- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
India is often referred to as the world’s biggest democracy. But the rule of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has called that status into question. Modi has clamped down on political dissent and the rights of India’s Muslim population, while presiding over a catastrophic public health crisis.
The sharpest forms of repression under Modi’s government have taken place in Kashmir, where the Indian state has always displayed its most authoritarian characteristics. From its incorporation into the Indian Union after independence to today’s repressive climate, the people of Kashmir have never been granted the free choice about their political status that they were promised back in the 1940s.
What was the status of Kashmir under British colonial rule?
Before I answer that question, I should begin by saying that the word “Kashmir” has been used over time to describe many different territorial and geographical entities. For the purposes of our conversation, whenever I say Kashmir, I mean the valley of Kashmir, which is currently under Indian control, and is home to the movement for self-determination.
In the era of British colonial rule from the mid-nineteenth century onward, the Kashmir valley was part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. The princely state was created in the year 1846 when the British conquered Kashmir and handed it over to their ally — Gulab Singh, who was then the ruler of Jammu. At this time, Kashmir assumed great significance for the British, in the context of a very intense imperial rivalry between Britain and Russia. The significance of Kashmir lay in its being strategically located between British and Russian spheres of influence in Central Asia and South Asia.
In contrast with areas that were governed directly by the British in the Indian subcontinent, which were called the British provinces, the princely states had Indian rulers and were subject to considerable indirect control by the colonial government. Through the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, the British were able to influence politics on the frontier without the risk or expense of governing the place directly. Because this arrangement was so beneficial to them, the British were always keen to underwrite the power of the Jammu and Kashmir state. This allowed the new rulers of the state an unusual degree of latitude in relation to their subjects.
They imposed a predatory tax burden on agriculture and manufacturing, institutionalized various forms of discrimination against the Muslim-majority population, and favored Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri Hindus for public office, land grants, and other forms of state patronage. By the late nineteenth century, the regime, which was headed by a Hindu prince, was anchored in Kashmir by a class of largely Hindu landlords, state officials, and money lenders, while the artisans and peasants were overwhelmingly Muslim. This had very significant implications for the lines along which politics cleaved in the twentieth century.
This overlap between class and religion was not unique to Kashmir. In the princely state of Hyderabad, which I will mention again later, a Muslim prince and a coterie of Muslim officials and landlords ruled over a predominantly Hindu peasantry.
What political forces were active in Kashmir at the moment of decolonization in the twentieth century?
In the decisive years — that is, between the 1930s and 1947–48 — the most significant political organizations that were active in Kashmir were the National Conference, which was a populist, cadre-based party with some socialist inflections in its rhetoric, and the Muslim Conference, which was a conservative Muslim party. Opposition to the maharaja’s regime had been evident in episodes of sporadic political militancy from at least the 1860s onward. This opposition was contained by the regime through a stringently enforced ban on political activity and newspaper publishing, and of course the use of brute force.
In 1931, this long simmering discontent was catalyzed into open revolt by the crushing impact of the Great Depression. Two very significant things happened that year. One was an uprising of the urban poor in Kashmir, so forceful that one Kashmiri socialist described it as an “elemental upsurge.” The second was an armed anti-tax campaign by Muslim smallholders in one of the Muslim-dominated districts in the Jammu province. The combined impact of these two events was immense. The power of the maharaja’s regime would never recover.
Among other things, the maharaja was forced to lift the ban on political activity and substantially relax the curbs on newspaper publishing. He was also forced to constitute a token representative body: it had virtually no powers and was to be elected on a very narrow property-based franchise, which would have allowed an estimated 3 to 5 percent of the population to vote.
The first political party that was formally announced after this was the All-Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, which after a few years was renamed the National Conference. This party campaigned quite vigorously against the maharaja, the big landlords, money lenders, and state officials. It won a small but committed following among the incipient urban working class, small peasants, and landless agricultural laborers. It even had a handful of communist radicals working within the party, inspired by the Popular Front strategy. Sadly, the undemocratic political culture of the party ensured that this base had little say in the direction that its leadership took.
In any case, the radicalism of the National Conference was very short-lived. By the late 1930s, sections of the National Conference leadership, with an eye on the elections, were attempting to win support among the propertied classes, who were the only people who could vote, and most of whom were not Muslim. As a result of this and a few other things, the party began to lose support among its core base, which was among poor and middling Muslims, without gaining much support among the propertied classes, most of whom unsurprisingly saw their interests as being tied to the maharaja’s regime.
Faced with this quite steady decline in popularity, Sheikh Abdullah, who was by then the most prominent leader of the National Conference and who would become a pivotal figure in later years, aligned the party with the Indian National Congress, which was the largest party in the Indian subcontinent at the time. The Congress favored a very limited program of political reform in the princely states, which was well to the right of the professed anti-feudal socialist radicalism of the National Conference. This alliance with the Indian National Congress marked a decisive rightward shift for the National Conference under Abdullah’s leadership. Its decline in popularity continued unabated from there.
Another significant thing that happened was that in 1938, the Muslim League, which claimed to be the party representing the interests of all Muslims in the subcontinent, issued its first explicit call for a separate Muslim homeland. Not long after a large section of the National Conference broke away and formed the pro-Pakistan Muslim Conference. The newly created Muslim Conference aligned itself with the Muslim League: much like the League, its core base consisted of Muslim landlords, traders, the urban petty bourgeoisie, and some students.
Following the split, the National Conference led by Abdullah was wiped out completely among Muslims in the Jammu province. The hemorrhaging of support in the Kashmir valley continued. In these decisive years, then, between the 1930s and 1947–48, the pro-India National Conference was rapidly losing support, but it was better organized and therefore able to act decisively, while the pro-Pakistan Muslim Conference was poorly organized, riven by factional struggles, and unable to capitalize on growing support in the Valley.
Neither party was very large however: between the two of them, they had an estimated twenty thousand members. This was certainly not insignificant, but they were definitely not mass parties either. This is important to emphasize.
As we know, the promised plebiscite on the status of Kashmir was never conducted. In debates today, the supposed strength of the Muslim Conference or the National Conference in the 1940s is often cited as a proxy for popular aspirations. This is entirely unjustified: as I said, these formations were not insignificant, but neither of them was very large, and neither could truly be seen as an index of popular sentiment.
How was it determined that Kashmir would become part of the postcolonial Indian state in the late 1940s? Was there any process of consultation, either at the time or afterward?
There was no process of consultation at the time, nor has there been one since, even though it was promised. I want to say a couple of things by way of context: in 1947, areas that were directly ruled by the British, the provinces as they were called, were divided along religious lines between Pakistan, which was explicitly styled as a Muslim homeland, and India, which was formally secular but implicitly majoritarian. The princely states were expected to join either India or Pakistan, depending on the religious affiliations of the majority of their subjects.
Under that logic, Kashmir, with its Muslim-majority population, was a state with what historians have called “Pakistan potential.” However, even after the India–Pakistan border was announced on August 17, 1947, the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir had not announced a decision about which dominion he would join. He was testing the waters with both Pakistan and India. He also had the right-wing Hindu fundamentalists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) whispering in his ear about establishing an independent Hindu kingdom.
The maharaja’s hand was forced in October 1947 by a series of armed revolts in the Muslim-majority western provinces of Jammu. The maharaja’s garrisons fell rapidly, one after the other. District after district merged with Pakistan. In the weeks that followed, tens of thousands of Hindus and Sikhs were massacred in these areas, and many more were forced to flee.
About two weeks after these revolts began, the Pakistani military sent in several thousand irregulars commanded by Pakistani military officers to the Kashmir valley, hoping to push further into the Jammu and Kashmir state. Between the revolts on the one hand and this incursion, the maharaja’s army was completely outnumbered and, before long, routed.
The Indian establishment offered military assistance but made it conditional on accession to the Indian Union. The maharaja therefore acceded to India, and Indian troops arrived to beat back the Pakistani advance. Where the fighting stopped then is where the de facto border stands today.
In Kashmir, meanwhile, well before these events, virtually the entire leadership of the pro-Pakistan Muslim Conference was imprisoned by the maharaja’s government. The Congress leadership had persuaded the maharaja and Sheikh Abdullah to work together to secure accession to India. At this crucial moment, Abdullah’s support for the accession granted it a veneer of popular legitimacy in the eyes of the Indian political class and the international community, while the National Conference cadre were instrumental in securing the accession on the ground.
Hoping to make the visibly unpopular accession more palatable to Kashmiris, the Indian establishment dismissed the maharaja and appointed Sheikh Abdullah as head of state. It’s important to stress that he was appointed as head of state by the Indian establishment without any semblance of popular procedure — a rather handsome reward for his troubles in bringing Kashmir to India!
Abdullah’s government immediately came down very heavily on pro-Pakistan and pro-independence voices. In addition to the continued presence of Indian troops, the state’s own greatly enlarged police and surveillance apparatus was deployed to this end of political repression. This was a painfully ironic culmination to a cycle of political activity that had begun in Kashmir in 1931 with a demand for accountable and responsible government.
Now, as I said earlier, the maharaja acceded to India in return for military assistance. At the time Jawaharlal Nehru made an emphatic promise, heard at the United Nations (UN) and around the world: that Kashmir’s accession would be conditional and temporary, and that a plebiscite would be held to ratify or reject Kashmir’s merger with India. This promise was based on Nehru’s confidence that the National Conference, with Indian support, would be able to secure a pro-India majority. As soon as it became clear that this would not happen, Nehru backpedaled on the plebiscite.
Two very significant things happened around this time. First, the division of the state precipitated an economic crisis. The valley lost its most crucial trade links, and the government lost its most important sources of revenue. This caused widespread and quite serious economic distress.
Secondly, soon after the maharaja was forced to leave the valley, the wholesale massacre and expulsion of Muslims began in the eastern district of Jammu, which remained in India. This massacre was perpetrated by the maharaja’s troops and activists of the RSS and other right-wing Hindu forces. The legitimacy of the accession was already barely hanging by a thread in Kashmir, and after these two episodes, it was really shot to pieces.
India’s own intelligence reports from the time confirm this. One notable figure even said that it was “midsummer madness to believe that we” — that is India — “can win the plebiscite.”
What formal political status was Kashmir granted by the Indian Constitution?
Before I answer that question, let me quickly mention Junagadh and Hyderabad, two princely states with Muslim rulers and Hindu-majority populations, so they were really the opposite situation as Kashmir. In Junagadh, a plebiscite was actually carried out, which India won. In Hyderabad, the attempt of the Muslim ruler to resist the merger with India was crushed militarily. These military operations were accompanied by widespread atrocities.
Now, as for the political status that Kashmir was granted by the Indian Constitution, the first thing we have to talk about is Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Although this was presented at the time as a transitional or temporary measure, its text simply laid out that the state was a constituent unit of the Indian Union and stipulated that only Article 370 of the constitution would apply to the state.
Nehru’s public posturing about a plebiscite aside, the Indian establishment saw this as a step toward the unconditional and complete integration of Kashmir into India. There were, however, a few complications. There was massive popular opposition, and because India had taken the matter to the UN, there was a great deal of international attention, so the appearance of propriety was crucial. Because of that and for other reasons, the full integration of the Jammu and Kashmir state into the Indian Union took time.
In 1952, an agreement was signed between Abdullah and Nehru which was called the Delhi Agreement. Under this agreement, the state ceded control over foreign affairs, defense, and communications to the Union government and nothing else. However, these limits have since been far exceeded in one way or the other.
Article 370 also included a statement that Indian constitutional provisions could temporarily be applied to Jammu and Kashmir through presidential orders. A series of presidential orders have since been issued since which actually rendered the state far less autonomous than other Indian states. For instance, even before article 370 was revoked and the state was broken up into two separate units, the power to declare emergencies and suspend civilian governments was freely and frequently used.
How did political life in Kashmir develop in the period between the 1950s and the 1980s?
From 1948 onward, the story of Kashmir is one of rigged elections, client regimes, and the complete exclusion of the majority of Kashmiris from political decision-making. The accession was very unpopular at the time and was becoming more and more unpopular by the day. There was also growing impatience within the Indian establishment to speed up the full integration of the state into the Indian Union.
In 1950, Abdullah’s government undertook a program of redistribution and debt cancellation, hoping to win over the politically restless peasantry by addressing their two great issues: landlessness and heavy indebtedness. Nehru and the Congress Party, who had scuttled the program of radical land reform in India, approved these measures in the hope that they would win support for India.
Too much is made of these reforms by pro-India writers who are always keen to burnish Abdullah’s radical and representative credentials. While the reforms were not by any means insignificant, they were granted under immense popular pressure, and their radical potential was largely blunted by the desire of the National Conference to consolidate a class of loyal beneficiaries designed to stabilize the regime politically. For instance, a lot of the land seized from big landlords was dispersed as patronage through the National Conference hierarchy.
These reforms did provoke a reaction from the Praja Parishad, which was a reactionary party formed in 1947 by Hindu landlords, moneylenders, traders, and former officials of the recently deposed maharaja. The Praja Parishad was guided by the RSS and the former maharaja. It campaigned for the full integration of Kashmir into India.
The big landlords in Kashmir had been dispossessed without compensation, whereas in India, under the terms of the very limited land redistribution that did take place, landlords were entitled to compensation. This is a key element in the Praja Parishad’s desire for full integration.
The Praja Parishad’s call found quite fertile ground among common Hindus in Jammu who feared — legitimately — that the Muslim majority would opt for Pakistan in a plebiscite. This was not a comforting prospect for them: given the mass slaughter that had accompanied the partition in India and Pakistan on both sides of the border, it was clear that neither country was an especially hospitable for minorities. Between 1951 and 1953, the Praja Parishad led a mass agitation demanding full integration.
In Kashmir, the events of 1951–53 further deepened suspicion toward India. Under pressure, Abdullah made public statements questioning the finality of Kashmir’s accession to India, something which he had until then insisted upon quite strenuously. This alarmed the Indian establishment, which had Abdullah imprisoned and installed Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad as head of state in Kashmir. Bakshi had acted as an enforcer for Abdullah and was notoriously unsparing in his use of state as well as personal violence.
An important shift in international politics took place that same year. In 1953, Pakistan entered the US orbit. The Soviet Union, hoping to encourage India’s policy of nonalignment, withdrew its support for self-determination in Kashmir at the United Nations. This eased international pressure on India a great deal.
Under Bakshi, who was Chief Minister from 1953 to 1963, there were record levels of corruption and rent-seeking, heightened political repression, two rigged legislative assembly elections, and a spate of integrationist measures that were pushed through. For example, in 1957, a constituent assembly, which had been formed in 1951 after a thoroughly fraudulent election on Abdullah’s watch, adopted a constitution that declared Kashmir to be an “integral part of India.”
Bakshi’s rule was brought to an end in the winter of 1963, when mass outrage triggered by the theft of a holy relic from Kashmir’s most revered shine erupted into a political upsurge of the kind that had never been witnessed before in the valley. There were slogans like “this country is ours, and we will decide its future,” and others demanding self-determination, which resounded in the many mass protest meetings that took place at the time.
Interestingly, a few thousand Pakistan-backed armed irregulars that were sent into Kashmir with the hope of taking advantage of this discontent to foment a rebellion met with indifference. This was certainly not for lack of anti-India sentiment in Kashmir. In 1965, India and Pakistan went to war over Kashmir for the second time.
Perhaps the most significant development in these years (mid-1950s–1960s) was the formation of the Plebiscite Front — an organization set up by Abdullah loyalists and led indirectly by Abdullah himself from prison. The Front campaigned aggressively for a plebiscite with the option of independence. It was outspoken against the excesses of Bakshi’s government, demanding the release of political prisoners, many of whom, ironically, had been imprisoned by Abdullah’s regime when he was in power.
The Plebiscite Front was the largest political organization that had ever existed in the state to that point and could actually boast of a mass appeal. From its formation in 1955 to 1970, it was the vanguard of pro-self-determination politics in Kashmir. Abdullah had never been more popular than he was in those years. For once, the claim that he represented the political aspirations of the majority of Kashmiris was actually true!
Unfortunately, he ultimately used the tremendous force of these mobilizations as leverage in his negotiations with New Delhi. In 1975, he signed an agreement with Indira Gandhi, who was then the prime minister of India. This agreement is often, and quite accurately, described as a total capitulation to the terms of New Delhi. Article 370 was disingenuously retained, even though the Indian government’s powers already far exceeded what the article permitted. In return, Abdullah was appointed as head of state once again. Today, unsurprisingly, Abdullah is remembered primarily as a man who sold his people out.
Soon after, the Plebiscite Front was merged back into the National Conference. But the question of self-determination, which the Front had raised so forcefully and persistently for a decade and a half, could not simply be wished away. Many of those who later led the struggle for self-determination in the 1980s, including those who led the armed insurgency, emerged from the Plebiscite Front milieu.
Why did an armed insurgency break out in Kashmir in the 1980s, and what were its outcomes?
The stolen assembly election of 1987 was the turning point. All of the elections up to this point in Kashmir had been hopelessly rigged. One client regime after another had been foisted on the valley, and maintained in power through the use of force, surveillance, and selective patronage. In the run-up to the election of 1987, a coalition of eleven political parties, ranging from secular to confessional, announced their intention to contest it as a united front. They called themselves the Muslim United Front (MUF).
The constituents of the MUF evidently believed that if an organized political formation independent of New Delhi took public office, political institutions could be used to demand accountable government, economic development, and a just settlement of the political question. The MUF call drew an enthusiastic response: that election saw a turnout of 80 percent, which is the highest that has ever been recorded in Kashmir.
Had the election been fair, the National Conference and the Congress, which were contesting it in an alliance, would have been wiped out. But unsurprisingly, the election administrators fabricated results to favor the Congress–National Conference alliance. Despite the fact that MUF candidates were leading by huge margins in several seats, even according to the official count, the National Conference and Congress candidates were declared victorious. Many MUF candidates and activists were subsequently beaten, imprisoned, and harassed.
This was something that completely enraged people. In the many mass demonstrations that followed, millions poured out onto the streets, chanting slogans such as “no election, no selection, we want freedom.” The 1987 election had conclusively demonstrated that the Indian establishment simply would not allow the formation of a government that it did not control, and that even a well-organized popular political force with mass support could not change that.
Yusuf Shah, who was one of the defrauded MUF candidates, is now known as Syed Salahuddin and heads the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), a pro-Pakistan militant group. His campaign manager, Yasin Malik, is a central figure in the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the pro-independence militant organization that first launched the insurrection in the valley in 1989.
In addition to the 1987 election, there were some other developments that were significant. The first intifada in Palestine, the fall of Soviet-backed regimes in Eastern Europe, and the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan had quite an electric effect in Kashmir. With the end of the war in Afghanistan, the entire infrastructure of money, weapons, fighters, and training camps, which the Pakistani Army and intelligence had assembled with US and Saudi money, was directed toward Kashmir.
Although armed groups had existed in the valley since the 1960s, they remained small and without popular support. It was only after 1987 that the armed insurgency won widespread legitimacy among Kashmiris as a credible mode of pursuing self-determination. For the thousands of young Kashmiri men who crossed the border into Pakistan seeking arms and training, an armed struggle appeared to be the only way to unsettle the firm consensus between India’s rulers in New Delhi and their clients in the valley — a consensus from which the vast majority of Kashmiris were persistently excluded.
The armed resistance began in 1988 with the JKLF, which was a pro-independence group with the stated aim of creating a secular and democratic Kashmir. Even though the JKLF had no overground political network and really no program for mass mobilization, it attracted a stunning amount of popular support. That year, in response to calls from the JKLF, two-thirds of all working days were strike days. There were massive rallies openly in support of the JKLF.
Although the JKLF was vastly outnumbered and outgunned by Indian troops, the mass support allowed them to effectively paralyze the state apparatus. Counterinsurgency operations commenced in January 1990 under the governor, Jagmohan, who was a BJP man. In the first few days of Jagmohan assuming the governorship of Kashmir, hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were killed in cold blood by Indian troops, but the massive marches demanding freedom continued.
Jagmohan then dismissed the civilian government and enacted several indemnifying laws to prepare for a more extensive use of force. This took the form of extrajudicial executions of suspected militants, but also the widest possible persecution of the civilian population: murder, detention, sexual violence, torture, beatings, invasive searches, daily harassment and humiliation, the indiscriminate destruction of property, and extended curfews. This was standard fare for the counterinsurgency in Kashmir and remains so today. Jagmohan himself described the counterinsurgency policy as one of “collective punishment of a disloyal population.”
The indiscriminate nature of the counterinsurgency fueled further support for armed militancy and drove up the recruitment of fighters to the JKLF — so much so that the training camps in Pakistan could not keep up with the numbers of young men who showed up. However, by the mid-1990s, popular support for armed militancy had waned a great deal. In addition to the punitive costs of the counterinsurgency, people were also growing increasingly tired of a murky landscape dominated by “unidentified gunmen” — this is a term that you will often see in news reports and other kinds of writing on Kashmir.
This landscape was the result of a proliferation of armed groups encouraged by the Pakistani establishment to undercut pro-independence forces plus the involvement of multiple intelligence agencies, with both India and Pakistan operating covertly. From the mid 1990s onward, this also included surrendered militants, most of who are coerced by the Indian state into being part of shadowy paramilitary forces.
By 2000, the major militant groups had announced ceasefires. In the years since, the number of active combatants in Kashmir has dropped from about ten thousand in 1990–93 to the lower hundreds. But the ruthlessly indiscriminate violence of the counterinsurgency has not only continued but has intensified, especially under the BJP government. This to my mind is a very clear admission of the fact that Indian troops are confronting and holding down today an entire people in revolt and not just a handful of armed insurgents. There are officers in the Indian army who have said as much.
Another thing that I’d like to mention is the departure in the 1990s of a very large number of Kashmir’s Hindu minority. In the early days of the armed militancy, the strategy that the JKLF employed included a campaign of assassinations, targeting prominent figures in the establishment. Of the hundred or so people that were targeted in the first few weeks, roughly one-third were Kashmiri Hindus. The JKLF does not appear to have been motivated by overt religious sectarianism, but the combined effect of these politically motivated assassinations and other killings motivated by sectarian hatred and an atmosphere of public hostility was that Kashmiri Hindus felt unsafe. At the time, many who fled saw themselves as moving only temporarily out of harm’s way and entertained hopes of returning, but very few have actually been able to do so.
You mentioned the role of Pakistani intelligence agencies in cultivating armed groups in Kashmir for their own purposes. How would you characterize the role of the Pakistani state in general in Kashmir?
First of all, it needs to be said that the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination is not instigated by Pakistan. A tradition of autonomist politics existed in Kashmir for decades before the armed militancy erupted in 1988–89. Certainly, it’s well known that Pakistan has supported and continues in some ways to support armed militancy in Kashmir, just as India has supported the Pashtun, Baloch, and Bangladeshi struggles for self-determination from Pakistan. This is a way in which these two hostile neighbors seek to weaken each other.
The Pakistani establishment claim that they want only to support the Kashmir Muslims in their struggle to liberate themselves, but their record of cynical manipulation suggests otherwise. After initially supporting the pro-independence JKLF, apparently for lack of pro-Pakistan options, Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) began to sabotage the JKLF almost immediately. After all, a resoundingly popular pro-independence group was a threat to Pakistan’s own interests.
The ISI then threw its weight behind the HM. It played an important role in decimating the pro-independence JKLF by the mid 1990s. Soon afterward, when the HM showed some inclination to act a little independently of the ISI, the latter encouraged the proliferation of radical Islamist groups, dominated by non-Kashmiris and motivated by a pan-Islamist agenda, in order to reign in the HM.
Pakistani military intelligence also engineered the murder of activists and intellectuals who were critical of Pakistan’s damaging influence on the Kashmir struggle. I spoke earlier about an uprising in 1963 triggered by the theft of a holy relic. Tensions ran high, and there was serious anti-Hindu violence in what was then East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), as well as anti-Muslim violence in Calcutta and Jabalpur in India. But there was no violence in Kashmir.
Maulana Masoodi, a well-respected cleric and leader of the National Conference, was instrumental in preventing the emotionally charged demonstrations from turning violent — a prospect that the Pakistani establishment would have welcomed. Years later, in 1990, Masoodi was murdered in his home by pro-Pakistan militants for this very reason. Abdul Ghani Lone, another pro-independence leader who advocated talks with India and was an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s opportunism toward Kashmir, was shot dead in May 2002, very likely by pro-Pakistan militants.
Overall, what has the experience been of the last thirty years for the people of Kashmir? Have Indian governments at any point made an attempt to offer reform as well as repression in response to their struggle?
There’s been no effort whatsoever to offer anything other than the combination of client regimes and military repression that India uses to manage popular discontent in Kashmir. Although there is a lot of noise about dialogue between India and Pakistan, and a lot of rather insincere rhetoric about healing wounds and winning hearts, the mode of dealing with Kashmir has consistently moved between tightly controlled client regimes and outright, indiscriminate military repression.
The armed militancy has dwindled to a very meagre presence since the late 1990s, but counterinsurgency operations have only grown in size and intensity, especially under the BJP. Elections, when held, continue to be staged, and all forms of political contestation continue to be disallowed and punished with fatal force.
The early 2000s were relatively quiet in terms of political upsurges. The Indian media described this as normalcy, while Kashmiris would rather describe those years of quiet as the silence of a graveyard. Either way, the silence was broken in 2008 when, despite the overbearing military presence and the free use of fatal force, the valley was witness once again to mass protests. After 2008, there were protests again in 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2016. Every time, the immediate trigger was different, but it was followed by a cycle of unarmed mass protests, violence, and suppression, with more protests, more killing, and so on.
In 2009, it was the alleged rape and murder of two Kashmiri women by security forces. In 2010, it was the murder of a seventeen-year-old boy. In 2013, it was the hanging of Afzal Guru, an ex-militant who was convicted of involvement in an attack on the Indian parliament in a sham trial — the judgment actually said that the court had no evidence of his involvement but was going to hang him anyway to satisfy the “collective conscience of society.”
These instances came in addition to the ongoing violence, humiliation, and indignity of murder, rape, torture, enforced disappearances, and mass graves, with the complete dislocation of all aspects of everyday life. Life in Kashmir has been saturated for decades with violence that is neither accounted for nor held accountable, and there is nothing that Kashmiris can do about it. The estimates of the people who have died in this period range from eighty thousand to a hundred thousand Kashmiris, while the number of people who have been brought to justice is literally zero.
In 2016, again there was a summer of mass unarmed protest and violent repression. The trigger was the death of Burhan Wani, a young Kashmiri man who was a commander of the HM. There has since been a resurgence of support for militancy in Kashmir, with an uptick in local recruitment for the first time since 2001–2. However, the number of militants is still very, very small, and the real challenge to the occupation now is what many have called a total insurgency by the civilian population.
We have seen images in the media of stone-pelters baring their chests to loaded guns. Crowds of thousands have also engaged the army during gun battles with militants, attempting to help them escape, and demanding that the bodies of militants be handed over to them. The escalation of troop mobilization around the abrogation of Article 370 is no surprise, given that there is a total insurgency by the civilian population, with a very small, meager, almost insignificant armed component. It is the population of Kashmir that the Indian army is fighting and holding down.
What has been novel about the actions taken by Narendra Modi’s government, especially in the period since the revocation of Article 370?
Before I speak about some specifics, I should say that there has been a basic continuity in India’s policy on Kashmir, whether it is the Hindu far-right BJP, or the supposedly secular Indian National Congress, or the coalitions of various kinds that have taken power at brief moments in the political history of India. Much of what Modi’s government has done in the last two years is much more ruthless and repressive but still basically continuous with India’s Kashmir policy.
The BJP is part of the Sangh Parivar, which is the conglomeration of Hindu right-wing organizations. Over the past decade or so that they have been in power, they have succeeded in making India a Hindu majoritarian state in all but name. The demonization of Muslims in India and in general is the ideological linchpin of the BJP and other Hindu right-wing organizations that are part of the Sangh Parivar. During the tenure of the BJP government, we have seen, for example, an attempt to impose and implement significant changes to citizenship laws, which threaten India’s 200 million Muslims with disenfranchisement.
Jammu and Kashmir assumed a special significance for the project of creating a Hindu majoritarian state for the BJP, because it was the only Muslim-majority state in the Indian Union. The BJP presented the special status of the state, which as I have said never really amounted to much, as a case of special treatment and appeasement of Muslims and minorities. The state could therefore not be allowed to exist.
The revocation of Article 370 was really a move to humiliate and subordinate Muslims in the only Muslim-majority state. This was also very important for the optics of domestic politics in India, because Modi and the others could show their right-wing Hindu constituents that here was a man who didn’t care about political correctness. He is decisive. He has put Muslims in their place. He has unbroken India. There is a lot of rhetoric of that kind.
The move also has historic symbolic significance for the Hindu right wing because the Praja Parishad in Kashmir was led and guided by the RSS. The revocation of Article 370 was the fulfillment of a long-cherished Hindu right-wing agenda for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar more generally.
In terms of the broad policy, there is basic continuity but a much more ruthless employment of force and repression. In addition to this, the BJP is firmly anti-Pakistan, more so than previous governments, refusing any kind of negotiation with Pakistan and any kind of international attention on Kashmir. They have been very consistent and forceful in insisting that this is an internal matter and not something that others have a right to speak on.
Although the political autonomy that Article 370 was supposed to grant had already been hollowed out decades ago, so that its abrogation is at one level just for show, there are also some pragmatic things that are involved here. There were economic protections of some kinds: for example, only people who were domiciled in the state could purchase land there. Immediately after the removal of Article 370, there was a massive round of what we can only call accumulation by dispossession.
Nomadic pastoralist communities that had been granted access and rights to use forest lands as pasture are being disposed on a very wide scale. The ownership and control of some of the lands that had been distributed under the land reforms of the 1950s and the 1970s is under question. There are proposals to build mining operations in many different parts of the state, which will not only be ecologically disastrous, but will also cause a great deal of displacement. There are proposals to build something like twenty-two dams in different parts of the state. You have a massive round of accumulation by dispossession already underway, and it’s likely to pick up pace in the years that follow.
Another thing that’s very worrying is that there is a process of delimitation that is meant to reorganize administrative and electoral units. This process is guided by a clear desire to ghettoize Muslims and increase the number of seats from Hindu-majority districts. This manipulation is clearly an attempt to ensure that a BJP government is able to come to power in the state without relying on other parties for support, which would be a first. In other words, the pretense of political space has been completely obliterated.
If the people of Kashmir, now or in the foreseeable future, had the freedom to determine their own political status, what option do you think they would favor?
I think I can say with absolute certainty that the overwhelming majority of people would agree on one point: “not India.” It’s hard to say whether there would be a larger number of people in support of unity with Pakistan or in support of independence, but my impression is that that a majority would be in favor of independence.