Ashwaq Masoodi: Changing Contours of the Kashmir Conflict

Resource type: Blogs


Ashwaq Masoodi, Fellow at Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism

The blog article explains the evolving nature of the Kashmir conflict and the often overlooked role, agency and demands of the local Kashmiris in it. Kashmir is often portrayed as a conflict between Pakistan and India while Kashmir’s effort to gain independence is overlooked and so is the role and needs of the Kashmiris. The piece looks at the different type of actors involved in the conflict and the impact conflict has been having on the generations of the people living in this region in the northwestern Himalayas.

Introduction: Like other protracted conflicts, the Kashmir story has also witnessed several changes, but the history of this region in the northwestern Himalayas continues to be told unidirectionally from the state-centric perspective (Kashmir: Conflict and Peace | Peace Insight, 2010) which reduces it to a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, even though ordinary Kashmiris have always viewed this as a story of their political aspirations, and the denial of their basic rights by the Indian state (Kaul, 2013). This article aims at explaining the persistently overlooked role, agency and demands of the local Kashmiris in the conflict and its impact on the generations living there.

History of the conflict: Even a cursory glance at the physical landscape of Kashmir demonstrates the relationship between India and Kashmir. Streets are scattered with symbols of violence in the form of barricades, checkpoints, bunkers, and gun yielding armed forces. Co-existing with these are anti-India and pro-freedom graffiti (Writing on the Wall: In Kashmir, Graffiti Meets Counter Graffiti, 2016)– exhibiting the feelings of the Kashmiris against the state. But India, maintaining that Kashmir is an integral part of the country (‘J&K Was, Is & Shall Forever Remain an Integral Part’: India Tells Pakistan at UNHRC Meeting, 2020), does not acknowledge the demand for autonomy by the people within.

Consistent denial of democratic rights has been the defining theme of India’s policy toward Kashmir since 1947 (BOSE, 2005 ). After Kashmir acceded to India post-partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, Indian leaders assured that the will of the Kashmiris would be respected when deciding the region’s fate (DORSEY, 2019). But New Delhi ruled the territory directly or indirectly (Bose, 2005). Over time, the autonomy of Kashmir was diluted, and the promise of plebiscite compromised (KAZMIN, 2019). Despite this “betrayal”, the Kashmiri electorate resisted communal politics (Widmalm, 1997) . But the Indian state, to legitimize military action against civilians, persistently reframed the story of the conflict (Ali, 2019) as that of Pakistan sponsored Islamic terrorism.

Changing actors: Though separatist sentiments have been dominant in Kashmir since 1947, ordinary Kashmiris took up arms only four decades later, triggered by a large-scale government-sponsored rigging of elections (Badhwar, 1987). Many of those campaigning and contesting the election, crossed over to Pakistan, and eventually took up arms against the state to liberate Kashmir from Indian control (SNEDDEN, 2015). As the separatist struggle intensified, the state responded with an iron fist to crush it, resulting in custodial killings, torture, “disappearances,” and arbitrary detentions. (Patterns of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir | HRW, 2006).

By the late 1990s, public disillusionment with the “gun culture” and Pakistan became widespread. Kashmiris very consciously made a transition to non-violence. In 2008, the contours of the conflict changed, and ordinary Kashmiris, the generation that had grown up at the peak of militancy in the 1990s, led a new wave of largely non-violent, leaderless protests on the streets. The counterinsurgency response of the government did not account for the shift of strategy by Kashmiris on the ground and Kashmir continued to be the most militarized zone in the world (Kashmir: The World’s Most Militarized Zone, Violence After Years Of Comparative Calm, 2016).

The trauma of this prolonged oppression resides in the bodies of common Kashmiris, even those who aren’t the direct victims of the conflict. By conservative estimates, 70,000 Kashmiri people have been killed, several severely injured in the last more than three decades. Around 1.8 million Kashmiris (45 % of the adult population) have reported symptoms of mental distress, with many meeting the diagnostic criteria for a major depressive disorder. In addition to witnessing violence and humiliation early on in their lives, the impact of the conflict on the 1990s generation was such that they never experienced life the way children elsewhere did (To Kashmiris Who Grew up During the 1990s, India Was the Army, 2018), forcing them to come back to the stage as main actors. In 2016, for the first time since the 1990 uprising, Kashmiri youth, including engineering students and PhD holders became a part of a new age militancy taking up arms to fight against the “occupation”. These men moved to the cyberspace to explain reasons behind their disillusionment (In Kashmir, Indian Democracy Loses Ground to Millennial Militancy | The New Yorker, 2019).

The grievance of the Kashmiris has largely revolved around the denial of political rights and human rights violations, but recently the threat to their identity became real. Last August, India’s parliament abrogated Article 370, a move that ended Kashmir’s autonomous status within the Indian Union. The Indian state maintained that the decision was taken for the development of Kashmir, even though the special status (Economist Jean Dreze: Article 370 Helped Reducing Poverty in Jammu and Kashmir, 2019) had helped the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state in improving many socio-economic indicators.

This sparked fears among Kashmiris of a systematic plan by the Indian state to bring about a demographic change. Months later (Why Kashmir Faces the Greatest Existential Battle in Past 500 Years - StoriesAsia, 2020), a new domicile law for the region was issued by New Delhi, paving way for granting citizenship to a large section of non-locals. This law matters because the settlement of 1 to 2 million non-locals will turn Muslims (nearly 70 percent of the region’s population) into a politically insignificant minority in their own home. This law was followed by several changes in policies that Kashmiris think would politically and economically disempower them and exterminate their identity (J-K Admin Paves Way to Notify ‘Strategic Areas’ for Armed Forces | India News, The Indian Express, 2020). The ways in which religion has been exploited to further the “settler-colonial project” has a long history to it in the conflict, but this strike by the Indian state is blatant.

After trying everything from peaceful protests, sit-ins, international petitions, violence, to stone-pelting, only time will tell what the younger generation of Kashmiris will do next to realize their political aspirations.


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