For the last several years, scholars, journalists, filmmakers, writers, and activists have examined the violent and vindictive nature of the Indian military occupation in Kashmir. Their work, along with years of involvement in the mass movement for independence, has helped people in Kashmir, who experience the splintering effects of the occupation in their daily lives, make a coherent sense of the oppressive order under which they remain trapped. Kashmiris have become clearer than ever about what is best for their future—and India plays no governing role in it.
In the aftermath of the new uprising in Kashmir that began in July 2016 with the killing of a popular guerilla commander and the brutal crackdown on the protests that followed, people in Kashmir understand there is no ground left for debate with the Indian state. Many just say “We are fed up with ‘talks’ and ‘dialogue’ and ‘engagement.’ Dialogue can never happen meaningfully under a fundamental situation of injustice. The occupation must end.” Of course, India is not even offering talks, because they have really nothing to offer in talks. The Indian establishment just wants to maintain an image of normalcy under the occupation and manage a state of ordered disorder, rather than end it.
The Indian government has, as it often does, accused Pakistan of fuelling the resentment in Kashmir and arming the otherwise “innocent Kashmiris.” Its media unremittingly recycles half-baked truths to delegitimize the Kashmiri aspiration for azadi as a foreign import. For Indian nationalists, fed on this steady diet of government and media propaganda, and unable to accept there could be a people wanting nothing to do with their union, patronizing Kashmiris as politically naïve and labeling them as dangerously subversive goes hand in hand. For these purposes, “Pakistan” acts as a convenient red herring as well as an object of fear and hatred. Kashmiris and their voices become disposable.
But beyond the Indian polemic about Pakistan’s overinflated role in Kashmir, there is a distraught relationship Kashmiris do in fact have with Pakistan. For Kashmiris, Pakistan’s support is both welcome and a cause for anxiety, especially when it shifts gears: at one moment offering unconditional support to the Kashmiri right to self-determination, at another, backing only those formations that support “merger with Pakistan” over the overwhelming view that favors Kashmir’s independence.
Most Kashmiris recognize that Pakistani people have stood by them. They know this support cuts across different layers of Pakistani society. Only in the last few years have some so-called “realist” opinion makers sought to drive Pakistan away from what they see as Pakistan’s “obsession,” and even depicted Kashmiris as somehow responsible for Pakistan’s bad relations with India. Shaken by religious extremism in Pakistan, they fail to see the creeping communalist majoritarianism that has been sweeping India and which brooks nothing less than a war with Pakistan.
Kashmiris reciprocate Pakistan’s support by upholding the finest symbols of Pakistani society and culture, be it in music or in sport. Yet, Kashmiris also recognize that behind the Pakistani state’s support lies a form of manipulation, which must be pointed out.
The Pakistani state, and some political parties loyal to it, try to nurture Pakistani nationalism in Kashmir based on an imagined subcontinental Muslim unity. Many in Pakistan see Pakistani flags fluttering in Kashmiri rallies as a sign of a sentiment that will favor merger with Pakistan if and when a referendum is held. But, that is precisely the mistake Indian nationalists make when they see Kashmiris lining up to vote for elections. Indeed, the difference is that with Pakistan, Kashmiris don’t have an antagonistic relationship as such, and with the Indian state there is. The fact remains, however, that both sides, in different degrees, tend to manipulate signs to change the reality on the ground. While the farce of elections in Kashmir is evident to anyone who sees the phenomenon unfolding under the hustling guidance of a million guns, the signs of Pakistani nationalism in Kashmir tend to remain unexamined. And to do so is urgent before the present uprising splits in the way the previous ones did.
Here is what I have heard many Kashmiris say: Each time we rise up against the Indian state under the collective demand for azadi or independence, Kashmir’s Pakistani nationalist formations sabotage us internally even before India has a chance to subdue us. In 1990, the mass movement grew exponentially on the back of a call for independence, but soon the divisions appeared, leading to years of internal conflict, bloodshed, and a nervous silence in Kashmir. With pro-Pakistani groups supported by the Pakistani state and the pro-azadi groups built only on people’s sentiment, pro-Pakistan groups came out a little less bruised from that conflict. But in the process, the movement was severely damaged. Watching the bloodshed from the sidelines, and in many cases facilitating it, India found it easy to coopt elements of the movement to its own advantage. From the ruins of the pro-azadi and pro-Pakistan internal war, Indian counterinsurgents in the form of Ihwanis wreaked havoc across the region.
Then again in 2008, after years of slow rebuilding of the movement, a call for unity of all the pro-self-determination parties was disrupted by a fateful factional call to rally under the pro-Pakistan voices alone. That division drove young Kashmiri activists away from those leaders whose politics remained caught up in the Partition logic of 1947. In the present uprising again, the green flags of Kashmiri Muslims are being supplanted by Pakistani state flags. Slogans of azadi are vehemently being replaced by pro-Pakistan sloganeering. Many fear the uprising will go down the same way the previous ones went: internal bickering that gives Indian occupation a further lease on life in Kashmir.
It is well known that Kashmiris have historically demanded independence. More than the people’s sentiment, independence makes much more logical sense than a “merger with Pakistan” or “integration with India.” Both “merger with Pakistan” and “integration with India” turn Kashmir into a piece of real estate bereft of its own history and political consciousness. Kashmir has enough resources, geopolitical advantages (as a major stop on historic trade routes and its centrality between South, East and Central Asia), and a deep sense of historical continuity to exist as an independent country. Many smaller and less geographically advantaged countries exist and thrive. Of course, Kashmiris don’t have ambitions to build a blue-water navy or become a militaristic “superpower”; nor do they want to be part of such an obnoxious entity. They just want to live peacefully in their own country where they don’t have to negotiate for their dignity as a people or fight establishments in distant capitals for their rights. That is why there is no reasonable way to justify merger with Pakistan just as there is no ethical way to demand integration with India.
While most Kashmiris are clear about azadi, and have a more or less coherent view of how an independent Kashmir should look like, the question of Pakistan splits many of them disastrously. Since 1947, the Pakistan versus azadi dynamic has played its part in strengthening Indian control. Some historians in Kashmir ask, what would Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference have done if Pakistan had made no territorial claims on Kashmir and instead supported a free Kashmir when India was preparing to invade the region? Would he have stuck to the “Naya Kashmir” manifesto of 1944 that envisaged full citizenship to all of state’s residents in a free Kashmir? Similarly, had the Tehreek movement of 1990 not split between those who supported independence and those who supported a merger with Pakistan, would India have been able to subdue it without any visible movement toward the goal of azadi? Even in the present, could there be unanimity on the question of the goals of the Tehreek, which could turn the present tactical coordination among its leaders into a convergent political, social and cultural movement that the Indian state is unable to split?
Pro-Pakistan Kashmiris tend to rest their case on the matter of UN resolutions, but the choice these resolutions offer to Kashmiris do not include independence. Ironically, in this they find support from unlikely allies: Pakistani and Indian nationalists. Indeed, many Kashmiris remain convinced that the legal questions related to the political status of the region as it emerged in 1947 remain key to understanding the problem and finding a resolution. The UNSC Resolutions 47 and 91 validate the Kashmiri demand for their right to self-determination. They set out a mechanism to determine the will of Kashmiris and don’t regard “elections” to local assemblies as a substitute. These historical documents are part of our political consciousness and cultural memory. Kashmiris stand firmly for their spirit that endorses their existence as a people, even though the options presented are inadequate (as they don’t offer independence) and remain one more piece of evidence that Kashmiris have never been allowed to represent themselves. They see “determining the will of Kashmiris” as the operative part of the resolutions.
At the same time, Pakistanis and Indians need to acknowledge that Kashmir is not so much of a legal as a historical-political question. The Kashmir issue goes beyond the United Nations resolutions as well as India-Pakistan interstate diplomacy and claim-making. The crux of the matter lies not in New Delhi or Islamabad, but in Kashmir itself. Kashmiri Tehreek is not about the plebiscite with its two choices, but a historical struggle for dignity of Kashmiris as a people. The source of humiliation which Kashmiris experience is not from having been denied the choice between India and Pakistan, but precisely because of the imperial claims that the two postcolonial states have made on Kashmir’s land. I don’t want to suggest India and Pakistan have been equally culpable, nor is it accurate to suggest their relationship to Kashmiris can be deemed as equivalent. For Indian nationalists, Kashmiris are akin to squatters on a sacred land that belongs to India. For Pakistani nationalists, on the other hand, Kashmiris are like “brothers and sisters.” Yet, this kinship claim has not driven many Pakistani nationalists to lift themselves out of a cultivated ignorance about Kashmir’s history and Kashmiri aspirations.
As far as argument go, Kashmiris have reached the end of the rope with India. The Indian establishment has no moral position left on the Kashmir question. As such, it can behave no other way with Kashmiris than violently. Many activists, students, and scholars in India have also realized this and have begun to see reason in the Kashmiri demand for azadi. Across Indian universities and within the movements of the marginalized communities and castes, seeds of change have sprouted, despite frothing TV journalists hectoring Indians to fall in line. Yet, what has remained disconcertingly static amid all this is Pakistan’s position. Instead of clearly backing an independent Kashmir, the Pakistani establishment is stuck in the old paradigm of the two-nation theory. Kashmiris were never part of that logic, even as they never took Indian claims of a secular state seriously.
Pakistani society, from university teachers and students to progressive movements and activists, must rebuild Pakistan’s view of Kashmiris, not as a people who need patronage or who are knocking on the gates to become part of Pakistan, but as friendly neighbors under assault from a violent occupier state and who want to live in a free country of their own. This can happen through a free, open and respectful mutual engagement between Pakistanis and Kashmiris, through serious scholarly collaboration, cultural and political exchanges, and through linking of progressive struggles in Pakistan with the struggle for freedom in Kashmir.
It is no secret that Kashmiris have always felt a sense of intimacy with Pakistan. Many Kashmiris see Pakistan as a friend and an ally, and even a key to path toward a free Kashmir. But many others see this friendship rooted in conditions that are unfair. That is why part of the solution lies in Pakistan. Several venerable Pakistani commentators have recently argued that Pakistan must no longer talk about “merger with Pakistan” or stake a territorial claim on Kashmir, but support the idea of a Kashmiri independence. This is a welcome development. Will Pakistan be able to stand with Kashmiris if Kashmiris wanted independence and not a merger with Pakistan?
Many Kashmiris I speak with share the view that peace in South Asia is better for the entire world. They want India and Pakistan to have peace, but they also know that peace cannot come at the cost of Kashmiris. Political establishments and the elites in South Asia have had more than half a century to build peace. Not only have they failed, but have ended up drawing everyone closer to the brink of mutual annihilation.
It is time people’s movements in South Asia — from those fighting for the political and cultural rights of minorities, land rights of indigenous peoples, and an end to the oppressive caste structures and military occupations, to those fighting to save environment and end the race for nuclear weapons and war-mongering — all link up laterally to create a peaceful South Asia. The road to that peace will necessarily come through a free Kashmir, not a Kashmir that is brushed under the rug and left for future generations to solve. Once free, Kashmir will be able to negotiate individual and multilateral peace treaties with all neighbors, who, blighted by poverty, will have every reason to maintain peace rather than risk another seventy years of draining militarism.
Originally published in Tanqeed, October 2016.