Briefing: The situation in Jammu and Kashmir and policy recommendations for the Biden administration
Control over the region of Jammu and Kashmir has been disputed between India, Pakistan and Kashmiris themselves since the partition of the Indian subcontinent. Under Indian military occupation for over 70 years, the region has been a tinder box for decades, with rampant human rights abuses, crushed demands for a United Nations Security Council-mandated referendum, deadly reprisals for civilian uprisings, and systemic economic suppression.
Today, the situation is existential: With 100,000 civilian deaths, 10,000 missing and civic, political and economic life critically suppressed, the people of Kashmir are on the brink of genocide.
Peaceful resolution of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir is in the long-term best interest not only of Kashmiri civilians but also of Pakistan, India and the entire region, as diffused tensions will renew economic cooperation.
Since the earliest days of the conflict, the U.S. has defended human rights in the region and advocated for a solution that is agreeable to India, Pakistan and Kashmir. With conditions worsening under India’s Hindu nationalist government, it is urgent that the Biden administration prioritize a peaceful resolution for the region. This is an opportunity to help bring stability and prosperity to the entire region, and nurture the core American values of freedom, democracy and opportunity for all.
After the end of British rule on the Indian subcontinent and the partition of the region into India and Pakistan, the region of Kashmir, which is predominantly Muslim, was free to accede to either nation. The local minority prince, a Hindu, chose to accede to India on the condition that Kashmir retains its own constitution, a separate flag and freedom to make laws—rights that were formalized in India’s constitution under Article 370. This decision was also subject to ratification by a popular referendum.
War over control of the region broke out between Pakistan and India, requiring intervention from the United Nations. The U.N. Security Council affirmed the people of Jammu and Kashmir’s right to self-determination by democratically deciding the future of their territory. Although both India and Pakistan formally agreed that the accession to India would be ratified by a free and unfettered referendum, the vote has never materialized. The Kashmiri people have been denied their right to self-determination ever since.
Today, both India and Pakistan claim the right of control over the whole region. While some Kashmiris have a preference for full accession to either country, the majority of Kashmiri citizens seek the right to self-determination as an independent state. India has suppressed peaceful movements for self-determination, and the brutal conditions of its military occupation have led to several popular uprisings. Each of these movements has been crushed.
In recent years, as disputes over control of the region continued and human rights conditions worsened, India has further eroded Kashmir’s autonomy and instituted increasingly brutal military occupations. Peaceful political resistance has been waged against Indian rule in Kashmir for decades, claiming tens of thousands of lives. A July 2019 report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted the excessive force employed in response to protests, including the use of pellet guns to administer crowd control. The report also cited a lack of justice for past abuses, including killings, forced displacement, enforced or involuntary disappearances and alleged sexual violence, torture and deaths of prisoners in custody.
Tensions came to a head on August 5th, 2019, when Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government revoked Article 370 and abolished Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy, thus placing the region under unprecedented lockdown. Overnight, millions of people were blockaded in their homes and had their internet connections and phone lines disconnected.
Many Kashmiris fear that this was a step towards India ultimately annexing Kashmir. In the past year, India has gradually enacted laws to change the Muslim majority status of the state. Whereas for decades no outside individuals were able to buy land or property in Indian occupied administered Kashmir, a new domicile rule passed in May 2020 grants a right to residency and government jobs to anyone from India who has lived in the state for 15 years or more, studied there for seven years, or served in state government for 10 years or more. This change resulted in nearly 400,000 people being granted a domicile certificate in just over one month, with 3.4 million certificates being issued to date.
Conditions have further deteriorated due to the communication lockdown, made all the worse with the global coronavirus pandemic. According to a report published by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), in the first six months of 2020, Indian military action resulted in 229 killings, including three children and two women. Genocide Watch identified India’s actions as a precursor to a likely genocide of the Kashmiri people.
In the year since the lockdown, restrictions have slowly been lifted, with some communications systems restored in an extremely limited capacity – landline phones and internet access in select areas at speeds of 2G. Schools, government offices, hospitals, banks and businesses are struggling to function, paralyzing the state and the people’s very social existence. Simultaneously, the Indian government has been carrying out raids on NGOs and civil society members. Just this past fall, it forced Amnesty International to shutter its Indian operations after raids, threatening media leaks, and a financial blockade.
The United States Pull Out from Afghanistan: Tensions in the region remain as long as India and Pakistan are still at odds over Kashmir
The U.S. military departed Afghanistan on August 30th, 2021, ending a 20-year occupation and leaving Afghanis in the Taliban’s hands. There was hope that a normalization of relations between India and Pakistan could be part of the regional rearrangement after the United States pulled out; however, tensions in the region remain. The spillover effects of the pullout have been seen throughout the Middle East, and the contention over Kashmir has become increasingly heightened.
After the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, Indian leaders became anxious, fearing the takeover benefitted their rival Pakistan and exacerbated the insurgency in Kashmir, where militants already had a foothold. In Pakistan, the Taliban’s victory provided an opportunity for militant groups based across the border to try and push men into Kashmir — intelligence agencies detecting terrorist groups that quickly infiltrated the Kashmir Valley.
Afghanistan was always a point of contention for the two countries; India was concerned about Pakistan turning Afghanistan into a strategic reservoir of anti-India militancy, and Pakistan was equally likely to oppose and undermine any Indian engagement with the Afghan Taliban. The possibility of a proxy war between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan is very much possible if neither is able to stabilize the Afghan border and tensions remain as the two countries remain at odds over Kashmir.
Secret talks between India and Pakistan don’t result in any material change for Kashmir.
In January 2021, top intelligence officers from India and Pakistan held secret talks in a new effort to calm military tension over Kashmir, resulting in no material change for the contested region. The relationship between the two countries remains strained after a suicide bombing of an Indian military convoy in Kashmir in 2019 was traced back to Pakistan-based militants that led to India sending warplanes to Pakistan. This led Indian Prime Minister Modi to withdraw Kashmir’s autonomy in order to tighten its grip over the territory, further provoking Pakistan. However, the two governments recently have re-opened communication channels aimed at normalizing ties, though neither side is willing to comment on their attempt at a re-engagement with one another.
India and Pakistan both have reasons to seek a rapprochement — India being preoccupied with a border stand-off with China since last year and does not want to expel further military forces into the Kashmir border, while Pakistan cannot afford heightened tensions for a prolonged period due to economic difficulties. Following their January meeting, the two countries announced they would stop cross-border shooting along the Line of Control (LOC) dividing Kashmir and would hold elections on their sides of Kashmir this year. However, there’s no overarching plan to resolve the 74-year-old Kashmir dispute, which continues to be detrimental to all involved.
In June 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with senior politicians from Kashmir at his residence, who hoped for the restoration of democracy for the people who he stripped it from two years ago. Modi assured the politicians of his commitment to full statehood for held Jammu and Kashmir, but at the “right time,” further indicating these talks are a formality, with the people of Kashmir still under Indian control months later.
Deaths of Mohamed Ashraf Sehrai and Syed al Geelanilani
On May 7, 2021, Kashmiri activist and political leader Mohammed Ashraf Sehrai died. He was one of Kashmir’s proclaimed courageous and fearless leaders, who always fought for the Kashmiri people’s aspirations for peace and self-determination. His death to those in Kashmir was no accident–a direct result of the Indian occupying focus’ political persecution and criminal negligence. He was arrested in June 2020 under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, a notorious tool of repression that allows Indian authorities to detain anyone for up to two years without trial. Sehrai was consistently denied medical care from India despite his advanced age, serious health conditions, and destructive second wave of COVID-19.
Kashmir lost another key figure on September 7, 2021, when separatist politician Syed Ali Shah Geelani passed away in Srinagar, prompting authorities to deploy troops around the city and shut down the internet as a precautionary measure. Geelani was the most senior self-determination leader in Kashmir, and tensions were renewed following his death. A year prior to his death, Geelani had quit his Hurriyat Conference faction, stating it had failed to counter New Delhi’s efforts to tighten its grip on Jammu and Kashmir. Sehrai was a close aide to Geelani, and both deaths reignited the self-determination movement, further unifying the people of Kashmir under this cause.
Indian Pegasus Spyware Scandal
In August 2021, The Wire – in collaboration with 16 other media organizations – had revealed the names of individuals who were either persons of interest or forensically identified as targets by clients of the NSO Group’s Pegasus Project between 2017 and mid-2019.
According to The Wire, Forbidden Stories, a France-based media non-profit organization, accessed a leaked database of 50,000 numbers who may have been targeted for surveillance by clients of NSO Group. Since the Israeli company says that the advanced spyware is only sold to “vetted governments,” it is safe to assume that these individuals were targets or potential targets of government or military agencies.
Several prominent figures, including Kashmiri self-determination leader Bilal Lone, the late S.A.R. Geelani, two members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and family members of the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti, were among those targeted as well as several other Kashmiri human rights activists, politicians, at least five journalists, and business persons.
Censorship, Harassment and Violence Against Kashmiri Journalists
Kashmiri journalists have been targeted, harassed and censored by Indian forces. After Article 370 was read down in 2019, the Narendra Modi government cracked down on free media in Kashmir.
On July 24, 2021, the district magistrate of Kupwara, Imam Din, ordered journalists to complete a “registration” process in order to continue reporting. Journalists who were not “unauthorized” or “unregistered” were forced to refrain from reporting until registration was complete or they received authorization from the regulatory authority.
On August 27, Jammu and Kashmiri police were reported to have chased down a group of journalists and attacked them with batons as they were reporting on the Muharram procession in Srinagar. An already tense situation escalated even further less than a month later, on September 9, when Jammu and Kashmir police raided the homes of four Kashmiri journalists and later detained them at the Srinagar police station.
Over the past two years, more than 40 Kashmiri journalists have either been called for a background check, summoned or raided. The journalists are forced to present themselves to authorities to explain their stories, social media conduct and other societal behavior. According to news sources, the police department has created sections to monitor and profile Kashmiri-based journalists.
International media have criticized the actions taken by authorities as it curtails Kashmiri’s freedoms of press and expression. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned the actions taken by Indian forces to silence Kashmiri journalists in a statement that read, “The issuing of this unnecessary ‘order’ barring journalists from reporting independently both in the field and online is yet another grave threat to free and independent media. The IFJ strongly condemns this misuse of power, urging the J&K administration to allow journalists to report freely and abolish this new legislation.”
Kashmir hit hard by COVID-19 pandemic
In April and May 2020, the area of Kashmir became overwhelmed with cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The pandemic came just shortly after the Indian government had implemented a debilitating lockdown only a few months prior. Kashmir faced record-breaking infection cases, and deaths as the region’s healthcare system faltered under the immense pressure of the surging virus with inadequate staff and equipment in its medical facilities.
According to reports, at the time of the COVID-19 surge, hospitals in Kashmir had an intensive care capacity of 450 units for a population of 12.5 million – or one ICU bed for every 27,000 residents. In the region, one doctor is employed for every 3,866 people, way below the average for India of 1 to 2,000. A stark contrast to the military infrastructure–one Indian soldier for every 14 Kashmiris.
Despite the lack of medical personnel, hospital beds, ventilators and oxygen availability, India continued to protest that the pandemic was under control. Despite the second surge of COVID-19 in early April, Indian authorities encouraged crowded cultural festivals and unregulated tourism into vulnerable Kashmir and Jammu. Without proper testing or quarantine restrictions in place, Kashmir soon became overwhelmed with cases, and by early May, there was a 700% increase in active COVID cases in the region.
Soon after, a militarized lockdown was imposed on the region, with roads and intersections impeded by barbed wire, armored vehicles and military personnel. Local doctors, paramedics and journalists reported that they were assaulted on these roadblocks.
As COVID surged, doctors and other healthcare professionals were under strict orders not to speak to the media about the medical emergency in Kashmir, according to Al Jazeera. Kashmir’s Department of Health said the action was taken to stop the spread of misinformation about the virus. However, the restriction of press on the pandemic hindered the medical community’s understanding of the progression of COVID in the area. Doctors reported that speaking to the media about the pandemic in Kashmir would result in their termination from their medical professions. While this was not the first media blackout the area had imposed on them by Indian oppressors, it was detrimental to the safety and wellbeing of Kashmiris during a critical international health crisis.
Overview of U.S. Policy for Kashmir
From the beginning of the conflict and to this day, the U.S. has been a steadfast advocate for the peaceful resolution of the Kashmir conflict. Looking to balance economic interests with India, cooperative relations with Pakistan, and the defense of human rights for Kashmiris, it has been and remains U.S. policy that this resolution must be acceptable to all parties: India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir. The Congressional Research Service writes: “The longstanding U.S. position on Kashmir is that the territory’s status should be settled through negotiations between India and Pakistan while taking into consideration the wishes of the Kashmiri people.”
When the conflict erupted in 1947-1948, the U.S. was the principal sponsor of the United Nations Security Council resolution # 47, adopted April 21, 1948, which affirmed Kashmir’s right to self-determination through a free and fair plebiscite. This resolution was subsequently endorsed by the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP), of which the U.S. was a leading member. The U.S. has remained active in U.N. mediation efforts, sponsoring twelve substantive resolutions to the Security Council between 1948 and 1962.
The U.S. approached the issue with renewed urgency after India and Pakistan successfully acquired nuclear weapons in the late 1990s. A source of ongoing tension between the two countries, the crisis in Kashmir now poses the risk of triggering a nuclear conflict.
The resolution of the conflict has become even more important to global security and U.S. interests since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. There is widespread bipartisan agreement among American and international leaders that a resolution of the Kashmir conflict is essential to stabilizing the region.
Following recent escalations of the occupation by India, including the revocation of Article 370 in 2019, which neutralized Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy, U.S. House Resolution 745 was introduced, urging the Indian government to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in the region and preserve freedom of religion. The bill has 40 co-sponsors.
A peaceful and democratic resolution to the conflict has enjoyed bipartisan support from the very beginning. See Appendix for a selection of relevant quotes from American leaders and policymakers.
Globally the U.S. stands for freedom, justice, equality and opportunity. President Biden and Vice President Harris both have strong records of advocacy for these American values, and an ongoing commitment to this advocacy will be necessary for achieving a peaceful resolution in Jammu and Kashmir.
Building on American leadership over the past 73 years, the Biden administration will make great progress toward achieving a resolution to the crisis by implementing the following actions:
- Appoint a special envoy for India and Pakistan. This has been met with resistance from India in the past; however, it is a vital step toward effectively addressing the conflict.
- Promote substantive dialogue between India, Pakistan and the genuine leadership of the people of Jammu and Kashmir
- Engage the United Nations Human Rights Council to implement a zero-tolerance policy for human rights abuses in the region.
- Demand that India cease processes that facilitate the political reorganization of the region, such as demographic engineering and displacement (a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention), land transfers, and exploitation of natural resources.
- Advocate for State Department intervention and Senate hearings on human rights abuses in the region.
A peaceful and democratic resolution to the conflict has enjoyed bipartisan support from the beginning. This is apparent in a number of examples throughout the decades:
1946: President Harry Truman affirms that any contentious issues between India and Pakistan relating to the implementation of the agreement on Kashmir must be submitted to arbitration.
1957: Secretary of State John Foster Dulles states, “We continue to believe that unless the parties are able to agree upon some other solution, the solution which was recommended by the Security Council should prevail, which is that there should be a plebiscite.”
1962: U.S. representative to the U.N. Adlai Stevenson states, “The best approach is to take for a point of departure the area of common ground which exists between the parties. I refer, of course, to the resolutions which were accepted by both parties and which in essence provide for demilitarization of the territory and a plebiscite whereby the population may freely decide the future status of Jammu and Kashmir. This is in full conformity with the principle of the self‑determination of people which is enshrined in Article I of the Charter as one of the key purposes for which the United Nations exists.”
1962: President John F. Kennedy makes a personal appeal to the President of Ireland to sponsor a resolution on Kashmir in the U.N. Security Council reaffirming the resolutions of the Commission.
1996: Secretary of Defense William J. Perry states, “In South Asia, the United States has restarted a bilateral security relationship with Pakistan and begun a new security dialogue with India. These ongoing dialogues can help all three countries focus on areas of common interest, such as international peacekeeping, and could, in time, provide the confidence necessary to address more difficult problems, such as nuclear proliferation and the long-simmering conflict over Kashmir.”
2000: Amid nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan, President Bill Clinton pronounces Kashmir as “the most dangerous place in the world.”
2000: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright states that the U.S. will continue its efforts “to ease tensions in South Asia […] Our policy is to encourage dialogue aimed at narrowing differences and preventing violence, and we intend to remain actively engaged with both countries toward this end.”
2002: Secretary of State Colin Powell proclaims, “Kashmir is on the international agenda. The US would provide a helping hand to all sides in order to resolve the Kashmir issue.”
2006: President George W. Bush clarifies that a resolution to the conflict must be acceptable not only to India and Pakistan but also to the citizens of Kashmir
2008: President Barack Obama affirms:
- “I will continue support of ongoing Indian Pakistani efforts to resolve the Kashmir problem in order to address the political roots of the arms race between India and Pakistan.”
- “Working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve, and Kashmir, crisis in a serious way. Those are all critical tasks for the next administration. Kashmir in particular is an interesting situation where that is obviously a potential tar pit diplomatically. But, for us to devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially make the argument to the Indians, you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this? To make the argument to the Pakistanis, look at India and what they are doing, why do you want to keep n being bogged down with this particularly at a time where the biggest threat now is coming from the Afghan border? I think there is a moment where potentially we could get their attention. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.”
- “We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.”
2010: President Barack Obama states, “I have indicated to Prime Minister (of India) that we are happy to play any role the parties think is appropriate in reducing tensions. It is in the interest of the two countries, region and the US.”
2011: Admiral Mike Mullen affirms, “I’ve said a couple of years ago, and I believe today – I think solving Kashmir unlocks the whole place, that that’s the path for long-term solutions. Very difficult issue; that isn’t going to go away, it isn’t going to get better over time. And I have had those discussions, actually on – with both Pakistani leadership as well as Indian leadership.”
2011: Kati Marton, the widow of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, relays her late husband’s thoughts to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, “A stable Afghanistan is not essential; a stable Pakistan is essential,” he (Holbrooke) noted, in the musings he left behind. He (Holbrooke) believed that a crucial step to reducing radicalism in Pakistan was to ease the Kashmir dispute with India, and he favored more pressure on India to achieve that.
2014: General Lloyd J Austin, Commander of the US Central Command, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee, “Long-standing tensions between Pakistan and India also threaten regional stability as both states have substantial military forces arrayed along their borders and the disputed Kashmir Line of Control (LoC).”
2014: The Washington-based ‘Atlantic Council’ reports, “The nub of the India-Pakistan conflict is the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. Its acrimony is felt in all international forums where the two nations meet. Kashmir remains a potential global flashpoint that could escalate into a nuclear war very quickly.”
2016: President-elect Donald Trump states his willingness to play a mediating role in addressing the “very, very hot tinderbox” of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. “If it was necessary, I would do that. If we could get India and Pakistan getting along, I would be honored to do that. That would be a tremendous achievement…I think if they wanted me to, I would love to be the mediator or arbitrator.”
2019: Senator Kamala Harris states, “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world.”