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3 June 2002

Flames clinging to a torched village

India talks of terrorism, and the world listens. But the Kashmiris have tens of thousands dead, and

By Kamila Shamsie

At a conference in America a few weeks ago, I stressed the urgent need to find a political solution in Kashmir. We must stop thinking about Kashmir in terms of what India and Pakistan want, and start thinking about the rights of the Kashmiris, I argued. Afterwards, an Indian student approached me and asked: “But isn’t it hypocritical for successive Pakistani governments to talk about the importance of allowing Kashmiris to vote for their future when there is no democracy in Pakistan?”

“Of course it is,” I replied. “But how is the hypocrisy of Pakistan relevant to the Kashmiri right to self-determination?”

The problem for the Kashmiris is that India (unwittingly aided by Pakistan) has succeeded in making it relevant. India’s stance on Kashmir is that there is really no internal problem, and all the troubles are created by Pakistan-sponsored religious militants who – bearded, murderous and fanatical – are importing terrorism to the largest democracy (and, allegedly, a secular one at that) in the world. Pakistan’s response to this (as reaffirmed by President Musharraf in his widely publicised address to the nation on 27 May) is that Pakistan offers only moral and diplomatic support to the Kashmiris. That is a lie – everyone in Pakistan will tell you that the intelligence service, the ISI, is helping to arm and train militants/terrorists/freedom fighters who cross the border into Indian-controlled Kashmir for purposes other than taking a moonlit trip down the Jhelum River in a houseboat.

The transparency of the Pakistani government’s lies regarding militancy in Kashmir makes it easy for India to play the aggrieved party. This is particularly the case post-11 September; a government has only to use the words “Islamic militants” to evoke a rush of worldwide sympathy. But almost all the world’s press are reluctant to print the facts that should be drawing our sympathy: there have been between 30,000 and 70,000 deaths in Kashmir in the past dozen years, and an overwhelming majority of those deaths can be laid at the door of the Indian security forces.

Governments appear to be able to carry out any kind of atrocities within their borders under the auspices of “maintaining peace” and “combating terrorism”. Governments can also restrict the entry of journalists and international observers into parts of the country where state forces are brutalising the populace. But when groups or individuals respond by attacking the government, the terminology that is used is not of self-defence but of fanaticism; the cameras roll out to take pictures of the dead, and the government is quick to assert its right to retaliate against the “terrorists” and those who support them, in no uncertain terms (even if this means risking nuclear war).

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That militants who espouse extremist forms of Islam have carved out a space for themselves within the Kashmiri struggle is a great tragedy for the people. Kashmir has always shown little tolerance for religious extremism. Islam came to Kashmir not through military conquest but through the appeal of Sufism – that mystical form of Islam associated with love, poetry and rapture – and it is Sufi Islam that continues to be the most powerful presence in the religious life of the region’s Muslims. But if you deny people the right to vote, hold elections only to rig them, abduct and torture young men for the flimsiest of reasons – and do all this with barely a murmur of disapproval from the international community – then it is hardly surprising if even the gentlest of people respond by taking up arms and looking around for assistance.

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Enter Pakistani-trained militants, brandishing guns and religious slogans. The opiate effect of religion is not lost on the ISI, which indoctrinates reactionary young men with the misguided belief that the Kashmiri struggle is an Islamic struggle. These men enter Kashmir, use terrorist tactics, and provide India with a fanatical face to paste on to the conflict. And so a PR battle is won: India – 1, Pakistan – 0, Kashmir – consigned to the sidelines.

PR is what this is all about, really. Pakistan tried for years to bring Kashmir to the world’s attention; although the Pakistanis’ motives may be questionable, it is hard to argue with their aims. The world responded by dismissing it as a bilateral matter for the two nations to resolve. The UN, which more than 50 years ago declared the need for a plebiscite in Kashmir and then proceeded to sit on its hands as, year after year, India found a reason not to hold the plebiscite, continues to sit on its hands.

And India, which for years did all it could to keep Kashmir out of the world news, has now realised that it is an opportune time to go on the offensive with accusations of cross-border terrorism. Thus al-Qaeda, Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists are banded together, even though they are three distinct (though occasionally overlapping) entities which can be united only through wily rhetorical manoeuvring and by obscuring important facts (not least the truth about those tens of thousands killed by the Indian security forces). Add to all this a threat of nuclear war, and the world is thrown into a frenzy that, yet again, focuses on India and Pakistan and quite ignores Kashmir.

There is no easy solution to the Kashmir problem. For the sake of the Kashmiris, and to avert the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan, it is essential that we do not shirk trying to find a peaceful resolution. But the continued indifference of the rest of the world to the situation in Kashmir is staggering. The only thing worse than indifference is the sort of misreporting that occurs these days as journalists and government officials accept the notion that the Kashmiri struggle is a spurt of religious militancy, rather than a sustained political struggle (with a religious militant fringe) that is becoming increasingly violent as a result of the brutality the Kashmiris have had to face over the years.

You do not have to like Pakistan or its policies to support the Kashmiris. This may be an important point to reiterate to those who see the conflict as existing between two nations, one that bears a secular, democratic face (although there is nothing secular about India’s BJP government) and one that doesn’t.

What we need above all is to hear Kashmiri voices. The late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali is perhaps the most powerful voice I know. His poem I Dream I Am the Only Passenger on Flight 423 to Srinagar invokes both the incredible beauty and the unbearable suffering of Kashmir:

The landing gear roars, we touch the ashen Tarmac.
He holds my hand speechless to tell me if

Those smashed golds flying past those petrified
Reds are autumn’s last crimsoned spillage

Rushing with wings down the mountainside
Or flames clinging to a torched village.

Kamila Shamsie is the author of Kartography (Bloomsbury, £9.99)