Kashmiri unrest will continue if their identity and wishes are ignored

The latest violent uprising in Kashmir in the wake of militant commander Burhan Wani’s death has deep and bitter roots, writes Christopher Snedden.

With the Kashmir dispute still unresolved after almost 70 years, the intense and unrequited issue of J&K-ites’ ‘identity’, specifically in relation to their international status, is a serious factor fueling Kashmiris’ current disgruntlement—and in resolving the entire Kashmir dispute. Kashmiri anger has been evident since at least 1988 when some initiated an anti-India uprising. Since then, over 40,000 people have been killed and proxies from, and supported by, a meddling Pakistan have come to dominate. On a daily basis, Kashmiris have to deal with the overwhelming presence of Indian security forces: for some, these Indians comprise an invading force. The ‘assassinated’ Burhan Wani was popular because he was an ethnic Kashmiri fighting for a local anti-India militant group.

There is, however, a deeper issue to do with Kashmiri identity that goes back to 1947. Then, the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) had to decide whether to join his 77 per cent Muslim-majority state with Pakistan or India. While Maharaja Hari Singh and J&K’s leading politician, Sheikh Abdullah, probably favoured independence, many J&K Muslims hoped, and believed, that the state would join ‘Muslim’ Pakistan. Equally, Hindus in Jammu, Buddhists in Ladakh, and secular Muslims in Kashmir—including Abdullah when it came to the crunch—favoured J&K joining secular India, not Pakistan. From August 1947, J&K-ites fought to ensure that the princely state joined their particular nation of choice. Importantly, their actions, which I discuss in The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir (London, Hurst and Co., 2012), occurred before Hari Singh acceded to India on 26 October 1947. Their actions also instigated the dispute over J&K’s international status, a fact that India and Pakistan have deliberately overlooked. This has enabled both nations to sideline J&K-ites from attempts to resolve J&K’s disputed status. Nevertheless, as the Kashmiris’ current unrest shows, the identity issue remains very much alive in J&K, and J&K-ites are still a very important component in the so-called Kashmir dispute.

On 1 January 1949, fighting ended in J&K. Since then, J&K has comprised five regions. India claims all five, but controls three: Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. Pakistan is ‘administering’ Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly the Northern Areas) until a United Nations plebiscite is held to enable J&K-ites to determine whether ‘their’ state, in its entirety, will join India or Pakistan. This poll is never likely to be held: India no longer wants it; Pakistan will not first withdraw its forces from J&K, as the UN resolutions require. Consequently, J&K is divided and J&K-ites’ international status remains unresolved, contested and contentious. This situation also partly fuels the current unrest in the Kashmir Valley.

Kashmir is an ancient society and ethnic Kashmiris have a strong sense of their identity. That said, post-accession, two types of ‘Kashmiris’ have existed: ethnic Kashmiris populating the Kashmir Valley and other J&K-ites, particularly in Azad Kashmir, who call themselves Kashmiris because their lands were once part of the princely state popularly called ‘Kashmir’, not ‘Jammu’, because of the Kashmir Valley’s prestige. As I discuss in Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris (London, Hurst and Co., 2015), ethnic Kashmiris consider that Dogra rulers from Jammu suppressed them, that successor Indian-controlled regimes have manipulated and neglected them, and that India has diluted the state’s autonomy supposedly guaranteed by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. This finally exploded with their anti-India uprising in 1988. Many of the causes then still exist now.

We don’t know what international status, or statuses, J&K-ites exactly desire as they have never been asked in any meaningful or inclusive way. What is clear is that ethnic Kashmiris, who are geographically and politically at the centre of the Kashmir dispute, are the most dissatisfied and disgruntled group in J&K. Many no longer want to be Indians; others want to join Pakistan; many, perhaps the majority, dislike both nations and want azadi (independence). This latter will be difficult to achieve as the only point on which India and Pakistan agree in their intractable dispute over J&K is that independence is not possible for the region, or any part of it. Equally, other J&K-ites have different desires for J&K’s international status. Jammuites and Ladakhis, disgruntled with Kashmiri domination, are strongly pro-Indian. In Azad Kashmir, people favour Pakistan, although some now are upset by the recent elections won ‘decisively’ (read ‘possibly rigged’) by Nawaz Sharif’s party. In Gilgit-Baltistan, Sunnis migrating into this traditional Shia area have provoked ethnic and religious tensions.

Perplexed Indians ignore these divisions. Equally, they cannot bring themselves to engage with Pakistan on J&K until it, rightfully (if only for Pakistan’s own wellbeing), renounces terrorism. India’s stance partly explains why Indians are dealing with the current unrest in Kashmir as a law and order problem: they are unable or unwilling to address the real issue of resolving Kashmiris’, and all J&K-ites’, international status. As I discuss in the Conclusion to The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir, perhaps the only way to resolve this identity conundrum is for India and Pakistan to step aside and ‘Let the People [of J&K] Decide’, through genuine consultations among J&K-ites, what international status, or statuses, they want for themselves and their lands. Depending on their choice, only then might Kashmiris become genuinely content.

Dr Christopher Snedden is a Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii. He has written two internationally acclaimed major works about J&K: The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir (2012; republished in India in 2013 as Kashmir: The Unwritten History) and Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris (2015). These are his personal views.

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