As hundreds of millions of Indians take part in the largest democratic election in the world, residents of the northern province of Kashmir are engaging in what appears to be a historic boycott of the vote. The current Indian prime ministerial election, which runs over the course of a month, pits the incumbent Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, against Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress. For the residents of Kashmir who find themselves trapped in the middle of a decadeslong rivalry between India and neighboring Pakistan, their lives are unlikely to change regardless of the election’s outcome.
Earlier this month, separatist groups in Kashmir called for a boycott of the election that started on April 11 and will end on May 19. Reports say that only 13 percent of voters in the provincial capital, Srinagar, have voted, amid sporadic clashes at polling stations. The turnout so far is markedly lower than it was in the most recent election in 2014, when a record 65 percent of eligible voters in the province cast ballots.
While Modi and Gandhi may offer distinct visions for the country’s future, on the issue of Kashmir, some feel that the differences are mainly cosmetic.
Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir as their own due to an unresolved dispute that dates back to the Partition of the Indian subcontinent by the British in 1947. Years of repression in Indian-controlled Kashmir led to the outbreak of a local insurgency against government rule in the late 1980s. That conflict has killed a staggering 80,000 people, gradually transforming the idyllic province — famous for its picturesque lakes and mountains — into what is often referred to as the most militarized place on earth.
The control that the Indian military asserts over Kashmir, in addition to politicians’ indifference toward Kashmiris’ desire for greater autonomy, have contributed to the latter’s aversion to participating in Indian democracy. Modi’s five-year tenure as prime minister has seen an escalation in violence in the troubled province. Gandhi has not mimicked Modi’s hard-line nationalist rhetoric about Kashmir, but has said little about a political solution to the conflict.
In February, Kashmir briefly flashed in the international community’s attention after a rare suicide attack killed 40 Indian soldiers near the district of Pulwama. The Pulwama attack, which Indian authorities blamed on a Pakistan-backed militant group, was the first suicide bombing in Kashmir in nearly two decades. The incident led to a brief, nerve-wracking standoff between the two nuclear powers, culminating in days of deadly shelling and aerial attacks. For a moment, Kashmir seemed to have brought South Asia to the brink of nuclear war yet again.
Although the immediate threat of war has subsided, the Indian government is now in the midst of a sweeping crackdown on Kashmiri political activists — a reflection of the way Modi and the BJP see their relationship to Kashmir. Military control over the province has intensified, with even pro-India Kashmiri leaders saying that the province of 11 million is becoming “an open-air prison.” In such an environment, nationwide elections seem to offer little hope. While Modi and Gandhi may offer distinct visions for the country’s future, on the issue of Kashmir, some feel that the differences are mainly cosmetic.
“For Congress, at least at the level of rhetoric, Kashmiris are viewed as citizens of India. Their rhetoric suggests that eventually India has to find a nonmilitary solution to the problems in Kashmir,” said Mohamad Junaid, an assistant professor of anthropology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and an expert on political movements in Kashmir. “The BJP, on the other hand, sees Kashmiri Muslims themselves as a problem. They dislike the fact that Kashmir is a majority Muslim region of India and foresee a ‘demographic solution’ for the province, which would entail bringing settlers from elsewhere in India to colonize the region.”
More than the politicians, however, “it is the Indian military establishment that determines what occurs in Kashmir,” Junaid said.
The modern history of Kashmir has been scarred by cycles of violence and ethnic cleansing. Following the 1947 Partition, pogroms broke out and killed tens of thousands of people. Over the next few decades, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Muslims fled their homes. Local Hindus eventually joined the exodus, following the outbreak of a local insurgency against the Indian government after a rigged state election in the late 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits, a Hindu Brahmin community, left the province during the early 1990s, fleeing militant violence and their own uncertain prospects in a potentially independent Kashmir.
In the three decades since, militant groups in Kashmir have been fighting a low-level insurgency against the Indian government. India’s response has alternated between brutal repression and suggestions of dialogue. In 1994, the main opposition group, the nationalist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, declared a ceasefire and committed itself to a peaceful struggle to end the conflict. The group’s leader Yasin Malik called for talks with the Indian government to find a political solution. Malik also called on the Pandits to return and resettle their homes in Kashmir. It was a hopeful gesture aimed at rebuilding the torn social fabric of the province.
Despite halting attempts at negotiations over the years, violence has continued. Pakistani military and intelligence agencies have helped radicalize the conflict by supporting extremists perpetrating terrorism across India, most horrifyingly the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Meanwhile, the Indian government has resorted to gruesome measures to quell unrest in Kashmir itself. In 2011, a state human rights commission uncovered mass graves containing the bodies of thousands of Kashmiri civilians disappeared by Indian security forces. Sexual violence has also become a weapon of war, leading to notorious incidents such as the 1991 rape and torture of dozens of women by Indian security forces in the villages of Kunan and Poshpora.
A 2018 United Nations Human Rights report cited a litany of ongoing abuses in the province, including the use of forced disappearances and torture. Just last month, a 29-year-old school principal was allegedly tortured to death while in government custody.
“It is important to understand how media coverage of this issue perpetuates a pattern of erasing Kashmiri voices.”
During periods of crisis, the international media tends to fixate on the perspectives of India and Pakistan. Rather than focusing on conditions in the province, news coverage often treats Kashmir mainly as an issue of war and peace between two rival powers, such as the prospect of nuclear escalation or how Indians and Pakistanis are responding to the threat of possible conflict. This itself is a cause of irritation for some Kashmiris who say that such coverage, even when it includes the views of liberal Pakistanis and Indians seeking to avert war, ends up ignoring the fact that people in their province are living in a perpetual state of war.
“It is important to understand how media coverage of this issue perpetuates a pattern of erasing Kashmiri voices. The international community tends to view Kashmir primarily as a geopolitical dispute between India and Pakistan, ignoring the fact that Kashmiris are continuously suffering under a military occupation,” said Hafsa Kanjwal, an assistant professor of South Asian history at Lafayette College. “There are things happening in Kashmir that are quite horrific on a day-to-day basis. But the only time the issue seems to get attention is when it brings India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear war.”
Periodic polls suggest that a significant number of Kashmiris would vote for greater autonomy, or even independence in the remote chance that India would allow a vote on that question. A U.N. resolution dating back to Partition laid the groundwork for a referendum to let Kashmiris decide the question of self-determination. Although the idea of a vote was notionally endorsed by India’s early independence leaders, it has never been implemented. As a result, Kashmiris find themselves in a position similar to Kurds and Sri Lankan Tamils, trapped inside postcolonial states in which they feel mistreated and unwelcome.
“Initially Kashmir was considered an international issue at the level of the United Nations, before being reframed as a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan. Now India simply says that it is an internal security problem that is their own business,” said Kanjwal. “Since 2001, India has characterized their operations in Kashmir as part of a broader global war against terrorism to try and separate it from any broader questions of political freedom. In reality, the situation in Kashmir predates that war by many decades.”
The conflict entered a new stage in 2016, following the killing of 22-year-old Burhan Wani, a popular local militant leader. Following Wani’s death, protests broke out across the province; the hundreds of thousands demonstrators who took to the streets were met with extreme violence. In response to demonstrations, the Indian government also introduced a new crowd-control weapon: pellet shotguns, which have blinded hundreds of people. Despite this, the Indian military continues to use them, sending a sinister message to Kashmiris about the cost of protest.
Photos: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images; Kiyoshi Ota/AFP/Getty Images
The most hopeful period for resolving the conflict in Kashmir came under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP, the current ruling party. During the 2000s, Vajpayee outlined a framework for ending the conflict that satisfied many Kashmiri political leaders, Indian nationalists, and Pakistan. That window of opportunity closed when Pakistan’s military government at the time was overthrown. But the current government in Islamabad has indicated an interest in new talks with India, including in the likely event that the BJP’s Modi retains power. If Modi were to engage in peace talks, it is possible to imagine that he may have enough credibility with his hard-line base to make concessions without appearing “soft” on militancy.
Since coming to office in 2014, however, Modi has taken a harsh stance toward Kashmir. In his speeches, he has invoked the language of war, rallying nationalist sentiment particularly as his economic plans for India’s poor and middle class appear to falter. In this year’s elections, the BJP has campaigned on a promise to revoke Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, a small vestige of Kashmiri autonomy that allows local authorities to determine residency rights. Such a move would lay the groundwork for the “demographic solution” some Kashmiris fear by opening the door to millions of non-Kashmiri Indians to move into the province. In that event, some Kashmiris fear that their province will be at risk of becoming something like the Israeli-controlled West Bank, under the control of settlers protected by the Indian military.
Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, has been more conciliatory in his rhetoric, suggesting vaguely that India should “embrace” the people of the region instead of driving them into the arms of the militants. The last Congress government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who led India between 2004 and 2014, succeeded in making incremental steps toward a political deal that helped reduce violence in the province.
For many living in Kashmir, some type of political solution is the only hope to escape the unbearable status quo. Hundreds of activists and political leaders have been detained in the crackdown that followed the Pulwama attack, including Yasin Malik, the separatist leader who eschewed violent struggle in the 1990s and engaged in talks with Indian leaders. Malik was transferred to a prison in Delhi to await arraignment on charges involving “the financing of terrorist activities, pelting of stones on security forces, burning down of schools and damaging of government establishments.”
“Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri leaders have no option besides genuine dialogue to resolve this conflict,” said Khurram Parvez, a Srinagar-based coordinator for the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. “But any negotiated settlement has to acknowledge the legitimate aspirations of the Kashmiri people. People on the ground have to feel like their lives and interests are protected and that there is dignity for us. Above all, we want to have the right to determine our own future.”