Pulwama needs to be understood in context of 70 years of the Kashmir unrest
While the bodies of the 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troops who died in the Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir on Valentine’s Day are only just now being laid to rest, unrest prevails throughout the Indian subcontinent in the wake of the deadliest attack on Indian security forces in the world’s hottest nuclear flashpoint in 30 years.
Sabers are rattling. India has stripped Pakistan of "most favored nation" status and imposed a 200 percent tariff on all Pakistani imports. The sanctions evoke the economic adage that when goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will. Various Indian television personalities are demanding war. Neither Pakistan’s disavowal and denouncement of the attack nor the fact that the alleged attacker was a young Kashmiri who reportedly became a militant after being profiled, detained, and beaten in the streets by Indian police register as data points in India’s present dialogues.
The only people who appear to be taking into account the Kashmiri identity of the attacker are mobs who, fielded by militant Hindu nationalist organizations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), are attacking innocent Kashmiri Muslims throughout India.
Dehradun, a city located in the Himalayan foothills just 45 kilometers from the hippie hotspot of Rishikesh, is one notable example. Chanting "shoot the traitors," mobs of hundreds besieged Kashmiri students who took refuge in their university hostels. One female student said they appealed to the police for help but were told they should instead apologize to the mobs. Other students were seized and beaten. Although some of the assaults were caught on camera – and show officers standing by passively observing – police denied the occurrence of any incidents of violence. Students, said police, "are making a big deal out of nothing."
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was already mobilizing to fight for BJP supremacy in the Indian General Elections later this year, urged voters in Uttar Pradesh (India’s most populous state) to back his religious nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to guarantee a "strong government" which will give "glory on the international stage." His comments came just a day after the Pulwama attack.
The Pulwama attack set a new record, surpassing that previously set by the 2016 attack in Jammu and Kashmir’s Uri district. Nineteen Indian Army soldiers died in the Uri attack. Then, just as now, Pakistan denied involvement.
Nevertheless, India insisted the attack was Pakistani orchestrated and claims it launched retaliatory "surgical strikes" against alleged militant bases inside Pakistani territory. Pakistan denies the strikes even occurred. Yet the Indian narrative was etched in celluloid in the Bollywood film Uri: The Surgical Strike, which is still playing in India’s theaters after its release last month. As a columnist for thewire.in commented, "The film’s timing will help the BJP market the surgical strike in the 2019 elections as its unique contribution to Indian security."
What is not unique about the BJP is its commitment to continuing the conflict over Kashmir, even at the risk of provoking nuclear war with Pakistan. Clutching Kashmir tighter and closer to its chest, even as its inhabitants struggle against the unwanted attention and scream that they are being stifled, has been the approach of the Indian Central Government since 1947. Escalation rather than re-evaluation is India’s singular policy towards the region.
When the colonial British ignored all organic borders of language and ethnicity to partition the entire subcontinent into just two outsized territories, they set the stage for one of the most intractable and longest-lasting religio-political conflicts in modern history. Demarcating Pakistan as a Muslim State, they (perhaps inadvertently) bolstered India’s burgeoning Hindu nationalist movement and its sense of self-justification in pressing for "equal treatment" by demanding a Hindu State. Since no one not belonging to the State Religion (whether official or de facto) wanted to be stranded in that state, the partition sparked the largest mass migration in history.
The two-way migration was besot by acts of horrendous violence. No one really knows how many died, but estimates range from a few hundred thousand to two million. Jammu and Kashmir, then an independent monarchy, was among the worst affected areas.
Above the Kashmir Valley, in the hills of Jammu, cadres of the Hindu nationalist paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) joined hands with the monarch, Maharaja Hari Singh, to ethnically cleanse the region of Muslims. The death toll was up to 100,000. On October 26, 1947, two weeks after the violence began and four days after India and Pakistan went to war with each other over the region, the Hindu maharaja ceded control of his still Muslim majority kingdom to the freshly-formed country of India.
The territory has remained disputed ever since, and served as fuel to the fire of nationalist fervor throughout the subcontinent as the governments of both India and Pakistan treat the land as a feather which belongs in the cap of one nation alone. Caught in the crossfire are the Kashmiri people themselves, whose lives seem subordinate to the pride of maintaining "territorial integrity." Thus, India currently keeps a minimum of half a million troops lodged in the midst of the region’s 13 million residents.
In 1987, Jammu and Kashmir emerged from nearly a year of President’s Rule – in which the Central Government dissolves the state legislature and imposes direct governance – to hold elections. Amidst allegations that the Indian National Congress (INC) rigged the polls to defeat candidates sympathetic to independence, anger boiled over into mass street demonstrations.
On January 19, 1990, New Delhi again imposed President’s Rule. Protests increased, and on the 21st, CRPF troops cut off protesters at Gawkadal Bridge in Srinigar, the region’s largest city. Opening fire, the troops gunned down at least 50 civilians – some say over 100.
Protests again increased, with hundreds of thousands and up to a million demonstrating at a time. Many abandoned protesting for militancy. Later that year, Delhi imposed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, granting immunity to security forces for acts committed on duty, even atrocities.
As the militancy continued throughout the 1990s, the atrocities escalated.
Indian security forces massacred people, disappeared, tortured, raped, killed in custody, looted, destroyed houses, burned religious structures, desecrated religious books, and generally waged total war.
In 1995, Kashmiri human rights attorney Jalil Andrabi traveled to the United Nations in Geneva to appeal for intervention. Noting that "more than 40,000 people have been killed," he asserted, "These atrocities being committed on the people of Kashmir are not mere aberrations. These are part of deliberate and systematic state policy." In March 1996, Andrabi was picked up by the Indian Army while driving with his wife near his Srinigar home. Twenty days later, his body, tied up in a sack, washed ashore on the Jhelum River. His hands were tied behind his back, eyes gouged out, facial bones crushed. He had been killed with a gunshot to the head.
As the insurgency subsided in the early 2000s, a larger pattern of state-sponsored human rights abuses began coming into light.
In 2008, Amnesty International reported the discovery of mass graves, many of them concentrated in Uri district. Thousands of mass graves containing thousands of bodies have been uncovered over the years since. And mass demonstrations again grew.
Since 2010, India has resorted to "non-lethal" methods of crowd control such as pellet guns, blinding hundreds of civilians, including children. Sometimes, troops even embrace less conventional methods, as in 2017 when an Indian Army major lashed a protester to his jeep to use as a human shield. Meanwhile, on a societal level, there are efforts to inspire Muslim flight which are, in spirit, reminiscent of the RSS collaboration with Maharaja Hari Singh in 1947.
In January 2018, with the goal of driving out a local nomadic Muslim community, several men (including at least one police officer) abducted an eight-year-old girl near Kathua, a city known as the gateway to Jammu and Kashmir. They locked her in a temple owned by one of them, and gang-raped her for days before murdering her and dumping her body. When they were arrested, the BJP’s State Secretary organized a protest march for their release. Joining the march were two BJP State Ministers. They had, they later said, been instructed to attend by their party leadership.
In the heat of the moment, as the BJP campaigns for re-election, mobs attack Kashmiris, and pundits call for war, beating drums and rattling sabers seems to be a far more popular approach than consideration of the history that brought South Asia to this point. Yet it’s the same stale strategy. Escalation, never reevaluation.
Pieter Friedrich is a South Asian Affairs Analyst who resides in California. He is the co-author of Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent. Discover more by him at pieterfriedrich.net.