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Kashmir: A modern primer

In July of 2016, authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir instituted a curfew that closed schools, shops, and shut down most communication services in response to weeks of violent protest following the death of the popular militant, Burhan Wani. The curfew did little to stop civil unrest; during the month long period violent clashes between Indian authorities and civilians left 70 dead (68 civilians and two security officials) and more than 9,000 wounded. In September, Kashmiri militants, who India claims were supported by Pakistan, killed 18 Indian soldiers. In retaliation, Indian security forces have carried out raids against militants over the border in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This current exchange of violence represents a departure from the calm that had beset the region for most of the new century and even an escalation of past tensions. While Kashmir has been a region of conflict for most of modern history, new elements such as growing radicalization and the rise of the Bahratiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, may be altering and intensifying the conflict.

At the time of the Indian Partition, Jammu-Kashmir was a Muslim-majority state in the northern part of the British Raj, ruled by a Hindu prince known as the Maharaja. When India gained independence in 1947, the Maharaja decided to join the Hindu-majority state of India rather than the Muslim-majority state of Pakistan. Fighting broke out between local and military forces of both nations, over who would control the region. While a UN resolution was passed calling for a referendum of status, neither nation agreed to withdrawal their military, so the vote could never take place. The territory was divided along lines of control, and local elections over the next few years backed accession into respective nations. With no resolution or formal status, Kashmir became a frequent hotspot for interstate violence between India and Pakistan up until 1971. The severity of the Bangladesh Independence War in 1971 brought both governments to the negotiating table for the first time and produced the Silma Agreement a year later. This treaty not only brought a formal end to the hostilities between the two countries, but it also called for settlement of the territorial dispute in Kashmir

However, calling for a settlement did little to bring about a formal status change. The Silma Agreement did not change the status of Kashmir, and ending interstate violence brought about calm but also left a power vacuum. The absence of a major military force, and growing political frustration, would give rise to various insurgent groups many of whom are still active today. Two types or groups formed post 1972; the first as pro-independence organizations. Frustrated with the lack of formal status, as well as discontent with both the Indian and Pakistani governments, pro-independence groups rejected a political union altogether and favored and Independent Kashmir. The second type of insurgent group were radical jihadist groups who came about around a decade later coinciding with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Kashmiris returning home from fighting in Afghanistan, and many foreign fighters trained by the U.S.-backed Mujahideen, began an armed insurgency against Indian authorities in hopes of bringing Kashmir into Islamic union with Pakistan. However, while jihadist groups favored a Kashmir under Pakistani control and received support from Pakistan, their religious fanaticism has put them at odds with the Pakistani government on numerous occasions.

Both pro-independence and jihadist groups operated on a small scale until 1987, when a contested election acted as a catalyst for widespread popular support. A complete breakdown of faith in the political system along with increasing low economic opportunity drove many to either join, or support, various militant groups. From 1987 until 1999, militant groups carried out high profile kidnappings, terror attacks, and mass civil unrest, primarily against Indian authorities. Being that most of the insurgent violence was aimed at Indian security forces, Indian officials blamed Pakistan for the rise in insurgency while Pakistan maintained that these militants were citizens acting on their own free will. In response, India passed the 1990 Special Forces Act, which gave broad powers to its military forces in the region. Kashmiri citizens could be held in indefinite detention and became subject to routine human rights abuses on behalf of Indian security forces. Tensions would continue to rise until 1999 when India and Pakistan would, once again, go to war over a supposed illegal border violation. The brief, but aggressive, war would bring an end to popular support for most militant groups and bring a cold peace between the two nations and in the region as well.

The new century showed signs of promise for Kashmir. While violence still occurred, with notable attacks such as the bombing of the Kashmiri parliament building in 2001, overall unrest throughout the region declined steadily from 2000-2010. In fact, 2008 had the lowest recorded deaths in the region in the modern Kashmiri history. Many militant groups had either entered into a ceasefire or disbanded, while Indian and Pakistani troops slowly withdrew from the region. Negotiations resumed, and while they did fall through, a general calm prevailed until the end of the decade. After 2010, this calm would come to a swift end with increased levels of radicalization and the eventual election of the BJP.

After 2010, many militant groups saw a rise in popular support that has continued to the present day. Increased radicalization, mainly among the youth who account for 70 percent of Kashmir’s 12 million citizens, can be attributed to a variety of factors, including continuing frustration with the lack of political dialogue, repeated human rights violations, and constant militarization. Beyond political frustration, Kashmiri youth have few economic opportunities, with youth unemployment standing at a staggering 48 percent. Continuing violence has not only shut down hundreds of local business and prohibited growth, but it has also driven away any form of foreign investment. This political frustration, coupled with few economic opportunities, has proved ideal circumstances for militant recruiting for groups like Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, who Burhan Wani was a part of.

Increased support of jihadist militant groups is also seen as a response to rise of the BJP in the 2014 general election. The BJP, or Bharatiya Janata Party, is a right- wing Hindu nationalist party that took control of India’s government, as well as Kashmir’s, in the 2014 general election. The BJP is a major departure from mainstream secular Indian politics; pushing Hindu nationalism in the form of strict social conservatism and advocating for a uniform civil code aligning with Hindu values. While many Hindus have flocked to this ideology, millions of non-Hindus, especially Indian Muslims, see the BJP as a worrying sign.

Their leaders, surrogates, and supporters have either carried out, or been accused of, attacks on non-Hindu communities in India. A Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi who lived in Uttar Pradesh, was accused of eating beef and was subsequently lynched after meat was found in his refrigerator. BJP leaders have declared non-Hindu sites of worship not to be holy and therefore open for demolition, and that the Hindu holy text, Bhagavad Gita, would become mandatory reading in some states. The most notable example is that of the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who was accused of inciting and condoning violence against Muslims during a 2002 riot in Gujarat when he was Chief Minster of the state. While he has been cleared of wrong doing, violence against non-Hindu’s in India continues and animosity toward these minority communities seems to be growing.

Beyond their strict social code, the BJP has also taken a hard stance towards Kashmir. In terms of local governance, the local BJP party in Kashmir has taken drastic steps to implement its civil code by instituting a beef ban throughout the region. While some Indian states do outlaw eating beef, those states, unlike Kashmir, are Hindu majority. On a national level, the BJP has consistently advocated for the end of the special status of the Kashmir-Jammu region. Article 370 of the Indian constitution has granted Kashmir greater autonomy than most Indian states since the partition, and has allowed this Muslim majority state to exist peacefully within the Hindu majority nation. Threatening to take away this autonomy has angered many Kashmiri’s and provided more reasons for civil unrest and radicalization. In response, the Indian government has increased the number of troops in Kashmir to almost half a million.

The interplay between the growing frustration of the Kashmiri people and the nationalistic will of the BJP is threatening to plunge the region back into chaos. Decades of frustration at little economic opportunity and no political settlement have driven many Kashmiri’s to support insurgency. In response, the BJP has taken a hard line stance against Kashmir autonyms and the insurgency in an attempt to bring the region in line. However, each step militant groups take to challenge the Indian government, and each step security forces take to challenge militant groups, further escalates the violence. While the previous decade showed signs of promise, current trends point to a return to the violence that has plagued the region for decades.

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