Kashmir is fabled for its glorious mountains, stunning scenery, remarkable landscape, and pleasing climate. It is known as an oasis of lakes, rivers, streams, and a romantic tapestry of gardens, flowers, and fruits. It is the stuff of picture postcards and a destination dreamed in fantasy like Coleridge’s pleasure domes of Xanadu.
But that facade shatters the moment your feet step on the ground of Kashmir. Instead of fragrance, floral beauty, and majestic scenery, you are met by of the debilitating oppression of Indian military camps, security checkpoints, ragged bunkers, military convoys, and armed patrols.
Behind all these Indian ‘security’ monstrosities permeate the stories of disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, and rape. The scenic beauty is haunted by the greenery of hundreds of Martyr’s Graveyards (abodes of Kashmir’s fallen) that dot the landscape in every city and in every village. The graves carry more than 100,000 of Kashmiris killed by state forces since 1989. This painful spectacle does not even begin to capture the plight of those who have been maimed, disabled or incarcerated.
Permeating the atmosphere is pepper sprays, tear smoke, and chilly power grenades. Topping this all, is the saddened souls of those barely alive under Indian occupation, and their painful stories of ruthless censorship, fearsome intimidation, forced confessions and deathly horror of retaliation.
Dive deeper into the social landscape, and you will encounter the horrified parents of hundreds of willfully disfigured school-age children who are unable to see. Blinded by the state’s newest tools of tyranny, these children are the victims of the pellet guns made up of tiny cluster-shrapnel that first penetrate and then explode within the victim’s body.
Kashmir's scenic beauty is stained with painful tales of egregious human rights violations and colossal structural violence-- encompassing political, social, economic, medical, and jurisdictive spaces-- committed against people under siege by a settler-colonial occupier, under the ambivalence of the international community.
Several generations of Kashmiris have grown up highly politicized and indelibly traumatized, with their lives disrupted under repression. Medical anthropologist, Saiba Varma’s “Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir” (Duke University Press, 2020) is a censure of the appalling way healthcare delivery has been militarized in Kashmir. The book highlights in chilling detail how militarization has sneaked into the medical spaces and the very lives of the patients and their healthcare providers in Kashmir.
For example, the omnipresent military checkpoints are notorious for stopping, on one hollow pretext or another, hospital ambulances or private vehicles carrying those injured in protests against the occupation. This with the singular aim of disrupting their urgently needed care. Often the injured are brought dead to the hospital. Doctors and other healthcare providers are physically violated or otherwise intimidated for providing care to these victims of state violence.
The prolonged military siege has disrupted the lives of individuals, families, and society in general. The scale of political repression is matched only by the magnitude of distress in people's lives. The army's stranglehold on people's lives is excruciating and merciless. The institutionalized oppression has weighed down the population resulting in fear psychosis marked by pervasive anxiety and depression. Peoples' very survival is fragile and fraught.
The Indian state has clamped down on the fifth estate --an institution so fundamental to pluralistic democratic order-- to suppress crucial conversations about people’s resistance to the occupation. Varma has described this siege as “an assault on the spirit rather than the body ... It is about breaking their spirit, by not even allowing them to share even the most basic level of information.”
As witnesses to this travesty of justice, India’s politicized judiciary provides no relief to the people of Kashmir. According to a report in the Economist, “on many glaring abuses occurring in Kashmir, they have remained resolutely-- and shamefully -- silent.”
Effectively, it is martial law in Kashmir administered by New Delhi to strengthen its unpopular rule.
To evade detection of rampant human rights abuses, the Indian state and its forces are protected by a surveillance and propaganda dragnet of Orwellian magnitude. A murderous network of brutal interrogators, violent army men, deathly munitions, and militaristic laws have been deployed to erase the people's identity and memory.
To obtain false confessions from the incarcerated youths, they are threatened with vicarious harm to their family members, especially the womenfolk. State's paid mercenaries and spies have ensured that a neighbor fears his neighbor, and a brother suspects his brother. Due to these machinations, there is widespread distrust among people, leading to mental collapse and nervous breakdown.
To ensure political submission and administrative legitimacy, the rulers of India have bought off some local political and bureaucratic elites through state patronage, bribing them with economic and other tangible and intangible perks and resources. These corruptible elites then serve as the civilian face -- the enforcers-- for the military authorities.
A Kashmiri's memory is filled with sadness, bitterness, and anger. It is a story of a people simmering in deep anguish and unease. Kashmir and its hapless inhabitants are suffering personified.
Submerged under their agony is a self-determination aspiration -- promised by the UN, wretchedly maligned and repressed by an occupying power, and equally sadly forgotten by the international community. This long denied and repressed aspiration has found expression in the form of an unrelenting resistance by peaceful and unarmed people. This long-lasting struggle is an embodiment of people’s will to resist forced occupation and denial of their freedom since the days of partition in 1947.
Since those fateful days, Kashmir has remained entangled in two opposing narratives of India’s and Pakistan’s respective nationhood. The two contesting nations have seen Kashmir as either an 'integral part' of India or a 'jugular vein' of Pakistan.
Missing from these stark and uncompromising catchphrases are the tales and travails of those who have the most right to determine Kashmir's fate -- ‘We the people’ of Kashmir. These clichés have only served to render a historical and historic self-determination movement intractable, relegating it to a purely spatial or cultural fight over territory or religious identity. More significantly, these formulations have irrationally removed Kashmiris from the negotiating table, where their political destiny must be ultimately determined.
Kashmiris have been the greatest victims of the conflict between India and Pakistan. These two nations’ dysfunctional relations are a case study of international animus derived from political incompatibility, religious and cultural hatred, and unresolved political disputes. Instead of choosing the potential of the future, they have shamelessly chosen the darkness of the past.
Here is an instructive warning by the authors of “Contemporary Conflict Resolution” (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, & Miall, 2005, p. 38): “A constant failure of those who have been war leaders has been a failure to ‘enlarge the shadow of the future’ instead of remaining in the shadow of the past."
What is the way forward?
First off, the umpteen rounds of bilateral negotiations over the decades between India and Pakistan have gone nowhere. There is no evidence to suggest that they will come to an understanding without the direct or indirect intervention by the international community under UN auspices.
There are some confidence-building steps as a prelude to the final negotiated settlement of the dispute:
1. Call an end to and strictly abide by a ceasefire by all stakeholders.
2. Facilitate UN-supervised demilitarization on both sides of the line-of-actual control.
3. Facilitate unqualified release of all political detainees.
4. Abrogate all repressive laws, including AFSPA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1990]; and PSA [Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978], etc.
5. Allow freedom of local, national, and international media throughout the entire disputed territory.
6. Facilitate creation of UN-supervised truth and reconciliation mechanisms for justice and accountability.
7. Allow international observers unrestrained access to both sides of Kashmir for firsthand assessment of the ground situation.
These actions will undoubtedly facilitate a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir dispute under UN supervision. Absent this, Kashmir and Kashmiris will continue to suffer under a brutal occupation by a nation at war with its neighbor in a nuclear environment. It is time for India and Pakistan to move beyond their seven decades of zero-sum approaches to their bitterness.
The burden is not only on India and Pakistan but also on the international community to make this a reality. At stake are not only the opportunities for the unlimited possibilities for the teeming millions of the two countries but the very survival of the billions in South Asia and beyond.
This is no fearmongering. This Armageddon is very likely given the intransigence of the jingoistic nationalists currently on the prowl in India. It is not a matter of 'if' but 'when.'
(Tariq Ahmed is a freelance writer)