Kashmirʹs tormented quest for freedom

Since India scrapped its special status, tensions in Kashmir are rising once again. The conflict over the valley has defined the lives of Kashmiris for decades. Marian Brehmer reports from Kashmir

By Marian Brehmer

The mountains, meadows and rivers of Kashmir are so reminiscent of Swiss mountain pastures that you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were in the Alps. From time to time, you come to a brook with white flowers blossoming along its banks. Then a fallen tree blocks the path and youʹre forced to climb over it. Itʹs an idyll thatʹs almost too beautiful to be real.

"If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this" – this famous line, written by the Indian poet Amir Khusro about Kashmir is a favourite among the inhabitants of the valley, who recite it with enthusiasm. But Kashmir is not just a paradise, it is also a region which has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan – sworn enemies – for decades. Two of the three wars the neighbours waged against one another, were waged over Kashmir. Today, part of Kashmir is governed by Pakistan while the larger part belongs to India. But both countries lay claim to the whole valley.

The reality of the political situation makes itself known even on this hike through nature in Gulmarg, as is so often the case in Kashmir. I meet Hamid and Arif, both teenagers of just sixteen, casually dressed in hoodies; they are on a trip to the mountains, without their parents. When Arif takes a photo with his mobile phone, he pulls his hood up, slips his tinted sunglasses over his nose and gestures with his hands like a hip-hop artist.

Within a few minutes, the conversation drifts to politics, namely the situation in the valley of Kashmir and the Kashmirisʹ discontent with the Indian government. Soon, Hamid is telling me about street fights in his hometown of Sopore, which sits a few thousand kilometres from the "line of control", the UN ceasefire line which has divided Kashmir into its Indian and Pakistani sections since 1949. On a number of occasions, he and his friends would throw stones at the Indian soldiers. It was good for a time. But one day, the military responded with bullets and shot Hamidʹs brother, Mudassir.

"A Kashmiri Intifada"

Hamid now refers to his brother as a "shahid", a martyr. He had been a great football player and had even been invited to a tournament in New York. Hamid was shot after throwing stones too. He hikes up his trouser leg and proudly shows me the gunshot scar on his leg.

Hamidʹs brother is one of thousands of Kashmiris who have died in the last three decades as part of the "Kashmiri Intifada", the fight against the Indian military. Since the nineties, Kashmir has been the scene of a guerrilla war between separatists and the Indian military, over the course of which Kashmir has been transformed into one of the most strictly militarised zones in the world.

The roots of the current situation in Kashmir lie in the turbulent transition period following Indian Independence in 1947. At the time, local rulers were required to join their territories to the Indian union. Originally, Prince Hari Singh, whose Dogra dynasty had ruled Kashmir for a hundred years, had wanted to acquire independence for the region. But when Pakistani tribal fighters attempted to claim Kashmir for themselves, he agreed to the accession of Kashmir to the newly-founded state of India. The accession of Kashmir took place in October 1947, and its special status within the Indian union was also established by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution at this time.

Far-reaching rights to autonomy

It was precisely this article which Modiʹs government annulled by presidential decree on 5 August this year. Article 370 granted Kashmir far-reaching rights to autonomy. Alongside the right of Kashmiris to their own flag, Article 370 also gave them the power to decide some of their own laws outside of the Indian Constitution, excluding matters of defence, communication and foreign policy. The paragraph also included a ban on non-Kashmiris acquiring residential property within the state.

During the polarising BJP campaign prior to the presidential elections in May, which frequently targeted Indiaʹs Muslim minority, Modi announced that he wanted to scrap Kashmirʹs special status – a promise which was met with enthusiasm from his Hindu voter base and which has now been acted upon.

From this point onwards, Jammu and Kashmir are to be governed by Delhi as a union territory. Immediately following the decree, the Indian authorities imposed an extensive blockade on Kashmir. Military presence was stepped up in the already heavily militarised capital of Srinagar and travel bans were put in place. All communication lines were cut, local politicians were imprisoned or placed under house arrest.

Modiʹs decision added fresh fuel to an explosive situation between India and Pakistan: in recent days, a number of soldiers on both sides have died following exchanges of fire at the "line of control". As a result, Pakistan symbolically celebrated its 72nd Day of Independence on 14 August in Muzaffarabad, the capital of "Azad Kashmir" (Free Kashmir), Islamabadʹs name for the portion of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan. At the celebrations, Prime Minister Imran Khan said, "Modi has made a strategical error. Heʹs played his last card. Now, theyʹve made Kashmir an international issue."

Impressions from Kashmir (photo: Marian Brehmer)
„Wir wollen weder zu Indien gehören, noch zu Pakistan. Wir wollen Azadi!” “Azadi” bedeutet “Freiheit” auf Kaschmiri und ist - vielfach an Mauern und Häuserwende geschmiert - zum Schlachtwort für den Traum von der Unabhängigkeit von Indien geworden. Doch nach Jahrzehnten der quasi-imperialen Politik Neu Delhis gegenüber der Region scheint Kaschmir in Modis Indien weiter von Freiheit entfernt als je zuvor.

In the course of a diplomatic offensive, Pakistan held a special meeting of the UN World Security Council in order to bring the issue of Indiaʹs "illegal activities" to the table. The Indian side defended itself against what it viewed as interference in its domestic matters. Imran Khan issued a promise: "We will approach any international forum necessary (…) We will go to the international Court of Justice." The Prime Minister of Pakistan also warned against "Nazi-inspired" Hindu-nationalist ideologies, of which Modi has been a follower since childhood.

Modi is pursuing a long-term plan

Modi appears to be pursuing a long-term plan as regards his strategy on Kashmir; he will not be easily dissuaded. For one thing, the shaking up of the only Indian state with a Muslim minority fits with a vision of a Hindu India, one where Muslims will ultimately not be tolerated. Allowing non-Kashmiris to acquire land and property in Kashmir will lead to Kashmir gradually becoming populated by Indian citizens from other parts of the country – indeed, this is the hope of the Hindus who were obliged to leave Kashmir as a result of religious and political tensions.

Ultimately, Modi would not be Modi if he wasnʹt hiding massive economic plans behind this decision. Modi likes to present Kashmir as a failed state and promises to improve infrastructure and improve quality of life for Kashmiris. But what is feared is the gradual destruction of an as-yet relatively untouched region with idyllic nature and an intact local economy, which is largely based on nature tourism, craftsmanship, horticulture and pasture farming.

Critics fear that Modi will follow the example of the other mountain states of Himachal and Uttarakhand, where, in recent years, thanks to capitalist logic, excessive development, chaotic road-building and rapid urbanisation have caused enormous environmental damage. Industrial waste and growing quantities of rubbish, and waterways and forests polluted by mining have shaped the once untouched nature in this area.

For Hamid, the boy who threw stones, walking along the meadows in Gulmarg, one thing is certain: "We donʹt want to belong to India or Pakistan. We want azadi!" "Azadi" means freedom in Kashmiri and has become a catchword for the dream of independence from India – it is often scrawled on walls and buildings. But after decades of semi-imperialist politics from New Delhi, Kashmir seems further from freedom in Modiʹs India than ever before.

Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu