The path to resolving the dispute in Kashmir has never been simple. Given that the conflict is simply not about India and Pakistan anymore, but involves the diverse Jammu, Kashmir, Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan regions which come bridled with different aspirations, it appears unlikely that any solution can be quickly reached.

Sandwiched between the devil and the deep blue sea are the people of Kashmir themselves. But here again lies a dilemma. The problem is, when we ask what Kashmiris want, we get diverse answers. For instance, the common outcome of any poll conducted in J&K shows that the majority of people in Muslim-majority Kashmir want complete freedom from India, while only a small percent want a complete merger with Pakistan. These views differ from Hindu-majority Jammu, or till a while back from Buddhist-majority Ladakh (it became a separate Union Territory in 2019), which instead sought union with India. The Kashmiris of Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir seek independence, while those of Gilgit-Baltistan see themselves as illegally occupied.

A Case of Identity Crisis

The biggest problem is that what Kashmiris want has come to imply what the people of the Valley want. Nothing can be further than the truth. The fact of the matter is in seeking to resolve the conflict, the aspirations of Jammu-ites, Kashmiri Pandits, and earlier the Ladakhis, have been completely brushed aside. Even worse, forgotten.

Kashmir is trapped by history. Bunched together through conquests, annexations, bestowment of jagirs, and sale deeds, Jammu and Kashmir from the very start is a forced amalgamation of diverse regions and people who never had anything in common to begin with. It is therefore not surprising that when we think of the plight of Kashmiris we are forced to reflect simultaneously on the demand for azadi in the Valley, the longing of Kashmiri Pandits to return to their homes, Jammu-ites seeking further integration with India, and Punjabi Muslims of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir seeking further independence. So what have we? A quagmire.

The Valley

In the Valley, many Kashmiris have transitioned from staging protests and stone-pelting to embracing militancy mainly due to two reasons: propaganda and a fear that their religious ideology and identity are at stake. Kashmiris see India’s policies as anti-Kashmir, anti-Muslim, and the army, police, and paramilitary forces as ruthless forces of repression and oppression. Azadi is the core call, evermore so with Pakistan always playing the religion card. But the thing is, in the Valley, azadi means different things to different people. It swings from some wanting an independent Kashmir, to others wanting to join Pakistan, with some seeking more autonomy and demilitarisation, and with still others wanting the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate.

To summarize, locals want freedom no matter what, even if it means they have no roadmap of the way forward after they get what they want. That said, locals do not seek freedom for entire J&K but only for Kashmir, underscoring the fact that they have never regarded the region as a single entity or even identified themselves with the rest of India or Kashmiri Hindus. To the people of the Valley, Kashmir is the Valley.

Kashmiri Pandits, who were driven out of the Valley in a mass exodus, reiterate this alienation when they say that the hallowed “Kashmiriyat” never existed in the Valley, for otherwise they wouldn’t have been murdered and raped in their own backyards. If we peek into history, 1990 was not the first time Kashmiri Hindus had been pushed out of the Valley. Since ancient times, they were asked to leave the Valley seven times. So, what do Kashmiri Hindus, who have been living in exile for the last 30 years, want? Justice and, of course, to return to their homes in the Valley. Most Pandits welcome the revocation of Article 370 and Article 35 A. Kashmiri Pandits want nothing else but to be able to live as Indians in Kashmir without fear.

And this is how the Valley remains divided.

Jammu

Jammu used to be the seat of the Dogra rulers. Having supported Hari Singh’s accession to India, the people of Jammu have always wanted merger with India and a “dispensation” that treated all three regions (Kashmir, Jammu, and earlier Ladakh) equally across all platforms.

In essence, Jammu-ites want to “emerge out of the shadow of Kashmir’s over-politicisation.” This is but natural because the insurgency in Kashmir has always ensured the Centre’s attention lay on the Valley alone. Most view the perennial socio-economic-political breach between the Jammu and Kashmir regions stemming from different religious ideologies, when the truth is Jammu never figured in the State or Centre’s scheme of things. Commissions such as the Gajendragadkar Commission (1968), the Wazir Commission (1983), and the Singhal Committee (1999) have acknowledged that successive governments in Kashmir gave a raw deal to both Jammu and Ladakh, resulting in their neglect. “The inequity manifests in the continuously sub-optimal allocation towards development of Jammu’s tourism, infrastructure, education facilities and overall representation in various state platforms.”[1] The bottom line was Jammu-ites were always asked to bury their interests for the “larger cause” of keeping Kashmir with India. Different political parties before elections have promised justice to the region but nothing has changed at the ground level. Kashmiris of Jammu want the “delinking” of their fate from the Valley.

Ladakh

Tucked away in a remote region, the only aspiration of the Ladakhis from the very start was access to basic amenities. When the Centre declared Ladakh as a separate Union Territory in 2019, Ladakhis were overjoyed to get their identity back. Once a kingdom, Ladakh was relegated to a mere district under the state of J&K. It had no say on how things should be run, always subject to the narrative being played out in the restive Valley. Until a few years back, only two Assembly members from the region were part of the 80 or so members of the Jammu-Kashmir Assembly. And this was despite Ladakh being larger than Kashmir and Jammu put together. Urdu, a language alien to the region, was dumped on schools, police, and courts alike.

Ladakhis have also long complained that Article 370 only granted benefits to the Valley and did nothing to serve the interests of Jammu-ites or Ladakhis. They were discriminated against when it came to jobs and central allotments. Nothing could be done without the consent of the State which was flushed with corrupt politicians. All welfare and development funds from Delhi remained with the Valley, while Ladakh remained undeveloped. When development officials did come to visit the region, they would arrive prepared actually for the Valley or for Jammu. They would come for a two-year tenure and they just didn’t understand Ladakh. The first year would go in trying to understand the place and the second in preparing to leave it. So, it would be misplaced, half-hearted development,” reflects Sonam Wangchuk, an iconic Indian educationist, in the article “With Article 370, Ladakh was treated like Kashmir’s colony: We were forced to use Urdu. Our welfare became a joke”[2]

The alienation between the two regions was stressed even more when policies drawn for Ladakh proved irrelevant. Now, with the change in status, Ladakhis hope that the money meant for them will now stay with them. To quote Mr. Wangchuk again from DailyO,You cannot imagine the meaning of this to a people who live very far away. But who want to be close.” [3]

PoK: Azad Kashmir

In Pok, a new voice is gaining traction. While admitting there exists a close affinity for the Pakistani Army and Pakistani people, people ultimately seek independence in the region. Tired of being pawns in the hands of India and Pakistan, the people of Azad Kashmir seek a Constituent Assembly, the area’s unification with Gilgit-Baltistan, demilitarization in both Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and J&K, and an UN-held referendum. The demand for independence is not without reason. Azad Kashmir is a resource-rich region, but due to Pakistan’s policies the region remains underdeveloped. People have no jobs and lack access to basic facilities like healthcare and education.

Pakistan is determined to curb the movement and has adopted a hardened security stance. Pro-independence demonstrators have been termed by the Pakistani Army as “Indian agents.”

PoK: Gilgit-Baltistan

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan regard themselves as Indians, they see their land as legally belonging to India, and assert that Pakistan has no claim over it. Since Pakistan has occupied the region, it has not been recognized by their Constitution and the people of this area have been unable to vote since 1947. Pakistan has recently been accused of committing human rights abuses on the people, which has prompted them to appeal to the UN as recently as February 2020.

Pakistan’s role in the region has raised concerns. It is estimated that about 70 per cent of the population are Shias while about only 30 per cent are Sunnis. Since the time of Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistan government has tried to “alter the sectarian balance in the region.” In 1988, hordes of Sunni extremists were dispatched to the region to brutally combat and subdue the Shia demand for a separate Shia state. This triggered “sectarian conflict” in the region which continues unabated.

Mr. Senge Sering, activist and director of Institute for Gilgit-Baltistan Studies, has gone on to state: Legally and technically, we are Indian citizens. We’ve always been Indian citizens and that is why Pakistan can never grant us constitutional rights. We have binding documents to prove that we are Indian citizens.”[4]

Pakistan is making swift “demographic changes” in Gilgit-Baltistan to absorb the region with the rest of Pakistan and all opposition is being ruthlessly put down by the military.

To come back to the question, what is it that Kashmiris want, the answer is freedom…albeit from different yokes.


[1] Neglected Jammu by Bhopinder Singh for The Deccan Chronicle

[2] Daily O article With Article 370, Ladakh was treated like Kashmir’s colony: We were forced to use Urdu. Our welfare became a joke

[3] Daily O article With Article 370, Ladakh was treated like Kashmir’s colony: We were forced to use Urdu. Our welfare became a joke

[4] People of Gilgit-Baltistan are Indians, Pakistan has no right there, says activist Senge Sering by Geeta Mohan for India Today

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