage site, mass protests flared up including a rally where half a million people protested against Indian rule. Here too the army used bullets against the mainly stone-throwing youth, and many were arrested, tortured and killed.

There is continuing persecution of one of the leaders of the Kashmiri independence movement, Professor Syed Geelani. But although a Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru was finally executed in February 2013 following his conviction on flimsy evidence for an attack on the India parliament, the Kashmir valley is presently subdued. Many former militants have abandoned the struggle. The Indian government is attempting to bring development to the state while ignoring the issue of self-determination. India treat it as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan and opposes outside interference, refusing to negotiate directly with Kashmiri separatists. The recent election of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Indian Prime Minister Modi may signal a stepping up of Indian oppression. His government's recent actions to assert Indian rule include suggestions of abolishing Article 370, proposals to return the Hindu Kashmiri pandit refugees to exclusive protected settlements and ejecting the UN peacekeeping force monitoring the border with Pakistan. Only when the Indian as well as Pakistani governments stop using the Kashmiris as pawns in their geopolitics and acknowledge their right to self-determination, will the valley know lasting peace.