By Shelby House
In early April, the Indian cricket team competed against the West Indies in the World T20 semifinals. At the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar (part of Indian-administered Kashmir), local Kashmiri students cheered for the West Indies, while the majority of NIT students cheered for Mother India. In no time, violence erupted; police reportedly “thrashed” students with wooden sticks. The NIT incident comes in the wake of riots at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, where three students were arrested on sedition charges for allegedly chanting slogans in favor of Kashmiri independence. Clashes like this are not new; India has historically met Kashmiri discontent with an iron fist. However, the Indian government does not treat all sedition equally. To quell ethnolinguistic division in states like Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh, the India state has granted major concessions, even going so far as to create new states for discontented minority groups. India has 29 states, which are provinces with a great deal of political autonomy in order to accommodate India’s wealth of ethnolinguistic diversity. Five states, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Karnataka did not exist at the time of Indian independence; these states were created after continued agitations from discontented minority groups.
But why are Kashmiri schisms only met with harsh repression—and why isn’t this strategy working?
Kashmir’s geographic location and religious makeup make the region an important symbolic battleground and flashpoint for the India-Pakistan conflict. World powers such as Russia, the United States, and China, have used Kashmir as a proxy battleground for their own conflicts. With each new conflict, India tightens its grip on Kashmir. Laughably, India also points to the Muslim-majority region to prove its commitment to ‘secularism.’
Pakistan split from India in 1947 due to a movement by the All-India Muslim League to attain religious freedom; the leaders of the Azadi (Independence) Movement held that Muslims could never have true religious equality in a land dominated by Hindus. Currently, India—often called Hindustan—is led by the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, whose figurehead is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a controversial leader who has been implicated in anti-Muslim riots and violence multiple times. India’s claim to secularism is weak on all fronts—but to use Kashmir, which has been crippled politically by the Indian government since Partition, as a ‘shining example’ of India’s commitment to secularism rings hollow. India’s anxiety about losing Kashmir leads to severely authoritarian policies, which would fail in any Indian state.
Most importantly, Kashmir’s border with Pakistan complicates its relationship to the Indian state. Tamil Nadu and Telangana do not border any other country, so their threats to secede are less practicable; the government could easily crush such a secessionist movement. However, Kashmir’s threats are exponentially more credible and achievable due to its location.
Pakistan has asserted a claim over Kashmir since Partition. In the Pakistani view, Kashmir was always part of the “idea of Pakistan”—the k in the country’s name was meant to represent the state’s inclusion in the new nation. However, in 1947, the majority-Muslim Kashmir was ruled by the Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh, who delayed choosing to side with India or Pakistan. During this delay, Pakistan began to inflame Kashmiri rebellions and encroach on Kashmiri territory. Singh requested India’s military aid, and India promised to help only if Kashmir was ceded to India. However, Lord Mountbatten, the last Governor-General of British India who helped facilitate the transfer of power during Partition, promised Singh that the Kashmiri people would be granted self-determination at the conflict’s end. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India and leader of the Congress Party, reaffirmed this commitment, but the referendum was never held.
Instead, in the 1950s, the Indian government began systematically robbing Kashmir of the right to self-rule. Furthermore, the Delhi government attempted to micro-manage every aspect of Kashmir’s rule through coercive integrative measures instead of democratic power-sharing. Elections were regularly rigged, Kashmiri-chosen leaders were arrested, and the plebiscite is now nothing more than a pipe dream. According to the renowned South Asianist Sumantra Bose, the Indian government realized “hegemonic control could be sustained only by turning Indian-controlled Kashmir into a draconian police state in which civil rights and political liberties were virtually nonexistent.”
India’s has shamefully governed Kashmir. The region has seen multiple wars and innumerable guerilla conflicts; peace processes have repeatedly failed. India’s weak ideological claim over the state exacerbates these tensions. Kashmir was, indeed, originally meant to be part of Pakistan. However, this option has disappeared. Now, the idea of an independent Kashmir has gained substantial support. However, this concept is also politically impossible and further deepens regional cleavages.
India feels that keeping Muslim-dominated Kashmir proves the nation’s commitment to secularism. However, India’s poor governance of Kashmir does not support this claim, and Indian Muslims still feel antagonized by India. Anti-Kashmiri sentiment often takes on a religious tone. In the cricket clashes at NIT, Indian students held up banners that read “Bharat Mata ki Jai”—“victory for Mother India.” The term “Mother India” has recently been a point of controversy; some Indian Muslims believe that the phrase can be equated with idol-worship, treating India as a deity to be worshipped.
India’s governmental chokehold on Kashmir makes a mockery of ‘secularism,’ further legitimates Pakistan’s claims to the region, and inflames Kashmiri discontentment and insurgencies. If India is incontrovertibly dedicated to keeping Kashmir or politically unable to concede it, the government must grant Kashmir the self-rule and power-sharing which other states enjoy. Kashmir cannot function or flourish as an Indian state if the government intends to keep the state held hostage on political grounds.
Kashmir is a territory divided. Many Kashmiris are Hindu and support India; others have given up on the idea of an independent or Pakistani Kashmir and seek normalcy and democracy under the Indian government. However, large, vocal groups still feel dedicated to Pakistan or the idea of a free, independent Kashmir. By crippling Kashmir, India has only made Kashmiri sedition more reasonable and appealing. If India won’t let go of Kashmir, then Kashmiris deserve the same quality of life and respect from the Indian government that other states enjoy. In turn, many Kashmiri rebellions would fizzle out, because the region would finally have a great deal of autonomy and prosperity. Furthermore, Kashmiris would no longer see themselves as the black sheep of India—which inevitably feels linked to Kashmiri religious identity. Then, perhaps, India could actually claim to uphold secularism and religious pluralism within its borders.