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  • Chaiti Maheshwari

Nation, religion, and Kashmiri voices

A region once renowned for its natural beauty, hailed as a “Paradise on Earth”, is now permanently on global news with the accompanying words: “militancy”, “violence” and “occupation”. Its abundant valleys, crystal-blue lakes and snow-capped mountains have been stained with the blood of their own people.


The ‘Kashmir’ we know today was one of India’s 565 princely states nominally part of the British Indian empire through indirect colonial rule – where policies were indirectly influenced by the British through the rule of a native Indian sovereign loyal to the crown. In 1947, when British India was partitioned into modern-day India and Pakistan, the princely states had to choose whether to accede to the secular, Hindu-majority India or the new Islamic state, Pakistan. Typically, states acceded to either country based on its religious majority, but Kashmir was an anomaly; one of three princely states whose ruler was of a different religion to his people. Maharaja Hari Singh, Kashmir’s Hindu King ruled over a population which was 77% Muslim. Despite mounting pressure from both India and Pakistan to accede to their side, Singh wanted independence instead of integration with either nation.


However, Kashmir’s fate would change shortly after. In September 1947, when pro-Pakistani rebels and Pashtun tribesmen invaded Kashmir, Singh asked India for military assistance– they agreed, on the condition that Kashmir accede to India. Thus, in October 1947, Singh signed the Instrument of Accession, which officially aligned Kashmir with the Dominion of India. Importantly, Kashmir was given special status under the Indian constitution through Article 370 - guaranteeing the state a degree of territorial sovereignty and autonomy over their own matters, except for communication and defence. While this was a seemingly fair compromise, the Instrument of Accession provoked the first Indo-Pakistan war in 1947, and despite the establishment of the Line of Control (LoC), a de facto border dividing Kashmir between the two countries – with ⅓ of the region on Pakistan’s side of the LoC, and the remaining ⅔ in India, three more major wars were fought during the 20th century.


Today, Kashmir is one of the most heavily disputed and militarised regions in the world. Over the past 70 years, it has been a battleground for two nuclear powers who each claim the state in its entirety. The conflict over who Kashmir rightfully belongs to is perpetual – one that began in our grandparent’s days and will likely not cease in our own lifetimes.


The competing and contradicting nationalisms from both countries wreak havoc on the state – from India, the ideology of Hindutva from the BJP which desires a greater Hindu state; from Pakistan, the two-state theory and the concept of ‘Ummah’ from the Muslim elite. Shikha Raina, a Kashmiri, remarks: “the leaders have been more concerned about the well-being of self over the state.” As each side fiercely denounces the other, both Hindu and Muslim Kashmiris are caught in the crossfire.


INDIA AND KASHMIR

Since 1948, India has denied Kashmir the plebiscite they were promised and ruled through a sham democracy. Despite this, the state’s special status remained and the Kashmiri people had a degree of autonomy. But this changed on August 5th, 2019, when India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government abrogated article 370. As proclaimed by prominent BJP politicians like home minister Amit Shah, the government’s decision was justified on the basis that Kashmir’s semi-autonomy was the cause of its terrorism, instability and corruption and that integration would foster social and economic development.


Nonetheless, this narrative has been fiercely challenged. According to former Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, the BJP’s decision was none other than an effort to “collectively humiliate Kashmiris” in pursuit of Hindutva, a political philosophy of Hindu nationalism which redefines Hinduism as an identity and not merely a religion. To subscribers of the ideology, India was the holy land of Hindus; Muslims– India’s largest minority group – are the invaders and ‘despoilers’ of great ancient Hindu civilisation. While Hindutva did not generate the Kashmir crisis, many have alleged that it has capitalised off of it. Kashmir – as the only Muslim-majority state – is of particular importance to their narrative, portrayed as “the land of Hindu gods and goddesses, that must therefore now be rescued from Islamic occupiers” and “the next battleground against Muslims” According to journalist Arfa Kanum Sherwani, while anti-Muslim sentiments are not a new phenomenon in India, the BJP’s emergence to power in 2014 ushered in a new era of majoritarian politics, converting communal violence from non-state actors to full-fledged state-sanctioned persecution against Muslims. In this, Kashmir has been a key part of their agenda.


Shortly after revoking article 370, the BJP has redrawn the region’s electoral map, creating 6 new assembly seats in Hindu-dominated Jammu compared to just 1 new seat in Kashmir. This has been criticised as an attempt to dilute the region’s political power, thus, turning Kashmiris into a political minority.


Ajit Doval, Indian national security adviser stationed in Kashmir – claimed everything was “normal” in Kashmir, and that the local population “largely welcomed” the decision to revoke article 370. While violence has subsided in the region since the revocation, this does not indicate a happy ending for the Kashmiri people. After spending a week in Kashmir, Sherwani remarked “The people were too scared to speak.” Since August 2019, censorship has been fully institutionalised and legalised, where journalists and ordinary Kashmiri citizens are routinely monitored, threatened and jailed.


PAKISTAN AND KASHMIR

An ‘Indian’ Kashmir, for Pakistan, challenges the very basis for their creation as a separate state – the two-nation theory that claimed Hindus and Muslims were not only two different religious communities but also two separate countries. Islam has been used by the Pakistani elite to fuel nationalism and strengthen the concept of ‘Ummah’ – the concept connecting Muslims through their shared faith. The sentiment for an Islamic nation in which Kashmir was fully integrated was furthered by the loss of East Pakistan in 1971.


During the Cold War, the rise of the CIA-sponsored Mujahideen spilled over into Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest city. Pakistan, having established terrorist training camps to train Islamist militants to help the US, saw an opportunity to claim the state. In 1989, they began arming and training Muslim separatists in Kashmir, shifting the liberation movement from one based on nationalism to religion. Similarly to the Indian government, Pakistan has justified the Jihad on the basis of liberating Kashmir from “poverty, hunger, illiteracy and backwardness”. The insurgency, backed by the leadership of Military officer Pervez Musharraf, led to attacks, killings and the forced exodus of Hindus, including 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits. Nirmal Pushkarna, a Hindu who was born in Srinagar in 1936, recalls that her brother was among the many in the 1989 exodus, forced to close down his business, sell “his big beautiful house for peanuts” and leave his homeland forever.


Despite Pakistan’s claims of supporting Kashmiri autonomy, the insurgence they have backed also targets Muslims who seek independence. Today, Pakistan’s support for the Kashmiri Jihad and backing of terrorist groups has been criticised by secularist Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir, and separatist groups have expressed their desire for the return of the Kashmiri pandits to their homeland.


While the general focus on Kashmir concerns geopolitics and foreign policy, there is a lack of attention given to the lived experiences of the individuals directly affected.


Shikha Raina explains that “The democratic process (in Kashmir) has not been very clean.” Since partition, Kashmiris have been denied the choice of their political status – promises of a direct vote allowing them to decide their future were never held. In 2022, a poll found that roughly 66% of residents in India-administered Kashmir wanted independence from both countries. While independence certainly resonates among many – questions of whether a third ‘partition’ in the subcontinent, after the first two in 1947 and 1971 respectively, is feasible.


Furthermore, Kashmiri voices are diverse and cannot be contained in a narrative of independence – some desire accession to India, others to Pakistan. But above all, most want peace in the valley. Nirmal Pushkarna laments that her home is “no longer beautiful and safe”. What was once a melting pot of religions has been destroyed by the messy legacies of partition and the nationalist agendas of two countries. Kashmir is just one of the many places in the world where the creation of nations and borders has come at the expense of the human beings who live there.


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