Why Kashmir Has Been Torn by Decadeslong Strife

Kashmiri Muslim protesters throw rocks and exploded tear gas shell at Indian paramilitary soldiers in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, on Aug. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

SRINAGAR, India—When news spread in early July that Indian troops had killed a charismatic commander of Indian-controlled Kashmir’s biggest rebel group, the public response was spontaneous and immense. Tens of thousands of angry youths poured out of their homes in towns and villages across the Himalayan region, hurling rocks and bricks and clashing with Indian troops.

A strict curfew and a series of communications blackouts since then have failed to stop the protesters, who are seeking an end to Indian rule in Kashmir, even as residents have struggled to cope with shortages of food, medicine and other necessities. The clashes, with protesters mostly throwing rocks and government forces responding with bullets and shotgun pellets, has left more than 60 civilians and two policemen dead. Thousands of civilians have been injured and hundreds of members of various government security forces.

On Friday, clashes erupted in at least 20 places after government forces fired tear gas and shotguns to stop protesters who tried to march on the main roads. But Kashmir’s fury at Indian rule is not new. The stunning mountain region has known little but conflict since 1947, when British rule of the subcontinent ended with the creation of India and Pakistan.

Division Rooted in Partition

In 1947, the kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir was asked to join with either India or Pakistan. But Maharaja Hari Singh, the unpopular Hindu ruler of the Muslim-majority region, wanted to stay independent. However, local armed uprisings that flared in various parts of Kashmir, along with a raid by tribesmen from northwestern Pakistan, forced Singh to seek help from India, which offered military assistance on condition that the kingdom link itself to India. The ruler accepted, but insisted that Kashmir remain a largely autonomous state within the Indian union, with India managing its foreign affairs, defense and telecommunications.

The Indian military entered the region soon after, with the tribal raid spiraling into the first of two wars between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The first war ended in 1948 with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire. Nonetheless, Kashmir was divided between the two young nations by the heavily militarized Line of Control, with the promise of a U.N.-sponsored referendum in the future.

India and Pakistan Go to War Over Kashmir

In Indian-controlled Kashmir, many saw the transition as the mere transfer of power from their Hindu king to Hindu-majority India. Kashmiri discontent against India started taking root as successive Indian governments breached the pact of Kashmir’s autonomy. Local governments were toppled one after another, and largely peaceful movements against Indian control were suppressed harshly.

Pakistan regularly raised the Kashmir dispute in international forums, including in the U.N. Meanwhile, India began calling the region an integral part of the nation, insisting that Kashmir’s lawmakers had ratified the accession to New Delhi. As the deadlock persisted, India and Pakistan went to war again in 1965, with little changing on the ground. Several rounds of talks followed, but the impasse continued.

A Political Campaign Fails, a Rebellion Erupts

In the mid-1980s, dissident political groups in Indian-held Kashmir united to contest elections for the state assembly. The Muslim United Front quickly emerged as a formidable force against Kashmir’s pro-India political elite. However, the United Front lost the 1987 election, which was widely believed to have been heavily rigged. A strong public backlash followed. Some young United Front activists crossed over to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, where the Pakistani military began arming and training Kashmiri nationalists. By 1989, Kashmir was in the throes of a full-blown rebellion.

India poured more troops into the already heavily militarized region. In response, thousands of Kashmiris streamed back from the Pakistani-controlled portion with weapons, staging bloody attacks on Indian security forces and pro-India Kashmiri politicians. Indian soldiers, empowered with emergency laws giving them legal impunity, carried out a brutal military crackdown, leaving Kashmiris exhausted and traumatized. More than 68,000 people have been killed since then.

US Influence, Indian Military Might Crush Kashmiri Rebellion

Kashmir rebels suffered a major setback after 9/11, when the U.S. pressured Pakistan to rein in the militants. Indian troops largely crushed the militancy after that, though popular demands for “azadi,” — freedom — remain ingrained in the Kashmiri psyche. In the last decade, the region has made a transition from armed rebellion to unarmed uprisings, with tens of thousands of civilians repeatedly taking to the streets to protest Indian rule, often leading to clashes between rock-throwing residents and Indian troops. The protests are usually quelled by force, often resulting in deaths.

Religious Strife, Renewed Violence

In 2008, a government decision — later revoked — to transfer land to a Hindu shrine in Kashmir set off a summer of protests. The following year, the alleged rape and murder of two young women by government forces set off fresh violence. In 2010, the trigger for protests was a police investigation into allegations that soldiers had shot three civilians dead, and then staged a fake gun battle to make it appear that the dead were militants in order to claim rewards for the killings. Over those three years hundreds of thousands of young men and women took to the streets, hurling rocks and insults at Indian forces. At least 200 people were killed and hundreds wounded as troops fired into the crowds, inciting further protests.

Crackdowns and More Militancy

The crackdowns appear to be pushing many educated young Kashmiris, who grew up politically radicalized amid decades of brutal conflict, toward armed rebel groups. Young Kashmiri boys began snatching weapons from Indian forces and training themselves deep inside Kashmir’s forests. Despite that, the number of militants has apparently remained tiny, with security experts estimating there has not been more than 200 for the last several years.

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