By Ather Zia
“Over night, my reality became rooted in the turbulence and uncertainty of Kashmir’s history.”
Ather Zia pierces the shroud obscuring one of the world’s most enduring conflicts—a brutal 60-year dispute between India and Pakistan over her homeland of Kashmir. Some, including US President Obama, say that resolving this conflict may be the key to peace for a region plagued by violence.
I grew up in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, in a small town adjacent to Dal Lake. If mythology were to be my source, I would tell you that life itself emanated from this lake and that monsters and demons hid deep in its waters. But that is a story for another time. Mine is a story of the vengeful spirits still haunting Kashmir today. In this era, they come in the form of competing nations fighting for control of the valley.
My own childhood in the Indian-administered Kashmir could be called idyllic. I attended a prestigious school in a town frequented by foreigners (even George Harrison of the Beatles spent time living in the famous houseboats along the water), and there was a quiet urbanity about my early life. My family took long strolls along the scenic boulevards; we ate ice cream cones (nicknamed ‘softies’) in the evenings. In the enchantment of growing up, I was unaware of the political realities of my homeland.
But in the confines of closed social gatherings there were banging fists, frowned brows, pursed lips, and sharp inhalations punctuated by jargon I could not understand. I heard terms like azaadi (Independence) and haq-e-khudiradiyat (self-determination) whispered in the barbershop, in the baker’s and the doctor’s waiting rooms, in the market. These strange words intrigued me; they hung in the air like big question marks, mysterious and unexplained for years, since my parents and other adults determined I was too young to understand them.
And then, one day in 1989, they were spared the burden of explaining them to me in words. The repressed political importance of each term became clear as a bloody battle erupted in every town square and in every pocket of the valley. Alleyways were filled with young boys wielding guns, and the Indian army was ready for combat. Soldiers huddled in bunkers that were pushed shoulder-to-shoulder against unlucky houses at the end of the lanes. This was not a hidden conflict anymore; it was a battle fought in the streets. Over night, my reality became one rooted in the turbulence and uncertainty of Kashmir’s history.
My homeland—what had once been the independent state of Kashmir (although under a princely rule)—was torn asunder when it was divided into two regions in 1947, following the end of British colonial rule. Kashmir became two regions, one administered by Pakistan and the other by India. This bifurcation was supposedly a temporary measure until Kashmir’s people could determine their own future in a UN-backed plebiscite (a referendum allowing my people to determine their own fate). More than 60 years later, both India and Pakistan have failed to adhere to this call, as India vies for control of the region, and Pakistan, suspected of backing terrorist militants in the region, hangs on tightly to the territory under its control. Kashmir remains a disputed territory, caught in between competing nations who use Kashmir as a rallying cry to sustain nationalism in their citizens.
Today, Kashmir is one of the most highly militarized regions in the world with upward of half-a-million Indian security forces occupying a region of only 10-million. India has declared Kashmir a “disturbed area,” implementing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and other similar acts, which allow the Indian military to take full control of the region and act on any suspicion. The act has given Indian officials the unsanctioned right to commit fundamental human rights abuses in the name of counter insurgency.
Just as any other Kashmiri I have seen incessant suffering and desperation born of the tempest between Kashmiri will and Indian domination. I remember walking to my tutor’s house in 1992. There was only a hair’s breadth between my friend and me when we were caught in crossfire between the Indian army and militant fighters. My friend received a bullet and died on the spot. This is not the only incident that I have in my memory; there are many more, but they are too painful, and the only little I can add here are impressions of splatters of blood; smoke from the gunfire; bomb and grenade blasts; shutters of shops clanging closed; cries for help; the dank and dark of some basement where we took refuge.
Throughout Kashmir women have been disproportionately affected by this violence. Many have become the sole breadwinners since so many men have been killed or have simply disappeared. A large number of women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which experts attribute to the increase in sexual violence, along with the sudden assumption of male responsibilities. A 2005 Doctors Without Borders report noted that Kashmir has some of the highest rates of sexual violence in any conflict region. Sexual violence and rape at the hands of the Indian army has largely lacked public discussion or legal deliverance, as the perpetrators enjoy immunity.
In recent years, there have been small signs of lessening violence by militant groups. Active combat has declined in the cities, although it remains an insistent reality in villages and along remote borders. While India’s government speaks of this as successful containment of militancy,the Kashmiri people speak of it as a move towards peaceful means of resistance, a philosophy to which an entire generation of young Kashmiris who grew up during the tumultuous years subscribe. They are not disenchanted with the struggle for Independence, but are markedly distanced from the violent means of achieving it.
Kashmiris believe in peace. The flare of a Kashmiri indigenous armed movement is often portrayed in the media as alive and active. In truth, this armed movement lasted just long enough to draw world attention. The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, one of the oldest and widest separatist networks, laid down arms in 1994, technically fighting an armed battle for less than six years. Since then they have been waging an above-ground political battle. Kashmiris see the futility of a protracted low-intensity war, which India’s leaders keenly want to tie with global terrorism in the eyes of the international community.
The conflict in our region is not in the same category as the mayhem in Afghanistan or the disturbances in Pakistan. Ours is not a religious issue or an issue of terrorism, although religious extremists have tried to take ownership of our struggle to advance their own agendas. While there has been tension between Hindu and Muslim communities in recent history, the global media largely inflates the realities of these issues. Ours is a struggle for Independence, not a struggle over warring beliefs.
Just six months ago millions of Kashmiris flooded the streets in peaceful protests against an Indian-backed land-leasing order which violated the special status of Kashmir and created fear of demographic domination from the Indian population. These protests morphed into calls for self-determination and implementation of the promised UN resolution. Women were a huge part of this movement. Ordinary housewives, mothers of the missing, and even schoolgirls took part in non-violent protests that stretched over many months. Even after India revoked its controversial land order, the protests for Independence continued before fading away as the harsh Himalayan winter set in.
Today, the solution for Kashmir’s conflict lies in addressing the long-term implications of conflict. While it is important to address the immediate needs of those who have been maimed, raped, molested, and psychologically impaired, it is equally important to address the political imbroglio that bred this large-scale human rights crisis in the first place. We must go to the heart of the issue and address Kashmir not as the "problem of India and Pakistan," but "Pakistan and India" as the problem of Kashmir. With Barack Obama elected president of the US, it seems Kashmir’s political upheaval might just come off the backburner.
Both Obama himself and Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN, have listed Kashmir amongst a list of other regions of conflict—a big departure from the silence surrounding my homeland’s struggles during Bush’s tenure. And Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband recently wrote in the Guardian that “resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders." Following the changing stance of the US, Miliband’s remarks indicate a long-delayed thaw in the West’s icy negation of the issue.
As the chilly evenings of winter become colder and longer due to frequent power outages in the valley, families sit together clinging to their hot coal braziers. Amidst the political debate that has dominated these Kashmiri living rooms for decades, there is one mind when it comes to thinking of a new future. We look forward to when Kashmiri life amounts to more than a statistic on the late night news; when there is freedom and dignity, and the fear of harassment, frisking, or death does not loom at every corner; when kids can actually read Kashmir history at school and not just the history of neighboring India; when a young boy can follow his friends spontaneously and not have to worry about a forgotten identity card. We all hope for a future when Kashmiris will be free as every people deserves to be, as India and Pakistan deserved to be from British colonial rule.