Indian emperors and poets have referred to Kashmir as “paradise on Earth”. However, recent riots have shown that the region is anything but. Akshay Narayan explains the way forward.
Burhan Wani, a 21- or 22-year-old commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, a Kashmiri separatist group designated as a terrorist organisation by India, the EU and the US, was killed in an operation by Indian security forces on Friday 8 July. His death sparked riots throughout the Kashmir valley. The clashes were some of the most violent in the area for many years, and served as a reminder that the Kashmir issue is far from resolved.
The issue of the effect Wani had cannot be seen in isolation. It is part of a much bigger issue about Kashmir. Since 1947, Kashmir has been involved in a conflict between India and Pakistan. During the partition of British India, the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir had to choose between joining either Pakistan or India, or becoming an independent country. The Kashmiri king was indecisive, so Pakistan launched an invasion. The Kashmiri king asked India for military assistance and India agreed, provided that the king signed a provisional instrument of accession to India. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1947 followed, at the end of which a ceasfire line was drawn through Kashmir.
Both India and Pakistan claim the region in its entirety, but they each govern less than half of it (the remainder is administered by China). Three wars have been fought between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. In 1989, an insurgency erupted in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) which has continued since. The insurgency involves several militant groups, some of which are in favour of declaring Kashmir an independent state, and others that favour the state’s secession to Pakistan. The initial insurgents were Afghans or Pakistanis who were trained and equipped by elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence services, but more recently the number of local militants has increased.
As a result of the insurgency, Kashmiri youth have not enjoyed the same freedoms as their counterparts in the rest of India. A lack of economic opportunities, a 48 per cent unemployment rate among youth, militarisation of the valley and human rights violations by security forces, all create discontent and disenfranchisement. All of these push young people towards taking up arms.
However, people who share this ideology live in a bubble. They fail to see why their lives are not as good as they want them to be, and the actions they take just perpetuate the cycle of violence. The Indian security forces are fighting an insurgency, and to win an insurgency requires a continuous military presence in all parts of the area. It also requires a certain degree of ruthlessness on the side of the security forces. The militants have to fear who they are fighting. Unfortunately, this means that from time to time, innocent civilians are caught up in the bloodshed. It is extremely sad, but that is the inescapable reality of an insurgency.
However, with regards to riots, civilians deaths must be avoided, both for humanitarian reasons and to win hearts and minds. Indian security forces are inappropriately equipped for civil unrest, and police units need to be given equipment like baton rounds, water cannons, armoured vehicles, pepper spray etc. Security forces currently use live rounds and pellet guns that cause serious eye injuries in riot control. The 36 dead civilians in the recent riots did nothing to help the Indian government’s cause.
But Kashmiri militant groups will not hesitate to kill civilians. The Pakistani government continues to sponsor and oversee insurgent groups, creating a constant war in Kashmir. Like any other warzone, the standard of living is pitiful and until the war ends, the condition of the Kashmiri people will remain abysmal. However, those who think that they will resolve the situation by joining a militant group are deluded. For 27 years, the insurgents have failed in their attempts to force a Kashmiri secession, and there is no reason that the security forces will reduce their efforts to control the militancy.
The current militarised line between India and Pakistan, the Line of Control, must be formalised into an international border. Both countries must both acknowledge the parts of Kashmir under each others’ administration (they haven’t already done so because they both believe that the entire Kashmir region belongs to them). This will fix the international issue, but will not help the situation within J&K. Some suggest that a referendum take place to see whether inhabitants of J&K want to remain a part of India or not. However, if such a referendum takes place, then it should not just be the people of J&K who decide. It must be the population of India that decides, because the decision will undoubtedly affect the entire country. India is a diverse country of 29 states, six major religions and 122 major languages. If Kashmir leaves, then different religious, ethnic, socio-economic and linguistic groups will demand their own separate nations.
Those who favour Kashmiri secession to Pakistan fail to see how their future will play out. There is a long list of problems facing India, but the list for Pakistan is even longer. India is a rising world power, and the best choice for Kashmir would be for it to stay withinIndia. Those who favour Kashmiri independence also fail to see that an independent J&K stands no chance. It is in Pakistan’s best interests to control all of Kashmir, and a newly independent J&K with a virtually non-existent military may be subject to a Pakistani invasion. Pakistan could easily use Kashmir as a springboard to launch further insurgencies within India.
Throughout its history, India has always been stronger when it was united. Allowing Kashmiris to engage in a functioning political process will be the best way to win their hearts and minds and to improve their situation. More devolution to the Kashmiri government and additional autonomy once the violence has died down will help the Indian cause immensely. Youths taking up arms will be unable to force a secession and are wasting their lives. They will only force the Kashmiri people to live in a state of regular curfews, riots and violence for years to come.