Laura Scott examines the Kashmiri condition
Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, with fertile land winding between white peaks and clear lakes, it is easy to see how the Kashmir Valley earned its title of ‘paradise on earth’. Yet for decades it has been the setting of political chaos and human atrocity.
The Kashmiri struggle with the Indian government has devastated the area. The situation drastically worsened over the summer; with governmental, political and terrorist militant activity on the rise and civilian casualties estimated in excess of 1000 over three months, the situation in the Indian sub-continent has reached a head. After years of neglect, the Kashmir Dispute has once again caught the attention of the Western media.
I spent six months in Srinagar, the capital city of Indian-administered Kashmir, in 2009. While, fortunately, tensions were not at the level they are now, there were still regular shootings and enforced curfews, and I was granted an insight into the problems facing the beautiful region.
The catalyst for this summer’s fighting was the death of Tufail Mattoo, a 17-year-old boy killed when police fired a tear gas bomb into a crowd of demonstrators. Although this tragic sort of incident is quite commonplace, Mattoo’s death was the watershed for a situation that had been brewing for some time.
The roots of the crisis lie in the 1947 freedom of India and its partitioning to form Pakistan. Both Pakistan and India claimed Kashmir as part of their territory, and Kashmir was dragged into a war that ended with its being split between the two countries, to the satisfaction of neither. In 1989, in Indian-controlled Kashmir, a separatist movement broke out, calling for ‘azad Kashmir!’, free Kashmir, and violent demonstrations erupted. The Indian government’s introduction of the controversial ‘Armed Forces Special Powers Act’ allows troops to shoot with impunity at anyone suspected of being a threat, sealing the fate on a style of guerrilla-warfare that has been waged ever since.
While the Indian government’s methods of maintaining control of a region that wants its independence might seem tyrannical, perhaps the alternative, freeing Kashmir, is not a viable option. The violence in Kashmir has nearly completely eradicated its key industry, tourism, and it will take considerable time for visitors to feel safe again. Kashmir is in a deep depression and in no state to fend for itself as a country. Currently the Indian government, desperate to appease the Kashmiris, pours funds into Kashmir, providing subsidies on land and some of the best education (when it’s safe to open the schools) in all of India. It seems highly unlikely that Kashmir could function at all economically without India’s continued support.
Politically Kashmir is also extremely vulnerable. Previously famed as a region of resilient liberalism and religious toleration, it has become a hotbed of extremism and terrorism. Ironically, Kashmir’s superb schooling system means that many people graduate from university full of ambition, quickly to be disillusioned by the dismal state of their region. This makes them easy prey to extremists, who promise action and tangible results, and is one of the key reasons that Kashmir is a central recruiting ground for the Taliban. Removing the immense Indian military presence of 500,000 soldiers may leave the area open to the whims of such extremist groups, as it did when foreign influence withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.
The prospects for Kashmiri liberty are bleak. The people themselves are not unified: they are highly distrustful of each other, and cannot even agree exactly what it is they want when they cry ‘azad Kashmir’ – unity with Pakistan-administered Kashmir or autonomy for all Kashmir.
The cry for freedom is one they have constantly maintained, despite despair and adversity, and the one thing that brings almost everyone together. Perhaps it will be enough. There doesn’t seem to be much else that can save paradise.