New Delhi’s Daily Pioneer calls them militants. Some distance across one of the most militarized regions in the world, the Associated Press of Pakistan calls them valiant.
The publication of these two clashing accounts presents the external observer with a familiar problem: the existence of two truths at war with one another. The conflict in Kashmir is, paradoxically, a tale about the absence of one. It is about the pursuit of objectivity under conditions of extreme sensitivity.
“What if both armies are bad?” suggested Zulfiqar Mannan ‘20, a resident of Lahore Pakistan.
These two narratives are separated by a contested border in Kashmir. This is where Kashmir’s Indian-administered region is abruptly divided from Kashmir’s Pakistani-administered side.
This duality is the story of Kashmiri resistance. Intense bias at the hands of the Indian and Pakistani media is an outgrowth of a political divide between these countries
The most recent escalation of violence in Indian-administered Kashmir is the continuation of a decades-long dispute. The conflict arose in the direct aftermath of decolonization. In 1947, as the end of British rule ushered in the re-partitioning of India and Pakistan, the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the largest princely state of the former British India, were thrown into a violent struggle for autonomy over their land.
Even before independence, “Kashmiris [had] been demanding freedom from autocracy and monarchy since 1931,” recounted Zia Ather, an award-winning Kashmiri poet and assistant professor of Anthropology at University of Colorado, in an interview with The Politic. She spoke of the insurgency with the type of finality that suggested a prophecy 80 years in the making.
“By 1948, you had two dominions, and you either joined Pakistan, or you joined India, and that was it,” explained Ather. In a brutal stalemate that still evades resolution by UN Charter, military action, or pleas for diplomacy, the two countries have drawn a line across which Kashmir is effectively partitioned. India administers about two-thirds of the region, while Pakistan presides over the other third.
The mountains flanking the border between a divided Kashmir roil under the weight of this war: they have been the enduring witnesses to two wars and many more skirmishes. The boundary, known as the Line of Control, is one of the most militarized regions in the world—a testament to the importance of Kashmir to the political agendas of both Pakistan and India. In an interview with The Politic, Daniel S. Markey, senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, spoke of the 80-year insurgency as a “cyclical process”:
“Several generations, since the late ‘80s, of young Kashmiris have been frustrated by their political environment and by the lack of opportunities at various levels for them, and by what they perceive to be a heavy-handed Indian approach.”
From the start, the conflict was strictly bilateral for India and Pakistan. Thus began a dangerous legacy of what might be coined as a deliberate forgetfulness of the Kashmiris themselves. But Ather insisted that “the majority of Kashmiris want independence,” and will continue to answer to the calls of an insurgency that has echoed in the Valley since 1931.
With the political rise of India’s new Hindu nationalist leadership, spearheaded by the Prime Minister Modi’s BJP party, the Indian response to the upsurge of pro-independence violence in the valley has been more catastrophic than in previous years. Moreover, the Indian government is eager to place the blame on external sources. If it cannot indict Pakistan for fomenting anti-government sentiment in the region (Pakistan denies involvement in the conflict), it will turn to the media. Markey acknowledged that the stakes seemed to be higher for Modi’s administration:
“From the Hawkish perspective of India’s current leadership in New Delhi, they perceive that the only way to resolve this problem is by taking a hard stance against the protests.”
In an interview with The Politic, Maidul Islam, professor of political science at the Centre For Studies in Social Science, suggested that the conflict in Kashmir is used as a political scapegoat:
“When both the Indian and Pakistani establishment fails to curb inflation, unemployment, and corruption, fanning up jingoism and ultra-nationalism over the Indo-Pakistani conflict becomes the favourite game of the political leadership in both the countries.”
Deadly confrontations are far from uncommon in Indian-administered Kashmir, but violence has escalated since the death of separatist leader Burhan Wani in July. Since then, Mir Hilal, resident of Kashmir and Editor of The Kashmiri Reader, has witnessed a breakdown of civilian life. Indian authorities banned his newspaper on October 2nd, and he reported that 92 people have been killed by local police, 7,000 protesters have been arrested, and about 700 have been partially or fully blinded by pellet guns.
The scene Hilal set of Kashmir was reminiscent of wartime: he spoke of internet shutdowns, censorship on facebook, and nightly curfews. Hilal said the censorship of his newspaper is a stark indicator that the political conflict has begun to seep into the cultural sphere. In an interview with The Politic, he suggested that the Indian authorities banned the Kashmir Reader because “local media is an extension of the street.”
While the retaliatory cycle of he-said, she-said accusations casts a veil of confusion over recent clashes in the region, it is local newspapers that shed light on the truth. It is worth noting that both approaches dismiss the notion that an anti-India movement could have originated organically amongst the Kashmiris themselves.
The Western media, distracted by conflict in other regions and rendered helpless by the lack of an impartial narrative, is also not helping matters. “There is a political dimension that is not coming out in the Western media”, said Ather.
The truth finds no refuge in regional historical accounts, either, as the rival claims to Kashmir by Pakistan and India are inherently at odds with each other. Of course, it is hard not to take sides in a territorial dispute so bitter and personal that it has grown into a patriotic issue; asserting sovereignty over the land is a matter of national pride.
“It is difficult for India to disentangle the question of Kashmir from a broader question of national identity, and from a deeper history that goes back to the very early days of independence,” Markey explained.
The same is true in Pakistani media. In an interview with The Politic, Shaun Gregory, Professor of International Security and Director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at Durham University noted that “even the more liberal media still tends to be quite nationalistic towards their claim on Kashmir.”
“It is the vicious role of media in sustaining unhelpful narratives,” he argued, that creates this type of political animosity between the heads of both states, and, to the detriment of readers, can shed an unfair light on the objective series of uprisings in Kashmir over the recent months. Unfortunately, such partisan coverage makes it near impossible for the external observer to decipher just what, exactly, is going on.
Mannan spoke in an interview of how media coverage of Kashmir tended to be misleading. He told The Politic about his Facebook feed, full of posts from his friends back home in Pakistan: of how the news he received was of rebellions against Indian authorities, and of the brutal murders in retaliation to such dissent. All of this is true. But the discrepancy in reporting becomes evident when this news cycle is compared with the Indian one; Mannan recounted how his friends in India were receiving, and sharing “the same sort of propaganda—but from the other side.”
“Are people rebelling against the Indian forces, or are people rebelling against the Pakistani forces?” For Mannan, it depends on who you ask.
Gregory agreed. “Constantly positioning India as the villain and denying their own role in the various activities such as cross-border military operations doesn’t help things.”
Amid such tangible polarization, and amid a war between two rival histories, the third narrative is trying not to be drowned out. Surbhi Bharadwaj ‘20, who spent most of her childhood in Delhi, understands the missing piece of the bilateral rhetoric that engulfs Pakistani and Indian media: the Kashmiris themselves.
In an interview with The Politic, Bharadwaj explained, “the Kashmir conflict is starting to be depicted as a question of ‘us versus them.’ The plight of the Kashmiri community itself is severely under-reported, preventing any constructive dialogue on the issue.”
Bharadwaj’s concerns are not unwarranted. In the valley of Kashmir appears a scene that betrays the stirrings of raw outrage and revolution, despite efforts to suppress the palpable discontent. It is a place of heightened paranoia, enforced curfews, and, recently, institutional censorship, as Hilal described.
The question of Kashmir plagues politicians and human rights activists alike. But for many others, Kashmir is not a question—it is a given. Halal sees that “there has always been a pro-independence sentiment,” in Kashmir.
And Ather insists that, among Kashmiris, “there is a very small percentage that wants Pakistan, and there is no percentage that wants India.” The desire for autonomy seems widespread—but nothing has come to fruition.
“We are not so hopeful right now,” said Halal when asked about the future of Kashmir.
Markey shared the same sense of realism (or perhaps pessimism):
“India will not grant outright independent of Kashmir, and it has proven that it is willing to go to war over this issue.”
While the end to political conflict seems a distant reality, Bharadwaj sees hope in what unites both sides of the border. “Culturally, India and Pakistan are incredibly similar,” she said.“Whatever ‘hatred’ we see between Indo-Pak today is primarily incited by political parties to serve their vested interests. Pakistan and the Kashmir issue become an easy way for parties to use rhetoric of fear lined by communalist messaging, to further their aims. You need little more than a conversation on chai or cricket between an Indian and a Pakistani to realize how hollow this “divide” between the two countries feels at a personal level.”
But cultural relations between India and Pakistan are not entirely immune from simmering tensions. The conflict has seeped into the Bollywood industry, establishing a new (and somewhat unexpected front) along which these two countries wage war. The breakdown of relations within the industry came first in the form of a ban on all Pakistani actors in Bollywood film.
Islam explained, “The demand for banning Pakistani actors in the Bollywood actually came from the marginal but disrupting political force Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), a breakaway group of the nativist political party, the Shiv Sena. The group has racist and fascist tendencies, very similar to the far-right anti-immigrant articulations of Donald Trump in the United States and the neo-Nazis in parts of Europe.”
The measure came in the aftermath of a cross-border attack on an Indian army camp in Jammu and Kashmir, and the party, which, according to Islam, often seeks opportunities for easy publicity, stalled the release of all Hindi films with Pakistani actors. Although a compromise has been reached between producers and the MNS in the form of a 50 million-rupee payment to the Indian Army Welfare Fund on the part of producers who cast Pakistanis, Bollywood is beginning to falter under the weight of what really is an unrelated political conflict. In retaliation, Pakistan has banned all Bollywood movies.
Since the late 1980s, Islam explained, in the wake of growing separatist movements in Kashmir, several popular Hindi films have taken to vilifying Pakistanis by portraying them as sponsors of terrorism and conspirators to disrupt the Indian state. As relations in Bollywood have begun to deteriorate and profits plummet, the irony of these back-and-forth measures becomes apparent:
“Today, Bollywood has become the victim of its oft-repeated propaganda against Pakistanis in the context of a demand to boycott Pakistani actors.”
Yet despite the political posturing and retaliatory one-upping, the Bollywood battle has gone unnoticed in Kashmir. Why?
As a Kashmiri resident told The Politic, “there are really no movie theaters in Kashmir. They are all closed after the uprising of 1990, and now only one is in operation.”
Once again, there is a cruel irony: the bitter exchange between Pakistan and India over Kashmir is playing out against a backdrop that has frankly nothing to do with the very region they concern themselves with. They are waging political, economic, and cultural warfare in the name of a people who have been forgotten along the way.