International relations, National security, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia

30 August 2016

The death of Burhan Wani has sparked the tinderbox that is Kashmir, and only a long-called-for plebiscite to let the region decide its own future will defuse tensions, Maria Syed argues.

South Asians often recall how their former colonial masters left them with three things – a taste for tea, cricket and lots of conflicts. The Kashmir dispute ranks above all others. Over the course of the 69 long years since the partition of the subcontinent, the Kashmir dispute has continued to simmer and erupt intermittently only to be suppressed by Indian Security Forces. When 21-year-old Burhan Wani was killed early in July this year by Indian Security Forces, an uprising jolted the Kashmir valley once again.

Burhan Wani was a tech-savvy militant whose activities and following on social media were far more pronounced than his militancy record. He belonged to Hizbul Mujahideen, a resistance group that has actively fought for Kashmir’s independence. He took the militancy route at the nascent age of fifteen after experiencing assault and humiliation at the hands of Indian security forces.

Within a short period of time he became Kashmir’s sweetheart, an iconic figure among the local populace for standing up to oppression. His immense popularity drew thousands to his funeral despite a nationwide curfew. Angered, Kashmiris poured out on the streets to protest, but those protests turned violent and hundreds of Kashmiris were killed and thousands injured by Indian forces. Hundreds, if not thousands, were blinded when steel-pellet guns were used against the stone-pelting protestors. These atrocities have breathed new life into the Kashmir freedom movement. As Omar Abdullah notes, Wani was able to secure in death what he could not do in life.

Many human rights organisations have reported on the atrocities being committed by Indian authorities in Kashmir. And this is far from the first time grave human rights violations have come to the fore. The asymmetry of force that sees 700,000 Indian security forces deployed against a far smaller number of unarmed protestors stirs up a spiral of violence.

The impunity with which Indian security forces can mete out aggression against Kashmiris has only been made possible by the international community’s indifference towards the Kashmir dispute. The dispute has been on the backburner of international diplomacy for so long that it has almost been forgotten. Yet it remains the longest-standing unresolved dispute before the United Nations, older even than the Palestine issue. The Line of Control has divided Kashmiris since 1948. The United Nations Resolutions of 1948 and 1949 calling for the holding of a free and impartial plebiscite in Kashmir have still not materialised, more than six decades after they were handed down. While the world turned its back on the Kashmir dispute, trouble continued to fester and also plague the bilateral ties between India and Pakistan.

The diplomatic wrangling between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is business as usual. After the most recent outbreak of violence in Kashmir, India and Pakistan are talking across, over and past each other but rarely to each other. The two continue to take jabs at each other. Pakistan has been highly critical of the Indian government and deplored the situation in Kashmir. India has cited the volatile situation as proof of Pakistan’s meddling in internal affairs of another country and continued support for terrorism. India holds Pakistan and Pakistan-based militant groups responsible for fanning unrest in Kashmir valley. With their respective positions poles apart, they cannot establish whether Wani was a ‘terrorist’ or a ‘freedom fighter’.

Amid this brouhaha Kashmiri voices go unheard, despite being the immediate stakeholders in the dispute. India and Pakistan must not try to steal the limelight away from the Kashmiris. They must realise, for the sake of lasting peace if not for the Kashmir cause, that they will have to rise above their differences. The international community also has a responsibility towards the people of Kashmir. Kashmir’s cause can only be helped and tensions can only be defused if Kashmiris are given a chance to speak up. It would not be surprising however given this opportunity if Kashmiris were to ask for freedom.

In principle, Kashmir was granted autonomous status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, but in practice this has been a sham. Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, Kashmiri leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference calls Kashmir an army and police state that is run by men in uniforms. Over the last few decades, the Indian army’s control has strengthened. Farooq’s alliance believes in a political solution through dialogue and rejects militancy, but he himself admits that the futility of dialogue to date has made Kashmiris reconsider this approach. Demilitarisation could bring peace to the valley but more important is the long-called-for plebiscite to resolve the conflict and decide Kashmir’s fate.

Kashmiris vehemently oppose the settlement policy of the BJP government in India, claiming it is a deliberate move to change the demographics of Jammu and Kashmir by settling non-state subjects in the valley in an attempt to turn the Muslim majority into a minority. The new Sainik colonies are meant to settle Hindus in separate towns by allocating land to them. At the same time Kashmiris abhor driving a wedge through local populations along religious lines. They want the dispute to be viewed as a political issue, not a religious one.

Bereft of their right to self-determination, the Kashmiris will continue to take up arms and rebel. The grievances of Kashmiris are real, making the dispute difficult to dismiss as a ‘foreign-engineered’ uprising. The events of the last few weeks show the aspirations of Kashmiris cannot remain bottled up for long and the more they suffer the more they will rebel. As the Kashmir valley echoes with the slogans of ‘Azadi’ (freedom), the Kashmiris chant ‘Tum kitne Burhan maro ge? Her ghar say Burhan niklay ga’ (How many Burhans will you kill? Burhan will emerge from every house). Repression then is definitely not a solution. The answer lies in letting the Kashmiris be the master of their own destinies.

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Syed, Maria. 2016. "The Kashmir Cauldron - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.