Features | Security | South Asia

The Unheard Voices of Kashmir

While India and Pakistan argue and fight over the fate of Kashmir, is anyone listening to the Kashmiris?

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
The Unheard Voices of Kashmir

Indian policemen guard as a Kashmiri child watches from behind a window near the house of a leader of the People’s Democratic Party where a personal security officer was killed in a rebel attack in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

At least 15 people were killed when Pakistan and India exchanged cross-border shelling across the Line of Control on November 13. Indian shells reached well into the Pakistani-administered territory of Kashmir, burning villages in the Neelum Valley. While locals die on both sides of the divide, both New Delhi and Islamabad accuse each other of violating the 2003 ceasefire. The Kashmir region is claimed in its entirety by both South Asian nuclear powers; each occupies part of the region with the Line of Control (LoC) marking the divide.

The Neelum Valley is part of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) territory, which along with Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) forms the two regions in Pakistan’s control. India holds the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which has since been bifurcated into two union territories following the separation of Ladakh after New Delhi revoked J&K’s special status in August 2019. Pakistani-administered Kashmir was formally bifurcated into its much larger constituent Gilgit-Baltistan, formerly called the Northern Areas, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir in 1974

The bifurcation of J&K, meanwhile, was carried out for administrative reasons according to the Indian government, but critics claim that religious demographics were the actual motivation. However, in addition to Pakistan’s condemnation, New Delhi’s move on J&K also invited blowback from China, which claims parts of Ladakh.

The developments over the past 16 months have included a military standoff between China and India, in addition to growing ceasefire violations between Islamabad and New Delhi. In October, India accused Pakistan of 3,800 LoC violations in 2020. By July, Pakistan recorded 1,595 ceasefire violations by India. However, last month’s shelling in Neelum Valley was by far the most destructive this year.

“At least 100 houses have been damaged in the valley. The shelling was completely unexpected. There is regular crossborder firing near the LoC, but it rarely reaches Neelum Valley,” says local resident Jalal Uddin Mughal, an amateur filmmaker and photographer. 

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The Pakistan military claims that the Indian army encountered a few Kashmiri “freedom fighters,” which prompted the bombing of the Neelum Valley. The timing of the shelling, two days before last month’s election in GB, meant that many fingers were pointed toward an apparent Indian attempt to sabotage the polling.

“I couldn’t connect the dots between GB elections and Indian shelling. The LoC connects GB and Ladakh as well; if the aim were to target the GB poll, the shelling could’ve taken place there. If the mujahideen (freedom fighters) intervened across the LoC, then India is using this as justification for this shelling,” believes Mughal.

Mughal also maintains that it is unlikely that Indian forces would’ve targeted the GB elections since he says there appears to be an understanding between New Delhi and Islamabad to mainstream their administered Kashmir territories.

“We feel there is backdoor agreement between India and Pakistan and steps are being taken to formalize the LoC as the border. That’s where we are headed. Like Indian-occupied Kashmir, there will be strong reaction in AJK, but the state will control the people similarly. So India targeting GB elections doesn’t make any sense.”

The polls last month saw 330 candidates compete for 14 constituencies in elections for the assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan. All the mainstream Pakistani parties contested the elections and had unanimously vowed to transform GB into the country’s fifth province following the polls, in which the centrally ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) triumphed.

The mainstreaming, in effect, means Pakistan engaging in political reengineering of its own administered part of the disputed Kashmir territory, following India’s move in Jammu and Kashmir. The push to mainstream GB has come in part from China, which wants to secure its highest-ever overseas investment in the shape of the $87 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which enters Pakistan via GB and is hence embroiled in the Kashmir dispute, too.

Kashmir today is the gateway of the 21st century’s most expansive neoliberal venture and a major front of the new cold war. And yet its four multiethnic and religiously diverse territories, intertwined over the past two centuries via power plays passed on from imperialistic empires to repressive nationstates, house a wide gamut of aspirations. However, for many locals, it is becoming increasingly clear that their desires are unlikely to be factored in by power wielders unilaterally acting on their “behalf.”

While Indian military occupation has been increasingly called out in the global press following New Delhi’s move on Kashmir, Pakistan upping the ante on its condemnations of India over the past 15 months has largely been limited to domestic consumption. This is due to Islamabad’s clamp-down in its own portion of Kashmir, including the maintenance of GB in a geopolitical limbo

The decision to grant GB constitutional rights via provisional provincial status is the culmination of a seven-decade long struggle wherein the region has been autocratically governed from Islamabad. Many locals in GB have felt that they have been forcibly connected to the Kashmir dispute, even though they constitute a distinct region.

Many in GB wholeheartedly support the Kashmiri right to self-determination, and their own. But there remains a feeling that the provision of their basic human rights shouldn’t have been held hostage to the resolution of the protracted Kashmir dispute. This sentiment is especially prevalent among the GB youth.

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“I am confident that 98 percent of people in Pakistan are not aware of the constitutional status of GB. They do not read their Constitution. They have no idea about Article 1, which describes its territories,” says Ammar Saqib, a resident of Gilgit City, who is currently studying law.

Locals have long protested over a lack of infrastructure, educational institutions, healthcare facilities and even provision of basic utilities like electricity and the Internet. Like mainstream Pakistani provinces, especially Balochistan, people from GB frequently protest for control over their own resources.

The Pakistani Army has had complete control over GB, and has been accused of grabbing land at will. China which is now developing businesses and infrastructure in the region, as part of CPEC, is seen by some as just the latest imperial power looking to control the region’s destiny, and that of its people. 

“[The Chinese] have created a separate police department for their security and [their citizens] get the jobs. The Chinese influence is a real threat to our land, [and is] increasing day by day. It will change our culture, destroy our beautiful villages. If their influence is not curtailed, God forbid, our condition will be no less than Uighur Muslims,” believes Saqib.

While some GB residents believe that provincial status might finally give them some control over running their own region, Saqib is less optimistic.

“This ‘provisional status’ is merely a slogan to win elections. How would they make [GB a] province? Pakistan declares GB as part of Kashmir and people in Kashmir have also a claim on [GB]. If they make it a province, they will lose their battle at the United Nations,” he adds.

A similar sentiment is expressed by many in AJK, sharing a common aspiration of an independent state, encompassing the four territories — a federation of Kashmiri states.

Divided into three administrative divisions, AJK itself is a hub of contrasting views regarding the future of Kashmir. It is common for those from the Mirpur division, including many who have settled in Europe, to identify themselves as Pakistanis first and then Kashmiris. Muzaffarabad, being the capital, is largely under Islamabad’s control and there is little room allowed for dissenting views in the division. Poonch predominantly hosts Kashmiri nationalists and secessionists.

In October, a popular slogan against the Pakistan Army “yeh jo dehshat gardi hai, iss ke peechay wardi hai” (meaning “the uniform is behind terrorism”), which is also chanted by GB, Pashtun and Baloch nationalists echoed in Poonch when a vehicle with plain-clothed officers taking a local into custody was surrounded by protestors. The officials were later discovered as being affiliated with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), unilaterally taking action in a fraud case, beyond their jurisdiction in AJK.

The discontent in AJK has grown following India’s annexation of Jammu and Kashmir last year, with many deeming Pakistan’s reaction insufficient. Locals in AJK have long accused Pakistan of duplicity in its stance, simultaneously upholding the Kashmiri right to self-determination at the United Nations, while bilaterally agreeing to solutions with India in Simla or Agra. This explains the growing fears that India and Pakistan mainstreaming their administered territories of Kashmir might be a part of a backdoor understanding at the expense of Kashmiri aspirations of independence.

“For the past 73 years, Kashmiris have been saying that Pakistan has taken major U-turns on many policies. In many agreements, Pakistan and India have sat down and labeled it a core bilateral issue,” notes Attiq Ahmad Sadozai, a senior journalist who is the media advisor to the AJK Prime Minister Farooq Haider. 

In a military briefing to Haider and AJK President Sardar Masood Khan, a plan was outlined to formalize AJK as a province. Separately, Haider was booked under politically motivated sedition charges in October, reaffirming the fast evolving changes in Pakistan administered Kashmir, which align with Islamabad’s seeming plan to mainstream the territory.

“There have been many instances where Pakistan hasn’t taken the needed stand [for Kashmir]. After India revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, and imposed a large scale curfew there, what many Kashmiris felt Pakistan’s stand should’ve been wasn’t taken. The PM announced a ‘Kashmir hour,’ then 30 minutes, now reduced to only one minute – these are only symbolic gestures,” says Sadozai.

The prime minister’s media advisor has also been a firsthand witness to the goriness of the Kashmir conflict. On February 25, 2000, at least 13 civilians were killed in the Lanjot village of AJK’s Kotli district. They were Sadozai’s family members.

“Only my brother-in-law, a cousin, [and] two young girls survived. Three people were decapitated and had their necks taken away. My sister and niece have been disabled [for life]. During recent Indian army shelling my cousin’s four daughters were martyred after a shell exploded in their tandoor. In my village you’ll hardly find a house where there are no victims,” he says.

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“Those of us living on the LoC have one major demand that this cross-border firing and shelling needs to stop. Civilians on both sides lose lives. Kashmiris die here and Kashmiris die over there as well, when shells go from this side to the other. There needs to be a permanent ceasefire.” 

While many Kashmiris, on both sides of the LoC, demand a permanent ceasefire they are increasingly skeptical with regards to the formalization of the LoC. 

“If Pakistan agrees to such a settlement with India, what about the Kashmiris that we’ve sacrificed in Srinagar? What about the Kashmiris from Azad Kashmir that participated in the Tehrik-e-Azadi-e-Kashmir [the Kashmir liberation movement]. What about the Kashmiris who demonstrate all over the world? They’ll ask questions,” maintains Sadozai.

What is described as an indigenous militant movement for Kashmiri freedom on the Pakistani side of the LoC, is labeled as terrorism by New Delhi. However, the Kashmir jihad has been a decades-old Pakistani security policy for the entire region, which included the Islamization of the separatist movement in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Many argue that Pakistan’s persistent Islamist narrative on the conflict, coupled with its vocal support for Kashmir jihad, including the backing of Kashmir-based terror groups, has discredited the nationalist movement in the region at a time when the world was becoming increasingly wary of radical Islam. And among the many critics of the Islamization of Kashmiri nationalism are secularist Muslim voices in Indian-administered Kashmir.

“Kashmir’s struggle used to be class struggle till the 1930s and 1940s. Following the creation of Pakistan, the radicalization over there started spilling into Kashmir as well, but it was kept in check because the National Conference was generally secular,” notes Kashmiri sociopolitical commentator Arshia Malik, who has regularly written on the conflict for both Pakistani and Indian publications.

The year 1979, considered significant for the Muslim world, saw the advent of the Afghan jihad with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. U.S. and Saudi backed mujahideen fought the Soviets until their withdrawal; they also gradually spread from Kabul to Srinagar by the end of the 1980s. 

“Kashmir got the spillover [of Afghan jihad] and the mujahideen. Once the struggle changed to jihad, many pro-azadi, pro-Pakistan people started thinking twice. The 1990s was hazy without social media, as tech made advancement. [In the 2000s] you have 9/11, along with technology, Kashmiris started understanding where they were in the global politics. [By] 2010 to 2020 many Kashmiris were outright against Pakistan,” adds Malik.

However, as social media provided space to secularist Muslim voices from Indian-administered Kashmir, the internet also reverberated with echoes of azadi online. The curfew in Jammu and Kashmir along with the internet blackout and harsh international media coverage have pointed toward a totalitarian takedown of local dissenting voices. Even so, Malik maintains there remains unheard voices among the Kashmiri Muslims.  

“Yes they keep saying azadi azadi but now with the new Chinese incursion, Kashmiris are starting to [reconsider] independence because of China. There are many pro-India voices in Kashmir, and many have become pro-India after the abrogation of Article 370. But they’re not vocal about it because the terrorists are still there. A lot of the terrorists getting killed [by security forces] is a [result of] intel from local population who are fed up with the violence,” she says, adding that the calls for azadi no longer necessarily mean a demand for a separate homeland. 

“They talk of azadi in a sense [to] sway with the wind. They [have a] very vague idea of what azadi means. [It is] just to vent frustration, [to say] ‘we are not happy’. Also calls for azadi should also factor in Kashmiri Pandits, secular Muslims, communists and agnostics. Pro-India Muslims have also been terrorized and named in pamphlets with hit-lists,” maintains Malik.

Just like the residents along the LoC, many Kashmiri Muslim youth find themselves in the crossfire between Indian state forces and jihadist terror outfits. Amid the ongoing District Development Council (DDC) elections in J&K, many locals are increasingly wary when it comes to giving any dissenting political views. Among them is Ubaid Dar* a Srinagar based IT practitioner in his 20s.

Dar says that there are two different perspectives among the Kashmiri Muslim youth when it comes to the slogan of “azadi.” 

“One is from people who are blatant Pakistan supporters, who support the ideology of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and other militant organizations that are provided militia support by Pakistan. The other is the nationalist ideology of the JKLF [Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front], which wants complete azadi. Those with a religious point of view see Pakistan as a messiah and nationalists believe independence is the way forward,” he adds.

Dar believes there remains an infatuation with jihadist groups in Kashmir. “A new group has started to support al-Qaeda. Since the [Afghan] Taliban got what freedom supporting people here believe [in], a caliphate like [realm].”

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Even so, regardless of the interpretations of azadi, Dar maintains a majority of the Kashmiri youths do not see a future with the Indian state and are willing to support Pakistan, and even China in this regard. “India revoked Article 370 because it feared another uprising in Kashmir, and hence called in its forces. This [is why] even China is perceived as a messiah [against Indian army]. Kashmiris want to see India going down, whoever takes it down.”

After the revocation of Article 370, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now vying to alter the demography of Kashmir. Pakistani state policies have long facilitated a demographic change in GB, too. However, where New Delhi and Islamabad have looked to enforce settlements, there is one community that witnessed a veritable exodus: Kashmiri Pandits.

Over 350,000 Hindus lived in Kashmir up to the end of the 1980s. Following the eruption of jihad and the spread of radical Islamism, militants began initiating an ethnic cleansing of the Pandits. By 2016, only 2,764 Hindus remained in the Kashmir valley.

Following the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, many Kashmiri Pandits hoped that the Islamist stranglehold would decrease and they might be able to return to their homes.

“We Kashmiris have a unique DNA. [But we] have always been fooled. [First] it was Pakistani propaganda on radio and TV that in two days Kashmir will be liberated and there will be namaaz at Lal Chowk. Mujahideen were provided shelter, but now when the gun turned towards them, the Kashmiri Pandits thought the BJP will do the same – bulldoze Muslims. They live in fool’s paradise. Over the last seven years what has the BJP government done [for us]?” asks Kashmiri Pandit Sanghrash Samiti (KPSS) President Sanjay Tickoo.

The KPSS claims that the 808 Pandit families that never left Kashmir have been abandoned by the government. Their demands range from jobs for the unemployed to cash assistance as per high court rulings and in line with the schemes provided to Kashmiri families that have migrated elsewhere. As both the curfews and COVID-19 further aggravated the economic crisis and rendered more Kashmiri Pandits unemployed, on September 20 Tickoo began a fast until the community’s demands were heard.

“I don’t think the present BJP government is interested in resolving the issues of Kashmiri Pandits. They know the situation we are living in. We have kept Indian democracy alive in the valley. I’m Hindu, but [Kashmiri] culture and practices are different. We kept the Indian ethos alive. Both the state guns and non-state guns treated us as second class [citizens]. Indian security forces are surprised to see Kashmiri Pandits living here. ‘Why you are staying back in the valley? You must be giving shelter to the militants,’ [the security forces say]. Meanwhile, militants think we are informants of the state,” says Tickoo.

The KPSS president does not believe the LoC be formalized nor could any permanent solution be forced on Kashmiris.

“You cannot win the hearts by force. Arms and ammunition, what will happen through that? India is underestimating China’s might. We can’t have a two-front war – a war with another country and war within, a war with poverty,” says Tickoo. 

*name changed to protect identity