Thank you for the dozens of insightful questions about the current situation in South Asia and your perspectives and concerns about the Kashmiri people. I have batched your questions into themes below.
By way of background, I’m a cultural anthropologist at Ohio University, and I’ve been conducting research on issues relating to the Kashmir conflict for the past 10 years through long-term field research in India and Kashmir Valley.
As an anthropologist, I use a bottom-up approach to understanding current politics and economics. This means that I approach the Kashmir situation by trying to understand Kashmiris’ everyday lives and local worlds –- by trying to see things from Kashmiri perspectives and Kashmiri points of view.
KASHMIR AT A GLANCE
Q. How large is Kashmir? How many Kashmiris are there? What are the ethnic/religious breakdowns in Kashmir?
Haley Duschinski: Kashmir Valley is part of India’s northernmost state, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which lies in the Himalayan Mountains on the borders with Pakistan, Tibet and China.
The state itself is made up of three distinctive regions with different religious and ethnic compositions:
Jammu — about 65 percent Hindu, mainly ethnic Dogras
Ladakh — about 50 percent Tibetan Buddhist with significant Muslim communities
Kashmir Valley — about 90 percent Kashmiri Muslim
Kashmir Valley is located past the Pir Panjal mountain range along the sensitive boundary line with Pakistan, Jammu is located beanth the mountains and closer to the plains, while Ladakh shares many topographical features with neighboring Tibet. The population of the entire state is about 10 million, with approximately 5.5 million people in Kashmir Valley.
Kashmir Valley is also home to a minority community of Kashmiri Hindus, who largely migrated out of the region when the separatist movement escalated around 1990. About 7,000 Kashmiri Hindus remain in Kashmir Valley today.
This statewide religious, ethnic and regional variation makes the situation there very complicated.
It’s important to remember that when Kashmiris talk about their homeland, they’re referring to the original territory of Jammu and Kashmir that spans the heavily militarized ceasefire line between India and Pakistan known as the Line of Control.
This original territory has been carved up since independence in 1947 into several different portions. Pakistan controls about one-third of the original territory and China controls a smaller part.
LIFE IN KASHMIR
Q. What is life like for Kashmiris?
Haley Duschinski: Since 1990, India has maintained more than 500,000 armed security forces in the region, making Kashmir Valley one of the most heavily militarized areas in the entire world.
The capital city of Srinagar is mapped with armed patrol units, sandbag posts, concrete and barbed wire bunkers and military checkpoints for pedestrians and automobiles. Outside of the capital city, the presence of armed security forces is pervasive, with army and paramilitary forces appropriating public schools, private hotels, cinema halls, government offices, orchard lands and abandoned houses. Basharat Peer provides a stirring account of everyday life in Kashmir in his upcoming memoir entitled “Curfewed Night.”
Kashmiris are required to carry official identification cards with them when traveling in public, and they are subject to interrogation and search at any time. Many Kashmiris have told me that they feel like they are living in a prison –- that their homeland is under siege. Doctors Without Borders has published reports about the psycho-social and general health of the Kashmiri population.
Everyday life in Kashmir Valley today is largely determined by a special law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
As the Kashmiri independence movement escalated in the late 1980s, the Indian central government declared J&K a “disturbed area” and passed the AFSPA to grant extraordinary powers to security forces personnel, including authority to use lethal force against any individuals suspected of breaking the law and disturbing the peace.
The AFSPA has facilitated various human rights abuses including extrajudicial killing, disappearance, torture and rape. International human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as Kashmiri human rights organizations have strongly criticized the special act for violating international humanitarian law, particularly the right to life, and for granting state agents impunity for human rights violations.
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
Q. What is the state of human rights in the region?
Just this summer, Indian armed forces opened fire on unarmed Kashmiri civilians protesting in the streets, killing nearly 40 and injuring 600.
Earlier this year, mass graves [PDF] of approximately 1,000 individuals were exhumed in Kashmir Valley. Due to the special acts, Kashmiris find it very difficult — if not impossible — to pursue justice for these types of human rights violations, and they feel that their suffering has been ignored by the international community.
Kashmiri human rights lawyers emphasize that any sustainable peace in the region must be founded on principles of truth, justice, and accountability.
INDIA, PAKISTAN AND THE GOVERNMENT
Q. Who runs Kashmir? Are there local officials? How does the government work with the state?
Haley Duschinski: Like other Indian states, Jammu and Kashmir has a multiparty democratic system of governance, with elections to determine members the union parliament and the state assembly. Elections were suspended during the peak years of the conflict from 1990 to 1996, but there have been several rounds of elections over the past decade.
The strongest political parties in Kashmir Valley are the National Conference, the Congress Party, and the People’s Democratic Party. In fact, elections are happening right now, and you can follow them on the website of the English-language news site Greater Kashmir.
As a result of the unusual circumstances surrounding its accession to India, Jammu and Kashmir is the only Indian state that has a special degree of autonomy under Article 370 of the Indian constitution. Article 370 grants the state autonomy in determining its own affairs except in defense, foreign affairs, and communication. Since the 1950s, Article 370 has been substantially eroded through various measures of the Indian central government.
Q. What is it that India and Pakistan covet in Kashmir? Are there natural resources or strategic advantages that pit the countries against one another?
Haley Duschinski: It is certainly true that Kashmir is located in a strategically advantageous position on the border between India and Pakistan, adjacent to China and Tibet.
But I feel that the contestation over Kashmir is less about the region’s strategic location or natural resources (although there are disputes over a critical water source there) and more about its symbolic and political significance to both neighboring countries.
When the British left the subcontinent in 1947, the colonial territory was partitioned into India, which espoused a principal of secular nationalism, and Pakistan, which espoused a principle of religious (Islamic) nationalism.
India has always claimed Kashmir Valley as proof of its commitment to secularism, while Pakistan claims Kashmir Valley on the basis of its Muslim majority population. Of course, the situation is more complicated than this, because over the decades India and Pakistan have become locked into a sort of Cold War standoff over the region, with both sides refusing to back down in their territorial claims.
Political parties in each country have benefited from this situation by mobilizing popular support for their political positions and platforms through incendiary rhetoric involving Kashmir.
It often feels as though India and Pakistan are playing out their national security performances along the Line of Control in this border region, with quite devastating consequences for the Kashmiri people.
Q. What do the people of Kashmir want — independence? Will Kashmir ever receive independence from India or Pakistan? Can Kashmir be split up? Could the Kashmiris effectively govern the region?
Haley Duschinski: Kashmiris are vocal in their demand for independence, or azaadi. The concept of azaadi is complicated, and it means different things to different people at different times. Kashmiris’ desire for independence is a longstanding one that is shaped by peoples’ collective memories of occupation and exploitation by a series of outside rulers –- Mughuls, Afghans, Sikhs, Dogras and now Indians –- across history. This means that the Kashmiri demand for self-determination is not simply about seceding or breaking away from India; it’s also a way of demanding an opportunity to express their collective will in relation to their own political future.
To learn more about Kashmiri experiences and aspirations, I highly recommend a recent documentary film called Jashn-e-Azadi (“How We Celebrate Freedom”) by a Kashmiri filmmaker named Sanjay Kak.
Many Kashmiris feel dissatisfied with the way that their community has been treated by India since independence in 1947. Indian rule in the region since the 1940s has included repression, economic deprivation and indiscriminate violence, including, at various times, the denial of democratic processes, the manipulation of elections, and the jailing of political leaders. These practices, and especially the widespread human rights violations since 1990, have made generations of Kashmiris feel very alienated from the Indian state. Kashmiris also remember that they were promised the opportunity to determine their own futures through a plebiscite at the time of accession to India, and that this promise has never been fulfilled.
India and Pakistan have been pursuing a peace process since 2004 that focuses in large part on finding a way to resolve their contested claims to Kashmir. The peace process has produced some tangible results, most notably a ceasefire across the Line of Control, as well as a series of confidence-building measures such as cross-border bus service and cross-border trade routes. Although Kashmiris have generally responded positively to these developments, the measures still remain largely symbolic gestures without tangible consequence for most people living in the valley.
Q. How can this situation be resolved?
Haley Duschinski: Many different plans have been proposed for resolving the Kashmir situation. Before he resigned as president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf proposed a four-point solution involving (1) porous borders in Kashmir with freedom of movement for Kashmiri people, (2) local self-governance within each region of Kashmir, (3) phased withdrawal of troops from all regions, and (4) a joint supervisory mechanism involving India and Pakistan.
Some political factions in Kashmir Valley support this plan, or variations of it, while others continue to push a separatist agenda.
U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama has indicated that he will prioritize a resolution to the Kashmir conflict as part of a more comprehensive and interlocking strategy in South Asia.
As an American academic, it’s certainly not my place to offer resolutions to the Kashmir situation. I will, however, point out that it’s impossible to imagine any meaningful or productive political settlement that does not take seriously the longstanding grievances and democratic aspirations of the Kashmiri people.
– Haley Duschinski