In an interview with Scott Horton of AntiWar.com, South Asian Affairs Analyst Pieter Friedrich discusses the broader context of the latest chapter in the conflict in Kashmir.
The Pulwama Attack & Background on Kashmir
A suicide bomber drove an SUV into a convoy of buses of Indian security forces called the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) — they’re a paramilitary that’s deployed all over the country — and killed about 40.
Kashmir is in the northern tip of India. It borders on Pakistan. It’s been a disputed territory between India and Pakistan since 1947, the same year that both countries were formed. It’s a Muslim majority region, but India is a Hindu majority country and Pakistan is, of course, a Muslim majority country. In this conflict, religion is actually one of the main factors that is coloring the conflict. It’s far more than just a territorial dispute. India and Pakistan have actually gone to war four times since 1947 over Kashmir. The last time was in 1999.
As far as the underlying reason for the dispute — you know, Kashmir is an interesting area. It doesn’t have any real natural resources. It’s a small area. It’s got about 13 million population contrasted with Pakistan’s 200 million people. India’s got 1.3 billion. There’s no real reason for either country to really want it as part of their territory. There’s nothing wrong with the area, it’s just they don’t have oil, they don’t have a lot natural resources, any minerals, or anything like that. The main contention for why they want it over the past 70 years of conflict is, basically, national pride, I would conjecture, and basically a religious conflict between the Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.
If you look at the history of the region and the origin of the conflict, it began with religious dimensions.
Tracing back to 1947, the British were ruling India. Then, when India got independence from the British in 1947, the British agreed to partition the subcontinent to create Pakistan and create India — especially with a lot of pressure from the Muslim community who were uncomfortable with the idea living in a Hindu dominated country like India. So the British compromised and acceded to their pressure and created Pakistan as a Muslim majority.
That led to a mass migration — two-way migration — as Hindus and Sikhs in what became Pakistan fled to India and then Muslims in India fled to what became Pakistan because neither one wanted to be caught living in that country which was dominated by the opposite religion.
That was actually a little bit south of Kashmir, more along the Punjab region. But Kashmir was among several hundred of what were called “princely states,” which were not technically part of the British Raj. They were kind of controlled by the British Empire, but they weren’t actually owned by the British and they weren’t directly occupied. They had their own autonomy and they were operating their domestic affairs independently.
Kashmir was a kingdom, and it had a Hindu king with a Muslim majority population. The king had the opportunity to decide to join Pakistan or to join India. He was kind of waffling on that and was leaning towards being independent.
Then some other factors began occurring in Kashmir. There was an armed rebellion that broke out in his kingdom of Muslims who wanted to join Pakistan. There was an invasion of tribal people, armed by Pakistan, who came into Kashmiri territory. Then that kind of cause him to lean towards India. He ended up signing an Instrument of Accession and ceding control of Kashmir to India. Then India sent in troops. But right before he did, a couple of weeks before he did that, the maharaja — the king — partnered with a Hindu nationalist organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which had been founded about 20 years before in a different area of India and had sprouted up all over India with branches throughout the region.
So the king partnered with the RSS and organized basically a state-sanctioned, state-sponsored pogrom of Muslims in a particular area — Jammu — of Jammu and Kashmir in this northern region. Between them, over a period of about a month — a couple weeks or a month — they massacred probably about 100,000 Muslims. Ethnically cleansed the region of Muslims.
Then, right around then, the king ceded control of the region to India. Around then, India and Pakistan went to war for their first war over Kashmir and all of that happened. But the roots of the conflict really trace back to this religious dimension and especially to involvement of these Hindu nationalist groups, particularly this RSS which is a paramilitary organization which actually has extensive, extensive influence in India’s government today.
Nothing has really happened as far as a resolution for the conflict.
But what did really change was in 1989. So India and Pakistan went to war in 1947, in 1965, in 1971, and in 1999. In 1989, an insurgency started in Kashmir.
The government was dissolved. The Indian Constitution allows the Indian Central Government to impose something called “President’s Rule” where, if a state government is determined to not be “functional” then, even though it’s democratically elected, the Central Government can go in and dissolve it, then implement direct rule from Delhi. So, in 1989, an insurgency breaks out. In 1990, this President’s Rule is established.
In the same year, this new law is imposed called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has also been used in multiple other regions of the country. It’s a holdover from colonial Britain. It’s basically a direct replica of laws from colonial times, of a law that was designed to squash and suppress dissent. It allows impunity for security forces in the particular region where it’s imposed. It allows them to shoot on suspicion, to search and seize without a warrant, to detain people indefinitely. But especially it allows impunity. A couple of years ago, in 2016, the Supreme Court overturned the impunity clause of that particular law, allow it remains in place in Kashmir as well as a couple of other regions of India, including Manipur. They stripped away that impunity clause, but the law still allows Indian security forces in the regions where it’s imposed to do just about anything and get away with it.
Who Benefits from Pulwama Attack?
Maybe the ISI is behind it. Maybe Jaish-e-Mohammed is behind it, which is the group specifically that is accused in this attack. Maybe Lashkar is behind it.
One thing I do know is that the timing is very, very dubious. Nobody benefits from the attack that just happened, from the timing of it right now, except for potentially the current ruling party, the BJP — which is a Hindu nationalist party which is basically directed controlled by this paramilitary, the RSS, and which is working for re-election over the next few months. April-May is the General Elections for India. They’ve been in power since 2014. Their five years are up. Nobody benefits. The militants don’t benefit. Pakistan doesn’t benefit. The only people that benefit, and they are aware of it, is the BJP.
The day after the attack occurred, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP was in the most populous state of India, Uttar Pradesh, and he was saying that people should vote for the BJP because it will bring a “strong government” at the Centre which will bring “glory for India on an international stage.”
Modi is an RSS member. He’s the Prime Minister of India, but he got his start in 1971 as a member of this RSS paramilitary. He became what’s called a pracharak, which is a full-time worker, for the organization. From 1971 to 1985, he was working with the organization. In 1985, the RSS deputed him (or assigned him) to work within the BJP.
From 1985 to 2001, he holds no political office until, in Gujarat in 2001, the state government is declared to be inefficient or unworkable, the Chief Minister is removed, and Modi is appointed in his stead. He’s been elected since, and he was elected to that office since, but when he got into his first political office after getting his start with the RSS, he was appointed — not elected. Then, exactly four months after that, his administration was directly implicated in a pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat.
Attacks on Kashmiris
What’s happening right now in India — after the attack in Pulwama, in Kashmir, this suicide bombing — what’s happening throughout India right now is actually kind of reminiscent, not in scale but in spirit, of what happened in Gujarat in that pogrom where Modi actually is implicated in orchestrating the pogrom. Which is that, throughout the country of India right now, Kashmiris are being attacked. They’re being attacked by mobs. There have been several notable incidents.
In one area, in a city called Dehradun (which is close to Rishikesh which is a hippie hotspot that the Beatles are known for, they wrote a song about Rishikesh). In this city of Dehradun, at this one university, there are a lot of Kashmiri students. And Kashmiri students have been posting on social media, and it’s being widely reported on Indian mainstream media, about how they’re being besieged in their dormitories by mobs of people who are apparently being fielded by these Hindu nationalist organizations who are coming and shouting things like “shoot the traitors.” Then these students are saying that they’re reaching out to police for help and the police are responding to them that, “Well, no, you should go out and apologize to the mob.” That the Kashmiri students, in a totally different area of mainland India, should go out and apologize to these mobs of Hindu nationalist mobs for the suicide bombing that occurred hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of miles away in Kashmir.
There was a young man who was in his home. He had posted something on social media that was discovered and people were saying was “anti-national.” A mob went to his home, went in, filmed the whole thing on Facebook Live, dragged him out of his home into the street, paraded him around the street half-naked, and then draped an Indian flag over his naked torso. Then filmed him while they made him say “Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” which means “Hail Mother India,” and filmed it.
There was a teacher that had a mob come to her at night in her home. They surrounded her home, filmed the whole thing on Facebook Live, and were berating her. In this case because she had posted things on Facebook talking about how there are human rights issues in Kashmir that need to be addressed — in relation to the suicide bombing that had just occurred.
Widely throughout India there are these attacks on totally innocent Kashmiris who are being accused of being anti-patriotic, anti-national, or who are just being targeted because they raise issues of human rights in Kashmir.
BJP Campaigns on Pulwama
There are threats of war going back and forth.
India has hiked up tariffs on Pakistani goods by 200 percent. India stripped Pakistan of “most favored nation status.” Just the past day, India announced that a treaty they have over water rights — that supposedly they’ve re-examined it, and based on the treaty they don’t have any obligation to actually give any of the water that the treaty covers to Pakistan. So they’re just going to cut all of it off now.
There are a lot of talks about war by mainstream Indian television personalities. Arnab Goswami is one of them in particular. There is nothing official yet, but there are talks about that.
According to one Wikileaks document that came out in 2007 from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, the RSS — in their words — has traditionally been the foot-soldiers of the BJP. They’re known for leading the on-the-ground campaigning of the BJP. The head of the RSS just came out saying that they are going to reorient their campaign strategy for the BJP to focus on anti-terrorism in the wake of this Pulwama suicide bombing.
Previously, their primary campaign plank had been the building of a temple to the Hindu god Ram in a disputed religious site in the state of Uttar Pradesh. If you want to talk about Americans being ignorant of Indian politics, most Americans probably have no idea that a central aspect of campaign promises by this ruling political party in India right now, the BJP, is promising to build a temple for the Hindu god Ram on a site that actually used to be occupied by a mosque — then, in 1992, that mosque was torn down by a mob that was incited by the president of the BJP at the time.
It is a religious nationalist controlled government right now in India. Aside from the talks of war, aside from the threat of nuclear conflagration — aside from all that, there is the issue of yes, Pakistan is a Muslim State but India is de facto a Hindu State. It’s even more so at the moment because it’s controlled by an openly, blatantly Hindu nationalist political party which is controlled by this RSS paramilitary.
If you trace back to the founding of the RSS — why it was founded in 1925 and then what its founders were saying from the 1930s, 1940s, 1960s — it was saying that Muslims especially but also all non-Hindus in India are a threat to India and are, in so many words, “traitors.” And, especially, that anyone who converts to a non-Hindu religion like Islam or Christianity is guilty of leaving Hinduism for the “enemy camp” and basically of being anti-national.
This RSS — it’s no over-exaggeration to say that they virtually control the government today.
Current Situation in Kashmir
What’s especially important as far as the cooler heads prevailing — according to the official reports, which are acknowledged by India, the actual attacker was a Kashmiri man from the local area who had reportedly, according to his parents and other sources, become a militant after, a couple of years ago, he was in Kashmir, he was profiled by Indian security forces. He was beaten. Supposedly he was stopped in the street and forced to actively rub his nose in the ground. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for him and he became militant. So, officially, the guy that actually did the bombing — who knows where he got the explosives from, but he was a Kashmiri.
What’s happening right now is that India still has at least 500,000 troops in Kashmir, possibly up to 700,000. Kashmir is an area with 13 million people, so it’s a massive, massive troop presence. It’s under constant curfew. It’s under constant curfew — the internet gets cut off there all the time, sometimes for months at a time. It has ongoing protests and ongoing protests for years.
The Kashmiris aren’t happy. And I’m no apologist for Pakistan. Pakistan is a major violator of human rights in the world today, but India is the country with the half a million troops in Kashmir. Kashmiris are the ones who are being occupied by India right now. And they are deeply, deeply unhappy. They are deeply, deeply oppressed. And tens of thousands of them have died.
Bigger Context: Kashmir & Punjab
As far as cooler heads prevailing, one thing that I would hope the cooler heads would keep in mind is the bigger context of the Kashmir issue. That this is not an isolated incident — this latest suicide bombing — and that conflict has been going on there for decades and decades. And that tens and tens of thousands of Kashmiris have been killed by the Indian security forces, including human rights defenders.
One guy in particular was named Jalil Andrabi. He was a Kashmiri human rights lawyer. In 1996, just after he’d been reaching out to the UN and just before he was scheduled to go and visit the UN in Geneva, I believe for the second time, he was picked up, while he was with his wife, by Indian Army forces and “disappeared.” Then, for a couple weeks, the Indian Army denied that they had him in custody. Then his body washed up in a river, tied up in a sack, hands tied behind his back, eyes gouged out, facial bones broken, and with a gunshot to the back of his head.
He was saying, before he was murdered, that in 1996 — five, six years into this Kashmiri insurgency — that India had probably killed about 40,000 people, including men, women, and children.
Once again, as far as cooler heads prevailing and bigger context, that at the time wasn’t even isolated to Kashmir. There was also an ongoing insurgency in Punjab, to the south of Kashmir, where Sikhs were agitating for an independent state. They were also under de facto occupation by the Indian Army. Tens of thousands of them were also being disappeared.
This Kashmiri human rights lawyer who was murdered in 1996 — about six months before that, in Punjab, a Punjabi human rights activist named Jaswant Singh Khalra was reaching out to international communities. He’d actually just gotten back from Canada, where he’d been reaching out to the Canadian Parliament. Reaching out for them to pay attention to evidence that he’d uncovered, which has since been widely proven, that the Indian security forces were picking up Sikh youth, killing them in custody, and then cremating their bodies to dispose of the evidence.
This guy, Khalra, in Punjab, in September 1995 — six months before the Kashmiri guy is murdered — he’s picked up by Indian police. He’s disappeared for a couple of month. His case was actually widely talked about in U.S. Congress at the time. Then later it came out that he was tortured, and killed in custody, and his body was dumped, I think, in a canal. Since then, cases were filed. That was 1995. In 2011, sixteen years later, six police officers were convicted and sentenced to life for the crime.
So it’s totally on record that this guy was murdered by the Indian security apparatus. He actually documented about 25,000 Sikhs in Punjab that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had been “disappeared” and murdered by Indian security forces. That’s at the same time that this guy, this Kashmiri human rights attorney, Andrabi, is documenting 40,000 Kashmiris being “disappeared” and murdered by Indian security forces.
As far as cooler heads prevailing, there’s bigger context as far as the 70 years of history of unrest and dispute in Kashmir. There’s also bigger context as far as the decades of human rights abuses, of atrocities, of mass murder of tens and tens of thousands of people. Undisputed mass murder — of innocent civilians as well as insurgents.
What Role Should the U.S. Play?
To really pinpoint the issue, it’s much more than just a territorial dispute. There’s so much as far as religious dimensions to this. But, why this conflict over Kashmir? Kashmir doesn’t have natural resources. It doesn’t have anything particularly worth claiming it as one country or the other demanding that they must have it. Really, what it strikes me as being about, is just about pride. Just about how they want that feather in their cap. They don’t want to admit defeat — or compromise — or they view any compromise as admitting defeat.
If the U.S. has any role to play in this at all, then it should be in hosting peace talks. And it should be in advocating for peace and for freedom. And that’s the beginning and end of it. The be all of it.
But what we have right now in the U.S. as far as its relationship with India is that there’s been a major shift. The U.S. is pulling strings, and playing this Great Game, and trying to balance powers against powers in the world. It used to be rather pro-Pakistan, now it’s shifted to be pro-India — I don’t believe it should be either. But it has shifted to be pro-India at the moment, and it’s seeing India as kind of a balance against China. It has drastically increased its strategic alliances, its military alliances, with India.
A lot of that is really, really, really strongly motivated by an India lobby in the U.S. “India” lobby is not necessarily the correct word because it’s more a Hindu nationalist lobby. It’s deeply affiliated with the BJP and deeply sympathetic to the BJP, and is primarily backed by U.S.-based affiliates of the RSS and other Hindu nationalist outfits. They have, for years, worked very hard and have a very strong incentive to prevent the U.S. from even mentioning that there might be human rights issues in India.
They have specifically worked against a couple of different resolutions in U.S. Congress — the last one was in 2013/14 — worked to kill them despite those resolutions being bi-partisan supported. They’ve protested any time the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, for instance, has had hearings. They’ve gone out of their way to protest that.
It’s bizarre, because if you look at all the saber-rattling from the U.S. against Iran — and Iran, whether or not they should have nuclear weapons, they’ve actually signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) — India hasn’t signed the NPT. In fact, they actually haven’t signed a large number of other UN international treaties, including the Hague convention for the International Criminal Court. They’ve signed, but they’ve never ratified the convention against torture. Torture is basically legal in India, and it’s widely practiced today.