In her book titled ‘No Friends but the Mountains’, Judith Matloff, a distinguished author and professor at Columbia University said: “Kashmir showed me how prolonged violence and fear can destroy the soul.” She was talking about what Pakistan refers to – and rightfully so – as Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir or IIOJK.
IIOJK is the bleeding heart of Pakistan. It is a place of contrasts. Lush green mountains riddled with bloodied bodies of young men; splendid peaks that would otherwise sing of freedom suffocate the half-widows who are lost in the echoes of their missing husbands; and while fresh snow falls like wet wool on the fields of Kashmir, its children are blinded by a torrent of indiscriminate fire of lead from pellet guns.
This is a story of children, women and men lost to violence, a story of generations sacrificed to a tragedy that has few parallels in the history of the world we have so viciously developed through war and barely a few interludes of peace.
In the spring of 1994, for example, a genocide occurred in Rwanda. Nearly 900,000 Tutsis were massacred when a pogrom of ethnic violence erupted in the small Central African country. The indiscriminate slaughter was blitzkrieg with a machete. According to American journalist Philip Gourevitch, “the dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust.”
And while it is hard to compare one tragedy with the other, the Rwandan Genocide, heartless and inhumane as it was, ended after one hundred excruciatingly long days. In comparison, Kashmir has been dying for over twenty-seven thousand days. The anxiety, the horror and the pain just doesn’t end for a populace unfortunate enough to be born into the clutches of a ruthless occupying power.
It is no longer about the plebiscite – even though it is. No longer about self-determination – but how can it not be? It is no longer about freedom – yet it always is. In 2023 – 76 years of brutalities later – it is about human suffering, more than anything else. It is less about the body and more about the soul. A society that has grown up, lived through and died in fear – a society that continues to grow up, live through and die in fear. The fear that you can feel in the quiet breath of a helpless prey as it looks into the eyes of its predator.
The fear that makes your heart beat faster in the middle of the night as the knocking on your door intensifies. The same fear that makes your heart sink to the depths of despair a moment later when your son is dragged in front of your eyes, taken away forever.
Last month, in August, Kashmir Media Service reported that India is “using rape as a military tactic to humiliate Kashmiris for challenging its rule.” More than 11,000 cases of “rape, gang-rape and molestation,” have been reported in IIOJK since 1990 – a number that sends shivers down the spine of a reader but permanently scars the mind of the survivor.
With the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir four years ago, New Delhi, under the grip of the extremist BJP-led government, has opened further avenues of distress for the local Kashmiri. Article 370 and its provisions exempted IIOJK from the Indian constitution; its repeal means a center-led demographic change in the region has become a possibility. While politicians like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah continue to strengthen the chokehold on IIOJK, the desire for freedom still lingers by a thread of blood and sacrifice.
In this saga that spans over more than three quarters of a century, countless assaults have been made – human rights abuses, illegal arrests, disappearances, torture, rape and slaughter has turned IIOJK into an open-air psych-ward. Yet, the strength of the human mind is given new meaning in Kashmir.
Self-determination is a core value of international law. The legal right of a population to decide their own values, culture and political status is undeniable. But in the case of IIOJK, this general principle seems to have been forgotten. One starts to wonder: is it really that hard to let people choose their own fate? And what of the world that takes its freedom for granted? Where are the champions of freedom? Are they oblivious to the screams and anguish of nearly 14 million people locked in a prison of desperation?
There was a butcher in Indian Gujarat once; he is in New Delhi today, but he runs his shop in Kashmir. The world has a moral obligation to shut down that shop before it is too late.
Perhaps the glitz of the G20 summit has blinded the world to the abuses of Kashmiris. Or the sale of Rafale brings enough money that it becomes hard to call a spade a spade. The policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany ended up in a disaster on a global scale in 1939. The willful ignorance by the world powers of what happened in Rwanda in 1994 ended in a colossal human tragedy.
The continued disregard of IIOJK and its populace will have devastating effects on the region and perhaps far beyond it. But more importantly, it will rupture, if it hasn’t already, the social fabric of Kashmiri society. When your soul is destroyed, what else will matter?
The writer is the director of advocacy and communications at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.
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