ODVV interview: Kashmiris fear the specter of demographic change in the region

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Publish Date : 09/30/2019 20:31
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Conflict over Kashmir started after the partition of India in 1947 when Maharaja Hari Singh, the governor of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, signed a standstill agreement with Pakistan to continue trade and travel with the newly-formed country but faced opposition from India regarding signing a similar standstill agreement.

Tensions between India and Pakistan are soaring again as New Delhi decided to rescind the special status accorded to the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, claimed in its entirety by Pakistan, marking what some say is the most broad-ranging political move in the disputed region in nearly seven decades.


Article 370 of India’s constitution granted special rights to Kashmir, including the right to its own constitution and autonomy on all matters other than defense, communications and foreign affairs. A presidential decree issued on August 5 revoked this special status, sparking fears that a drastic demographic transformation will be underway. Following the controversial decision, India dispatched thousands of additional troops to the highly militarized zone, imposed a curfew, suspended internet and telecommunications and detained political leaders.

In a fiery speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan warned India that its actions in Kashmir could provoke war, saying that Narendra Modi’s government currently deploys 900,000 security forces in the Himalayan territory. Mr. Khan deplored the curfew instituted by the Indian government in Kashmir, noting that there will be a “bloodbath” when the curfew is lifted, as the Kashmiri people won’t accept the status quo and the Indian soldiers are expected to suppress them violently.


Conflict over Kashmir started after the partition of India in 1947 when Maharaja Hari Singh, the governor of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, signed a standstill agreement with Pakistan to continue trade and travel with the newly-formed country but faced opposition from India regarding signing a similar standstill agreement. Partition-related violence flared between the two countries and attempts by pro-Pakistan rebels to invade Kashmir prompted the maharaja to ask India for assistance and subsequently sign an Instrument of Accession, a document that aligned Kashmir with the Dominion of India. The fateful decision was followed by decades of conflict in the contested region, two wars and an entrenched insurgency.


Ather Zia is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado. Previously a journalist with BBC World Service, she is a widely published columnist and author whose research interests include human rights, political anthropology, gender, state terror and the social movements of Muslim women. Prof. Zia is the founder and editor of an e-zine covering Kashmir-related issues called Kashmir Lit and is the author of the recently published book “Resisting Disappearance: Women’s Activism and Military Occupation in Kashmir.” She monitors and studies Kashmir’s social, cultural and political developments closely.

Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has arranged an interview with Prof. Ather Zia about the recent skirmishes between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and the historical roots of this longstanding conflict. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


Q: New tensions between Pakistan and India emerged after the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his government will revoke the Article 370 of the constitution that gives Jammu and Kashmir special status, autonomy, independent constitution and a flag. What are the implications of this decision for the residents of the disputed region? In what ways is the decision important?

A: The full implications of how things will change will be known once the siege is lifted and people can move around and experience the impact of the changes in the administration. The law goes into effect at the end of October. As of now, to stop dissenting voices, the Indian administered Kashmir has been under lockdown for the last 43 days and even then there have been massive number of protests. In my opinion, the loss of the special status of autonomy, also known as the Article 370, is more symbolic because it was almost eviscerated by the Indian government. This makes the removal of autonomy by India more an attack on cultural, ethnic and religious identity rather than only governing politics, and is also more telling for Kashmiri people. The most palpable fears are around the loss of territorial sovereignty, which was enshrined in the article 35-A, which was also a part of Article 370. In 1947, as a quasi-independent territory, Kashmir was to have its own constitution and flag and India would only have a say in matters of defense, currency, communication, and foreign affairs with the concurrence of Kashmiri legislature. We must remember the conditions around the signing of the accession document are also disputed. As I said, now only a few symbolic parts of the original treaty are in force, amongst which Article 35-A ensured that Kashmiris as indigenous people retain their rights to land and resources. Now that is gone and people fear demographic changes.


Q: Media organizations that have covered the crisis in the Kashmir valley say the revocation of the Article 370 of the Indian constitution will alter the demographics of the region, and the growing tendency of Indians across the country to purchase land and property in Kashmir is a testimony to this presumption. What’s your take on that? Is the Modi government planning to implement a fundamental change in Kashmir?

A: Modi or no Modi, BJP or no BJP, Kashmiris have always feared the specter of demographic change. No doubt, the removal of Kashmir’s autonomy has been foremost on BJP’s manifesto. After the party formed the government, Kashmiris feared the revocation was imminent. But it is also important to know that all Indian parties over the years have steadily eroded Kashmir’s autonomy by deploying clientele regimes to broaden and deepen Indian control. Modi’s method is only different in that it is pivoted around a spectacle of military conquest. Kashmiris have historically been cognizant of their sovereign status and as a people they have always been part of a syncretic culture. The original nature of communities of different religions living together stemmed from shared indigeneity, ethnicity, or organic migration. There were also non-Kashmiris or Indians living, working and investing inside Kashmir. So, the fear of demographic change should not be misconstrued as fear of ordinary people coming into Kashmir, but concerted settler colonialism.

Thus, the fear of demographic change needs to be put into political context. One of the most understated and violent aspects of the partition of Kashmir – into Pakistan and Indian administered respectively – in 1947 has been the massacre of Muslims in the Jammu province. In 1947 Muslims comprised 61% of the population in the Jammu province before the Independence of India and Pakistan. The exact death toll is not known but credible estimates state that the Hindu mobs killed between two to five lakhs of Muslim men, women and children, and about two lakhs of people went missing. Many Muslims fled to Azad Kashmir, the side of Kashmir that is Pakistani administered. The number of women abducted by Hindu mobs varies from 256 to 27,000 because of unreported cases. The census conducted after 1947 showed “uninhabited villages” whose residents had been killed, abducted or fled. The large-scale displacement of Muslims caused significant demographic changes in the Jammu region, which was seen as a move to deliver Kashmir region to India. The Maharaja of Kashmir gave institutional support to the pogrom, which was fomented by Hindu fundamentalist organizations, especially the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The ruler later favored accession to India.


So, the specter of demographic change looms large on the Kashmiri horizon since it has been the part of the toolkit of Indian expansionist policies. Recently in 2008, the mobilization of civilian and street resistance, which became central to Tehreek as the Kashmiri resistance movement is called, was also catalyzed by the fear of settler colonialism. At the heart of this incident is a pilgrimage that Hindus from all over India and also Kashmir undertake to a cave called Amarnath in the Himalayas considered as the abode of Hindu God Shiva and his consort. That year the local administration in Kashmir agreed to transfer 99 acres of forestland on which the shrine trustees wanted to set up permanent facilities and shelters for the pilgrims. Kashmiris rose up in massive demonstrations against this proposal fearing India was planning settlements like Israel was doing in Palestine.

Parallels were drawn with the Israel Land Authority’s new constructions in Har Homa, East Jerusalem in 2005. Kashmiris fear any demographic policies might be deployed to bring in changes that will in the long run favor India. The intensification in pilgrimage tourism is part of the Indian policy of Hinduizing Kashmir and assertion of undisputed claim on the region. The threat of demographic change has been termed as India’s “demographic terrorism.” Now with the protection of Article 35-A gone these threats are seen as becoming real. The official date of the removal of autonomy occurs in October, and it seems a host of investors are looking towards the region. With the deep disturbance in the Kashmir valley, it remains to be seen how much of the actual investment will be done but people are already fearing a West Bank-like situation.


Q: In early August, Pakistan announced that it will downgrade its diplomatic relations with India and also halt its trade relations with New Delhi. How will the move by the Imran Khan government influence the resolution of the Kashmir crisis? Isn’t it more reasonable to keep the diplomatic channel open?

A: Pakistan’s decision does not come from a vacuum but it followed after India also refused to let up on its decisions to not talk about Kashmir situation and also continues the clampdown on Kashmir. The Pakistani decision should also be seen in context of strident Indian posturing and unwillingness to pursue a reasonable dialogue and refusal of any mediation including the UN. There is a historical belligerence between these two countries and Kashmir is pivotal to that rancor. Things between the two countries have been getting increasingly worse especially since 2014 when BJP came to power. Not that they were ever easy. We have to remember that in 1971, India and Pakistan signed an agreement called the Shimla agreement in which they decided none of the two countries would come to any unilateral decision on Kashmir. Now India has gone ahead and pursued its age-old policy of mobilizing primarily its military to secure the territory which is bolstered by its judiciary and executive to gain full control over the region.


Q: The Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has called his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi a fascist and warned against a “genocide” against Muslims in Kashmir. Is the situation in Kashmir as critical as Imran Khan describes and is the Indian government systematically harassing and pressuring the Muslim residents of Kashmir?

A: I must note that as we speak, Genocide Watch has issued an alert for Kashmir. You only have to look through the archives of international and regional human rights organizations like the Amnesty International, Human Rights watch, Medicines Sans Frontiers or the recent reports of 2016 and 2018 from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to know the dire state of human rights in Kashmir. Kashmir is called as an open-air prison, and many scholars and analysts have long called what is happening in Kashmir as an incremental genocide or slow genocide. People are dying every day. Every day is a dire consequence of a conflict that is violent and rife with state terrorism.

Currently, 700,000 strong Indian troops exist in the region of about 12.5 million people with one Indian soldier for every 8-9 Kashmiris. In the run-up to the current siege, 48,000 more troops were flown in. After the armed conflict began, the Indian government imposed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Jammu and Kashmir Disturbed Areas Act. AFSPA gives the Indian armed and paramilitary forces sweeping powers that facilitate arbitrary arrest and detention, custodial and extrajudicial executions, massacres, torture, rape, and otherwise cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment, and it reinforces the impunity of offenders acting under it, including authority to shoot to kill. The human rights violations in the last 33 years in Kashmir have been condemned globally. The Indian forces have used rape as a weapon of war and most reported cases have gone unpunished. Mass incarcerations, which also include child detainees, have become a norm. The Indian government uses pellet shot guns for crowd control. The name of “pellet” gun seemingly invokes something less harmless than bullets. But, to be clear, it is a type of shotgun with a cartridge with up to 500 tiny lead pellets that move with a high velocity in all directions when fired. The government of India says pellet-guns are a “non-lethal” technology for crowd control. According to Amnesty International, since July 2016, pellet guns have injured over 6,000 people—including 782 eye injuries. In 2016, the phrase “mass blindings” began to be associated with Kashmir when the Indian government used the shotguns rampantly blinding and wounding people. Last year was the bloodiest. There were 586 people killed; 161 were civilians and 267 were militants that mostly included native Kashmiris. Almost every day was a funeral. This is just a quick snapshot of the Indian military’s record of human rights abuse inside Kashmir. As the siege continues, no word from the people is getting out and fears for the safety of Kashmiris have been on the rise.


Q: There are many reports that the Indian Army, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Border Security Force (BSF) personnel have been involved in human rights abuses against Kashmiri Muslims including enforced disappearances, torture, sexual abuse, rape and imposition of restriction on their political freedoms and freedom of speech. Do you think these allegations are true? Why does the Indian government, despite its democratic structure, permit the commission of such undemocratic and aggressive practices in a region it administers?

A: Kashmir is one of the highest militarized zones in the world. In 1989, to suppress a popular Kashmiri armed movement, India imposed the Armed Forces Special Forces Act which gives its armed forces unlimited powers to act with impunity. Often called an open-air prison, more than 700,000 Indian troops control the region. Gross human rights violations effected by the government forces include killing of more than 70,000, more than 10,000 enforced disappearances, rape used as a weapon of war, mass incarcerations, and injuries like the world’s first mass blindings and 60,000 subjected to custodial torture. AFSPA gives the military supreme control over the region. With such overarching powers, AFSPA has enabled arbitrary arrests and detention, rapes, enforced disappearances, fake encounters, and extrajudicial executions, thus reinforcing the impunity of offenders acting under it. All this is documented so the question of it not being true does not hold water. The grave human rights situation in Kashmir is a fact, which has been documented by many regional and international institutions including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and also independent researchers and scholars, and proven, but largely all abuses have gone unpunished. I myself document human rights violations, especially enforced disappearances, and recently published the book “Resisting Disappearance” is based on my research.

Since 1947 India has used both direct and indirect forms of violence to control Kashmiri demand for self-determination. India uses these tactics because it has been getting away with it. Since the start of Cold War, it has increasingly gotten away with a fairy-tale it has told itself and its people: that Kashmir is an internal dispute. India pretends Kashmir is a law and order situation and not an international dispute where Kashmiris are stakeholders. As it carved an economic niche based on rampant neoliberal trade that often pivots on buying arms from big nations, over the years India’s audacity to subsume Kashmir issue also increased. With this increased the momentum of Kashmiri resistance, which as a movement has morphed and evolved from decade to decade. In the late 80s, Kashmiri movement for self-determination adopted militancy and India cracked down militarily on the region. This continues because thus far India has not been reprimanded in effective and impactful ways to cease its brutal military occupation. On the contrary, big nations have been quite willing to listen to Indian narrative sidelining the Kashmiris and been quite successful in tarnishing the reputation of Kashmiri Tehreek by sometimes collating it with global terrorism, or Pakistan’s proxy war, or sometimes as only an internal disturbance. This hopefully will change as more and more Kashmiris voices will be heard.


Q: What’s your evaluation of the role-playing of the United Nations in the Kashmir conflict throughout these seven decades? Has the world body made any achievements in alleviating tensions between India and Pakistan and moving towards finding a lasting solution?

A: United Nations has a definite role to play. Since 1947, when the princely state of Kashmir was temporarily bifurcated between India and Pakistan, the Indian administered Kashmir has clamored for a plebiscite. This was mandated by the United Nations so that the Kashmiri people could choose their own fate. The original options in the plebiscite were mergers with either of the two countries, but Kashmiris have increasingly demanded that a third option of an independent Kashmiri state be added. Kashmiris repose a lot of faith in the United Nations. Kashmiri civilians and militants alike often invoke the UN’s name to express the international community’s support for their collective political will. In Kashmiri political imagination, the UN is a ¬powerful interlocutor committed to enacting their aspirations and delivering their long-awaited justice. This was reiterated recently in 2018 and 2019 when UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) published the report and called for the Kashmir dispute to be solved according to the wishes of the people. The Organization of Islamic Countries has supported Kashmiri will from time to time. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) examined human rights in the context of the right to self-determination and came to a conclusion that a right of self-determination arose at the time of Partition and is still exercisable. But to all this India has responded by negating any international intervention, and especially put the United Nations on the backburner since the late 1960s. India claims that the elections held inside Kashmir are a manifestation of people’s endorsement of the accession. This is neatly sidestepping that those elections, the first of which was held in the 1950s, was considered as an illicit “out of order” act by the UN because the case of Kashmir was sub judice. Thus, the foundation of so-called Indian democracy in Kashmir which I term as “politics of democracy” that is masking the military hegemony and is not real exercise of free will. The free will of Kashmiris resides in the UN Security council resolutions. As of now it is quite evident that international community including the UN is taking increasing notice of the situation in Kashmir and the future course is full of just possibilities.


Q: Since 1947, India and Pakistan have been involved in four wars over the sovereignty of Kashmir, and in each conflict, several soldiers and civilians lost their lives. What do you think is a fair resolution for this seven-decade-long conflict that can equally satisfy the two sides?

A: There are no new answers to this question nor do we have to reinvent the wheel; the right to self-determination for the region is the only way forward – whatever mechanisms are needed to put that into motion, they should be persistently and creatively sought. Decolonize, demilitarize and right to self-determination comprised of the third option for independence is a way forward. To the presentist geopolitical formations, this sounds like a utopian plan, but Kashmiri resistance is older than India and Pakistan and it has persistently sought nothing less than a sovereign democracy. The region will require imaginative and proven mechanisms to ensure its political and economic independence and future wellbeing.


Q: Do you think organizations such as the Non-Aligned Movement or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation can reduce tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad or even come up with a solution to end the crisis? Can the UN Human Rights Council establish a fact-finding committee in order to resolve the situation in Kashmir?

A: In an ideal world all prospects are possible. As of now India is not talking or accepting any mediation. It is adamant and has convinced itself and its masses that Kashmir is its internal dispute and repressing Kashmiri dissent through direct violence is framed as necessary for their national security. At the same time, Kashmiri (Tehreek) (name for the movement for freedom/resistance) has been criminalized and presented as what is stereotyped as “terrorism” to the world. No doubt a fact-finding mission can be established and there is a demand for it but access to the region remains cut off. India claims that it is a democracy and that Kashmir is governed under democratic norms and that it has all the tools to alleviate the situation. But the truth is far from it. Kashmir is ruled under a military occupation using clientele regimes as a front, and it has led to terrible human rights violations and criminalization of its resistance movement. Also, we must keep in mind that while human rights violations are a fact, they are a consequence of India cracking down on the Kashmiri political will for self-determination and independence. Thus, Kashmir primarily needs to be spoken in terms of a political problem the repression of which leads to human rights violations. Talking only about human rights violations decontextualizes the situation. It is not as if the human rights violations ceased Kashmiris would be ok – they would not be. As a tangible solution in the future, Kashmir must be foregrounded as an international issue with three stakeholders and Kashmiris simply must be part of the negotiations. Kashmiris are not subjects who have to be acted upon by Indian might, but are agentive people who have a political will and world bodies including the UN have to honor that the wishes of people be respected.



By: Kourosh Ziabari

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ODVV.

“ ODVV interview: Kashmiris fear the specter of demographic change in the region ”