How Kashmiris View India’s Continued Military Presence
The ethnically diverse Himalayan region of Kashmir has been caught in a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan since 1947. Despite both countries claiming full control, Kashmir is divided between them, into an Indian-administered part and a Pakistan-administered part.
For the last three decades, Indian-controlled Kashmir has been characterised by unrest due to a separatist insurgency opposing India’s rule. Although India’s fragile relationship with Kashmir is not a new development, tensions intensified when in 2019, India revoked Article 370, depriving the region of its special status and a certain degree of autonomy.
Article 370 allowed Kashmir to have its own constitution and to make decisions regarding property ownership and permanent residency. As a result, Indians from other parts of the country were not able to purchase property and settle in Kashmir. Scrapping Kashmir’s special status meant that Kashmir would have to abide by India’s constitution.
Fearing state-wise unrest after announcing the decision, New Delhi increased the number of troops in the region and has since then been maintaining a massive army presence in Kashmir.
But is the army presence in Kashmir necessary to maintain stability or is it indicative of New Delhi violating people’s basic human rights to demand absolute obedience?
Revoking Kashmir’s special status in 2019 was followed not only by Indian troops pouring into the streets but also by a communications blackout that ended in 2021.
These measures, adopted by India in anticipation of unrest in Kashmir, represented a serious violation of people’s freedom of expression. And, although Internet connectivity has now been restored, the curtailment of people’s fundamental liberties continues.
“We are not allowed to protest in the streets. Protests can only happen in one square,” Zahid, a participant in one of the recent protests, told me. The demonstration was about a decision to scrap a merit list that affected Finance Account Assistants, halting the selection process.
But even in this one designated spot, demonstrations tend to be small, partially because people are afraid of the military using force should a larger protest take place, and partially because, after years of having their voices suppressed, they have lost faith in being able to change the status quo.
Another way in which the security forces have been curbing people’s freedom is through cases of unjustified violence.
“Just the other day I was beaten up because I asked why they had stopped the traffic and wouldn’t let us pass. Another incident occurred two days earlier, where a few drivers were beaten up. No action has been taken,” Viraj, a doctor who lives in Srinagar, told me.
India-administered Kashmir is one of the world’s most militarised regions. At any given moment there are dozens of soldiers patrolling the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, and checkpoints can be seen on every corner.
“This is the reality of life in a conflict zone. Often people from outside the region see Kashmir as a tourist paradise but those who live here feel a sheer amount of pressure. Just seeing weapons has psychological effects on regular people,” Viraj explained, adding that “rebellions are bound to occur when you pressure people into obedience.”
Still, by making sure that people know they are constantly being watched by the authorities, India has ingrained a sense of vigilance in people’s minds. Nowadays, there are significantly fewer protests and strikes, and protestors throwing rocks has become a thing of the past.
What cannot be overlooked, however, is the fact that the heavy military deployment has had a fair share of tangible success in improving the security of the region. The number of violent incidents decreased from 417 in 2018 to 229 in 2021, according to Amit Shah, the Minister of Home Affairs. And, for some Kashmiris, the increased army presence has improved their sense of normalcy and security.
“The presence of Indian forces is essential to protect the people of Kashmir, especially those who are not radicalised and do not support the insurgency against the government,” Kamal, a local resident, told me.
At the moment, Kashmir is experiencing a period of relative stability but security challenges persist so there is a risk that this calm will be short-lived.
“There has been a security threat in Kashmir since 1990. Governments come and go, but the army presence has been a constant,” Kamal explained.
Here lies the inherent paradox of the situation in Kashmir. The longer India’s military rule continues, the more people will be turning against the government and joining the ranks of militant groups. At the same time, this leads to increased security threats, and the Indian government having no choice but to keep its troops in the region. And removing the military element, which is seemingly what many Kashmiris want, could potentially trigger further chaos.
“There would certainly be more unrest if the army was removed without any improvements in administering the region,” Kamal told me. So, before the possibility of one-day withdrawing Indian troops from Kashmir can even be considered, fundamental reforms to how the troubled territory is governed are necessary.
When the Indian government took back Kashmir’s limited autonomy, it announced that the conflict was resolved and that the region’s integration with the rest of the country was officially complete. In reality, however, the resolution of the tensions between the Indian government and the people of Kashmir remains a distant dream.