For six decades, a piece of land about the size of Britain between Pakistan and India has been the source of major tension and fighting between the two. But recently, the nature of the lengthy conflict has changed. In India-controlled Kashmir, young people inspired by protests across the Middle East have intensified their push for independence – and they want the world to take note.
Here is a quick primer about the conflict.
– Ben Arnoldy, Staff writer
1. Why is Kashmir a disputed territory?
When the British withdrew from the Indian subcontinent in 1947, a negotiated settlement partitioned the land between the newly independent states of India and Pakistan. Autonomous states such as Kashmir were given the choice of where to go.
The ruler of Kashmir was Hindu, while the majority of his subjects were Muslim. The partition deal had given other Muslim-majority states to Pakistan, a nation created to allay Muslim fears of becoming a minority in a Hindu-led nation.
But the prince chose India, enlisting the country’s help in repelling fighters from Pakistani territory. A United Nations-brokered cease-fire called for the withdrawal of Pakistani forces and the holding of a popular vote to decide the region’s fate. But Pakistan did not remove its forces and India never held the vote.
Periodic wars between India and Pakistan over Kashmir have left the territory split between the two (as well as China), with a de facto border known as the “Line of Control.”
In the 1990s, religious militants from Pakistan joined indigenous fighters to battle Indian forces. India then used that to define the conflict as terrorism against its people, taking the international spotlight off the Kashmir issue of independence.
2. What’s new with this conflict?
Kashmiris over the past decade have turned away from armed struggle. They’ve also adjusted their goal of joining Pakistan in favor of a mostly nonviolent, secular struggle for independence, led by young people.
3. What do Kashmiris want now?
Most Kashmiris say they want freedom from India. Polling since 1995 has found at least two-thirds of those living in the Kashmir valley want independence. Some older Kashmiris still talk of joining Pakistan, but two-thirds of Kashmiris under age 30 mostly want independence.
These children of the 1990s conflict witnessed the bloodshed of street fighting and are disenchanted with armed resistance. Their desire for independence has intensified under the ongoing Indian military occupation and police state.
4. What is India’s military presence?
India keeps hundreds of thousands of military, paramilitary, and police forces in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Some estimates suggest India has at least a 50 to 1,000 force-to-population ratio. To put that in perspective: US counterinsurgency doctrine calls for a 25 to 1,000 force ratio, something the United States has never achieved in Afghanistan.
India says the forces are necessary to prevent a return to armed insurgency. Large numbers of soldiers are deployed along the border to stop incursions from Pakistan.
But residents are still living under a police state. Barbed-wire enclosed barracks sit in downtowns, heritage sites, and rural areas alike. Internet use is monitored, phones are tapped, and text messaging is banned. Public gatherings are forcibly dispersed. Even foreign journalists interviewing residents on the streets of Sopore prompted an armored vehicle to slow down and inspect the scene.
Residents can be locked up for two years without trial under special policing laws denounced by Amnesty International. More than 5,000 youths have been rounded up by police this past winter alone. Allegations of torture are pervasive.
5. What role does religion play?
Young stone-throwers – the ones who pelted Indian troops last summer after they fired on crowds – insist the dispute is nationalist, not religious.
“This is not a religious fight. It is a fight for land,” says a 20-year-old businessman. “Though the majority are Muslims, it doesn’t mean we want an Islamic state,” says a 29-year-old computer professional. The state should be governed by democracy, with sharia law a personal matter, says a 31-year-old businessman.
Traditionally, Kashmiris have practiced Sufi Islam and lived alongside a sizable Hindu population. During the 1990s, most of the Hindus fled the Kashmir Valley after attacks from militants. Kashmiri Muslims often lament the exodus, claiming it was not their doing, while the Hindu exiles insist they were the victims of intolerant, militant Islam.
The two main separatist leaders mix religion and politics. Syed Ali Shah Geelani has been a member of Jamaat-e Islami, a Pakistan-based religious party that calls for sharia. He wants Kashmir to be part of an Islamic state, one where there would be no discrimination based on religion and girls would be educated, separately.
The other leader, Umar Farooq, holds the religious title of Mirwaiz, or spiritual leader of Kashmir’s Muslims. He preaches separatism after Friday prayers from his seat in Kashmir’s most important mosque. However, Farooq has been making his case to Indians and the wider world with the language of secular democracy.
6. What are the possible resolutions?
Most experts see independence as unlikely anytime soon.
India fears giving up Kashmir could inspire separatist movements in other regions and embolden Pakistan to see Islamic terrorism as effective. Both India and Pakistan fear loss of water rights. Also working against the separatists are their wide territorial claims. “Kashmir” includes not just the Muslim-dominated valley for the separatists, but the Hindu-majority region of Jammu, the Buddhist region of Ladakh, and the northern territories of Pakistan that do not identify with Kashmir.
India and Pakistan have come close to a plan that would grant autonomy to parts of Kashmir on both sides of the Line of Control. The two countries resumed talks in late March. Some separatists are prepared to enter into an autonomy deal as long as it does not close off future negotiations for independence.
Many Indian officials still hope that with a combination of better policing and economic development Kashmiris would give up their struggle.