Why India and Kashmir Are Headed Back to the 1990s

Repealing the special status, which India claims would bring Kashmir closer to the country, is more prone to backfire and lead to something similar to what we witnessed during the 1990s, especially with Kashmiri youth now vouching for a "gun solution."

Source Composite Sean Culligan/OZY, Image Getty

Why you should care

Because 7 million Kashmiris still have no mobile or internet connectivity.

A friend and fellow Kashmiri journalist visited our home region from Delhi last week, after going almost 20 days without speaking to his parents. Ever since the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a telecommunication blockade on Kashmir — cutting off landline and mobile connectivity — ahead of its Aug. 5 decision to abrogate the region’s special autonomy, my friends and I living outside the region have been exchanging texts and calls fraught with worry about our loved ones. 

Eight weeks in, landline services have been restored, but there’s still no mobile or internet connectivity. While the Indian government peddles the narrative internationally that Kashmir is returning to normal, it’s only now, as the security lockdown is lifted, that we will start to see the true extent of Kashmiri anger and resentment. More and more, Kashmir in 2019 looks like it did in the early 1990s, when there was a complete breakdown of trust between India and Kashmiris, and the region’s youth felt they had little option but to pick up guns in protest.

“There is a sense of fear among Kashmiris now,” my friend told me. “But they are also ready for a long haul.”

More than 13,000 people — former chief ministers, activists, lawyers, students and reportedly even minors — have been detained since Aug. 5. Reports have emerged of hospitals running short on lifesaving drugs and of surgeries being delayed because specialists can’t be contacted. This is an unprecedented level of lockdown in Kashmir, which has seen its fair share of human rights abuses over the past 30 years. 

Yet even with the clampdown, dozens of protests have broken out across the region — some of which were initially denied or underplayed by the government, only to be confirmed later when news organizations like the BBC shared proof. The claims of normalcy are belied by the government’s refusal to field questions from independent journalists. Mistrust between Kashmir and India is at an all-time high. 

 

“Previous regimes at least cared about a veneer. Sometimes they would send an all-party delegation, sometimes a civil society delegation, just to tell the world that we are doing it in a democratic way,” Kashmiri novelist Mirza Waheed says. “But this government doesn’t have any such qualms. This does sound like the 1990s; it feels like the 1990s.”

Indeed, from the late 1990s, successive Indian governments had attempted to reach out to Kashmiri moderates. Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had in 2003 argued that the solution to the Kashmir crisis — Pakistan also claims the region — would come through a “humanitarian” approach from the government, rather than the security mindset-driven approach administrations had previously used. Subsequent governments had introduced special scholarships for Kashmiri students and worked with mainstream politicians to try and better integrate the region. 

That equation has flipped. “I do think that Kashmir has destabilizing days ahead,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at the Wilson Center, tells me, adding that while mistrust of Kashmiris toward the Indian state predates the recent crackdown, the change in the region’s status “could well be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

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Kashmiri women shout anti-India slogans during a protest in late August.

Source Yawar Nazir/Getty

With mainstream politicians — who support unity with India but oppose the crackdown — and local separatist leaders behind bars or under house arrest, India might have left angry Kashmiri youth with few options but to turn back to militancy. It was the rigging of the state’s legislative assembly elections in 1987 that had sparked the popular uprising against India then, though tensions have lingered ever since Kashmir’s accession in 1947.   

“It is quite telling that even with the lockdown in place, there have been protests in Kashmir, including some violent ones,” says Kugelman. “So if that is happening even under lockdown, what will happen when it [lockdown] will be lifted? I imagine some level of unrest is inevitable.” For Kugelman, the question is how India reacts to that unrest. If security forces respond with still greater force, it could set off a dangerous escalation and a new phase of insurgency, he says.

One difference between the 1990s and now though is the involvement of Pakistan, says Kugelman. When the militancy broke out in the 1990s, the rebels had the active support of Pakistan. While Pakistan continues to stoke tensions and support militants, Kugelman says young Kashmiris today have grown up facing “repressive tactics of the security forces” and don’t need much encouragement from Pakistan. 

That might also make it harder for India to pin the blame for the crisis in Kashmir solely on Pakistan, as it has long tried to. For many Kashmiris, the events of Aug. 5 only underscore what they’ve always known: “Kashmiris never had any democracy,” Waheed says. 

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