A sweeping social media gag; dozens of Kashmiri female students defiantly protesting Indian military troop presence; and a Kashmiri man tied to an Indian military vehicle as a human shield against stone-pelting protesters. These are just some of the latest stories to come out of India’s north-eastern state of Jammu and Kashmir, also known simply as Indian-administered Kashmir.
Jammu and Kashmir has been under suffocating Indian military presence and intermittent curfews under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Public Safety Act since 1990. Since then, more than 70,000 Kashmiris have been killed and many more have been injured or arrested in Indian military crackdowns.
The struggle for independence, or azadi, that has been brewing there since 1989, has taken on a renewed dimension in the last year since the death of a 22-year-old.
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Home to 12 million people, Jammu and Kashmir is the only Indian state with its own flag and a Muslim-majority population.
In April 2016, Burhan Wani, a young social media star, supporter of a free Kashmir, and “the poster boy” of Kashmir’s new wave of armed struggle, was killed in a counterinsurgency operation. After his execution, Kashmiri journalist and New York Times writer Basharat Peer posted on Facebook:
The Internet has been banned. Curfew has been imposed. Phones can’t be reached. The mighty Indian state might have killed him but they haven’t won. A 22-year-old in his death has shaken you.
Since his death, protests, and crackdowns have killed more than a hundred civilians, thousands have been injured, and businesses, the internet, and schools have been shuttered intermittently for months.
The azadi movement
Home to 12 million people, Jammu and Kashmir is the only Indian state with its own flag and a Muslim-majority population. The Kashmiri people have been demanding the right to hold a referendum on their independence since 1989, but India’s government won’t allow it.
Politicians who advocate independence and alliances like the All Parties Hurriyat Conference are the strongest political groups in the region. They officially reject India’s sovereignty over Kashmir and have been demanding independence or a merger with Pakistan since 1989. Various polls over the years have shown that the majority of the state’s residents want to separate from India.
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The Indian government has officially stated that it believes Kashmir to be an integral part of India.
In 2015, for the first time, India’s ruling Hindu-nationalist BJP party was sworn into government in Kashmir in coalition with the local Kashmiri People’s Democratic Party. Since then, the BJP government has been flexing its muscle in the Valley, through crackdowns on protests and legal actions like the enforcement of a colonial-era ban on eating beef. When the courts ruled that the ban must be strictly enforced, many in Indian-administered Kashmir closed shops, businesses and government departments in protest. In an opinion piece for Scroll, Athar Pervaiz wrote:
Statements made by various BJP leaders in recent months about minorities, especially Muslims, have only bolstered the perception in the Valley that the BJP is not interested in bringing a durable peace to Muslim-majority Kashmir.
There is a growing movement of activists in India questioning their government’s abuses in Kashmir. Indians who voice their support for the self-determination of the Kashmiri people, often face heat and threats.
Last year, protests that began at a public university in New Delhi spread across the entire country, after the president of a student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University was arrested on sedition accusations for organizing a rally to mark the anniversary of the execution of a Kashmiri fighting for independence.
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Mir Suhail [@mirsuhail ] on how India controls Kashmir. pic.twitter.com/t99WHoWidr
— Mirza Waheed (@MirzaWaheed) July 11, 2016
In 2008, the Booker prize-winning novelist and human rights activist Arundhati Roy argued the need for independence goes both ways:
India needs azadi from Kashmir as much as Kashmir needs azadi from India.
The most militarized zone in the world
The Public Safety Act (PSA) allows incarceration without trial for two years and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is a constitutional provision that gives Indian troops overarching powers and legal immunity for their actions in Jammu and Kashmir.
Kashmir is the most densely militarized zone in the world. More than 700,000 Indian military personnel are deployed in the state; for every eight Kashmiris, there is an Indian soldier.
The act gives troops the right to shoot to kill; arrest anyone as young as 12 with force and without a warrant; enter and search any premise and stop and search any vehicle; occupy or destroy property in counterinsurgency operations; detain Kashmiris for up to two years without charging them. Army officers have legal immunity for their actions. There can be no prosecution, suit or any other legal proceeding against anyone acting under that law.
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Blinding protesters with bullets from pellet guns has been amongst the most controversial tactic used by Indian forces in Kashmir.
The AFSPA has been criticized by Human Rights Watch as a “tool of state abuse, oppression, and discrimination”. The UN has asked India to revoke AFSPA saying it had no place in Indian democracy. Christof Heyns, UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said:
[The AFSPA] clearly violates International Law. A number of UN treaty bodies have pronounced it to be in violation of International Law as well.”
Under the PSA, thousands of Kashmiri youth and activists, including lawyers and journalists, have been incarcerated unlawfully, according to Amnesty International. The organization’s estimates of the number detained over the past two decades range from 8,000 to 20,000. Many prisoners are often re-arrested after release. The re-arrests and illegal detentions have become a matter of state policy according to human rights groups.
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In 2012, multiple mass graves with the remains of more than 6,000 Kashmiris who had disappeared or been picked up Indian security forces were discovered and mapped, but no one was prosecuted.
In 2013, a group of 50 Indian women, petitioned the Supreme Court of India to re-open the investigations into the Kunan and Poshpora rapes in Kashmir’s remote Kupwara District. On February 23, 1991, the Indian army allegedly gang-raped between 23 and 100 women during a search and interrogation operation in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora. The Indian army denied the accusations and a press council investigation called it a hoax orchestrated by militant groups.
In April 2017, protests in Kashmir heated up again during the by-poll election for a vacant seat in the lower house of the Indian Parliament Lok Sabha in the state’s summer capital Srinagar.
Since the Supreme Court petition, the Kashmir High Court ordered that victims be paid compensation. The state government and army have resisted these orders.
The latest independence movement
On July 8, 2016, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of India technically ended the immunity of armed forces from prosecution under AFSPA, but no Indian soldier has been officially charged for actions in Kashmir.
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That same day, Indian security forces executed 22-year-old Burhan Wani. A series of protests against Wani’s death ensued, and in response, on July 15, 2016, authorities imposed a curfew on all 10 districts of the Kashmir valley, suspending mobile services, bringing lives to a standstill.
Violence escalated as Indian forces opened fire on thousands of demonstrators who continued to defy the curfew. Reports put the number of civilians killed at 90 and the number of injured at more than 15,000.
The curfew in Kashmir valley remained in place for 53 days; schools and colleges were closed for months, with some up to eight months.
In April 2017, protests in Kashmir heated up again during the by-poll election for a vacant seat in the lower house of the Indian Parliament Lok Sabha in the state’s summer capital Srinagar. At least eight Kashmiris were killed and dozens more were wounded when Indian security forces opened fire on the crowds.
Pro-independence protesters boycotted the election and a little over 7 percent of the 1.2 million registered voters in Kashmir participated in the by-poll. It was the lowest recorded voter turnout in the history of the region.
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Then, police cracked down on students protesting the installation of a security check-post near their college in southern Kashmir’s Pulwama town on April 14. This triggered widespread demonstrations in colleges and universities of different districts of the valley. The government responded by shutting all education institutes down to prevent the further spread. Students called for protests in all colleges and universities in Kashmir on April 17. At least 100 Kashmiri students were wounded during the demonstrations.
State of free expression in Kashmir
The local government has several times tried to control the flow of information by shutting down publications and confiscating newspapers prior to distribution.
According to information from Bangalore-based Software Freedom Law Centre, Jammu and Kashmir has experienced 28 internet shutdowns since 2012, the highest in any Indian state. The government blocked internet signals for five months in 2016 after uproar over the killing of Burhan Wani.
Most recently, authorities blocked several social media platforms, saying they were “being misused by anti-national and anti-social elements”.
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The longest living conflict in UN history
The struggle of the Kashmiri people has always been overshadowed by the troubles between India and Pakistan.
In 1947, British imperial rule over the Indian sub-continent ended and it was partitioned into a mainly Hindu India and the Muslim-majority state of Pakistan. The Hindu ruler of the Muslim-majority Princely State of Kashmir and Jammu signed a treaty of accession with India. War soon broke out between India and Pakistan over the region.
On November 2, 1947, speaking on All Indian Radio, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “the fate of the State of Jammu and Kashmir is ultimately to be decided by the people. The pledge we have given not only to people of Kashmir but also to the world. We will not and cannot back out of it”. Two weeks later he informed the Indian parliament, “we have suggested that when people of Kashmir are given a chance to decide their future, this should be done under the supervision of an impartial tribunal such as United Nations Organization”.
India soon raised the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council. The United Nations resolutions of August 13, 1948, and January 5, 1949, proposed the plebiscite option for resolving the Kashmir dispute and called on Pakistan to withdraw its troops and India to cut its military presence to a minimum in the region.
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A ceasefire came into force, but Pakistan refused to evacuate its troops from the western districts and Kashmir for all practical purposes became partitioned. The western districts of the former princely state known as Azad Kashmir came under Pakistani control and the larger Jammu, Kashmir Valley, and Ladakh remained under Indian control. In 1951, elections in the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir backed accession to India. India soon said this made a referendum unnecessary. In 1957, the constitution of Indian-administrated Jammu and Kashmir defined it as part of India.The UN and Pakistan objected, saying that a referendum needs to take into account the views of voters throughout the former princely state.
In 1972, India and Pakistan signed the Simla Agreement, turning the Kashmir ceasefire line into the Line of Control, with both sides pledging to settle their differences through negotiations, and calling for a final settlement of the Kashmir dispute. The agreement forms the basis of Pakistani-Indian relations thereafter. Since then, Pakistan has officially supported the right to self-determination of the Kashmiri people.
In the 1990s, Pakistan is believed to have backed an armed uprising in the region. In 2001, Pakistan officially changed its course, and banned groups within its country that India said supported militancy in Jammu and Kashmir.
This story was first published in Global Voices.