Like ‘9/11’, ‘Taliban’, or the ‘West Bank’, the word ‘Kashmir’ seems to be synonymous with ceaseless tension, war, and conflict. Kashmir—as the media presents it now—is a region where conflict stems from territorial claims. But to fail to situate Kashmir within its political and historical identity is to fail to provide any nuanced understanding of the conflict.
Indian history, as it is taught in most schools, does not question its own territorial claims on the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The map of India is unequivocally inclusive of the two northern tips—neither of which are presently administered by India. For most Indians, Kashmir—the whole state, not just the valley—feels as if it is undoubtedly a part of India, which is misleading. Indians feel a sense of ownership for the whole region, which will continue to be detrimental to its political future.
Contrary to the simplistic message the press presents to its readers, complexities abound when one tries to understand the Kashmir valley. It has always been a territory unto itself. The Kashmir valley has formed capitals of great empires, at other times, it has existed as a disparate kingdom. This comes from the ties people have to not their religious, political, or regional identity—but their cultural identity as Kashmiris—their Kashmiriyat. Kashmiri Pandits, the only remaining Hindu community native to the Kashmir valley, were almost entirely driven out by insurgents in the 1990s. But even now, Kashmiri or Kashmiri Pandit, a person’s kashmiriyat transcends traditional dividing lines.
Contemporary writers, politicians, and commentators, have tried to use identity to differentiate the region from the surrounding nation-states. But this identity is neither static nor uniform. Divisions along religious lines, for example, have been attempted. It is, after all, the only state in India that has a majority of Muslims. The conflict in the region is often spun as a “Muslim separatist” movement, and the prevailing notion is that Muslims had a choice to identify with one region or the other, but in choosing to join India after the partition, they forfeited their right to demand for greater autonomy. Contemporary writers, politicians, and commentators confuse and mesh the three concepts together—political, regional, and religious—resulting in an inability to move beyond held beliefs and towards concrete actions that can be taken. The press typically brands the Kashmiri Muslims favouring secession as representative of Indian Muslims, or the Indian government as repressive and unwilling to help the Kashmiris.
After the partition, Kashmiris were promised a regional plebiscite to decide whether they would remain a part of India, become a part of Pakistan, or secede from both nations and exist as an independent state. People are still resignedly waiting for a plebiscite to take place, but the likelihood of this happening now is minimal given that it has been delayed for years. The Pakistani government has backed holding the plebiscite but has refused to withdraw its forces. The Indians have rejected Pakistan’s calls for action, saying that since most Kashmiris participate in Indian elections, there is no longer any need to hold the referendum. This deadlock has left the region and its people trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare where neither side is willing to cede control, all at the cost of Kashmiri lives and livelihoods—not just of those who stayed, but also of those who have fled.
As a result, Kashmiris have had no option beyond turning to the international community. However, they failed to put any significant pressure on either side to follow through with the promised referendum, even though Pakistan demanded discussions on the core issue of Kashmir. The United States, for example, supported a full demilitarization of Kashmir when war broke out between India and Pakistan in the 90s. President Bill Clinton put the blame squarely on Nawaz Sharif—then President of Pakistan, advising him to withdraw the infiltrators. But whether or not the American admonishment was merited, a potential withdrawal from both Pakistan and India would do nothing to resolve the conflict. This is because, at the time, tensions between India and Pakistan were only rising: both countries were testing long-range missiles, accelerating the nuclear arms race between them. Resolution depended on a serious discussion between India and Pakistan addressing the core of the conflict—where should Kashmir go? But neither they, nor anyone in the international community was ready to tackle the undefined, “unrealistic”, and therefore, unrealisable demands for Kashmiri self-determination.
In the years that preceded independence from colonial powers, the machinations of the parties that engineered the expulsion of the British came together to form the basis of governing structures for the territories they had freed. The exclusionary politics of the Indian National Congress was seen by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his associates as reflective of age-old biases, and as conditions worsened, the partition of India and Pakistan resulted. Today, their national politics continue to override the freedoms and will of everyday Kashmiris, caught in the unnecessary crossfire between India and Pakistan. Those who were forced to flee during wartime cannot return to their homes, and those who remain must resign themselves to living out the rest of their lives out in the shadow that the ‘Princely State’ of Kashmir has become.