Featured Image: Kashmir’s natural beauty captivated the Mughal emperor Jahangir, who built these gardens, known as the Shalimar Bagh, for his wife in 1619. But the past seven decades have seen its verdant green mountains stained with the crimson of blood from a political and religious conflict that shows no signs of abating. Photo taken by Siddarth Shankar ’22.
By Ananya Kachru and Siddarth Shankar
Inscribed in Persian in the black pavilion of the Shalimar Gardens in Kashmir is a saying by the Mughal emperor Jahangir: “If there is Heaven on Earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.” Long prized for its natural beauty and its location at the crossroads of South and Central Asia, Kashmir was the site of Bollywood movies, celebrated cultural heritage, and summer getaways to some of most scenic areas in the world.
But when “Heaven on Earth” turned into a living hell, the world turned a blind eye.
Since 1947, there have been countless incidents of unrest, violence, and death in Kashmir. Now, seventy-two years later, Kashmir still remains the center of an ongoing and often ignored conflict between two nuclear and war-mongering powers—India and Pakistan. The world seems to know less about everyday violence in Kashmir and more about the cashmere sweaters that bear its name and the Kashmiri-made pashmina shawls that have gained attention in Western fashion.
For decades, the people of Kashmir have suffered under a terrorist insurgency, military occupation, and government neglect. Generations of Kashmiris have either fled the region or continue to live there, with fragmented families and fear of violence.
The conflict began from a decision in 1947 when the Maharaja of Kashmir, a Hindu, signed an instrument of accession in which he agreed to cede Kashmir to India, despite it being a Muslim-majority region. Since then, there have been three wars between India and Pakistan over Kashmir; over 47,000 people and counting have died. Multiple human rights organizations predict that this death toll underestimates the total number of deaths, which could be up to double this initial estimate.
With the recent elections in Pakistan and the elections currently underway in India, the hope for the future of Kashmir remains uncertain. Elections mark an opportunity for change, de-escalation, or bridging immense divisions built over decades. But, with Kashmiri people composing a mere fraction of the total Indian and Pakistani populations, political parties previously have not tangibly addressed the needs and concerns of Kashmiri people.
Whether staying with India, acceding to Pakistan, or perhaps seeking independence, what the Kashmiri people want for their political future is complicated. Past efforts by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) like Resolution 47, adopted in 1948, authorized a plebiscite in the region to determine its political future but was never conducted as a result of political opposition from both the Indian and Pakistani sides.
Furthermore, the religious makeup of Kashmir has complicated any political resolution. Because of animosity between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Hindus, there is no legitimate consensus about the future of Kashmir amongst Kashmiri people themselves.
This image is from TRT World, and depicts policemen stationed in Srinagar—the capital of India-administered Kashmir—during a curfew, where civilians are unable to leave their homes.
Kashmiri Hindus—known as Kashmiri Pandits—and Muslims lived side-by-side for centuries, with little strife between the two groups. A disputed election in 1987 fomented unrest among the Muslim population, and led to the creation of an insurgency funded by the Pakistani government, according to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, that aimed to root out any and all Hindus living in the region. According to the BBC, of the 300,000 Hindus who lived in Kashmir in 1990, almost all of them fled and left the region. Hindu families who lived in Kashmir exited their homelands in masses, often at gunpoint, after members of their immediate family were captured and killed, when places of worship were damaged, or following the rape and sexual assault of Kashmiri Pandit women.
Those who remained—approximately 3,000-5,000 individuals—have struggled to coexist peacefully in a region where there are daily reminders of the struggles they endured. More than 295,000 individuals who were forced to leave their homes and enter a life of migration, uncertainty, and fear, have yet to receive any genuine acknowledgment or reparations for their suffering.
After the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990, the Indian government cracked down on security in Kashmir, deploying hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the region, making it one of the most militarized areas in the world. Concurrently, Pakistan began to develop training camps and sites for militants in the region. Peter Chalk, a political scientist writing for the RAND Corporation, explains that “at least 91 insurgent training camps have been identified in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir… (where) basic courses (focus) on weapons handling, demolitions, and urban sabotage.”
In 2013, the Guinness Book of World Records announced that Kashmir was the unlucky record holder of being the world’s most militarized zone. Restrictive curfew measures are frequently implemented, where civilians are unable to leave their homes and mobile services are suspended. A heavy military presence throughout districts is a hallmark of daily life in the region, too. Under this strict military enforcement, separatist groups—many of which are funded and supported by Pakistan—have thrived, seeking to sway young Kashmiris to join their cause. A throw of a stone at a police car’s window is the easiest form of resistance for average citizens.
The image above is from Kashmir Global on FLICKR. Civilians are shown rebelling on the streets in the Kashmir region.
By the end of 2018, The Washington Post reported that the year had been the most violent in decades for Kashmir. 2019 has been no better. In February, a terrorist attacked a convoy of Indian police forces, killing 40. In response, India began tactical air strikes against alleged terrorist camps in Pakistan; Pakistan retaliated and shot down Indian airplanes. The public in both nations started to demand war; The New York Times’ editorial board warned that a stand-off between these two nuclear-armed enemies in Kashmir was ready to morph into World War III. Then, a TED Talk delivered by American physicist Brian Toon of the University of Colorado estimated that one to two billion people could die after a nuclear war between India and Pakistan as a result of starvation and the nuclear fallout that would ensue. The often-ignored conflict in Kashmir does have global and existential consequences.
The Indian and Pakistani governments established a ceasefire in the aftermath of the airstrikes. But both sides have used the Kashmir conflict as a political ploy, a tool used to garner votes. Nationalism and threats of war are effective tools to distract citizens from the real problems a country is facing: economic stagnation, unemployment, and the scarcity of resources. With the ongoing Indian elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi capitalized on burgeoning national pride to sway Indian citizens to his side, as part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recurring nationalistic theme. In a speech Modi delivered at the BJP’s headquarters, he declared that “nationalism is our inspiration,” highlighting it as one of the key themes of his own campaign.
Currently, the Kashmiri people have been denied the support, resources, and aid they need. Neither the Indian nor Pakistani government has given the United Nations Human Rights Office “unconditional access to either side of the Line of Control… despite repeated requests.” The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner states that current estimates on human rights abuses and conditions for living are often reported through “remote monitoring,” and are an inexact and inadequate way of knowing the true situation on the ground.
The United Nations issued its first report on Kashmir in June 2018, seven decades after the conflict began. While these recommendations are commendable, a forty-nine-page report on a seventy-two year-long conflict is underwhelming and represents the lack of information about human rights violations in both the Indian- and Pakistani-governed parts of Kashmir.
According to the UN, the Kashmir conflict has “robbed millions of [Kashmiris’] basic human rights, and continues to this day to inflict untold suffering.” The United Nations’ report should be a catalyst for action—a demand for a proper and complete investigation on human rights in the region and a plan to redress decades of suffering. But this sort of independent, international investigation cannot begin without permission from the Pakistani or Indian governments. While neither side seems close to agreeing to such an investigation, the international community has a collective responsibility to pressure the governments.
A recent report by Doctors Without Borders estimates that half of all people living in the Kashmir Valley suffer from mental health problems. There is no person in Kashmir who has been left untouched by this conflict. But no one is acting on the crisis. Although the realities of operating in a disputed territory between two nuclear powers present complex obstacles, there are tangible steps that can be taken to improve the health and well-being of Kashmiri people. The United Nations, related and partnered NGOs, and individuals should pioneer mental health support and solutions for Kashmiri people. The international community must rally to raise awareness and generate resources to address mental illness and sexual violence in the region.
Kashmiri women and children are suffering in silence and are most vulnerable. A serious lack of data on sexual violence and sexual assault in the conflict-ridden region is a problem, too. Individual stories of gang rape, human trafficking, and domestic abuse are horrific, and the world continues to overlook these disgusting, gendered realities of ongoing violence perpetrated by both Indian and Pakistani military forces.
One of the most horrific examples of violence against women in Kashmir dates back to 1991 when the Indian Army allegedly entered the rural villages of Kunan and Poshpora in the middle of the night and gang-raped over 30 women, according to the BBC. Other incidents of sexual assault in the Kashmir region perpetrated by military and paramilitary forces are well-documented, but justice for the perpetrators is elusive.
The Parliament of India still has the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) Section 370 in place, which provides military soldiers in Kashmir immunity from prosecution even if they have committed human rights violations. But the Supreme Court of India recently issued a ruling which diluted some of the protections AFSPA provides to soldiers. And, there is a genuine movement towards reform of AFSPA. In an interview with The Times of India, esteemed military commander Lt. Gen. DS Hooda called for changes to the law to make it more humane.
These human rights violations and crimes against women are not exclusive to either Pakistan or India. According to the 2016 book Conflicted Democracies and Gendered Violence, “the details and scale of sexual violence experienced by Kashmiri Pandit women remain to be extensively researched.” A lack of understanding of what women in the region faced and are facing could possibly stem from the insurgency period where almost all Kashmiri Pandits were in the process of fleeing from their homes. Forced migration may be partially responsible for a lack of clear data and understanding. Women are disproportionately impacted by violence-ridden conflict zones, and decades of sexual assault and crimes perpetrated against women in the region are deplorable.
Kashmiri people are real individuals with stories to tell and human rights to be respected. Our ignorance regarding the situation and refusal to hear, share and understand their backgrounds is unfortunate and must be changed.
The ongoing elections in India offer a chance for politicians to change their stance on Kashmir and to seek out a solution to a conflict that has raged on for far too long. For seven decades, politicians have viewed Kashmir through religious and geopolitical lenses. These elections offer the chance to instead focus, like former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in 2003, on “insaniyat, jamhuriyat, kashmiriyat” (humanity, peace, and the sanctity of Kashmir).
For global citizens, ignorance of the Kashmir conflict has damaging effects. But even those who are aware of the conflict speak about Kashmir by emphasizing its geopolitical status rather than focusing on the Kashmiri people’s suffering. Even media companies are guilty of negligence when it comes to Kashmir and contextualizing conflict in the region. In March, Vox released a 10-minute video, “The conflict in Kashmir, explained,” which completely neglected the perspectives of Kashmiri Pandits or those living in Pakistan-governed Kashmir. The misrepresentation and ignorance of key stakeholders in the Kashmir conflict underscore a heartbreaking reality: the lives and well-being of Kashmiri people are placed well below the strategic needs of the Indian and Pakistani governments.
Learn about Kashmir. Understand all sides of the issue. Demand a complete, independent human rights investigation and demand action. And, please do this now.
Editor’s Note: Both Ananya and Siddarth come from Kashmiri Pandit families who fled the region during militancy attacks decades ago. Ananya and Siddarth have both primarily grown up in the United States.
Ananya Kachru is a first-year in Morse College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Siddarth Shankar is a first-year in Ezra Stiles College. You can contact him at email@example.com.