Kashmir’s cry for freedom

IT has been one year since Kashmiris in the Indian-occupied territory were deprived of their last bit of civil rights and identity. They may have been humiliated but are certainly not defeated. They are fighting back, though the price for freedom is high. Thousands are incarcerated as the death toll keeps rising. Yet they are fighting because they can’t breathe.

After stripping the Kashmiris of their limited autonomy, the Narendra Modi government is now trying to alter the demography of the occupied territory and undermine Kashmiri identity — yet another feature of colonisation. The process set in motion on Aug 5 last year is in full swing now. India has begun issuing controversial ‘domicile certificates’ to thousands of non-Kashmiris in an attempt to effect demographic change in the Muslim-majority region. The controversial domicile laws can make certain categories of Indian citizens eligible for jobs and residency in the occupied region.

India’s unilateral annexation of the disputed territory didn’t come as a surprise. The so-called autonomy had long been eroded and ‘special status’ was only a fig leaf. The Aug 5 action did away with that façade too. Article 370 of the Indian constitution was in fact an instrument of annexation and its abrogation has only made the Indian occupation starker.

Modi’s move has even alienated pro-India Kashmiri leaders. Now they too find themselves standing on the other side of the divide. There is no ambiguity left over the Indian occupation now. The draconian lockdown may have constricted the demonstration of anger and anguish of the population, yet the situation is far from being under control despite the presence of more than half a million Indian troops in the occupied land.

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The unending inhuman blockade and repression have had a serious effect on the population.

More than 150 people, most of them in their teens, have been killed in the last one year by Indian forces. Thousands of others have been detained under draconian laws. A report recently released by the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir comprising Indian rights activists revealed that the situation in the occupied territory has worsened.

The unending inhuman blockade and repression have had a serious effect on the population. A recent report published in the New York Times quoting local doctors revealed that a state of hopelessness has morphed into a severe psychological crisis. Mental health workers say, “Kashmir is witnessing an alarming increase in instances of depression, anxiety and psychotic events.” However, apart from some muted protests, the international community has largely remained silent over the plight of Kashmiris.

It has now been more than 70 years that Kashmiris have been fighting for their right to national self-determination. The seven-decade struggle has gone through many phases — from a peaceful political struggle to an armed struggle. Indian forces have killed more than 100,000 people since the 1989 uprising.

Indian brutalities forced the youth to take up arms. Peaceful protests were fired upon. Almost every house in the valley has someone in the family who has been picked up by security forces; many have never returned.

I heard many such stories when I visited Srinagar and parts of the valley in 2005 when back-channel diplomacy between Pakistan and India had raised hopes of some kind of a solution to the Kashmir problem. Despite easing of tensions then, the concentration of Indian troops was massive. That window of opportunity, however, was closed because of political changes in both countries.

Still, the line of communication between the two countries over Kashmir remained open despite tensions until the rise of Narendra Modi to power in 2014. But the situation has changed radically after India’s unilateral annexation of the disputed state. The Aug 5 action has also divided the territory with the separation of Ladakh from the valley.

The change in status quo has virtually closed the doors for negotiations, thus creating a very dangerous situation not only for Kashmiris but also for regional security.

Perhaps, Modi thought that the unilateral annexation of the disputed territory would resolve India’s Kashmir problem. But it didn’t happen. In fact, Modi’s reckless move has brought the Kashmir question back into international focus. Modi also cannot get away from the domestic political fallout of his recklessness. In fact, the Aug 5 action is a manifestation of Modi’s muscular nationalism and majoritarianism that have polarised Indian society.

The unilateral annexation of the disputed territory has not only heightened the tension between India and Pakistan, it is partly also a factor in the latest escalation between China and India in Ladakh that has been separated from the valley. The region has long been a centre of conflict between Beijing and New Delhi, but India’s Aug 5 move and its aggressive stance has further heightened the tension in the area, which is the confluence of three nuclear-armed nations.

Pakistan is observing Aug 5 as a black day. But the government seems to have no clear policy and direction to deal with the challenge emanating from India’s bellicosity. The government was caught unprepared by the Indian action last year despite clear signals that Modi was determined to implement its election manifesto and abolish Article 370. The development has added to Pakistan’s predicament.

Instead of creating a national narrative in order to raise the Kashmir issue more effectively in international forums, Imran Khan’s government has continued with a divisive stance. The prime minister has not even bothered to take on board the opposition on this national issue. There has not been any serious and coherent effort to mobilise international opinion on the Indian action. Just changing the name of Kashmir Highway to Srinagar Highway will not draw international attention to the plight of Kashmiris.

More troubling is our messaging on the Kashmiri struggle. Kashmiris are fighting for their right of self-determination and we must stop giving any impression of its being merely a territorial dispute. Slogans like ‘Kashmir banega Pakistan’ harms Kashmir’s cause for right to self-determination. We need to take a more serious approach to highlight Kashmir’s struggle in international forums rather than indulge in political point-scoring.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2020