Kashmirʹs tormented quest for freedom
The mountains, meadows and rivers of Kashmir are so reminiscent of Swiss mountain pastures that you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were in the Alps. From time to time, you come to a brook with white flowers blossoming along its banks. Then a fallen tree blocks the path and youʹre forced to climb over it. Itʹs an idyll thatʹs almost too beautiful to be real.
"If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this" – this famous line, written by the Indian poet Amir Khusro about Kashmir is a favourite among the inhabitants of the valley, who recite it with enthusiasm. But Kashmir is not just a paradise, it is also a region which has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan – sworn enemies – for decades. Two of the three wars the neighbours waged against one another, were waged over Kashmir. Today, part of Kashmir is governed by Pakistan while the larger part belongs to India. But both countries lay claim to the whole valley.
The reality of the political situation makes itself known even on this hike through nature in Gulmarg, as is so often the case in Kashmir. I meet Hamid and Arif, both teenagers of just sixteen, casually dressed in hoodies; they are on a trip to the mountains, without their parents. When Arif takes a photo with his mobile phone, he pulls his hood up, slips his tinted sunglasses over his nose and gestures with his hands like a hip-hop artist.
Within a few minutes, the conversation drifts to politics, namely the situation in the valley of Kashmir and the Kashmirisʹ discontent with the Indian government. Soon, Hamid is telling me about street fights in his hometown of Sopore, which sits a few thousand kilometres from the "line of control", the UN ceasefire line which has divided Kashmir into its Indian and Pakistani sections since 1949. On a number of occasions, he and his friends would throw stones at the Indian soldiers. It was good for a time. But one day, the military responded with bullets and shot Hamidʹs brother, Mudassir.
"A Kashmiri Intifada"
Hamid now refers to his brother as a "shahid", a martyr. He had been a great football player and had even been invited to a tournament in New York. Hamid was shot after throwing stones too. He hikes up his trouser leg and proudly shows me the gunshot scar on his leg.
Hamidʹs brother is one of thousands of Kashmiris who have died in the last three decades as part of the "Kashmiri Intifada", the fight against the Indian military. Since the nineties, Kashmir has been the scene of a guerrilla war between separatists and the Indian military, over the course of which Kashmir has been transformed into one of the most strictly militarised zones in the world.
The roots of the current situation in Kashmir lie in the turbulent transition period following Indian Independence in 1947. At the time, local rulers were required to join their territories to the Indian union. Originally, Prince Hari Singh, whose Dogra dynasty had ruled Kashmir for a hundred years, had wanted to acquire independence for the region. But when Pakistani tribal fighters attempted to claim Kashmir for themselves, he agreed to the accession of Kashmir to the newly-founded state of India. The accession of Kashmir took place in October 1947, and its special status within the Indian union was also established by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution at this time.
Far-reaching rights to autonomy
It was precisely this article which Modiʹs government annulled by presidential decree on 5 August this year. Article 370 granted Kashmir far-reaching rights to autonomy. Alongside the right of Kashmiris to their own flag, Article 370 also gave them the power to decide some of their own laws outside of the Indian Constitution, excluding matters of defence, communication and foreign policy. The paragraph also included a ban on non-Kashmiris acquiring residential property within the state.
During the polarising BJP campaign prior to the presidential elections in May, which frequently targeted Indiaʹs Muslim minority, Modi announced that he wanted to scrap Kashmirʹs special status – a promise which was met with enthusiasm from his Hindu voter base and which has now been acted upon.