In 1992, I witnessed an Indian soldier hit a pregnant Kashmiri woman with his rifle butt and utter these words: “Get rid of the terrorist you will birth.” That incident, forever etched in my mind, epitomises for me how the Indian armed forces, that operate with impunity in the region, view Kashmiris.
It is the very same perception that governs the minds of the right-wing, ideologically driven Hindu nationalists and their supporters who are celebrating the recent division and annexation of Kashmir.
In October, a senior Indian government figure likened the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination to terrorism. Bipin Rawat, chief of the Indian army, justified the months-long clampdown in Kashmir as “a communication breakdown between terrorists in the Kashmir Valley and their handlers in Pakistan”.
Within India, the Bharatiya Janata Party government is stoking Islamophobia by using religion as an instrument of identity politics. And the Indian media’s portrayal and characterisation of Muslims only reinforces the status of Muslims as the other and Islam as the enemy.
Since 9/11, Muslims have been routinely dehumanised and demonised. Systemic and institutionalised racism has targeted Muslims all over the world. Using fear of terrorism, governments have undermined human rights and civil liberties of their Muslim citizens. And the pseudo-expert Islamophobia industry has promoted Islam as a source of universal “terror”.
The indigenous struggle for self-determination in Kashmir predates the partition of India in 1947. Except for a short period of armed resistance in the early 1990s, the movement has been primarily non-violent. The response to Kashmiri resistance, however, has always been violent. India portrays the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination as a fanatical religious movement, a jihad against India — an image that helps project Kashmir as an issue of “terrorism”.
In my own research on Muslim youth resistance in Kashmir, whereas some youth invoked religion as a reason for fighting against oppression, there was no evidence they considered their struggle as a religious one. At the same time, the youth did predict that if the Indian government continued to suppress nonviolent resistance, some may once again be inclined to pick up arms. That became evident in 2016 when reports surfaced of some young men resorting to armed struggle.
The Indian government recently estimated there are 200 militants active in Kashmir. In spite of such a small number, the reinforcement of tens of thousands of additional forces in the world’s most militarised region was again justified in terms of curbing terrorism. In reality the military build up was merely to impose and manage unilateral changes to the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir without the will of the people.
The scale of death and destruction in Kashmir in the past 30 years is hard for some to fathom. To date, close to an estimated 100000 Kashmiris have been killed, thousands disappeared, tens of thousands injured and maimed and tortured. Women and children have been victims of violence and sexual violence.
The spurious excuse of “fighting terrorism” provides cover for the documented ongoing human rights violations which include illegal detentions, torture, sexual violence, expropriation of land, murder, collective punishment, censorship, closure of educational institutions, and preventing access to essential services.
Unfortunately there seems to be little resistance, even in left liberal intellectual circles, to equating Islam with terrorism.
India has even been effective in selling the narrative of “curbing Muslim terrorism” to international trade partners, including Muslim autocrats. Although the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation issued a perfunctory statement of concern about Kashmir, it ignores the oppression of Muslims by the current Indian regime. Despite eight-million Muslims being under siege in Kashmir, the United Arab Emirates awarded the prime minister its highest civilian award — annual trade between the two countries is valued at about $50-billion. Saudi Arabia, another trade partner with bilateral trade to the tune of $28-billion, also bestowed its highest civilian award on the prime minister in 2016. After Kashmir’s autonomy was revoked in August, Saudi Aramco announced $75-billion in investments in India’s oil and chemical business. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are also planning to build a mega refinery in India, an investment of another $60-billion.
The world’s so-called largest democracy has numbed the world into accepting the dispensability of Kashmiri Muslim lives. Land grabs, ecological degradation and settler colonialism is being normalised. Leaders of various nationshave placedtheir economic interests above their moral conscience.
Human rights groups have warned about the risk of genocide in Kashmir. Labelling Kashmiris as terrorists and dehumanising them further destabilises a region where nuclear war is a possibility.
Idrisa Pandit is an academic specialising in Islam, gender justice and the Kashmir conflict. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Open Democracy.