By Saba Qureshi
Contrary to popular belief, Kashmir’s unqualified struggle for azadi (freedom) and self-determination did not start in 1947, and will most definitely not end today (see history section). The region's civil unrest, socioeconomic turmoil and climate apartheid can be attributed to pre-partition era tribal invasions, colonial interference and nearly 7 decades of post-partition demoralizing, state-sanctioned violence and exploitation from both India and Pakistan - India arguably to disproportionate effects. India’s abrogation of Article 370 from the Indian Constitution in August 2019, and its ongoing settler colonial operations are another regrettable chapter in the oppressive imperial legacy of Kashmir that continues into the 21st century.
Over the years, Kashmir’s fight for independence has resulted in multiple wars and military skirmishes between India and Pakistan, as well as human rights abuses, including torture, mass blinding, mass graves, rape as a weapon war, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances. The colonization of Kashmir has also had a profound impact on the daily lives of the Kashmiri people, including restrictions on freedom of expression and movement, internet shutdowns, and a heavy military presence.
Instances of human rights abuses have been well documented and recognized by international human rights organizations such as the United Nations (UN), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Yet, Kashmir rarely receives mainstream media coverage and remains vastly excluded from international conversations and circles about human rights and neo-colonialism.
The lack of saliency of the Kashmiri people’s fight for self-determination and azadi (freedom) in common and international discourses raises ethical concerns surrounding the question of whether or not Kashmiri people, and people from the “global south” at large, are considered newsworthy victims.
This year's G-20 Summit set to take place in New Dehli, India is a timely example of how the global democratic community and international leaders (in addition to India) are complacent in the continual exclusion of Kashmir and its struggle for self-determination from international democratic circles. Recently India hosted a series of tourism working group meetings in Srinagar (May 22 -25) which were attended by delegates from 27 countries including Canada. By hosting the tourism meetings in Srinagar, India aimed to signal that “Indian-administered” Kashmir is stable and ready to engage with the world after their 2019 decision to revoke its partial autonomy. India’s projection of a false image of “normalcy” from Kashmir not only contributes to the erasure and suppression of the Kashmiri people but also aims to solidify India’s international reputation of being the world's “largest democracy.”
Canada’s participation in the G20 meetings solidifies its complacency and active role in stripping the Kashmiri people of their autonomy and inherent right to self-determination. Canada has an ethical and political responsibility to ensure that the states with which we engage, and which we develop relationships, have similar human rights and democratic values. That being said, Canada does not have the best track record concerning its own treatment of Indigenous peoples, symbolizing the overall irony of the matter.
Kashmir is a region that like many parts of the world, is facing the effects of climate change. Examples include regional temperature increases, decreases in snowfall, glaciers melting, flash-floods, deficits in food production, and water depletion. The construction of environmentally unethical dams and military encampments, resource extraction, and deforestation on behalf of the Indian and Pakistani nation-states has not only threatened the ecological sustainability of the land but, has dispossessed Kashmiris of their ancestral lands (notably, Kashmiris residing in Indian-occupied Kashmir are disproportionately impacted).
During the May G20 meetings, delegates discussed topics such as climate sustainability, ecotourism, destination management and the role of films in promoting tourist destinations, demonstrating the utter disregard for the region's already fragile ecosystem. In addition, UNESCO has added Srinagar to its Creative Cities Network to “advance sustainable urban development”.
The promotion of tourism in an internationally recognized contested territory, and the positioning of Kashmir as an “economic investment opportunity”, paints a clear picture of the performative and hypocritical nature of such (supposedly democratic) intergovernmental forums and international institutions.
Geo-Political Breakdown of the Region
To begin, Kashmir is a region located in the northernmost part of the Indian subcontinent. It is situated in the Himalayan mountains bordered by India, Pakistan, and China. The region of Jammu and Kashmir, which is a border area between the two countries, has been a point of contention between India and Pakistan for multiple decades. Since the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the two nuclear powers have fought two wars over the Muslim majority Kashmir and yet through all of the political turmoil Indigenous Kashmiri voices have consistently been excluded. The “status” of Kashmir remains unresolved.
India and Pakistan claim the region in its entirety, but they currently occupy and administer separate portions of it. India controls about two-thirds of the region (i.e Jammu and Kashmir and Ladhak) including the populous Kashmir Valley, while Pakistan controls about one-third, which it calls Azad Jammu and Kashmir (some may view this as ironic, because though “azad” means free in Urdu the region is yet administered by Pakistan). The region of Aksai Chin is occupied by China and north-eastern regions including the Siachen Glacier were “ceded” to China by Pakistan (though, the land was never “theirs” to cede, to begin with - see history section).
Home to over 14.5 million people, with the deployment of over 700,000 security forces, Kashmir remains one of the most heavily militarized zones in the world today.
Abrogation of Article 370, What Exactly Happened?
Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a form of federalism that was “cooperative, not coercive”, back in 2014 when he was elected, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) decided to restrict the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, limiting its ability to address regional issues.
On August 5th, 2019 the abrogation of Article 370 stripped Kashmir of its special status from the Indian Constitution and split the region into two federal territories; Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir, bringing it under India’s direct control. Though limited, this special status gave India’s only Muslim-majority state some semblance of autonomy to pass its laws.
According to a 2022 briefing review from Amnesty International, the Indian government has drastically intensified the repression of rights in Jammu & Kashmir in the three years since the change in status of the region (notably including the mass communication ban and crack down on + 60 journalists and activists).
…civil society at large and journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders in particular have faced relentless interrogations, arbitrary travel bans, revolving door detentions and repressive media policies while blocking access to appeals or justice in courts and human rights bodies…civil society and media in Jammu and Kashmir have been subjected to a vicious crackdown by the Indian government, which is determined to stifle dissent using draconian laws, policies and unlawful practices in their arsenal - Aakar Patel, chair of the board of Amnesty International India
[Read the full Amnesty International report here.]
India and Pakistan: A Blame Game
Many Indian and Pakistani intellectuals have attempted to provide a platform for the story of the Kashmiri people and their independence movement, but it is still a story that remains forgotten. The proxy war between these two nations has played a pivotal role in presenting the Kashmiri struggle as a territorial dispute rather than an issue of self-determination on the global stage. As put by researchers Zaib Aziz and Kamil Ahsan, “...an intifada that, unlike in Palestine, has failed to incite global outrage. As India’s neoliberal prestige has taken shape over the last decade, its crimes in Kashmir have been struck from the record.”
Political essayist, Pankaj Mishra notes that the Kashmiri struggle provides India with the opportunity to position itself as a Western ally against Islamic radicalism, “Kashmir has turned out to be a ‘great suppression story’ . . . Intellectuals, preoccupied by transcendent, nearly mystical, battles between civilization and barbarism tend to assume that ‘democratic’ India, a natural ally of the ‘liberal’ West, must be doing the right thing in Kashmir, that is, fighting Islamofascism.”
While there is a history of Pakistani-funded militancy in Kashmir (POK), specifically across the Line of Control in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, it is important to note that the significance of Pakistani involvement in the Kashmiri plight tends to get overlooked due to India's disproportionate abuse of human rights. Crtisicims of Pakistani military intervention in local POK politics are often dismissed as “India’s attempts at false equivalency” of the matter. Conversations around Kashmiri self-determination require a high degree of nuance in order to ensure that Kashmiri perspectives from both sides are validated rather than ignored. Safe spaces for dialogue must be encouraged.
According to Zaib Aziz and Kamil Ahsan, the veracity of Pakistani involvement is often deemed unimportant to the Kashmiri struggle.
“While the Indian state has occupied the valley, the Pakistani military establishment has functioned largely through militant proxies. In 1947, 1965, and throughout the 1990s (culminating in the Kargil War), the modus operandi of the Pakistani establishment has been to organize and support armed militias in Kashmir (Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahadeen, and Harkat-ul-Ansar ), with the aim of fomenting rebellion within Kashmir. This would, in theory, create the conditions for a renegotiation of borders, while freeing Pakistan of all involvement.”
Therefore both India and Pakistan get to maintain their status quo over Kashmir by negating culpability, essentially by playing “the blame game”, using the crimes and actions of the other state as a deflection. Where India gets to fight “Islamofacism” by continuing the occupation of Kashmir and stripping it of its autonomy, Pakistan gets to pose a supporter of the “Kashmiri freedom fighters” through its backing of extremist Islamic militant groups. In the midst of this, both countries not only hijack the Kashmiri struggle but ultimately take control of the narrative.
Kashmir has never been ruled by Kashmiris themselves since the Mughal invasion of 1589 AD. After the Mughals, the region was ruled by the Afghans (1753-1819), Sikhs (1819-46), and the Dogras (1846-1947) until the Indian and Pakistani states took over.
The rule of the Dogra Empire, (comprised of the Kashmir Valley, Jamu, Ladakh, Gilgit Baltistan, and current Azad Kashmir) was arguably the worst because of the economic extortion in Kashmir. For instance, Kashmiris were banned from owning land, from having control over their produce and from speaking Indigenous Kashmiri languages.
Under Hari Singh, a Dogra Ruler, Kashmir was supposed to be an independent state. However, the Pakistani-backed tribal invasion of 1947 forced him to sign an instrument to accede the state to the Indian dominion under Article 370, which guaranteed partial autonomy to Kashmir (consisting of the valley, Ladakh and Jammu) in the Indian Constitution. While the remainder, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Azad Kashmir fell under the control of Pakistan. In 1949, via the Karachi Agreement, Pakistan, without any representation from the region, was able to take control of GB. Additionally, since then, the people of GB have been repeatedly ignored and deprived of their fundamental rights such as the right to vote and representation in the National Assembly and Senate.
Since the partition, the region has been embroiled in multiple wars between India and Pakistan, both claiming to have the best interests of the local population in mind while equally silencing Kashmiri voices that criticized both countries or demanded independence.
The United Nations (UN) resolution 47, adopted by the Security Council (1948), called for a plebiscite to determine the region's future. This was proposed through a three-step process that would require both nations to remove their military presence and hold an impartial plebiscite under the UN’s guidelines. However, the plebiscite was never held, and the conflict has continued for over seven decades. Efforts to resolve the conflict have been unsuccessful, and the dispute remains one of the most intractable issues in South Asia.
Undeterred by the best efforts of the imperialist forces to suppress and vanquish them, since the beginning of the Mughal rule till date, the Kashmiri fight for self-determination continues.
Calls to Action, What Can You Do?
The occupation of Kashmir and the struggle for the Kashmiri people's right to self-determination and azadi is an intersectional issue that converges with issues of democracy, human rights and climate justice. There is a need for a renewed acknowledgment of the matter. International democratic, human rights and climate justice institutions have a social responsibility to include Kashmir in their advocacy efforts and campaigns for international accountability.
More importantly, tangible action needs to take place. 75 years ago the UN called for a plebiscite to allow Kashmiris to decide their own fate (i.e. deciding to become an independent state, join India or join Pakistan). However, India has consistently refused to hold such a referendum. On the other hand, though Pakistan has called for a referendum it continues to reject the possibility of an independent Kashmiri state. In essence, the right to self-determination of the Kashmiri people has been held hostage by the rivalry between India and Pakistan.
It is therefore the responsibility of the international community including the members of the G-20, to ensure that the UN-recommended plebiscite takes place without the interference of India and Pakistan (and other political stakeholder including China) to uphold the Kashmiri people's inherent right to self-determination.
In addition, grass-roots level change starts with the individual. You can start supporting Kashmiri people through education, non-performative activism, partaking in awareness campaigns and supporting frontline activists or advocacy groups. Ultimately, the bottom line is; show up and do the work.
Kashmiri People, Causes and Organizations to Support
Causes, Organizations and Guides:
- Line of Control
- Free Press Kashmir
- Stand With Kashmir
- World Kashmir Awareness Forum
- Muslim Climate Watch
- Amnesty International’s Briefings of Jammu and Kashmir
- Stand With Kashmir Report May 2023
- Kashmir & International Law, An Activist's Guide
- United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)
Essays, Articles, and Journals:
- The Right to Self-Determination of the Kashmiri People
- Settler Colonial Ambitions in Kashmir
- Extreme Weather Events in Kashmir
- From Domicile to Dominion: India’s Settler Colonial Agenda in Kashmir (Harvard Law Review)
Scholars and Activists to Follow:
- Ather Zia, Kashmiri Activist and Political Anthropologist
- Tanveer Ahmed, Kashmiri Activist and Political Researcher
- Hilal Mir, Srinagar based Journalist
A Note to World Federalists
The World Federalist Movement (WFM) Canada, aims to spotlight human rights violations and ongoing issues of systemic discrimination against racialized and equity-deserving identity groups, both in Canada and at a global level. As world federalists, we strive to advocate for anti-discrimination frameworks to advance both the human and democratic rights of minority individuals globally, Kashmiris are not an exception, hold your leaders accountable.
I’d like to formally thank Wajeeha Saman for providing context through her lived experiences in the region and for her guidance in reference to the historical background portion of the article. I’d also like to formally give thanks and express my gratitude to my elders and other family members who have shared their lived, inter-generational experiences from the region.
This article aims to present a contextual overview of the instability in the Kashmiri region while honouring the truth and lived experiences of Kashmiris from both sides of the occupied territory. This article does not aim to present issues as “competing struggles” but rather to act as a stepping stone for nuanced cross cultural dialogue.