The Silent Struggle: Why We Need A Frank Discussion About Kashmir

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“You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.”

Mahatma Gandhi

On the 7th of January this year, the tensions between the Indian armed forces and Kashmiri separatist groups came to head in a bloody gun battle which resulted in the death of a police officer as well as many casualties. Police were ambushed in Sopore city, roughly 55km north of Srinagar, after receiving a tip that militants were operating in the area.

Sadly, this is far from the first occasion when civilians have brutally clashed with law and order forces. Indeed, in the densely populated Kashmir ,control of which is disputed by India and Pakistan, such occurrences are commonplace; it is known as one of the most heavily militarised territories in the world. Today, there are approximately 700,000 troops and police in the state; the equivalent of one to every 17 Kashmiri citizens.

The region has brought the two countries to war three times, and whilst now officially in a state of peace, diplomatic and armed tensions continue. Since an armed uprising in 1989, over 68,000 have been killed, largely a result of the violent suppression and crackdown on dissenting voices and protesters by the Indian armed forces. The majority Muslim population has long fought for independence in a campaign which has borne no fruit and entrenched the systematic torture of dissidents, most of whom are civilians. Many civilians, including children, tell harrowing tales of beatings, arrest without due process, interrogation, other brutal forms of torture and even murder.

Meanwhile, the situation escalates regarding the safety of the armed forces which are heavily present in the territory. This is evidenced not only by the recent attacks. In 2010, after the discovery of three civilians maimed and killed by the army, thousands of young men took to the street in a bloody assault on Indian forces which resulted in 4,000 Indian soldiers and policemen being killed. But as rebel groups fighting for Kashmiri self-determination gain support, and the size and gravity of their insurgences increase, the lives of the forces sent in by the Indian government to protect what they see as rightfully their territory, as well as the lives of ordinary citizens, are increasingly under threat.

Why then, in face of such a serious and deadly geopolitical conflict, has no agreement been reached? Furthermore, why has the West remained so quiet on the issue?

The first reason is that any diplomatic attempts at settling the conflict have repeatedly reached an impasse, with the Indian and Pakistani governments failing to come up with any viable agreements which satisfy the demands of the parties involved. Whilst the two sides agree that the attacks within the territory need to end, both sides have violated the numerous ceasefire agreements. In October last year, India accused Pakistani troops of firing guns and mortars on at least 50 Indian border posts in Kashmir, calling it the most serious ceasefire violation between the countries in a decade. It is true that minor progress has been made, with both governments agreeing to official state visits where the future of Kashmir would be the leading topic on the agenda. However, neither state has expressed willingness to compromise, let alone the intention to grant independence to the region or have the matter settled via a referendum in the territory.

From this, we can draw three possible conclusions. Firstly, there is a dangerous lack of political will within both India and Pakistan to resolve the issue peacefully and diplomatically, where each side makes compromises. Secondly, the minimal diplomatic efforts engaged in thus far have been ineffective in resolving the issue. Thirdly, any future diplomatic efforts which the states engage in are likely to fail because Kashmiri independence groups and the Kashmiri populace in general will not be consulted. If an interim government is eventually formed, most likely instated by either the Indian or Pakistani governments, militant groups will reject it on the grounds of a lack of democratic mandate and popular support. Unless interest groups such as Kashmiri independence activists play a forefrontal role in state building, the new nation will be further destabilised, and the diplomatic efforts will be of little consequence.

Another question to ask is why this issue has received little global attention. Compare the situation in Kashmir with the attention received by other territorial disputes, such as Tibet or the Palestinian Territories. Both of these examples have been the subject of major international attention, including efforts by the international community such as United Nations or US-led attempts. But where are the Camp David summits or Oslo Accords for the innocent citizens affected by the increasingly bloody Kashmir conflict?

The main reason for this is reluctance on part of the Indian government to allow external intervention. India has repeatedly forbidden UN inspectors, journalists or reporters from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International from entering the territory. This explains the lack of information in circulation and in the news which would expose the reality of the situation and help engender popular support for the independence movement. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings was only granted access to Kashmir for the first time in 2012, and this has aided civilians in bringing reports of torture and abuse of justice to light.

There is an additional reason for the international community’s silence on Kashmir; namely, the interest in maintaining strong diplomatic relations with India. The West has a clear vested interest in a close relationship with India, as an economic powerhouse, a functioning democracy and potential nuclear power. Levying diplomatic pressure on India in this way could threaten the stability of the relationship and lead to its alienation from the international community.

What is fascinating about this conflict is that all players involved have a clear incentive to end the violence and reach an agreement which satisfies all parties. The fatal stumbling block, however, will be resistance to compromise and concession. But how high must the death toll climb before diplomatic stubbornness is set aside?

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