On April 9, the people of Kashmir Valley boycotted the the election for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency. The voter turnout in by-polls was recorded at 7.15 percent — the lowest in three decades. In 38 polling stations in the Srinagar constituency, re-polling was ordered by the Election Commission (EC), which took place on April 12. Those re-polls saw an abysmal voter turnout of 2 percent, with many polling stations witnessing nil voting. The day ended with eight civilian deaths at the hands of Indian security forces. The fallout of the unprecedented low voter turnout and violence in Srinagar forced the deferment of the Anantnag by-poll that was scheduled on 12 April. While the Election Commission pushed this to 25 May, all indications on the ground suggest it would have to be deferred to October or beyond.
Indian-administered Kashmir is the most militarised zone in the world- there are more personnel per capita here than in Iraq or Syria. More than 600,000 soldiers are now stationed in Kashmir. More than 70,000 people have been killed since a separatist conflict erupted in the late 1980s. The Indian scholar Pankaj Mishra wrote in 2010: “Once known for its extraordinary beauty, the valley of Kashmir now hosts the biggest, bloodiest and also the most obscure military occupation in the world. With more than 80,000 people dead in an anti-India insurgency backed by Pakistan, the killings fields of Kashmir dwarf those of Palestine and Tibet.”
Kashmir’s cry for freedom
Kashmir’s cry for freedom existed before the British transferred the control of Kashmir in 1846. Political machinations managed to placate or channel this inevitable revolutionary process of self-determination, but never exert a total control over it. The collective social feelings of Kashmiris is keeping this process in motion, although its intensity varies. The chronic resurfacing and unpredictability of explosive Kashmiri protest is what bewilders New Delhi.
Essentially, what the reputable Indian intelligentsia appreciate – perhaps better than their government – is that Kashmir is about its people, not land. And, the Kashmiri social consciousness is intensely aware of its arrested civilisation, of liberties denied and injustices perpetrated. This is what has and continues to fuel agitation, even before the hanging of the Kashmiri icon Maqbool Butt in 1984. New Delhi’s response to unrest has been grotesque, including mass rapes, forced disappearances and more than 2,700 unidentified bodies in mass graves, documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Torture, rape, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, and extra-judicial killings are widespread. These human rights violations are intricately linked to the denial of political sovereignty for Kashmiris. In Kashmir, there has been a transformation into a Palestinian style of stone-pelting resistance . Terming stone pelting as a tool in the hands of deprived people, Hurriyat Conference led by Syed Ali Geelani in its statement has recently said that stone pelting in Jammu and Kashmir has since long been used as a tool of resistance. People expressed their resentment and resorted to stone pelting as they were resisting tyrannical attitude of Dogra rulers
Among the dead was 22-year-old Omar Farooq, who was hit by two two bullets – one in the chest and another in the ribs – according to eye witnesses. At his funeral, gathered crowds expressed their anger against the government. “People can see how much India oppresses us, abuses our mothers and sisters, abuses our religion Islam and puts our brothers into graves,” Asif Rasool, 25, told Al Jazeera. This is the reason Kashmiris don’t want to stay with India.”
Fayaz Mir, a member of parliament from Jammu and Kashmir’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), acknowledged people’s anger and called for dialogue. “This is not the first time there is such an issue in Kashmir,” Mir told Al Jazeera. “It hasn’t happened only in this government, so there is need to start dialogue to address people’s resentment,” Mir added.
After the higher voter participation in recent years in the Valley, the way the Srinagar by-election unfolded is indicative of a dramatic slide in the political situation. Starting in July last year, the Kashmir Valley witnessed violence for five months after the killing of Burhan Wani, a charismatic Kashmiri commander, by security forces. This set off a new cycle of violence in Kashmir that does not seem to have ended to this day as stone-pelting is met with pellet guns. While eventually the protests subsided, anger persisted among the Kashmiris, who felt increasingly alienated from India and frustrated with the tactics New Delhi used to deal with their political demands. The low voter turnout and the violence of April 9 stem from this anger and frustration. But many trace the roots of political disillusionment to the ruling alliance of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), forged after the 2014 assembly elections.
Former Chief Minister and senior National Conference (NC) politician Dr. Farooq Abdullah won the polls, defeating the candidate from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In his comments after the victory, Abdullah said, “These were the worst elections in history due to bloodshed. No doubt I have won but we have lost precious lives, that is why we are not happy with this win.” He also demanded dismissal of the Jammu and Kashmir government led by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti.
What towards Future?
Since then, Kashmir has become a ping-pong ball in the rivalry between India and Pakistan. The latter ceded part of the territory to China in 1962 to secure an alliance against India. Three localised conflicts and a full-fledged war later, however, a trilateral initiative between 2004 and 2007 involving India, Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists demonstrated that the issue is eminently resolvable. Pakistan’s military ruler General Pervez Musharraf acknowledged that no lasting progress could be made if Kashmir was addressed solely as a bilateral territorial dispute.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government is doubling-down by construing a narrative portraying resistance to India as “foreign” and refusing to accept UN intervention. Of course, this is understandable. After all, Winston Churchill said “India is a geographical term … no more a united nation than the equator”. And, the fear-mongering of Hindutva extremists revolve around this nightmare disintegration possibility, especially if alternative identities perpetuate.
The dangers posed by ignoring the Kashmiri dispute go without saying. The conflict has led to three wars between India and Pakistan and nearly led to a catastrophic fourth, nuclear, war. In order to save the region from descending into the chaos, brave decisions must be made. This can only come through embracing a radical new thinking in regards to identity. Now, more than ever, round-table talks including Pakistan, India and the legitimate representatives of the Kashmiri people under the auspices of the UN should commence.
The rejection of mainstream politics as well as the anger and violence spilling out on Kashmir’s streets make it clear that India will need some “out of the box” thinking to address Kashmir’s political aspirations. The locals are no longer enamored by promises of basic amenities such as roads, electricity, and water from India and the mainstream politicians, but perceive these as a way to divert from addressing the real issue of Kashmiris’ right to self-determination.
New Delhi has sent military reinforcements to Kashmir to confront this so-called meagre threat three times already. The truth is that the valley is out of control, and the Indian government remains out of touch – both with the Kashmiris and the reality on the ground. India, a country with tremendous people and power, harms itself by refusing to acknowledge what everyone else already knows: The need for Kashmiri self-determination.
Writer: Journalist and Geopolitical Analyst