In July this year, Indian forces killed a popular Kashmiri rebel leader named Burhan Wani. The action triggered the worst unrest Kashmir had seen in years, resulting in the deaths of over 90 people and injuries of thousands others, as well as creating widespread insecurity within the region. For India, the killing was a strategic move to challenge terror forces undermining Indian rule in the area. The terror motives are of course contested, but Burhan’s perceived message of freedom and peace undoubtedly resonated among the Kashmiri population. Now, his death has become almost symbolic, and with it, the grievances of Kashmiris have once again been brought to attention.
The divided region of Kashmir has been in dispute since the withdrawal of the British from the Indian subcontinent. In 1947, India was primarily divided along religious lines, leaving a Muslim majority Kashmir province in between India and Pakistan. The countries both held vested interests in the territory and did not leave the division undisputed. Since then, the province has been drawn along contested borders, with three subregions administered by Pakistan, India and China respectively. The territorial dispute has largely been driven by tensions between the two nuclear states, India and Pakistan. Since late 1940, the region experienced three wars, an insurgency movement, and sporadic cases of public unrest, often ending in violence and deaths. The pursuit of land and influence by the two countries has taken a heavy toll on Kashmir’s citizens, and resulting public frustration was only a matter of time.
In the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, each sign of public frustration is seen as a result of Pakistani influence in the region. India’s actions are very much sustained by an anti-Pakistani rhetoric, and perhaps for good reasons. As Pakistani actors have repeatedly pursued military and political activity in the region, India has kept wary of the geopolitical situation in what still remains an official part of the country. Taking this into account, any resistance from Kashmir might in India’s justification be an external attempt to destabilize the country’s internal affairs – an all the more sensitive scenario considering that the external influence is posed by a long-time bitter opponent.
While unrest has undoubtedly been characterized by sympathies towards Pakistan, much of the Kashmiri anxiety lies in a tricky relationship with the Indian state. The events of this summer embody many of the flaws in this relationship. The arguably unprecedented killing of the highly prominent social media figure of the Kashmiri resistance movement sparked a series of protests resulting in a record number of civilian deaths and injuries at the hands of Indian riot police. As is the case in such conflicts, each side has blamed the other for provoking clashes. Violent conduct has in fact been mutual, but there is no doubt that excessively brutal methods have been used against the protesters, and human rights violations have arguably taken place. International actors have called for investigations into violations by Indian forces, and the accusations are not the first against Indian rule in Kashmir. Interestingly, a big part of the 22 year old Burhan Wani’s popularity was exactly that of personal experience of Indian brutality – an experience shared by many across Kashmir.
In the eyes of the Kashmiri public, the Indian government’s actions are a result of failures to acknowledge the need for political dialogue. Some claim that India does not see the situation as a political one, but solely one of security; the attempt to subvert the recent protest movement is more of an ”operation calm-down”, and the unrest is considered by India as nothing other than unnecessary riots propagated by Pakistani insurgence.
The hostile and skeptical line of thinking might however prove untenable in the long-term. In reality, what really matters to the people of Kashmir is the question of self-determination. Kashmiris have not forgotten their previous political goals, and they are once again pleading to decide their own fate. The ”cry for freedom” was already there a century before control of the region was given to India. A political resolution was almost on the table when in the late 1950s, the UN proposed a plebiscite for Kashmir to take the allegiance of either India or Pakistan, with a debated third option of independence. But this soon deteriorated due to the continuing military and political conflict at the time.
Independence movements have since been active in the background through occasional insurgency and public unrest. But as relations between the two nuclear powers have grown increasingly hostile over time, the voices of Kashmiri people seem to have been almost overshadowed, both internally and internationally. Although slowly fading out in the press, the protest movement of this year remains active and the discontent is still there. Efforts to thwart the public are carried out as usual, however – with a heavy hand and without any compromises in sight.
The complexity of political and military influence in the region undeniably makes for a difficult task of finding a political solution. India’s feud with Pakistan and Pakistani affiliates in Kashmir might give it enough reason for skepticism towards any Kashmiri resistance. Nonetheless, the country still seems disconnected from the voices on the ground, and attempts at political dialogue have been to no avail. Using brute force might be a short-term solution, but further suppression of Kashmiri voices could very well leave the country with more conflict and increasingly less influence in the region.