Silence in the Valley: shedding light on the darkness in Kashmir
Author’s Note: The author of this piece has chosen to remain anonymous due to the Indian Government’s actions towards citizens who are critical of the events in Kashmir.
At first thought, the word “Kashmir” brings to mind stock images of sprawling Himalayan topography and 1950s Bollywood romances shot on houseboats on the scintillating Dal Lake. Yet today, the eight million people who sit caged, silenced, and humiliated in a region that closely resembles a police state presents a glaringly different reality. The recent abrogation of Article 370, which provided special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), has devastated the livelihood of Kashmiris and not only stoked regional tensions, but also escalated the unceasing conflict between India and Pakistan.
On August 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah unilaterally revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, effectively stripping J&K of its autonomy and statehood. The Kashmir Valley is now on its 71st day of a strict communications blackout, which has been imposed in order to stifle dissent. J&K is the only Muslim-majority state in India, a Hindu-majority nation, and is under the control of Modi, who has been criticized for following Hindutva ideology (an extremist form of Hindu nationalism).
India and Pakistan have been in a custody battle over Kashmir since the subcontinent’s emancipation from the British in 1947. National pride, water disputes, and security threats have resulted in the Kashmiri people becoming collateral damage between two nuclear-armed countries on the brink of war. The subcontinent was bifurcated into two nations in 1947, and a few disputed regions, including Kashmir, were given the choice to join either of the two countries.
Kashmir chose to remain independent. But after being attacked by Pakistani tribesmen, Maharaja Hari Singh, the state’s last independent ruler, acceded to India in regards to Kashmir’s defence, foreign affairs, and communications. Since Kashmir’s accession to India, Kashmiris have often been subjugated and denied basic human rights by both India and Pakistan. Groups advocating for Kashmiri independence (Azaadi), were on the rise and were fueled by the allegedly rigged state elections of 1987, resulting in an ongoing insurgency.
The rise of militancy, cross-border terrorism, and the outrageous mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits (Kashmiri Hindus) from the Valley resulted in the Indian government deploying a huge number of troops into Kashmir. For the last 30 years, they have committed egregious human rights violations. The mass extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and torture of the Kashmiri people has further fueled the independence movement. Over the past 30 years, 47,000 people have been killed as a result of separatist violence.
Given Kashmir’s arduous struggle for self-determination, the few voices amplified from the Valley say the revocation of their special status without any consultation with the people themselves was not only an act of humiliation, but also of betrayal. “The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has suppressed the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination…and thrown their constitutional rights and civil liberties into the dustbin,” said Uzair Sattar over Facebook, who is a Pakistani student at Tufts studying International Relations.
Article 370 was the articulation of the legal obligations under which J&K acceded to India post-independence in 1947. The special status enjoyed by J&K stated that most laws and provisions in the Indian Constitution can only be applied if its state government agrees to them. The abrogation of Article 370 not only denies J&K of its right to have its own flag and constitution, but also denies it of its very statehood.
As a result of the abrogation, the region has also now been split into two union territories (federal territories which have significantly less autonomy than states), J&K and Ladakh, both ruled by the Central government in New Delhi. Article 35A, which gave Kashmiris special privileges over their land, was dissolved as well. Indians can now buy land and establish businesses in the Valley, which could pose a threat to indigenous people and the fragile Himalayan ecology of the region.
While there has been widespread endorsement of Article 370’s abrogation in India, including by members of the opposition party and prominent liberals such as Shashi Tharoor (an Indian politician and Fletcher alumnus), there has been ubiquitous criticism of the way it was achieved. Prominent Indian news sources called Modi’s plan a “constitutional coup.” He evacuated all tourists from the region and cut short the Amarnath Yatra, a Hindu pilgrimage in the Valley. Then, he deployed 45,000 military troops to add to the existing 900,000, and due to the anticipated outcry amongst Kashmiris, he cut all communication lines including internet and landlines, and imposed a strict curfew.
Local Kashmiri politicians were arrested preceding the move, and public gatherings were prohibited. The disregard of any dissent or discourse renders the abrogation undemocratic and an abuse of constitutional procedure. “The people of Kashmir are living in a state of incarceration,” said Professor Ayesha Jalal of the Tufts History Department. “India is a federation. How can you arbitrarily snuff out a state’s statehood sitting at the Center [the Central government in New Delhi]?”
Modi and Shah claim this step was partially to promote economic development and peace after decades of violence and terror. However, economic development cannot exist without security, and their goal does not seem feasible given that both Kashmiris and Pakistanis are enraged by the Indian government’s actions.
“You cannot have economic development when the very stakeholders are left out. They have no voice,” says Jalal. “There is also a great misconception that this is all about money. The truth is that the government has been pumping money into Kashmir for decades. The issue is political; it is not necessarily the absence of resources.”
Above economic development and peace, Modi claims that the abrogation of Article 370 will result in the “ethnic integration” of Kashmiris into the rest of India. “The BJP is fulfilling its long held agenda of fully integrating Kashmir by diluting the Muslim majority of the Valley. The removal of Article 35A will allow Indians from the rest of the country to buy property… What we are witnessing is a state-sanctioned and state-backed attempt at a demography change,” commented an Indian PhD student who wishes to remain anonymous due to the ongoing and arbitrary detainment of people dissenting against the BJP in India.
There is also a common misconception that the crisis in Kashmir is solely a result of the religious strife between Muslims and Hindus. In reality, there are multiple political factors that set the precedent for this conflict. “[There are] a multitude of reasons, such as the hydropolitics of the Indus basin, Kashmir’s militarily strategic geography and mountainous terrain, how aggressive action towards Pakistan feeds Modi’s strategy of political populism, and how submitting the region to self-determination would undermine India as a regional power…play crucial roles in making successful diplomacy unmanageable,” explained Meera Rohera, a sophomore from India who is studying International Relations.
Meanwhile, in India, mainstream right-wing media rejoiced while people danced on the streets with jingoistic nationalism that India had finally “won.” On the other hand, the international community was audaciously silent barring a few initial news reports. “The primary reason for the international community’s silence is that India is a huge market and they have their own self interests,” said Jalal. Alluding to the widespread narrative of radicalized Islam is also present in international mainstream discourse, Jalal commented. “There is the mistaken belief that Kashmir will become a hub for Islamism. Most importantly, there is silence because all governments have their own ‘Kashmirs.’”
The Kashmir Valley has been a ghost town for the last two months and an end to the communications blackout is nowhere in sight. The people have been caught between radicalized Islam in Pakistan and hazardous Hindu nationalism in India, and many foresee escalated violence once the blackout is lifted in the near future. “The 60-day curfew has marginalized the Kashmiri people, which, in turn, would radicalize them. I fear that unprecedented violence will ensue once India lifts the curfew,” said Sattar.
Jalal agreed that there will be anger once the curfew ends.“Right now, the soul of the people is lacerated. But when people do come out, they are going to protest. I think there is a lot of pent up anger. I foresee resistance, and the amount of bloodshed depends on whether India wants to persist with pelleting or whether it wants to use rubber bullets,” she said.
The focus must be pivoted away from credulous nationalism by both India and Pakistan and onto the people of Kashmir and their fundamental human rights. As Sattar said, “I hope the coverage given to Kashmir around the world will spark dialogue on campus. Curious Jumbos should not hesitate to ask questions and learn more. We all need to be concerned about the plight of the eight million Kashmiri people.”