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Kashmiri People Overlooked in India-Pakistan Conflict

Professor Sarah Waheed
Prof. Sarah Waheed

Conflict between Pakistan and India over the contested Kashmir territory is decades old and a constant source of tension, spurring repeated armed conflict between the two nuclear rivals.

However, after a Feb. 14 suicide bombing killed 45 Indian soldiers, the conflict escalated suddenly, with both countries trading air strikes and engaging in air-to-air combat. A fighter pilot from the Indian Air Force was shot down, captured and eventually returned to Indian custody.

Dr. Sarah Waheed, assistant professor of history and director of Davidson in India, studies South Asian history, focusing on 20th-century India and Pakistan. With a historian's sense of perspective, she provided scale and context to the latest skirmish between India and Pakistan.

"This is a very frightening time for South Asia," she said. "The confrontation between India and Pakistan could possibly escalate further, so political decision making and events unfolding over the next few days will prove crucial."

What makes this latest confrontation so urgent? Why is it different than previous short-lived flare-ups?

There are a couple of factors. First, this is the first time since 1971 that the two nation-states are claiming to have attacked targets deep into each other's territories.

Second, Indian elections are right around the corner and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party the BJP had not been doing particularly well in the polls. A confrontation with Pakistan would undoubtedly bolster Modi's re-election bid. Modi is known for many things: Being a peacemaker is not one of them.

While the military escalation has been distressing, what has been much more prevalent and extremely harmful, are the jingoistic voices on social media and news channels in India as well as Pakistan.

As the regional hegemon, India wields tremendous power in South Asia. India's social media and news channels were the first to erupt with cries for war. Pakistan, a country largely controlled by its military establishment, was quick to up the ante, and boisterous voices there have also been aggressively advancing language of warfare with India.

Throughout all of this, what is being overlooked entirely is India's ongoing occupation of Kashmir, and Kashmiris' demand for self-determination, which is at the heart of the conflict between India and Pakistan.

How did Kashmir come to be the focus of this ongoing conflict?

This all stems from the border created in 1947 by South Asia's erstwhile British colonial rulers as India became independent. The boundary cut through Indian states Punjab and Bengal, but the princely state of Kashmir remained a question mark.

India and Pakistan have gone on to become independent nation-states, while the Kashmiri people have been increasingly caught between the two states.

India and Pakistan have fought four wars: in 1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999. Three of these wars have been over Kashmir.

How do the Kashmiri people—who consider themselves neither Pakistani nor Indian—view this conflict?

Rather than seeing Kashmir only in terms of a "decades-long dispute" between India and Pakistan, we must try to understand the Kashmiris' point of view, which is almost always left out of the official narratives and stances of both India and Pakistan.

Kashmir is not some empty quarter of land that is being fought over: rather, Kashmiri people have become pawns in this brutal rivalry between the states of India and Pakistan, and both states have tended to use Kashmir opportunistically as a way to advance their political goals.

Today there are 700,000 active Indian armed forces in Kashmir, and the brutality of that occupation has only escalated in recent years. Indian social activist and writer Arundhati Roy recently noted that since the onset of the insurgency almost thirty years ago, "Over 70,000 people have been killed, thousands have been ‘disappeared.' countless people have been tortured, and hundreds of young people maimed by and blinded by pellet guns. The death toll in occupied Kashmir over the past year has been the highest since 2009."

The Pakistani side of the border is not much better. The journalist Basharat Peer has noted that even though there is not as much conflict, "There is not much freedom there either. It's really run under the writ of the Pakistani military. Kashmiris don't have an autonomous government or have much freedom to choose their own path."

So, how does the February 14 terrorist attack fit into the conflict?

The Pulwama attack of Feburary 14 on a military convoy resulted in the deaths of 45 Indian soldiers, and was the most costly attack on Indian security forces in recent times.

While the Pulwama attack is universally being referred to as an act of terrorism, by both the Indian and Pakistani governments, as well as the national and international media, I think we need to complicate this view.

Certainly, the attack was tragic, terrible, and reprehensible. However, it is important to emphasize that the attack was directed against armed Indian combatants, not against unarmed Indian civilians. The attack must be seen in the context of an existing conflict in Kashmir and insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. The vast majority of terrorism-related incidents in Pakistan, meanwhile, are not directed against Indians, but against Pakistani civilians themselves.

And in Indian-occupied Kashmir, the state security forces often do not distinguish between civilians and militants.

In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, the historian Hafsa Kanjwal has noted that, "Since the attack on the convoy, Kashmiri Muslims living and studying in India have been targeted by mobs; students in Indian colleges have been beaten up and forced to evacuate while others are in hiding; landlords are kicking Kashmiris out of their homes; and traders have had their shops ransacked. In the Hindu-majority province of Jammu, a curfew was declared as Hindutva mobs attacked Kashmiri homes and business and set their cars on fire. If there is any doubt that most Indians do not consider Kashmiris as their own, and only lay claims on the land, that doubt has been effectively quashed."

Are the leaders of India and Pakistan genuinely interested in peace?

This is a particularly important time for the leadership in India and Pakistan. Much of the politicking is a battle of perceptions, as the respective leaders are trying to court the sympathies of the international community.

Recently elected Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, whose election slogan was "Naya Pakistan" (New Pakistan) no doubt wants to be seen as a restrained and even-handed leader. However, he will be threading the needle as he balances international perceptions while maintaining a strong relationship with the Pakistani military establishment.

Meanwhile, Narendra Modi, who has an election to win, is really not a peace-maker. If we turn to the past, we must remember that Modi won elections as Chief Minister of Gujarat in the early 2000s, while he presided over a Hindu-Muslim conflict in that state, resulting in largely anti-Muslim massacres.

Amidst the cacophony and bellicose demands for war, there have also been voices protesting aggression and war, opting instead for peace. It is to these voices, in such times, I believe, that we really must turn. We must listen to and amplify the voices of ordinary peoples who are demanding peace and end to conflict.