Today, 14th August 2014, marks the 68th Independence Day for Pakistan, with August 15th being the 68th Independence Day for India. Both days are usually met with patriotic celebrations to commemorate independence from Britain in 1947, and the subsequent creation of the two countries. The partition resulted in one of the largest human migrations ever seen, displacing some 15 million people, and sparked horrific violence with an estimated death toll of up to 1 million people on both sides. Some may argue that the mass human cost of partition brings in to question whether it is an event of celebration or mourning, and this is a debate within itself. But another key – largely forgotten – issue which always rises to the surface this time of year is the question of Kashmir.
Following independence, the princely state of Kashmir along with other princely states were encouraged to either accede to India or Pakistan. Given Kashmir’s shared border with Pakistan, and its 77% majority Muslim population, it was anticipated for Kashmir to form a part of Pakistan. The then ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, delayed the decision of ascension – this, along with reports of communal violence against Muslims in the state, prompted Pashtun tribesmen from Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province to invade Kashmir with the support of the Pakistani government. With a break down in law and order and the killing and looting by the invading tribesmen, the Maharaja requested help from India, which subsequently led to the signing of the Instrument of Accession, acceding Kashmir to India, and the entrance of the Indian army in to the state. The signing of the Instrument of Accession attracted a lot of controversy and expectedly was neglected by Pakistan as illegal. Pakistan has argued that the Maharaja was in no position to sign the accession on behalf of his people as he had already fled the valley of Kashmir, which also brings the accusation of the signing taking place under duress. Indian troops repelled the Pakistani tribesmen, and drove them back from all but a small segment of the state. The Kashmir issue was taken to the UN, resulting in a ceasefire in January 1949, leaving India in control of a majority of the disputed territory, including the Valley of Kashmir which has a 97% Muslim population. ‘Azad (free) Kashmir’ fell under Pakistani control. A UN resolution called for a free and impartial plebiscite to determine the final state of Kashmir. However, no plebiscite or referendum was ever adopted, and Pakistan and India fought two further wars over Kashmir. The question of Kashmir remains to this very day just that, a question, with no answer in sight.
The 1990’s saw the beginning of an armed uprising against the Indian occupation in Indian held Kashmir, sparked by the Gawakadal bridge massacre in which 100 people were killed as Indian troops fired at unarmed protesters. The period which followed saw the darkest days for Kashmir, with at least 650,000 Indian security forces deployed to crush the uprising, leading to grave human rights abuses and the killings of tens of thousands of civilians. Death became a part of Kashmiri life, which brought with it a growing number of youth crossing the border over to Pakistan for training, and the taking up of arms. The initiation of the uprising also saw the killings of Kashmiri Pandits by armed groups, leading to the entire Pandit community fleeing the Valley. By 1996, the conflict saw 13 deaths every day. Human Rights Watch, along with many other human rights organisations have accused the Indian government and the Indian army of “massive human rights violations” including – but not limited to – the deliberate targeting of civilians, torture and summary executions of detainees, and widespread use of rape as a weapon of war, mainly during search operations and crackdowns. Human Rights Watch in their report say, “There can be no doubt that the use of rape is common and routinely goes unpunished”. One particular case of rape which stands out is that of a young bride, Mubeena Gani. On the night of 16th May 1990, on their wedding night, Mubeena, her husband Rashid and relatives, boarded a bus to leave the brides house after the nikah ceremony and wedding celebrations had taken place. The bus was stopped and attacked by Indian security forces, who pierced the bus with bullets. Rashid was hit with 5 bullets to his back, his cousin was shot dead, and Mubeena received 3 bullets to her shoulder, back, and hips. The passengers were then dragged off the bus, and a group of the security forces raped Mubeena and her bridesmaid. Kashmiri Journalist Basharat Peer in his memoir, Curfewed Night, met Mubeena some years later – she said, “I could not even remember how many there were, I had lost my senses”. The security forces responsible were never prosecuted. And this impunity was the story of every case of murder, rape, and abuse, in the blood-soaked Valley of Kashmir.
2010 saw the deaths of 117 young men as Indian forces responded to the stone-pelting youth with live ammunition, eerily reminiscent of Palestinian youth in the Occupied Territories being met with Israeli army bullets. Many Kashmiris have often linked their struggle for self-determination to that of the Palestinian cause, some even labelling Kashmir as ‘South Asia’s Palestine’. Whether the comparison is a strong one is perhaps debateable, however, what is certainly true is that the people of Kashmir have been denied their right to self-determination through international silence and state-repression, just as is the case with the Palestinians. Of course, although the vast majority of the oppression and human rights abuses has been carried out by the Indian state and army against the majority Muslim population, Pakistan is also not immune to this conflict. The now out-dated and vaporised UN demand for a referendum would require a third option of independence, if it was ever adopted, something which both India and Pakistan would not want to see as they both see the disputed territory as theirs.
Returning back to the original point of independence celebrations which will begin today – the question we should all ask is, when will we finally allow the Kashmiri people to determine their own independence, or ascension to either India or Pakistan if they wish. Of course this isn’t a black and white issue, given the demographics on the ground and different territories containing different religious groups, for example majority Hindu regions who may not wish to join Pakistan or even be a part of an independent Kashmir, if a majority referendum was to decide that fate. However, until the Kashmiri people are given a chance to vote in a referendum, we will never know what the majority consensus is, and they will continue to live in an uncertain condition which was promised to be ‘temporary’, 65 years ago.
By Hamzah Nurgat (@hamzah_1992)
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