By Tariq Ahmed
It is not a hidden secret that “paradise on earth” lies in the foothills of the Himalayas — the breathtakingly beautiful, Kashmir, where I born and raised and whose pain and suffering have left an indelible mark on me.
Kashmir, fabled for its stunning scenery, is a land of breathtaking mountains and landscape and blessed with a pleasing climate. It is known as an oasis of lakes, rivers, streams, and a romantic tapestry of gardens glowing with flowers, and fruit. Its beauty is a material for photos one would love to send home. It is a destination for wanderlusters.
This romanticized picture shatters once you step into a Kashmir agonized by the frightening eyesores of armed men menacing behind concertina wires, military camps, checkpoints, bunkers, and camouflaged convoys of Indian army trucks.
Carefully hidden from public view, behind this ‘security’ behemoth are the stories of disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, and weaponized rape. Kashmir’s beauty is tarnished by the silence of hundreds of Martyr’s Graveyards that carry more than 100,000 Kashmiris massacred by the Indian occupation forces since 1989 alone.
Permeating the atmosphere is an unending list of asphyxiates — pepper sprays, tear gas, and chilly power grenades. Topping this all, are the troubled souls of those barely alive under the occupation, and their painful daily lived experiences of public humiliation, ruthless censorship, fearsome intimidation, and forced confessions and deadly retaliation to any cry of protest. This painful spectacle does not even begin to capture the plight of those who have been maimed, disabled, or incarcerated.
Dive deeper into the social landscape, and you will encounter horrified parents of hundreds of willfully disfigured school-age children who are unable to see. Blinded by India’s newest tools of tyranny, these children are the victims of pellet guns that fire tiny cluster-shrapnel that first penetrates and then explode within the victim’s body. Genocide Watch has noted that there are imminent signs of genocide in the occupied territory.
Kashmir’s beauty is stained with painful tales of egregious human rights violations and massive structural violence — encompassing political, social, economic, medical, and jurisdictive spaces — committed against people under siege by an occupying nation-state, under the uncaring eyes of the international community. Kashmir is a living hell.
Several generations of Kashmiris have grown up highly politicized and indelibly traumatized, with their lives disrupted under repression. Medical anthropologist Saiba Varma’s “Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir” (Duke University Press, 2020) is a censure of the appalling way India has militarized health care delivery in Kashmir.
The book highlights in chilling detail how militarization has sneaked into the medical spaces and the very lives of the patients and their health care providers. For example, the omnipresent military checkpoints are notorious for disrupting urgently needed care by delaying ambulances or private vehicles carrying those injured in protests against the occupation. Often the injured arrive dead at hospitals. Doctors and other health care providers are physically assaulted or otherwise intimidated for providing care to these victims of state violence.
The scale of political repression is matched only by the magnitude of social and economic distress in people’s lives. The army’s domination of people’s lives is excruciating and merciless. The institutionalized oppression has weighed down the population resulting in fear psychosis marked by pervasive anxiety and depression. The entire society is suffering from PTSD. The Kashmiris’ very survival is fragile.
The Indian state has clamped down on both mainstream and social media platforms – the institutions so fundamental to pluralistic democratic order — to suppress crucial conversations about people’s resistance to the occupation. Varma has described this siege as “an assault on the spirit rather than the body … It is about breaking their spirit, by not even allowing them to share even the most basic level of information.”
As witnesses to this travesty of justice, India’s politicized judiciary provides no relief to the people of Kashmir. An October 5, 2019 report in The Economist has noted, “on many glaring abuses occurring in Kashmir, they [judiciary] have remained resolutely — and shamefully —silent.”
Effectively, Kashmir is under an Indian-run martial law. It has been turned into a land of permanent sorrow. To evade detection of rampant human rights abuses, the state and its forces are protected by a surveillance and propaganda dragnet of Orwellian magnitude. A murderous regime comprising brutal interrogators, violent army personnel, deadly munitions, and draconian laws have been deployed to erase the people’s identity and memory. To coerce them into false confessions, the incarcerated youths are threatened with vicarious harm to their family members, especially their women. The state-paid mercenaries and spies have ensured that a neighbor fears his neighbor, and a brother suspects his brother. Due to these machinations, there is widespread suspicion among people, leading to mental collapse and nervous breakdown.
To ensure political submission and administrative legitimacy, the rulers have bought off some local political and bureaucratic elites through bribery. These quislings then serve as the civilian façade — the enforcers — for the military authorities. Kashmiris have remained subjugated for so long partly through the agency of some of these collaborators.
A Kashmiri’s memory is filled with betrayal, sadness, and anger. It is a story of a people simmering in deep anguish and unease. Kashmir and its hapless inhabitants are suffering personified.
Submerged under their agony is an aspiration, self-determination promised by the UN (UN Security Council Resolution 47, adopted on 21 April 1948), wretchedly maligned and repressed by an occupying power, and cruelly forgotten by the international community.
The violation of Kashmir’s’ sovereignty began under British colonial rule when in 1846 they sold the land and its people to an alien warlord for a pittance. In 1931, Kashmiris gathered the strength to revolt against this inhumanity. The struggle took a new sanguine turn in 1947 when India invaded Kashmir to continue this alien-imposed rule. The toll of massacres since 1947 is another heartbreak.
This long denied and suppressed aspiration has found expression in the form of an unrelenting resistance by a peaceful and unarmed people. This long-lasting struggle is an embodiment of people’s will to resist forced occupation and denial of their freedom since the days of partition of the subcontinent.
Since those fateful days in 1947, Kashmir has remained trampled under the elephantine feet of two feuding neighbors who have historically privileged their respective national security needs over that of Kashmir and Kashmiris. The two contesting nations have framed and projected Kashmir’s story through colored prisms that only serve to affirm their brand of nationalism. These conflicting narratives posit Kashmir as either an ‘integral part’ of India or a ‘jugular vein’ of Pakistan — ostensibly foundational to these nations’ identity and very survival.
Missing from this uncompromising and self-serving talk are the tales and toils of the Kashmiris. These clichés have only served to render a historical and historic self-determination movement intractable, relegating it to a purely spatial or cultural fight over territory or religious identity. More significantly, these fossilized narratives have irrationally removed Kashmiris from the negotiating table, where their political destiny must be ultimately determined.
Kashmiris have been the greatest victims of the conflict between India and Pakistan; their dysfunctional relations are a case study of international animus derived from political irreconcilability, religious and cultural hatred, and unresolved political disputes.
What is the way forward?
First off, the umpteen rounds of bilateral negotiations over the decades between India and Pakistan have gone nowhere. The dispute has remained mired down by their exclusivist security calculations. There is no evidence to suggest that they will come to an understanding without the direct or indirect intervention by the international community under UN auspices.
There are several confidence-building measures as a prelude to the final negotiated settlement of the dispute:
- Call an end to and strictly abide by a ceasefire by all stakeholders.
- Facilitate UN-supervised demilitarization on both sides of the line-of-actual control.
- Facilitate unqualified release of all political detainees.
- Abrogate all repressive laws including AFSPA [Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990 was enacted in September 1990]; PSA [Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978], etc.
Allow freedom of local, national, and international media throughout the entire disputed territory.
- Facilitate the creation of UN-supervised truth and reconciliation mechanisms for justice and accountability.
- Allow international observers free access to both sides of Kashmir for a firsthand assessment of the ground situation.
These measures will undoubtedly pave the way for a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir dispute under UN supervision. Absent this, Kashmir and Kashmiris will continue to bleed under a hellish occupation by a nation-state at war with its neighbor in a nuclear environment. It is time for India and Pakistan to move beyond their partition-era animosity and their tired national security narratives. The onus is not only on India and Pakistan but also on the international community to make this a reality. At stake are not only the opportunity costs for teeming millions of the two countries but the very survival of the billions in South Asia.
Tariq Ahmed is a freelance writer.