For Indians and Pakistanis, Kashmir is much more than a strategically important valley: it is the crystallisation of a conflict defined by the division of a nation. In the non-Kashmiri imagination, the valley is a battleground not just for the two countries themselves, but for the very ideologies that led to the partition of the subcontinent over 60 years ago.
Al Jazeera spoke with citizens on both sides of the border, and abroad, to try and understand just what place Kashmir has in their collective imaginations.
We asked them four questions:
Q1. What does Kashmir mean to you as an Indian/Pakistani?
Q2. What images does the word ‘Kashmir’ evoke for you?
Q3. Do you think that Pakistan or India have a ‘right’ to Kashmir?
Q4. Where does the Kashmiris’ will figure in your conception of a solution to the dispute?
Their responses are below.
Ram Narayan Gupta
1. Kashmir is the crown of India. It is like heaven on earth.
2. Two decades ago, the word ‘Kashmir’ itself was pleasing to the ears. It would evoke images of beauty and tranquility. But things have changed since - the word can now only conjure images of violence and destruction.
3. In my opinion, Kashmir is the head, the crown of India, so it cannot just be cut and removed and given away.
4. In my opinion, 10 per cent of Kashmiris have mixed feelings. But an overwhelming majority, 90 per cent of Kashmiris, want to be a part of India. They desire the end of the terrorism that has been inflicted on them, and do not want their land to be a playground for violence anymore.
"Some Kashmiris think that it will be better to go with Pakistan, but they should realise the reality of the people from India who settled in Pakistan after independence"
1. Kashmir is an inseparable part of India. All Kashmiris are our brothers and sisters. Kashmir is also important from a strategic point of view for India.
2. It is synonymous with heaven on earth, one of the world’s most remarkable natural beauties.
3. Yes, I believe only India has a right over Kashmir.
4. Some Kashmiris think that it will be better to go with Pakistan, but they should realise the reality of the people from India who settled in Pakistan after independence [in 1947]. They are called muhajirs and are not treated well. Internally, Pakistan is a mess and they don’t have a very good attitude towards Kashmir. It will be better to be part of India.
Mili Bhagat Sharma
Occupation: Hotel service
1. Kashmir is India’s and the world’s most beautiful place.
2. On the one hand, one thinks of Kashmir’s unique handicrafts and garments, from paper mache to pashmina, but on the other hand, it evokes images of guns, bullets and bloodshed.
3. Kashmir is an integral part of India, and that is where it belongs.
4. Kashmiris have been suffering and are trapped in the politics of the two sides. They want to find a solution of their own, but I am not sure if this is a feasible option.
1. Kashmir is the Indian equivalent of heaven.
2. I’ve never been to Kashmir, but the word evokes images of rivers, lakes, mountains, snow and pristine beauty. If I ever went there, though, I am sure the sight of the militants would erase all such images from my mind.
3. In my opinion, I don’t think we can make or dictate a decision for Kashmir. It’s best if the people there decide for themselves.
4. I don’t think Kashmiris want to be split on the lines of religion, and not in the violent way India and Pakistan were divided. I think the Kashmiris want to, and are entitled to, find a peaceful solution of their own.
1. The importance of Kashmir is something that our army or the government would know better. They would know what Kashmir means for us, or if its border is the same as Pakistan, then what benefit it would bring to us Pakistanis. And in which particular way will Pakistan develop if Kashmir is with us? Only if we knew all this, then we’ll be able to understand what it is for us Pakistanis.
"If we look closely, our government and mujahideen have not really done anything for Kashmiris, either. The [Pakistani] army uses them for their own benefit and then leaves them"
2. I think firstly Kashmir makes me think of the helplessness and the plight of the people and what the Indians are doing to them.
3. Well, it is Pakistan’s right to have Kashmir as its own. But now even people of Azad Kashmir [Pakistani-administered Kashmir] want to get separated. They call themselves Kashmiris and not Pakistanis. I remember an incident, I went with my friends to Azad Kashmir last year, I parked my motorcycle outside a shop and was worried about it getting stolen. But the shopkeeper said: "Don’t worry it is not Pakistan, but Kashmir, and the crime rate is low here."
4. I don’t care even if Kashmiris want independence. It is a region of Muslims, it should just be free from India. People of Kashmir are very nice, I have met the ones from Jammu: they are good people. If they say they want to be independent, then it is fine. There is nothing wrong with it.
Occupation: Receptionist and telephone operator
1. Well, Kashmir is a part of Pakistan in a way. There are Muslims there and they are facing hardships. And Indians are killing innocent Muslims there and that is why we want Kashmir, I guess.
2. It is beautiful, and Kashmir to me is a beautiful place of beautiful people. Their women and culture are amazing. And every time I think of Kashmir, an image of a crowd of people, gathered and protesting, comes to my mind as well. Also, a white flag with the [Muslim] kalma written on it with a sword comes to my mind.*
3. I think Pakistan has a right to Kashmir, India doesn’t. Because at the time of partition India kept a part of Kashmir with it forcibly. And also because Pakistan and Kashmir are both areas of Muslims.
4. I think Kashmiris would want to go with Pakistan. But then it looks like that they probably want independence for themselves. Sometimes I think if they merge with Pakistan then their thoughts of independence might go and they will be more accepting of Pakistan than of India. But I also think if independence is what they really want, both people of Azad Kashmir and Jammu, then that is okay too. In fact that is better, if they get to have a small independent state of their own. Everyone has a right to freedom, right?
*The flag Iftikhar has described belongs to the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an Islamic charity that is active in the valley and which has been accused of being a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Occupation: Security guard and a retired military corporal
"[Kashmiris] want religious freedom also, because they are Muslims. If they want to live independently it is fine as well, but [it is] better if [they are] with Pakistan"
1. Kashmir is a problem for both countries: forces of both countries are at the border. And the expenditure of keeping the forces there is too much. That is not good for Pakistan. The problem of Kashmir should be resolved.
2. Nothing comes to my mind straight away. But Kashmir generally reminds me of the bloodbath there, the stuff we see in the news … bullets and torture.
3. India has been ruling Kashmir forcibly, whereas the people of Kashmir want to be with Pakistan. Our history says that Kashmir should be with Pakistan. That is why the Kashmiris struggle, they want religious freedom also, because they are Muslims. If they want to live independently it is fine as well, but [it is] better if [they are] with Pakistan.
4. The decision of the people of Kashmir should be the most important. Whatever they want should be their fate.
Occupation: Government secondary school teacher
1. It is part of Pakistan. It should be given to Pakistan.
2. [I think of] a place which is occupied by India. Also a beautiful place, green and great for tourism.
3. Kashmir is Pakistan’s right. If the Kashmir problem is resolved, Kashmir should come to Pakistan. Our rivers are dependent on Kashmir. [For more on the water politics of Kashmir, click here]
4. Different people have different views, [regarding] elections etc. People should get a right to vote, and of course they would want to come to Pakistan. If it comes with Pakistan, there will be religious freedom. But our politicians are not doing anything for Kashmir.
Occupation: Rickshaw driver
1. Kashmir is our land. It is our country.
2. My heart says that it is our land, it is a pure, beautiful land.
3. Pakistan should get it because it is a land of Muslims. I am not educated, but I have heard from my elders that it is a land like no other.
4. I think that Kashmiris are our brothers and they want to be a part of Pakistan. But I think that they should not be a part of Pakistan, because we are too busy being selfish. There is corruption here, everyone is busy making money. Our politicians ignore us and they will ignore Kashmir as well.
Hometown: Calcutta, India
Currently resides in: Singapore
1. [It means] many things. Personally, it’s a place of refuge. It’s a place where I have many friends. Professionally, I have written about Kashmir as a travel writer and am now researching it for a book project. As an Indian, I do not have a point of view on Kashmir’s independence. And I do not think I should. It’s for Kashmiris to have a point of view on this. But, at a larger level, Kashmir is a realisation that I was deceived growing up.
"At a larger level, Kashmir is a realisation that I was deceived growing up"
2. Butt’s Clermont houseboats in Naseem Bagh, the Zabarvan hills [and] my friends Umar and Nasrun.
3. No, [they do] not [have] a "right".
4. Where [does their will] figure? I don’t understand. It’s only Kashmiris who figure – who should figure – in any solution. This is not about Indians or Pakistanis. This is about Kashmiris.
Name: Nabeela Zahir
Occupation: Journalist and researcher
Hometown: Sialkot, Pakistan
Currently resides in: London, United Kingdom
1. For me, Kashmir means several things: conflict, a struggle for independence, but also a land of immense beauty. It is the contentious issue of whether Kashmir belongs to Pakistan or India that has created this conflict. In terms of beauty, growing up as a British Pakistani, Kashmir has always been described to me as the ‘Venice of the East’ and I have always wanted to travel to the region. The beauty of Kashmir is profound, but whilst the conflict continues, the region has never had his chance to really open its doors to tourism, something that could really help the socio-economic standards of Kashmir.
2. The term ‘Kashmir’ evokes several images: countless widowed Muslim women and fatherless children desperately pleading for help from the international community, pictures of missing loved ones seized by the Indian army never to be seen again, protests and anger on the streets and of course Pakistani militants. But the images of conflict and destruction are not all there is to Kashmir. The term Kashmir also conjures up images of lush landscapes; endless mountain ranges, clear blue lakes, beautiful regional art and clothing, and a unique culture and people.
3. It is not a decision for either India or Pakistan to make. Kashmiris need to be given a voice, and their voice must be listened to. If they wish to be an independent state and believe that is the way to achieving peace in the region, than it is only democratic to grant them this. Instead of this, Kashmir is used as a point of conflict between the two nations and the people continue to live under violent oppression. Prior to the divide of India and Pakistan, Kashmir was an independent state, therefore it should have the right to be fully independent and free from both Indian and Pakistani rule.
4. Ninety-five per cent of Kashmir is Muslim, yet they are ruled by people who do not represent them, and who can be described as ‘outsiders’, i.e. an Indian army who has been sent to control them. Watching footage from the region at times reminds me of the occupation of Palestine. Yet this is not to say that it is only India that is to blame. Pakistanis militants too often perpetuate this cycle of violence, and it is innocent Kashmiris who get caught up in the crossfire.
If India wishes to continue to call itself a democratic nation, and if Pakistan wishes to be recognised as one they must empower Kashmiris, by giving them control over their own lives. In my understanding, Kashmiris simply want peace, the right to live freely without fear of violence or oppression, so in order to achieve this it is Kashmiris alone who must decide their future.
Hometown: New Delhi, India
Currently resides in: London, United Kingdom
"[Media depictions of Kashmir] vary from ‘heaven on earth’ to ‘hell on earth’ depending on whether [you] are watching a Bollywood movie or the evening news, respectively"
1. Kashmir is an issue that should have been settled long ago. On a theoretical plane, for me as an Indian, it is perhaps another suggestion that the "India Nation" is fragile at best, having to constantly negotiate with competing nationalisms and democracies. India is at a state of low-intensity civil war, in Kashmir, in the North East, with the Maoists in Central India, and other secessionist tensions in South India. At a very real level, it is an issue that is used to overshadow other, more pressing issues, as and when required.
2. Non-Kashmiri Indians have a complex way of dealing with Kashmir. It’s a "tourist destination", in the sense that almost everybody has heard of it, has sampled it in some form - its cuisine, handicrafts and depictions in the media (that vary from "heaven on earth" to "hell on earth" depending on whether they are watching a Bollywood movie or the evening news, respectively).
3. I personally think autonomy would be best for Kashmir, indeed for India and Pakistan as well. But if you ask an Indian about Kashmir - whether it should secede to Pakistan, be granted autonomy or whether India should go to war over it, most people will insist Kashmir is an integral part of India. Apart from such nationalistic posturing there is very little interest in what’s actually happening in Kashmir.
4. While the Kashmiri people’s aspirations should be central to any solution, they have not been given such a voice. And I think the militancy they have resorted to in the past few decades, underlines their willingness to participate and decide the issue more than anything else – their exclusion will only lead to more conflict and violence.
I haven’t kept up with the politics but the impression I get is that every time the Kashmiris’ plight is highlighted, the case of the Kashmiri Pandits being driven out of the valley is presented as a counter-point. So there’s a lot of posturing but no real solutions are ever sought.
Rabia Mehmood and Diva Dhar contributed reporting for this feature.
You can follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim