The conflict over a divided Kashmir has been long and bloody; beginning with the Partition of India in 1947 by the British Empire. The partition involved the separation of India along religious lines, into a Hindu majority India and a Muslim majority Pakistan and East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Ambiguous demarcation, ignorance of local populations, and incitement of ethnic tensions by the colonizers meant the 1947 partition claimed the lives of up to 2 million people and, in a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 14 million were historically displaced.
Kashmir has always been at the centre of the conflicts between the two countries, with three separate wars being fought since the partition. It is a territory divided by a United Nations-backed ceasefire line, or a Line of Control (LoC), created after the end of the first Indo-Pakistani war in 1948. This 740km line is still active in present-day Kashmir with an Indian-administered territory to the south and a Pakistan-administered territory to the north. Neither side wishing to relinquish control to the other. Furthermore, with the current nuclear capabilities of both sides, a complete collapse of relations could spell disaster; therefore, any escalation of violence is met with demands of restraint by the international community.
Because of the threat of untold destruction from nuclear weaponry, it is easy for the residents of Kashmir, especially those living in remote communities along the LoC, to be forgotten. Their lives are deeply embroiled in these conflicts, so they are the ones that are truly suffering from bitter relations between India and Pakistan. Although official statistics on civilian casualties are hard to find, Suddaf Chaudry from openDemocracy states the highest figure that 414 civilians have been killed in Indian-administered Kashmir since 2016. Furthermore, recent shelling from both sides has meant 18 people have died and 2,500 internally displaced in the Poonch Valley, that is bordered on three sides by the LoC.
Unfortunately, relations between India and Pakistan have suffered exponentially, since a suicide bomb attack on February 14th in the Pulawa district of Indian-administered Kashmir, killing more than 40 Indian soldiers – the deadliest in 30 years, according to Al Jazeera. The situation only worsened when the Indian air force retaliated by targeting rebels in Pakistani territory. Subsequently, a dogfight ensued between Indian and Pakistani fighter jets; later
resulting in the capture and subsequent release of an Indian pilot by Pakistani forces on 1st March. Kashmir is still a battleground for escalating tensions between the two nuclear nations, placing the residents of these conflict areas in an increasingly ambiguous and dangerous socio-economic situation.
A general fear permeates these remote communities, not only for their immediate safety but the survival of future generations. In a 2010 survey, Kashmiris in both Indian and Pakistan administered areas said that unemployment was the most significant problem they faced. If the survival of the people of Kashmir is to be guaranteed, there needs to be a de-escalation of violence and greater investment in local infrastructure. Rifat Fareed reports in Al Jazeera, that residents of a village called Silikot, on the Indian-administered side of the LoC, “feel homeless in [their] own homes” and are constantly living in an atmosphere of fear. The residents say infrastructure for transport and trade are the two biggest “confidence building measures” but there still has not been any considerable steps towards peace. Clearly, investment in links to other villages and towns is crucial in ensuring these remote communities are not completely cut off; nevertheless, a larger de-militarized zone is needed to better protect those inadvertently caught in the crossfire.
The citizens of Kashmir become expendable. A UN report outlines repeated human rights abuses on both sides of the LoC such as rape, torture, and even locals being used as human shields. The response by both governments is one of denial and that these accounts are falsified. “Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarized zones in the world” states Samreen Mushtaq & Mudasir Amin, in their article in Al Jazeera; there are over 700,000 soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir alone. In response to repeat offences, Amnesty International has called for military tribunals to charge military personnel, who are accused of human rights abuses, on criminal offences rather than through military disciplinary offences. Removing exceptionalism for the military in the court of law would mean abhorrent offences against Kashmir civilians would not go unpunished.
There has been little official response from both governments in tackling the issues faced by the residents of communities along the LoC. There are repeated appeals by Kashmiri citizens, to de-escalate tensions by allowing a public vote over the extent of the ceasefire line, that cuts through Kashmir. However, these appeals often fall flat because the narratives perpetuated by dominant forces are muffling Kashmiri voices, to the point that local residents must either survive on limited resources or migrate to safer areas. For instance, in the Poonch Valley, 375 residents have already left and 255 have relocated to Kotli, a town further away from the LoC. Viewing Kashmir as a large military frontier ignores the fact that people call this place home.
It is these prevailing narratives of military prowess, tied with debates over political sovereignty, that has allowed such a fragile situation to continue. Increasingly, the battle over Kashmir has become a war of facts as much as it is a war over territory, as indicated in reports by the Guardian and Al Jazeera. Michael Safi argues, that conflicting accounts of events in Kashmir, by both Indian and Pakistani governments, has meant residents in local communities are enveloped in a “fog of misinformation” and war. This fog may work in favour of the political elite, in formulating a malleable account of events that benefits them, but it is excluding those that are at the heart of the conflict. In a post-truth era of fake news and alternative facts, it is easy for national politics to follow the trend. However, in order to foreground the interests and well-being of local people along the Kashmir LoC a stronger line of communication needs to be upheld, by all parties involved. Importantly, historical promises need to be rectified because public involvement, regarding the terms of the cease-fire, never fully coalesced; therefore, the people of Kashmir are consistently forgotten by a government that does not let them speak.
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