Why you should care
Because borders can be a very bloody business.
Angry demonstrators are throwing stones at soldiers. In return, Indian soldiers are firing live bullets, tear-gas shells and lead pellets. Ambulances ferrying the injured make a beeline away from the city, where the hospitals are overwhelmed. On shop shutters and walls across Kashmir, fresh graffiti reads Burhan is alive and Go back India.
After Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the popular 22-year-old commander of rebel group Hizbul Mujahideen, was shot dead by the Indian army on July 8, tens of thousands of people showed up at his funeral procession. And that was just the beginning. A new uprising against Indian rule has erupted in this Himalayan region, killing at least 72 civilians and injuring some 10,000. About 500 civilians, mostly young boys, have suffered eye injuries from pellets; many of them may lose eyesight permanently. The government has been trying to quash the unrest, banning internet and mobile phone service and ordering newspapers to stop printing.
Two months later, the uprising continues — and some believe that the death of Wani, a charismatic figure on social media, has catalyzed a much broader — and much more militant — movement for independence from India.
“Wani has revitalized the support for armed uprising against Indian rule,” says Khurram Parvez, a prominent human-rights advocate in Kashmir. For one, it could mean the acceptance of armed resistance by the young educated class, and it could motivate young people to join militant groups, says Dr. Suhail Masoodi, who heads the Centre for Research and Development Policy in Kashmir. In the past, he says, Kashmiri militancy was largely perceived as led by the “uneducated and underprivileged class. But Wani and his associates deconstructed this myth.”
Let’s back up a minute. For 69 years, both India and Pakistan have claimed as their own the former princely state of Kashmir. It continues to be divided between the two nuclear powers. A whopping half a million Indian soldiers are currently stationed in Kashmir. Since 1989, when the militancy started in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, as many as 100,000 civilians have been killed, 10,000 have disappeared by force and around 8,000 mass graves have been found by human-rights groups. (The numbers are contested.) Between two hostile countries since the partition of British India in 1947 — the incredible bloodshed of which some consider the subcontinent’s own Holocaust — this region has not had a day of political peace.
“Most radical militants might want certain things that a rock-throwing kid might not want or even know about.”
“Thinking about azadi [independence] has nothing to do with Kashmir and everything to do with Pakistan,” says Irfan Nooruddin, director of the Georgetown India Initiative. Clearly, he says, Pakistan can’t beat India in a war, but it can get to India through Kashmir, using irregular warfare. Since Partition, many Indians have considered Kashmir important for symbolic reasons — the majority-Muslim state “helps justify the idea of India as a secular republic,” he says. It’s a place where Muslims and Hindus can peacefully coexist. For other Indians, he says, Kashmir “has festered the wound that Pakistan was” — the largest human mass migration in history.
Indians also have fears about what an independent Kashmir would mean for security. “For a variety of reasons, Pakistan has come to believe that it has some sort of a claim on Kashmir,” says Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, who focuses on Kashmir. Pakistan’s best contribution, Joshi says, will be to do what it claims — give moral and political support and avoid “arming, training and funding militants” to attack India.
The status of Kashmir has been contested for generations. Indeed, many of today’s militants have known military suppression almost all their lives, says Gautam Navlakha, a prominent civil-rights activist from India. Still, observers agree that the current uprising is markedly different from those in the past. It is more militant, and it is intensifying rapidly. Moreover, it gained wider purchase through the person of Wadi, who had not only broadcast to an educated, young audience, but had also recruited dozens of locals into the rebel group.
How long the uprising will last is uncertain, given the daily blows to business and the civilian casualties. Parvez predicts that India will soon have to “concede freedom to the people of Jammu and Kashmir or else they will have to resort to extreme state repression.” But others believe that the uprising will fizzle out, like others: A.S. Dulat, the former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing of India’s intelligence agency, suggests that 80 percent of Kashmiris want peace, and fewer than 20 percent are in the streets. None of the officials who were contacted for this story, from the Indian army, local police, intelligence and the regional government, were willing to comment.
Will the uprising bring about azadi or some other political solution? The idea of a full break from India remains controversial: In the most recent two elections, the majority of Kashmiri people voted in favor of more autonomy within India — that is, they wanted India to treat their home not as an occupied territory, but rather as a state of the union. And Nooruddin cautions against conflating youth support for militancy with hardcore militants. “Most radical militants might want certain things that a rock-throwing kid might not want or even know about,” he says.