Finding the Ways Forward on Kashmir

In February 2019, the CCC hosted an international workshop on majority nationalism in plurinational states. Over two days, participants presented their findings from a diverse range of countries. Over the coming weeks, we will share a series of blogs with these findings. In this installment, Dr Nitasha Kaul shares her personal and academic reflections on the ongoing crisis in Kashmir.

The first morning that I woke up in Edinburgh University this February, Kashmir was on everyone’s mind, and it certainly was in my heart, mind and soul. On just the previous afternoon, I was speaking on Majoritarian Nationalism: India and Kashmir at the Centre on Constitutional Change Workshop. I had ended my presentation with hope that was tinged with the trepidation that we would not witness another war over Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

This time, the precipitating factor in the backdrop was an attack on a convoy of the Indian forces by an indigenous Kashmiri militant, an event that marks a significant change since militants carrying out such attacks of such scale and magnitude have not been the Kashmiris themselves in the past. The timing of these attacks — weeks before the general elections that are to be held in India in April and May 2019 — is also noteworthy; they caused an overnight shift in the Indian mainstream public opinion in favour of ruling BJP’s strong-arm tactics in Kashmir and diluted the focus away from the momentum of an anti-incumbency questioning of the BJP government’s record on failing to provide development or preventing antiminority violence.

The following days saw a tremendous escalation of the conflict, with airstrikes by India into sovereign Pakistani airspace that claimed to have decimated a militant Jaish-e-Muhammad (JEM) training camp in Balakot in Pakistan. The initial claim that 300 militants were killed in the attack remains unverifiable, meanwhile, Pakistan filed an ecoterrorism complaint against India for having bombed a forest in Pakistan. When Pakistan acted in retaliation, jets were downed on both sides, pilots and Kashmiri civilians perished. One Indian pilot was briefly held captive by Pakistan and then released to a great fanfare and celebration in India. While both India and Pakistan claimed victory in this escalation of conflict — India claimed to have struck Pakistan, annihilated a militant camp, forced Pakistan to hand over the pilot; Pakistan claimed an international diplomatic victory, with its PM Imran Khan having called for peace and showing restraint — the Kashmiris were largely and swiftly forgotten by the voices calling either for war or for peace, on both sides.

A significant part of the tragedy of Kashmir is the way in which it continues to be seen as an India-Pakistan issue, even though both India and Pakistan have demonstrated that their domestic military, bureaucratic, and political interests are comprehensively served by an ongoing conflict in Kashmir in which Kashmiri civilians are held hostage to a proxy warfare.

In the weeks following on from my day at the workshop in Edinburgh, my scholarly work — as a Kashmiri academic who speaks in non-religious terms for justice, rights, peace — became relevant yet again to the public debates on the Kashmir conflict. I took up every opportunity to make dozens of interventions in the public sphere and on a wide range of audio, video, and print media in the UK and internationally. As academics, our scholarly schemas must not attribute irreversible or inevitable stylised facts and endogenously driven dynamics to conflicts; we are constructing the frames as much as representing them. The disruption of common sense around enduring conflicts often needs a significant change in the interpretation and the structuring of perceptions around why collectivities choose to accept significant levels of continuing violence for nationalist projects.

On Kashmir, the contemporary Indian public opinion is monopolised by the majoritarian nationalism of Hindutva, which further relies to a large extent upon the televisual encouragement of violent othering (fuelling numerous attacks on ordinary Kashmiris in various parts of India by way of collective punishment), a narrow electoral focus, and communalised discourses of competing victimhoods.

The Kashmir conflict is not intractable, but addressing it requires attending to the vested interests and entrenched perceptions; it is vital to generate the narrative that it is a very poor statist strategic calculation of national interest that results in the inhibiting of economic relations, prevents better ties, undermines regional security, causes internal breakdowns and communal polarisation. Prolongation of the Kashmir conflict is certainly not in the interests of Indians and Pakistanis as people; support for nonstate actors engaged in terrorist acts hurts Pakistanis and the brutalisation of Kashmiris by India enables the banalisation of violence against everyone in India.

As for the Kashmiris themselves who are at the very heart of this conflict in the region, they are part of an indigenous public sphere that is fractured with breakdowns of trust that have been engineered by external actors over decades. Subjected to extreme force and subjugation, deprived of human rights under endless emergency powers legislation, living in the most militarised place on the planet, dealing with decades of trauma, they are constantly pushed against a wall. With every repeat of a spectacular instance of violence or uprising, Kashmiris are briefly heard and then forgotten again.

We must look for ways of addressing the rights and aspirations of this population in the absence of spectacular violent incidents that bring the region to the brink of nuclear war. Otherwise, what sort of incentives are the international community, global media, and our scholarly discourses conveying to populations in conflict zones? Given the recent history of exclusive Indian and Pakistani focus, perhaps the most radical, and yet the most obvious, thing to do would be to begin speaking to the Kashmiris of the various regions and create dialogues on history and memory in credible nonpartisan internationally supported spaces that can pave the way for a move forward towards mutually just reconciliations that respect peoples’ rights, responsibilities, and freedoms.

Nitasha Kaul is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster in London. 

Image Credit: Ahmed Sajjad Zaidi on Flickr.

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