Author: Samyukta Singh
For many people, the solution to the de-escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan is giving Kashmiris a right to self-determination. In its original use, self-determination was defined as popular sovereignty, where people have the right to choose their government democratically without any coercion. In the same manner, Kashmiris would get to decide and shape their own political, economic and cultural destiny without outside interference. While this answer sounds great on paper, what we should be asking ourselves is whether it is capable of resolving the underlying social and political problems that have been plaguing Kashmir for hundreds of years.
In 1947, when the British partitioned India into two countries — the Democratic Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, princely states had the option of choosing between joining either of the two. The Hindu ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, found it difficult to deliberate in light of the fact that he was ruling over a Muslim majority state with a rich Hindu legacy . In the same year, Pashtun tribesmen led by a Pakistani officer named Akbar Khan decided to take matters into their own hands and stormed into Kashmir from Pakistan . In the wake of such a violent attack, Singh had to ask for India’s help to thwart this sudden invasion. India only agreed to provide military aid if Kashmir acceded to India. Very soon, Singh signed the Instrument of Accession, which brought Kashmir into India’s fold .
Even though the Kashmir situation was legally resolved, Pakistan refused to accept the outcome. Because of the many failed attempts at resolving this issue between India and Pakistan diplomatically, India filed a complaint with the United Nations (UN) on January 1st, 1948 . The UN called for a plebiscite for the people of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to determine which country they wanted to be part of.4 However, a major and first condition for the plebiscite to take place was the removal of illegal Pakistani forces from Kashmir, which Pakistan has not adhered to till date .
Because of a strong ethno-national consciousness shared by many Kashmiris of an independent identity, Kashmir was later granted a special status under Article 370 in India’s constitution in 1952. This article permitted Kashmir to have independence in all areas except for communications, defense and foreign affairs, which would be under India’s control.5 This decision was taken by the first Constituent Assembly, which was elected democratically by the people of J&K in 1951. Since an election is considered a demonstration of free will, the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did not think a formal plebiscite was needed anymore . While Article 370 was the real need of the hour then, the impact of Kashmir’s special status soon permeated into the daily lives of Kashmiris, who were unable to reap the full economic and social benefits of being part of a secular India.
In the 1930s, there was a strong appeal to secularism and democracy in the Valley by a charismatic leader, Sheikh Abdullah. He was a key player in changing the name of the Muslim Conference to the National Conference, which appealed to Muslims and non-Muslims, alike . Sheikh Abdullah wanted independence from both Pakistan and India in order to preserve multiculturalism among his people. He praised Maharaja Hari Singh’s move to accede to India during times of peril. Yet, he hoped the arrangement would be temporary. Under his administration, the opposition to Pakistan’s theocracy was a strong sentiment shared by the people in the region. Despite appreciating the secularism of the Indian constitution, which he identified with more than he did with Pakistan’s Islamic theocracy, the Sheikh’s discontent with India grew due to his obsession with an independent Kashmir. He was soon arrested for his dictatorial tendencies of blocking opposition and limiting free press . He was succeeded by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, who wanted to maintain the accession to India while honoring the agreement of autonomy over spheres other than defense, communications and external affairs. This sentiment was a common attitude in the Valley, much to the chagrin of Pakistan. Even during the 1965 war where Pakistan tried to take Kashmir by force, the Kashmiri people backed India and supported the latter’s victory .
Since the 1980s, we have seen a different yet dominant interpretation of self-determination emerge in Kashmir that in many ways goes against ideals of popular sovereignty. Now in Kashmir, self-determination is a process of directly asserting an exclusive, exclusionary extremist and religious Muslim Sunni identity. How did such a consciousness foment in the Valley? Many external factors are to blame such as the influence of both Pakistani insurgencies and a corrupt, political oligarchy that could not be held accountable by India due to Kashmir’s special status, thereby enabling the rise of Islamist fundamentalism.
One of the earliest evidences of Islamization in the Valley begins with the Sheikh’s decision to change the names of 2500 villages to Islamic names, followed by his communal speeches in mosques and campaign of distributing copies of Pakistani writings/pamphlets calling for independence . The titles of some of the pamphlets were ‘The Conspiracy of Converting Kashmir Muslim Majority into a Minority’ and ‘The Tragedy of Kashmir’ . The appearance of such public campaigns may have been intended to shift the public away from the common patriotic sentiments for India. In 1977, the Jamaat-e-Tulba (IJT) was formed in Kashmir to usher in a new wave of conservative Islamism which called on members to establish true faith by abandoning customs that did not align with the Quran and to dissociate with people who had forgotten Allah . The IJT tapped into many Saudi Arabia-based networks and was given membership of the World Organization of Muslim Youth, that went on to finance Islamist terrorist organizations. In 1980, the IJT even organized a conference in Srinagar, that was attended by prominent Saudi Arabian dignitaries such as Imams of mosques from Mecca and Medina . Saudi money was funnelled into the region through religious institutions like Madrasas, which indoctrinated young children to fight for Islamism and provided training in Jihad .
Some of the first cases of violence caused by this neo-conservative Islamic ideology occurred in 1986, when Kashmiri Hindu Pandits were attacked and Hindu temples were razed and burnt . It was not news to many that the minority indigenous populations in Kashmir, consisting of Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists, were unwelcome in the Valley. It was not news to hear of non-Muslim girls being raped or of non-Muslims being constantly targeted and murdered for following their faith. The Governor of Kashmir, Jagmahon, recalls how many of the atrocities against minorities would take place on Friday nights after Kashmiri Muslims listened to sermons in mosques . The Kashmiri Sunni Muslim leadership neglected many of the atrocities faced by minority groups. Extremist groups were able to exert a huge control on public life by shutting down cinema halls, beauty parlors, and liquor stores. Vulnerable moderate Muslim voices also chose to stay silent to protect their lives. To many of the pro-separatists today, “Azaadi” (i.e., the call to autonomy) is nothing more than a war cry against the infidels (i.e., non-Muslims). Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan, is also known to have supported this cause . Everything finally culminated in the brutal ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley in 1990s, with their cries falling on deaf ears, as they had for the prior thirty years .
Another reason Islamist fundamentalism was able to make in-roads into Kashmir was due to the poor economic conditions and rampant unemployment. In 1987, more than 10,000 university graduates were unemployed . It is said that the corrupt oligarchy of Kashmir siphoned federal money received from the Indian government away from real development to enrich themselves . Crossing the border to Pakistan to become a trained insurgent proved to be a more viable economic alternative to the youngsters, who were paid for their services in the name of religion . The deteriorating economic conditions were conveniently blamed on the Indian government as propaganda to hide the corrupt misappropriation of funds happening at the state level. None of the beneficial economic laws passed by the Indian government such as the Right to Education, Wealth Tax Act or Urban Ceiling Tax designed to help the destitute, were even applied in J&K. Other parts of J&K, such as Ladakh and Jammu, were also discriminated against and suffered, as these areas did not obtain sufficient representation in the Kashmir state government, which operated from the capital city of Srinagar.
A sub-nationalist cause of “Azaadi” in Kashmir only means autonomy and victory to one dominant, patriarchal, Sunni group of men, thereby increasing the persecution of minorities, women, and the LGBTQ+. The return of Kashmiri Hindus to the Valley will only be a distant dream in such a world. Article 370 has indirectly given a free hand to anti-nationalist sentiments fueled by rich bureaucrats and created a breeding ground for Islamist fundamentalism to spread like wildfire. It is important to realize how self-determination is employed to play into identity politics and how it is often used to uphold and validate earlier patterns of discrimination. Let’s think of another example where people wanted to exercise the right to self-determination. Remember when Southern states in America called for secession as a solution to preserving their way of life, which included continuing the horrifying practice of slavery?
Even if Kashmiris were to believe that being free from the control of India is a better option, would the geopolitics of the region allow for its independence and autonomy? How would a landlocked region like Kashmir without an army defend itself from being grabbed by the neighboring Pakistan and China? It is a well-known fact that Pakistan continues to use Kashmir as a proxy war to attack its arch-nemesis, India, by sending Islamist insurgent groups and empowering stone pelters in the region. Additionally, with the gross human rights violations committed against the people in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), does one think there will be any significant improvement in human conditions if the rest of Kashmir were to be controlled by Pakistan?
Now, let’s look at China. How would a country with almost no ethnic or religious connection to Kashmir respect the identity of a Kashmiri? Historically, China has not shied away from using power grabs such as in the case of Tibet and Hong Kong to increase its political territory. In 1962, China decided to lay claim on the easternmost part of India’s Ladakh, which it renamed Aksai Chin. According to Prof. Subhask Kak, the Aksai Chin region and the rest of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is historically part of the Indian civilization, as the region used Sanskrit and Prakrit languages. The real name of the region is ‘Gosthana’ (place of cows), which it is still referred to by Tibetians and Ladakhis . Buddhist Ladakh MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal once said, “Since 1962, China has cheated India not once or twice but a hundred times. In the 1962 war, they took 37,244 sq km from us of what we know today as Aksai China. I feel strange even to hear the term Aksai Chin. It is not Aksai Chin, it is China-occupied Indian territory.” . Clearly, the rest of J&K territory would only be an icing on China’s cake if India or Pakistan were to let go of it.
Self-determination sounds like a rosy, idealistic goal for Kashmiris. Yet, it only takes the region and its people many steps backward and away from peaceful co-existence across all boundaries of religion, class, etc. It doesn’t solve many of their existing problems and only exacerbates them. Appeals have often been made for setting up a demilitarized and free-trade economic zone in J&K, which is hailed as the best solution to the ongoing dispute. However, large-scale, strategic changes would take years to implement and are highly infeasible in a region that is conflict-ridden and has deep-seated historical and emotional ties to different groups. Therefore, the repeal of Article 370 and Kashmir’s full incorporation into the rest of India provides the easiest first step in the right direction that is best for the quality of life of the Kashmiri populace, yet it is contingent on everyone’s cooperation.
10 – Pandita, K.N., Kashmir Question, Kashmir Herald, Volume 2, No. 9 – February 2003, Featured Articles
12 – Jagmohan, My Frozen Turbulence in Kashmir, Allied Publishers, New Delhi 1992, p.180
15 – Examining Political Violence: Studies of Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and Internal War, p. 266
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