The thing I had least expected when moving to Germany to pursue an American Bachelor’s degree was how much I would end up learning about my own country. I spent the better half of my first year at BCB studying the likes of Plato and Smith. In my second year, I decided to probe deeper into Migration studies and took a class called the ‘Lexicon of Migration’, taught by Prof. Dr. Agata Lisiak. We covered a broad set of subjects within the scope of migration— the history of borders and language, the media’s portrayal of bodies crossing borders, questions of deservingness, and migration law, to name a few. One of the first texts we read for the class was an excerpt from a book called ‘Resisting Occupation in Kashmir’ by Mona Bhan et.al. It gave an account of the human rights abuses carried out in the Indian state of Kashmir, through the lens of a Kashmiri Hindu. I went on to read the entire book and can safely say it has taught me more about the politics of Kashmir than living in India for 19 years did.
Up until the Partition of India in 1947, Kashmir used to be famously known as ‘‘heaven on earth’’ because of its beautiful landscapes. In 1947, after two hundred years of colonial rule, when the British finally declared independence in India, the seeds of communal hatred that the empire had embedded in the subcontinent had sprouted. The British had a ‘divide and rule’ policy in India, which meant turning Hindus against Muslims and vice versa to fulfil their own political and economic agendas. As a result, when India was declared independent, the All India Muslim League demanded to have their own land. The subcontinent was to be divided into two independent countries—India and Pakistan. Each state in then-India was to hold a consensus of the population to deliberate which states would remain in India and which would be part of the newly formed country of Pakistan. Hindu majority states were to remain in India, and Muslim majority states would be part of the new Pakistan. Each state held a consensus and observed unanimous votes—except the state of Kashmir. The ruler of Kashmir at the time of the partition was Hindu and singlehandedly decided that Kashmir was to remain in India, even though the population of Kashmir was largely Muslim. The states of Bengal, Punjab, and Sindh were partitioned into territories that now belonged to Pakistan. Following the partition, India saw a mass exodus of people travelling in and out of India and Pakistan, which displaced between 10 and 20 million people along religious lines, creating overwhelming refugee crises in the newly constituted dominions. Large scale violence followed, especially in the state of Kashmir. Over 70 years later, Kashmir is the only state in India that has not yet been declared independent and has remained largely under the control of the Indian military. Ever since the Partition of India in 1947, there have been three wars (in 1947, 1965, and 1971) between the two countries, several terrorist attacks, and permanently sour relations, all over the territory of Kashmir.
This was the extent to which we were taught about Kashmir in high school. We were also taught that the reason why Kashmir remains under the control of the Indian military is to protect the citizens from Pakistani attacks. It was only as a junior in high school that I learned the true nature of the military rule in Kashmir. India, which has one of the largest standing armies in the world, has half of all its troops assigned to Kashmir, which is very small in size compared to the entire subcontinent. The Indian army, sponsored by the Indian government, has committed innumerable human rights offences against the predominantly Muslim state in the last 70 years. There have been frequent communication bans. India has even gone so far as to impose a ban on postcards to and from the region of Kashmir.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to produce a podcast with Bard’s Human Rights Radio, which is soon to be published on their website. It features a talk with Muzamil Jaleel, a Kashmiri journalist for Indian Express. The talk was part of the Spring 2021 Lexicon of Migration network class and was attended by students at Bard Annandale and BCB. In his talk, Jaleel highlights his own experiences growing up in Kashmir, not having the security of life or freedom of speech. After losing people throughout his life to violence perpetrated in part by the Indian army, he decided to become a journalist to spread awareness about Kashmir’s situation. But because of the frequent communication bans in the area and strict censorship laws enforced by the government, it became extremely difficult for him to speak out against the Indian army and government. He has since moved out of Kashmir and is living in Delhi, away from his family, so he can continue working for the Indian Express and publishing articles on Kashmir and his own experiences in the state.
Journalists like Jaleel have been producing content for years to educate people on the Kashmir conflict. And yet, most Hindus in India are in denial about the treatment of Kashmiris by the army. They believe that the army is protecting the Hindu minority in Kashmir (1/5th of its total population) against attacks by Pakistani militants and the Muslim citizens of the state. The mainstream Indian media, financed by the Indian government unsurprisingly, is a major contributor to the spread of false information and propaganda that most Hindu citizens believe without questioning, including my extended family.
When I visit home for the holidays, my parents frequently have some of my relatives over for dinner. Inevitably, the conversation at the table turns political. Anytime I would have a discussion with my right-wing aunt about Kashmir, she would say the research for my thesis, focused on Kashmir, is biased or that the accounts of military abuse are ‘‘made up by the Muslims in Kashmir’’ so they can control the state. The book I mentioned earlier, with the excerpt we had to read for our Migration class, is one of the few texts tracing the injustice in Kashmir written from the point of view of a Kashmiri Hindu. Mona Bhan, who is one of the authors of the book, contextualizes the Kashmiri conflict and paints a horrific picture of life in Kashmir. I forwarded the excerpt to my aunt to read. I’m not sure if she found the accounts more credible coming from a Hindu or if it was sympathy for her Hindu community, but it seems to me that the article was successful in changing her perspective a little. She still holds the same core beliefs but her confidence in them seems shaken.
In 2019, the Indian government revoked article 350 from its constitution. The Article previously conferred power on Jammu and Kashmir to have a separate constitution, a state flag and autonomy over the internal administration of the state. Even though the article was practically meaningless, revoking it is a consolidation of India’s complete control over the area. Among the Indian government’s actions accompanying the revocation was the cutting off of communication lines in the Kashmir Valley. Thousands of security forces were deployed to curb any uprising and several leading Kashmiri politicians were taken into custody, including the former chief minister. The Kashmiri resistance movement, however, is unwavering. The region has observed constant protests, in the face of abuse from police and military. Shops remain closed against government orders.
Though you can find international media coverage online about the 2019 lockdown in Kashmir and how oppressive it has proven to be for its citizens, there is widespread support for the move in the subcontinent. The seeds of communal hatred planted by the British have definitely been successful in turning Hindus and Muslims against each other.
My aunt is probably more invested in my thesis project than anybody else, and for the wrong reasons. She cannot, for the life of her, decipher why I’m so invested in Kashmir. ‘Why Kashmir?’ She asks every time. Some part of it has to do with the fact that I feel guilty about not challenging my own bias or what I was taught about Kashmir sooner. Because I used to believe it was the safest place in the country since the Indian military was ‘protecting’ it. Because the land I once believed to be heaven on earth is anything but.