Kashmir – A History of Oppression & Abandonment

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The final status of Kashmir is a shadow that has hung over India and Pakistan since the partition of British India in 1947. Indeed, it has been the main reason for hostilities between the two nuclear armed states over the years. While both countries initially agreed that the people of Kashmir should be allowed to decide their own future status, neither state has ever put forward legitimate proposals to carry out a joint referendum in the contested area. However, despite the various United Nations (UN) resolutions and bilateral agreements, India has now incorporated Indian Administered Kashmir (IaK) into the Indian State in a way that effectively removes any route to self determination. To make matters worse, the international community has stayed largely silent on unfolding events in India.

A Brief History of Kashmir and Jammu up to 1947

Since its annexation by the Mughal empire in 1589 AD, Kashmir has never been ruled by Kashmiris themselves. After the Mughals, the region was ruled by the Afghans (1753–1819), Sikhs (1819–46), and the Dogras (1846–1947) until the Indian and Pakistani states took over.

The discrimination Kashmir’s Muslim majority still faces today, also occured during the Sikh rule between 1819 and 1846.For example, the murder of a native by a Sikh was punished with a fine of 16 to 20 Kashmiri rupees to the government. The ruling government will then give the victims family a portion based on the deceased faith. 4 rupees was given for Hindu victims, with just 2 rupees for Muslim victims.

When the British defeated the Sikh Empire in the first Anglo-Sikh war in 1846, Kashmir was sold to the Dogras as if it was a commodity. Gulab Singh, a Dogra was rewarded by the British for siding with them in the war by being allowed to purchase Kashmir 7.5 million rupees.

Dogra rule saw Kashmiris subjected to economic extortion.Kashmiris were banned from holding any land with 50–75 percent of any harvest going to the states rulers.

Kashmiri Muslims were also forced to pay a tax if they wished to get married. Native Hindus of Kashmir Valley were allowed to have more upper-class jobs and work as teachers and civil servants whereas Muslims were the peasants and workers. Throughout the Dogra rule in Kashmir, the Muslim’s resistance against their rule was shaped by class struggle perhaps more than by religion.

The workers’ resistance against the Dogras kicked off as early as in 1865, when Kashmiri shawl weavers agitated to improve their work conditions. The regime brutally crushed the uprising and in the three decades following the protest, the number of Kashmiri shawl weavers decreased from 28,000 to just over 5,000. Despite the setback, however, Kashmiri workers continued to fight for their rights. in 1924, workers from a Srinagar silk factory went on a strike for better working conditions.

In 1930, some left-wing Muslims formed the Reading Room Party to explore a way forward for Jammu and Kashmir to free itself from oppression. In response to spirit of revolt among the Muslim community, the Dogras approved the formation of three political parties in the “Princely States” in 1931. Kashmiri Pandits Conference, Hindu Sabha in Jammu, and Sikh Shiromani Khalsa Darbar. This meant only non-Muslim groups were allowed political representation in the region.

Right up until the partition of British India in 1947, Kashmiri Muslims fought to break free from oppression, but were always crushed in their attempts due to a lack of coherent organisation.

However, freedom from one colonial ruler did not improve the situation for the citizens of Kashmir and Jammu, if anything their struggles only worsened.

Kashmir 1947 —Becoming A Divided State

Map of the partition of India in 1947
Map of the partition of India (1947) | Credit: WikimediaCC BY-SA 4.0

Under the planned Partition of British India, Kashmir was advised to join either of the newly formed states. However, Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir preferred to remain independent citing that the Muslim majority population of his State would not be comfortable with joining India, while the Hindu and Sikh minorities would be vulnerable if they joined Pakistan.

In October 1947, Pakistan backed tribesmen and on leave soldiers launched attacks with a view to taking over Kashmir. Fearing the attack the Maharaja asked the Indian government to come to Kashmir’s defence. Before sending troops, Lord Mountbatten stated the Kashmir and Jammu my first temporarily cede to India for legal purposes, which Singh promptly did.

Historians are split on whether the Indian government actually paid any attention the the “temporary” nature of the succession. The Indian Army moved in and pushed back the Pakistani attackers and sought to build up defences.

By May 1948 the Pakistan Army had officially entered the conflict in Kashmir and battles raged throughout the mountainous state as each side fought to gain an advantage. By January 5th 1949, both sides finallt agreed to a UN brokered ceasefire and fighting died down. Kashmir was now a divided area with India controlling two-thirds, and Pakistan the remaining third.

Both sides agreed to allow Kashmir as a whole, vote on it’s future, they just didn’t say when. The Indian government gave special status to Kashmir and Jammu by adopting Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. This gave Kashmir a high level of autonomy, with only foreign affairs, defence and communications left in the hands of the government in Delhi. Jammu and Kashmir could make its own rules relating to permanent residency, ownership of property and fundamental rights. It also barred Indians from outside the state from purchasing property or settling there. This protection was seen as vitally important so as to protect the majority Muslim Population.

Two further wars erupted between Pakistan and India which involved Kashmir. The first occurred after Pakistan launched a full scale operation to take Kashmir in 1965. That conflict only came to an end after diplomatic intervention by the Soviet Union and USA. India had had the upper hand at the time of the ceasefire.

In 1966 demands again rose for a referendum and saw insurgent groups form an armed struggle in an attempt to force the Indian government to allow the people of Kashmir a say in their future. Still neither country showed any real sign of changing the status quo.

In 1971 Bangladesh, then Eastern Pakistan gained independence after the Indian armed forces helped defeat East Pakistan’s Military Junta. Fighting did occur in Kashmir, but India gifted territory gained back as a sign of goodwill.

A Map Showing A Divided Kashmir
A Map Showing A Divided Kashmir | Credit: Wikimedia

Throughout the rest of the 20th Century there was little to no movement on Kashmiri self determination, but plenty of violence by Pakistani backed insurgents, Separatist fighters and the Indian Government itself. Meanwhile its residents suffered increasing levels of poverty through a lack of coherent governance and corruption.

The issue of Kashmir like Palestine, became a sound bite issue. That is, world leaders would mention the cause in speeches to appear interested, when really they had no real idea of the complexity of the matter, nor any concrete proposals that help.

1999 saw a major escalation when now Nuclear Armed Pakistan launched covert incursions into Indian Administered Kashmir that led to a two month conflict which ended in a Pakistan Withdrawal after US President Bill Clinton demanded it of Pakistan’s Prime Minister.

Minor border skirmishes occurred through the early 2000s and 2010s, with several escalations, but stopping short of a further full armed conflict.

The most recent flashpoint occurred in mid 2019 when the Indian Air Force (IAF)sent two jets across the Line of Control (LoC) to bomb what it alleged to be a terrorist training camp. One IAF jet was shot down and the pilot captured by Pakistan. After two days the pilot was released back to India and treated like a hero.

Pakistan maintained that no such camp existed and provided photos of what it alleged to show minor bomb damage in a small village, not a training camp.

The advent of social media saw a spike in Indian Nationalism and an increase in attacks on Muslims in India. The Indian Government as usual downplayed these incidents or simply blamed the victims.

India Revokes Rights Without Notice

This takes us to the present day. Signs of to India moved tens of thousands troops into Kashmir, closed schools and colleges, tourists were ordered to leave, telephone and internet services were cut off and Kashmir’s political leaders were placed under house arrest.

Throughout this time the Indian Government refused to comment on what was going on. Most commentators believed that Section 35A of Article 370 was going to be removed. This protection enshrined in the Indian Constitution prohibited no Kashmiri residents from owning property or land. Hindu nationalists have long opposed section 35A angered that it allowed Muslims rights superior to theirs.

The Modi government then stunned the international community by revoking nearly all of Article 370 leaving Kashmiris with no protections at all. There had been a growing level of violence towards Muslims in India as a whole, and this decision left Kashmiris fearing for their lives. Initially little was known as India banned access to the United Nations, any foreign journalists and a communication blackout was kept in place.

Meanwhile, across India Hindu Nationalists celebrated Kashmir’s loss of status and the international community said, well very little actually. The United States under Donald Trump stated that Kashmir is an internal Indian matter and the British government went with; “we are watching closely.” All in all the people of Kashmir were largely abandoned by the outside world.

As time progressed, reports of human rights violations began to circulate and footage on social media would show Indian Forces clashing with protesters in Kashmir, sometimes using lethal force.

UK Labour Makes A Stand, Then Doesn’t

Labour Party Conference
Labour’s 2019 Conference Mainly Centred Around Brexit, but Kashmir Was Mentioned Too | Credit: ChiralJon — CC BY 2.0

In late September 2019, The UK Labour Party Conference took place in Brighton in the South of England. While Brexit would take up the main thrust of the gathering, a motion regarding Kashmir was put forward too.

The motion which was overwhelmingly supported by Labour members said; There is a humanitarian crisis in the disputed territory and that the people of Kashmir should be given the right of self-determination. It also called for international monitors to be allowed into the region.

Almost immediately, the motion was described as “anti Indian” by supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Hindu groups in the UK even went as far to urge British Hindus to vote Conservative at the December 2019 UK General Election. However, they almost always failed to address the fact that the Indian government was in-fact breaking International Law in its actions in Kashmir.

Then leader Jeremy Corbyn had also made his views clear, tweeting in August 2019:

“The situation in Kashmir is deeply disturbing. Human rights abuses taking place are unacceptable.

“The rights of the Kashmiri people must be respected and UN resolutions implemented.”

So imagine the surprise when a letter sent by the Labour party chairman, Ian Lavery, appeared to roll back Labour’s support for the people of Kashmir, despite the by then well documented atrocities occuring in the cut off region.

Lavery apologised for the offence he the motion had caused and said;

“We are adamant that the deeply felt and genuinely held differences on the issue of Kashmir must not be allowed to divide communities against each other here in the UK.

“Kashmir is a bilateral matter for India and Pakistan to resolve together by means of a peaceful solution, which protects the human rights of the Kashmiri people and respects their right to have a say in their own future.”

While they did not completely roll-back on the motion, it was widely felt by Labour members that the party had cowed to pressure out of fear of losing votes, rather than stand firm with the people of Kashmir under lockdown.

Further condemnation came from the former UK national security adviser Mark Lyall Grant after he told a meeting at the security think-tank Chatham House, that India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status was likely to lead to greater extremism in the region. He said the temptation for the Pakistan intelligence services would be once again to support cross-border militancy, even if the Pakistan civilian authorities opposed such a move.

Lyle Grant then added that greater extremism in Kashmir would have a direct impact on the UK, adding that 60–70% of British Pakistanis had origins in the Mirpur district in Kashmir. He said

“Therefore there is a risk of radicalisation in this country of British Kashmiris. We all know that diasporas tend to be more radical than communities left behind and I do not see why this should be any different.”

Speaking at the same Chatham House event as Lyall Grant, former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he was “extremely sympathetic” to the plight of Muslim people in Jammu and Kashmir, and said the actions of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, in revoking the state’s special status were;

“outrageous, preposterous, a complete breach of human rights and without any strategy attached”

Following a heavy defeat in the UK General Election, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn announced his intention to step down. Meanwhile the world carried on as normal while Kashmiris suffered ongoing human rights violations.

Any attempt to approach India on the issue would be met with anger and diversion. The BJP led government of India had also introduced the controversial CAA law on citizenship that many see as a direct attempt to prevent Indian Muslims from gaining citizenship. Indeed riots broke out at several Muslim Universities in India and images spread across social media of Indian Security Forces beating young students.

A U.S. government watchdog group on international religious freedom gave India it’s harshest rating since 2004, saying the government of PM Narendra Modi has allowed “campaigns of harassment and violence” against Muslims and other religious minorities.

Journalists are not safe from persecution either. Numerous people from the press have been detained under a new law in which an individual can be designated a terrorist and sentenced to jail for up to 7 years. Simply reporting facts can end up with imprisonment.

New Leader Puts Trade Before Human Rights

Keir Starmer's House of Commons Portrait.
New Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer | Credit: Wikimedia — CC BY 3.0

While the Coronavirus Pandemic began to come to the fore, the Labour Leadership Contents carried on and as expected, Sir Keir Starmer was elected as the new leader of the United Kingdoms biggest progressive party. Starmer is a former Human Rights Lawyer and is highly educated on foreign policy matters, so you would think that he would come out strongly for the people of Kashmir. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong.

As his first policy decision as leader, Starmer make a statement that left party members and voters angry and dismayed. Some even opted to leave the party in disgust.

Without warning or any consultation with the membership, Keir Starmer repositioned Labour on the issue of the Kashmir following a meeting with the unaffiliated lobby group; Labour Friends of India (LFIN).

Following his call with the group, the new Labour leader said:

“We must not allow issues of the sub-continent to divide communities here.

“Any constitutional issues in India are a matter for the Indian Parliament, and Kashmir is a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully.

“Labour is an internationalist party and stands for the defence of human rights everywhere.”

Pledging to promote UK-India ties, Keir Starmer went on to say the next day:

“A Labour government under my leadership will be determined to build even stronger business links with India and to co-operate on the global stage on issues such as climate change.

“I look forward to meeting the Indian High Commissioner in due course to open a renewed dialogue between the Labour Party and the people of India.”

Here you have a so-called Human Rights Lawyer putting business links before the lives of the people of Kashmir. His claim that is a ‘constitutional issue in India’ is extremely unfair and frankly, completely out of touch with the concept of International Law.

Few Voices of Support

We now have a situation in which the so-called progressive party in the UK with a long history of defending minorities and abused groups, now has what can only be described as a right wing policy towards Kashmir. It is disheartening that in 2020, business still comes first. You’d think that seeing the human cost of coronavirus would only help to increase solidarity with minorities, not decrease it.

The people of Kashmir have very few vocal allies in the world right now. With the ongoing lockdown of the region it is unknown how badly they have been affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Right now they need every single person to come together and demand our governments and international bodies take action to prevent further human rights violations. Be it via arms embargoes or trade tariffs, who knows?

Either way, Kashmir needs allies and they need them yesterday.

Backing International Law and Universal Human Rights is not anti India, or anti anything for that matter. It is simply the right thing to do.

We should not, and must not, allow ourselves or our political leaders to shy away from calling out abuses as and when we see them.

Kashmir needs to know that it is not alone and that they have progressive allies who believe in their right to self determination free from oppression.

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