Today’s guest blogger is Hafsa Kanjwal, a recent graduate of Georgetown University and a Director of KashmirCorps. Hafsa is a former Interfaith Youth Core Fellow and recently joined IFYC as a staff member.
Much to the dismay of the Indian government, the issue of Kashmir has once again garnered international media attention. For the past two months, the region has been witness to violent protests and clashes with Indian army officials. As always, the situation is portrayed as a communal one, pitting Hindus and Muslims against each other. It is unfortunate that the unresolved territorial status of Jammu and Kashmir has taken religious overtones, serving only to stifle the road to self-determination for the Kashmiri people, who suffer Indian rule since 1947.
The most recent set of events were spurred by the state government’s decision to grant nearly 100 acres of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, which oversees the annual Hindu pilgrimage to a cave shrine of Lord Shiva in the mountains of the Kashmir Valley. In an election year, it is rumored that the current state government made this decision to secure support in the Hindu-majority Jammu region. The land was to be used to set up shelters and facilities for the Hindu pilgrims.
Muslims in the Kashmir Valley protested this land transfer in late June, believing it was a ploy by the Indian government to change the demographics of the pre-dominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley and integrate it with the Indian union.
I was there during these protests, running a program of volunteers from the United States who worked with local civil society organizations. Schools and businesses were shut down as thousands took to the streets demanding a revocation of the land transfer and an end to the Indian occupation. Those who were shocked by the strength of the protests underestimated the Kashmiri desire for azaadi, or freedom. Separatist leaders capitalized on the popular sentiment and emphasized that the protests were not against the pilgrimage itself, but the illegal land transfer and continued Indian influence in Kashmir’s affairs.
The order was revoked on July 1st. By the time I left Kashmir in mid-July, it appeared that the situation had normalized and a greater crisis had been avoided.
The issue had managed to stay away from being deemed communal until the BJP and other Hindu nationalist parties in India (known collectively as the Sangh Parivar) used the Amarnath land transfer issue to gain political leverage, especially in Jammu. The BJP believes that India is a Hindu nation–an ideology completely at odds with the nation’s supposed secularism and contrary to India’s touting itself as home to the world’s largest Muslim minority. It draws its inspiration from the Hindutva, a concept coined before India’s independence that defines the identity of an “Indian” as one linked to being “Hindu.” The BJP has also been at the forefront of violence against India’s Muslim minority, especially in the state of Gujarat in 2002.
In Jammu and other parts of India, the BJP urged people to protest the revocation. Hindu protesters attacked and set fire to a number of Muslim homes, and a curfew was imposed in many districts. These protesters enforced an economic blockade of the Kashmiri Valley by stopping traffic on the national highway between Srinagar and Jammu. The blockade was the last straw for the Valley–fruit growers were unable to sell their produce outside of the state, and food and essential medical supplies became scarce.
Separatist leaders, who have more support than the puppet state and central government, called for a march to Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, to breach the border that splits the region between the two Kashmir’s. As during the height of the insurgency against Indian rule in the early 90’s, the Indian army responded to these peaceful protests with brute force, killing over 20 Kashmiri civilians over the next few days, including a prominent separatist leader.
News reports from all over the world remind me of my childhood–once again, the blood, despair, and frustration had returned to the streets of a land once known as “Paradise on Earth.”
The stage was set for another week of more large-scale protests by Kashmiri Muslims and demands for independence, including a gathering a few days ago of nearly one million Kashmiris marching towards the UN headquarters, demanding the right of self-determination.
In recent years, pundits and leaders in New Delhi, Washington, and even Islamabad began to believe a state of normalcy had returned to the Valley, that pro-independence sentiments had all but disappeared, and that the Kashmiri people were beginning to accept Indian rule. By communalizing the land transfer, the BJP had, ironically, managed to turn a debate over the allotment of land into a renewal for the struggle for independence. In response, the Muslim separatist leaders were then able to mobilize Muslim nationalism and grievances in the Valley, thus continuing to frame the situation in communal terms.
The issue is not one of Hindu versus Muslim, and if it is continued to be irresponsibly framed by political leaders in this manner, the consequences will be devastating. One only has to go back a few years and recall the massacres in Gujarat. The issue here is the continued manipulation by both India and Pakistan, as they compete to comfort their own egos at the expense of not only the Kashmiri people, but also their own citizens. It is the occupation and oppression of the Kashmiri people by the Indian government. It is the alienation of the Kashmiri people through draconian Indian policies and continued human rights violations–including indiscriminate killing, forced disappearances, and torture. It is the Indian government’s denial of “the problem of Kashmir” and their insistence that “Kashmir is an integral part of India,” an insistence that is disingenuous at best, given Indian actions. It is the failure of the peace process between India and Pakistan to legitimately address the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
It saddens me to read about the current events in Kashmir, and I worry for the safety of my friends and family whose lives are always at the mercy of the instability there. I hope that the rest of the world wakes up to the situation in Kashmir, and that the people there are given the right, laid out by numerous UN resolutions, to determine their own future.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel, the Interfaith Youth Core, or Kashmircorps.