Kashmir’s long summer of protest reflects a tragic history of broken promises, rigged elections and a society caught in the crossfire of ruthless regional powers. Since 1989, it has been torn apart by violent insurgency and an even more brutal and indiscriminate repression. Tens of thousands died from the consequences of what is arguably the largest military occupation in the world, with more than 600,000 Indian troops and about one soldier for every 10 civilians in the Kashmir Valley. During the height of the U.S. war against Iraq there was a ratio of one soldier for every 186 civilians.
The once-independent kingdom has been fought over since 1947, when its Hindu ruler decided that the Muslim-majority state should join India rather than Pakistan. India and Pakistan have waged three wars over the issue, but the Kashmir conflict is far from being the best understood and not extensively covered by international media. A simple look at a map though shows that the landscape around Lake Dal is not a minor geostrategic spot, but a searing wound in the vicinity of the hottest frontier zones of the planet.
This year’s Intifada, triggered by the killing of an innocent 17-year-old student at the hands of the Indian paramilitary, was the third consecutive summer of civic protest in the Valley. After three months of stone-throwing and more than 100 civilian deaths (mostly teenagers), New Delhi eventually adopted a more conciliatory tone and dispatched a team of interlocutors to Srinagar. “We must ask ourselves why people in Kashmir are so angry and hurt,” declared India’s Congress President Sonia Gandhi, while Home Secretary Gopal Pillai confessed that “we have not been able to win the hearts and minds of the people. We have to ask ourselves why.”
There’s no mystery here. All independent polls and investigations indicate that, though they might disagree on long-term goals and mid-term institutional provisions, an overwhelming majority of Kashmiri essentially want three things. First, an end to the widespread human rights violations and atrocities committed by the Indian security forces. Second, an honest discussion about how to restore and improve specific mechanisms of Kashmiri self-government inside the Indian federal framework -and a compromise by New Delhi to respect the people’s will expressed through democratic elections. Third, a renewed dialogue between India and Pakistan to defuse the tensions around this contested area. Those three goals are connected, but their articulation doesn’t need to be immediate or too rigid and could be adroitly negotiated.
With its sophisticated background, its strong Sufi traditions and its relatively well-educated youth, Kashmir is not exactly Taliban country. A policy of open borders, trust building and reciprocity between New Delhi and Islamabad would offer a different frame for a more flexible notion of Kashmiri nationhood to develop. But let’s not forget that part of Kashmir is also administered on paper by neighboring China, which is usually overlooked.
Accession to Pakistan is no more a generalized aspiration, the armed militants have been thoroughly marginalized and the irrepressible Kashmiri demand of “azadi” (freedom) covers a whole gamut of meanings and arrangements between the irreconcilable claims of Indian intransigence and Muslim secessionism. In the long run, thanks to its peculiar cultural features and historical experience resulting somehow in a “post-jihad” mentality, Kashmir could become a bridge instead of an embattled frontline.
If it really believes in its brilliant future, India can afford to be much more generous to the Kashmiri than it has been. If your sales pitch to the world is all about being the biggest and most vibrant multicultural democracy in the neighborhood, you should at least show what Thomas Jefferson called “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”
Of course, the security hawks and the knee-jerk Islamophobes will call such a view naïve. Admittedly, the terrorist threat hasn’t magically dissipated and Islamabad is not innocent of manipulation. The cynics and the doubters should pay more attention to what the kids in the streets of Srinagar tell local reporters: “We are not just a piece of land, a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. We are human beings with emotions.” And more ominously: “We are the fire and India is throwing fuel on us.”
Insisting on loyalty while rigging the game and treating millions of your citizens as a potential fifth column will eventually create such a fifth column. That already happened once after 1987, when New Delhi flouted the outcomes of the democratic process and prompted thousands of young Kashmiri to put their whole trust in the “A’s and B’s” (AK-47s and bombs). Instead of throwing fuel on the fire, the country of Gandhi and Nehru could gain more prestige and international goodwill by offering a measure of hope in one of the more complex and dangerous regions of the world.
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Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.
Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).