Tensions between the Indian government and Muslim-majority Kashmir, an independent state whose administration is shared between Indian and Pakistan, have reached a climax this week. Authorities issued an unprecedented order for tourists to leave the region, and also cancelled a Hindi pilgrimage due to security threats.
The Indian government deployed 10,000 additional troops into Kashmir, distressing civilians and leading residents to stockpile essential supplies in anticipation of an escalation of the situation. Kashmir is one of the most militarized regions in the world, with over 700,000 soldiers already deployed to the valley. Rumors circulating among the Kashmiri community suggest that the government is planning to overturn the contentious Article 35a of the constitution, which allows the Kashmiri legislative body to define who is entitled to permanent resident status in the region. This permanent resident status is recognized with a certificate, which enables recipients to access special privileges, such as employment and scholarships. Kashmiri permanent residents are also the only people who are able to buy or own property in the state.
In order for a person to be granted permanent resident status in Kashmir, they need to have lived in the state on May 14 1954, when the law came into effect, or have lived in the state for 10 years since. These stipulations around permanent residency, and any other legislation in Kashmir, can only be altered by a two-thirds majority. The Indian government is unable to make alterations to Kashmiri laws, as Article 370 of the Indian constitution grants Kashmir a unique status within India; it enshrines their independence and includes a separate constitution and flag.
The Indian government has accused Pakistan of supporting an armed rebellion in the region; since the creation of Pakistan as independent from India in 1947, the two states have fought two wars over ruling rights in Kashmir. Currently, the state is split between Indian and Pakistani administrations. Despite India’s disdain for special permanent residency laws in Kashmir, India has previously been hesitant to make changes to the law for fear of dishonoring their promise to protect the state’s special status, pushing them towards a Pakistani rule.
Kashmir residents are particularly wary of potential warfare in the region, due to “psychological warfare” in the turbulent region for the past 30 years; the conflicts over ownership of the region are reported to have claimed over 70,000 lives, reports Al Jazeera. The United Nations human rights office has called on India and Pakistan both to act on recommendations that they should protect human rights in Kashmir, reports Human Rights Watch (HRW). HRW released a report in early July which raised concerns about abuses by state security in both Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir, although the Indian government has dismissed this as false. A similar report was released last year, which neither government acted on.
The 2019 HRW report details an attack by Pakistani forces targeting Indian security forces in Kashmir. The attack killed 40 soldiers and led to escalating conflict in February this year, culminating in a cross border shoot-out at the Line of Control, the border between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. The OHCHR also found that the Indian security forces used excessive crowd control measures to manage protests, including shotguns. Both Pakistan and India have been accused of human rights abuses including involuntary disappearances, sexual violence, torture and deaths in custody. India’s armed forces’ “special powers” act remains an obstacle to accountability for these accusations – the act, introduced in 1990, effectively provides immunity to accusations of human rights violations. The Public Safety Act also allows detention without trial for up to two years.
Without accountability for human rights abuses, the unfolding situation in Kashmir has the potential to create mass civilian harm if the Indian government takes action on Article 35a. International governments, human rights and observation groups need to monitor the situation, and continue to condemn the actions of both Indian and Pakistani governments in the region which are not in line with international conventions, to ensure the safety of Kashmiri citizens.