Kashmir: A Natural Paradise or a Man-made Hell? A Journey to Discover a Forgotten Perspective
By Hamza Latif
Kashmir has been divided for decades. It has always been a region characterized by the diversity of its natural landscapes – from lush mountain valleys to glacial lakes. However, this image of a land solely of natural wonders has been constructed through propaganda, media, and misinformation by entities that are not Kashmiri. As a student of Pakistani heritage, it is easy to adopt a certain position on the issue of Kashmir. But talking with my Indian friends has made me think about my own position, which previously was that Kashmir was divided into two. There is western Kashmir (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), which seeks to join Pakistan, and eastern Kashmir (Indian-occupied Kashmir), which is struggling to fight for freedom against the Indian military. This is a piece of self-reflection, an attempt to unravel the perspective of the Kashmiri as I can determine it as a student of history and an outsider to this community. I invite the reader to join me on this journey of de-constructing an idea I had until recently not interrogated, leading to the revelation that most individuals inherit a constructed position without seeking out the knowledge crucial to coming closer to a better understanding. I strongly believe Kashmiris should be able to voice their own opinion without the interference of the neighbouring countries, who are just fighting over Kashmir for self-interest.
Hamza is a final year undergraduate student studying History and International Relations. He is interested in the history of South Asia and the Middle East. His current interests include decolonising research methods, nationalism and frontier history.
Kashmir is a region that returns to my mind constantly – the beautiful landscape, the natural mountains, and the diversity of resources. However, Kashmir’s stateless identity has created a rift amongst the individuals residing there, or so the media would make one believe. This article is a personal journey to discover the history of Kashmir, which may help answer questions about the Kashmiri perspectives on this issue and their own participation in it. Finding answers is not an easy journey. But understanding the historical elements that constitute Kashmir today may allow us to develop a sense of what has caused the Kashmir situation as it stands right now.
To begin, it is important to recognise how Kashmir is currently divided. According to Map 1, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) consists of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, the area of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir is administered by India, and Aksai Chin officially belongs to China. Even though we may assume that Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, China is also involved with Kashmir and claims Aksai Chin to be part of Xinjiang. The focus of my article will be specifically on India and Pakistan, however, as these two states have been fighting over Kashmir for decades and have had more impact on Kashmir. Within the diverse region of Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir state will be the focus of this article as both India and Pakistan lay claim on this state (Navlakha 2009).
Since the ninth century Kashmiri territories have been influenced by various religions and their social organisations, whether this was through the widespread followings of Hinduism, Buddhism or later the introduction of Islam, with Shah Mir being the first Muslim ruler of the region coming to power in the fourteenth century. In the mid-sixteenth century Kashmir became part of the Mughal Empire (1586-1751). After the Mughal empire, the Afghan Durrani (1751-1820) empire ruled until the Sikh empire took over (1819-1845). The Sikh empire is crucial in understanding the Kashmir issue as the ruler was of a completely different religious belief to those being ruled. The end of this period is marked by the Anglo-Sikh war (1845-1846). Then the British took advantage of the conflict between the Dogras and the Sikhs to try and break Sikh rule in Kashmir. The Treaty of Amritsar (1846), which founded the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir, has been referred to as a ‘sales deed’ by activists campaigning for independence before Partition, but it probably was more the result of negotiations promoting British geostrategic interests (Verma 2020). Kashmir has been a zone of conflict for a long time, generally with no active participation of those who derived from this ‘natural paradise.’ The Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir existed from the end of this first Anglo-Sikh war until the late 1940s. During Partition Pakistan and India in various conflicts attempted to separate the region, with the Princely State finally dissolving in 1952. What is mentioned is that Kashmir was sold (Rai 2004: 27), while in fact the Dogra were sent by the British to try and contain Kashmir indirectly whilst retaining their supremacy. There is a lot of academic literature in different fields about the history of Partition, but finding sources written on Kashmir before Partition is more difficult. Might this lack of knowledge be one of the many reasons why Kashmir has been struggling to gain self-determination and an identity? The lack of historical consciousness has become a liability for Kashmir.
Man-Made Hell: Partition
To return to 1947, the time when the British left the subcontinent, India was divided into two distinct countries based on a religious frontier, the Muslim-majority Pakistan and the Hindu-majority India. Kashmir with its majority Muslim population was left unresolved. Why? This was because formally Kashmir was a ‘princely state’ ruled by the Dogra ruler Maharaja Hari Singh. It was only indirectly ruled by the British empire. This meant that the position of Kashmir was left unresolved as the British tried to avoid any decisions that would impact their reputation in the world. They therefore left Kashmir’s fate to Maharaja Hari Singh, whose decision to join India created a dispute between India and Pakistan. After the first Indo-Pakistan war in 1947, the Kashmir matter went to the United Nations to be resolved. The Indian army was withdrawn, and a line of control was drawn, which demarcated the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Indian-occupied Kashmir (IoK) (Shakoor 1998: 53). Pakistan took PoK and could not advance any further and for the Kashmiri nationals it was promised they would decide their own fate and identity, a plebiscite was supposed to take place. Where did this plebiscite go? It never happened, the opinion, the voice, the democratic expression of the will of the Kashmiri nation was suppressed as two neighbouring countries (India and Pakistan) fought over Kashmir to further their own materialistic interests and increase their leverage in the region. All of this is political. The history of Kashmir shows that Kashmir has always been that beautiful landscape that neigbouring powers competed for. Kashmiri identity suffered in the process. To me the only way identity issues can be solved is through active participation of the Kashmiri nationals without any hindrance or influence from these neighbouring territories that want more land for more materialistic powers.
The Kashmiri perspective
‘PoK is India’s, expect to get control of it one day: Govt’Source: Hindustan Times, 23 September 2020
‘Pakistan warns India any further step on IoK could imperil region’s peace’Source: Dawn, 17 June 2021
Above are examples of news headlines from both Pakistan and India. The headlines showcase the idea of propaganda against each other utilizing Kashmir as a mechanism to achieve the goal, which is to be more powerful. The news articles showcase that India strongly believes PoK to be part of India, whereas Pakistan is warning India to not take any further step on IoK. These news headlines have a commonality: the absence of a Kashmiri perspective. It is difficult to access the Kashmiri narrative as the Kashmiri identity is suppressed and therefore Kashmiris are a minority within their own space. This is techno-political colonialism, as in IoK the Muslims are on curfews and suppressed from internet access, in Gilgit-Baltistan there is lack of democratic power which Pakistan had promised. This becomes a limiting factor, which makes those individuals within IoK or PoK struggle to bring out their voice. Furthermore, not having a referendum challenges the idea of democracy, as if Kashmiri nationals are not allowed to decide their own fate, then who has control over their territory?
Our position on PoK is, has always been, and will always be, very clear – PoK is part of India, and we expect that we will have the physical jurisdiction over it.Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs, in Hindustan Times 23 September 2020
The language used in this article relates back to a position of ownership by India. There is a strong belief that Pakistan Occupied Kashmir belongs to India and with time it will again become part of India, the rightful owner. The article further addresses how Jaishankar talks about the international media’s ‘sweeping judgements on momentary impressions,’ implying that the world’s judgements are based on what is happening right now. It does not relate to the history of Partition. Jaishankar claims that what the media portray is far from the reality, the perspective of the media is utilized to create a negative image, which can suppress the influence India has within the world political ranking. However, based on the media coverage, Pakistan seems to have a slightly different position. The language used is more defensive and focusses on security and peace. The Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has been writing letters to the president of UNSC and the United Nations. These letters are regarding the ‘grave concern’ Pakistan has over India’s attitude and actions towards Kashmir. This type of language suggests that Pakistan is genuine about Kashmir, however, even Pakistan as a state has not really mentioned anything the Kashmiri nationals want. Pakistan’s emphasis is on actions through the United Nations. This is based on the idea that IoK is an internationally recognised disputed territory, which makes India’s actions unilateral and illegal and thought to be a violation of human rights.
Vox News (2019) tried to hear what the civilians or those who have lived through conflict-ridden Kashmir had to say about their land. The consensus was that Kashmir has been divided up in a territorial conflict, disregarding its people and destroying this natural beauty. According to the video, the Kashmiri nationals just want to protect their young generation. I feel that the Kashmiri people want to live their life without fear of conflict, they want to have all the opportunities which have been taken from them throughout history. Kashmir seems to be impacted by assumptions about the past rather than historical knowledge. It has been suggested that the idea of ‘silencing Kashmir’s historical identity’ has played a part in the current crisis (Kaul 2019). The destruction of historical consciousness is a tactic of occupation which severs the people from their past to create a blank slate on which the occupiers can have their preferred future. Kaul’s article focusses on how problematic it is to think we can just go back 170 years to a treaty and believe this is where Kashmiri history starts. The idea of the Dogra taking over Kashmir from the Sikh Empire is sometimes hidden or narrated in a manner which makes this part of history less important. The history of Partition is always given a lot of importance for diplomatic purposes only, a diplomatic issue between India and Pakistan. Furthermore, he believes that research completed on this area is dispassionate and that Kashmir has been assumed to be geographically isolated. However, if we ‘look … across 2000 formative years – the texts, archaeology, script, linguistics, travelers’ accounts’ etc., we can see that Kashmir is widely connected and spoken of. The only issue is the suppression of this history to make it difficult for people from Kashmir to have their opinion. Although, there are sources based on a Kashmiri perspective, the issue of positionality arises, whether these sources that mention Kashmir are from the Kashmiri people who are directly impacted by the violations caused by the neighboring states or from individuals who have a bias towards one state (Pakistan and India alike) and are utilizing Kashmiri research as a tool to demean the other state.
So far, I have mentioned the history of Kashmir and the perspectives of India and Pakistan. One thing missing from this blog is my journey to discover this history. For me Kashmir was always a location which had a beautiful scenery and I never really understood the politics of what was occurring there. There were always a lot of different narratives surrounding Kashmir: some individuals would focus on the aspect of the Kashmiri pandits (Indian perspective), whereas others would believe that due to the number of Muslims in the region, they should join the other state (Pakistan). Thus, there were distinct viewpoints which made it difficult for me as an individual to follow what was happening in Kashmir. I started to research this region on my own through social media like TikTok. However, since I am of Pakistani heritage, I was exposed to media that sided with Pakistan. Most of the news videos and articles would be based on the Pakistani’s empathy for Kashmir and be biased against India. This one-sided perspective instigated my curiosity to learn about the Indian perspective and this interest was also pushed further by my friends of Indian heritage who questioned my position on the matter. This brought me to ask one question, which is: who does Kashmir belong to? Through the acquisition of multiple perspectives, I understood that what is showcased in the media is biased and wants to uplift their own side by showcasing the opposition negatively. This media strategy is what India and Pakistan have in common: they are both more focused on fighting each other than on whatever may be in the interest of the Kashmiri people. They ignore Kashmiri perspectives. In my discovery of the history of Kashmir the most outstanding part in the fight over the territory is the suppression of Kashmiri perspectives.
To sum up, Kashmir is a beautiful landscape, rich in resources just like a natural paradise. The valleys and the views are like an imaginary world. This gift of beauty has not spared Kashmir from being in a constant state of conflict, not only during Partition (India and Pakistan), but before too (Anglo-Sikh wars). Man-made, artificially created borders have destroyed the natural landscape and suppressed those nationals who truly want to have their own viewpoint and territory. The perspective and narratives of the Kashmiri nationals have long been absent in all shapes. There is hardly any opinion which is heard through academic sources or news articles and most of the newspapers discuss Kashmir in the political contexts of India and Pakistan. The only way Kashmiri narratives will have a voice is through two actions. The first one is through active dialogue. This implies that whenever India and Pakistan discuss the Kashmir question it should have Kashmiri national representation. This will allow democracy and would allow a much fairer decision to be made. The second aspect would be a referendum for Kashmir without any interference from Pakistan or India. This referendum should be internationally recognised and be conducted by the United Nations. Kashmir has been struggling to retain a distinct national identity since empires have been taking over this beautiful landscape. One can say maybe the natural beauty of Kashmir has caused Kashmir to be divided up between mightier political powers, which has become a man-made hell.
Peer, Basharat. 2010. Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of Life, Love and War in Kashmir. Random House.
Rather, Feroz. 2018. The Night of Broken Glass. Harper Collins. Connected short stories reflecting the violence of the Kashmir conflict.
Bashir, Shahnaz. 2014. The Half Mother. Hachette India. A novel.
Kaul, Shonaleeka. 2018. The Making of Early Kashmir: Landscape and Identity in the Rajatarangini. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kaul, Suvir. 2015. Of Gardens and Graves: Essays on Kashmir, Poems in Translation, Gurgaon, Haryana, India: Three Essays Collective.
Rai, Mridu. 2004. Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Shakoor, Farzana. 1998. ‘UN and Kashmir.’ Pakistan Horizon 51.2 (April): 53-69.
Waheed, Mirza. 2011. The Collaborator. Penguin Books. A novel.
Editor’s note: The editors would like to thank Dr James Caron for feedback on this piece.