The recent tension in Kashmir threatens to bring about another wave of protests in the valley, especially in Southern Kashmir which has witnessed open solidarity with anti-India rebels post the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016. Indian security forces had launched massive operations in Kashmir’s Anantnag and Shopian districts where hiding militants opened fire at the troops triggering a gunfight. This resulted in Security forces gunning down 13 militants. 4 civilians were also killed in the heavy exchange of fire. Thereafter, violent clashes erupted in parts of Kashmir against the killings.
Kashmir has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan since partition. Under the Indian Independence Act, Kashmir, a princely state, was free to accede to India or Pakistan or to remain independent. The Maharaja (local ruler), Hari Singh, chose India after initial reluctance that resulted in a two-year war between India and Pakistan in 1947. Another war followed in 1965, while in 1999 India fought a brief but bitter conflict to evict Pakistani forces after they infiltrated into the Indian side and occupied strategic positions.
A 60% Muslim population makes Kashmir the only Indian state with a Muslim majority and many secessionists in the valley do not want it to be governed by India. Azadi in Kashmir has meant different things to different people. To some it means an independent state, to others it means only demilitarization, to yet others it means union with Pakistan.
The situation was largely peaceful until the 1987 assembly elections were allegedly rigged in favor of Farooq Abdullah. This sparked a lot of protests and triggered the formation of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) which believed in a sovereign Kashmir. Pro-independence guerrillas struck the valley (with the aid of the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – which had been providing lethal weapons and training to the Kashmir insurgency) establishing a reign of terror and driving out Kashmiri Pandits from the valley before the Indian Armed Forces moved in to flush them out. This started an era of militancy in the valley which saw mass killings, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and sexual abuse to political repression and suppression of freedom of speech by both the army and the militants. The Armed Special Forces Act giving protection to the army personnel was imposed in the state in 1990 which continues till date.
Over the years, the valley witnessed a steep decline in militancy, however, Burhan Wani’s death in 2016 brought back the horrors of 90’s with many local youth joining militancy in large numbers. High unemployment and complaints of heavy-handed tactics by security forces battling street protesters and fighting insurgents have aggravated the problem.
While the Government puts the blame on Pakistan for violence in Kashmir which to a lot of extent is true, there can be no denying to the fact that there have been grave human rights violations by the Indian Government and the Armed Forces as cited by reports of numerous government appointed commissions. In response to an RTI application in 2017, the Union Home Ministry has divulged that since the start of militancy in 1990 in the state, 13491 civilians and 5055 security force personnel have been killed in various incidents apart from 21,965 militants.
Almost 30 years after the insurgency, the valley has seen sharp bursts of civil unrest and continued recruitment to militancy. A loss of faith in political processes have stemmed from failure of democratic politics in the state. The civil protests are directed against the government and its excesses. There is a lack of trust between Kashmiri civilians and the Indian government. But, for peace to return to Kashmir, Political dialogue with all the stakeholders must be initiated to bring peace in the lost paradise where guns and bullets, strikes or shutdowns have failed so far. While the Kashmiris must stop resorting to stone pelting at security forces on the streets, the Government must reciprocate by launching prompt investigation into allegations of abuse by armed personnel if any, followed by prosecuting those responsible. Though the protests in the valley can be violent at times, the response of the security forces should also be proportionate with lethal force being the last resort, only when lives are threatened.
In dealing with Kashmir, the government and its forces should not forget that if Kashmir is an integral part of India, so are the Kashmiris.