A Kashmiri woman Ishrat Ghani cries while narrating the story of her mother's death during a day-long token hunger strike organi
A Kashmiri woman Ishrat Ghani cries while narrating the story of her mother's death during a day-long token hunger strike organized by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) in Srinagar February 26, 2011.
Fayaz Kabli / Reuters

Two grassy green mounds sit beside each other next to a makeshift irrigation canal in Ajas-Bazipora, twin villages near the Bandipora district of Jammu and Kashmir. Unmarked and nondescript, the knolls are easily mistaken for an undulation of packed soil. They are, in fact, the graves of two Pakistani militants killed in an encounter with the Indian army in 2009. Villagers gathered around a makeshift mud embankment tell me how they were called on to bury the bodies of those killed in conflict. When people were killed in encounters with the army, they said, the army handed over their bodies to the local police, who in turn handed bodies over to the villagers to bury in accordance with Islamic ritual. In this case, the bodies were unidentified; locals were only told that they were militants, and they remain unsure of the truth behind this claim.

The villages in Kashmir’s most hard-hit insurgent belt are accustomed to such burials. Our escort, a young man in his early twenties, told us that he had been digging graves intermittently since he was about 12 years old. The locals also told us that they could take us to several more such graves. India’s State Human Rights Commission put the number at 2,700 in 2011. According to latest figures supplied by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), the total is more like 7,000 unmarked and mass graves in five of the embattled region’s districts.

A plaque in a small park in the Bandipora district of Jammu and Kashmir.
A plaque in a small park in the Bandipora district of Jammu and Kashmir.
Vasundhara Sirnate

In another Bandipora district village, we met Majeed—a lanky 35 year-old comfortably enveloped in a pheran (traditional warm tunic) who looked a lot older than his age. We sat on the carpeted floor of his small home in a village two hours north from Srinagar. Looking at Majeed, it was difficult to believe that the Indian state once considered him a dangerous militant. Like several young boys in the Kashmir Valley, his peers approached him about becoming a militant in the mid-1990s: All he would have to do is cross the Line of Control near Kupwara into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, undergo three months of training at an Inter-Services Intelligence-sponsored camp near Muzaffarabad, and cross back into Indian-controlled Kashmir, where he would join up with local Pakistani militant cells to await further instructions. Upon his return to Indian-controlled Kashmir, Majeed was captured by the Indian armed forces, imprisoned, tortured, and turned into an unlikely ally of the Indian state. His dangerous new mission: providing information for the Rashtriya Rifles, a series of Indian army regiments created in the 1990s to conduct counterinsurgency in Kashmir. These days, Majeed, now retired, cares for his family, tends to his cows and farmland, and lives off his meager agricultural income.


Majeed, a former Al Jihad militant, told me that in the mid-1990s, Pakistani-backed groups sought to undermine Kashmir’s homegrown separatist movement. The Pakistani group Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, for instance, won a monopoly of violence. With its immense recruitment potential, it soon came on the military’s radar as a force that had to be eliminated. In response to the growth of Pakistani-backed insurgent groups, the Indian state began recruiting former militants to turn coat and instead work on behalf of the Indian state. These men were called the Ikhwanis. Although one former Ikhwani, Usman, insisted to me that his group was not sponsored by the Indian army but represented a real anti-militant sentiment and paved the way to a proper electoral process, most others, including a former militant called Rashid, admitted to receiving orders directly from the local regiment’s officers. The army gave Parray, a well-known Ikhwani leader, and his band of men a fair amount of latitude to extort money, plan local killings, and sometimes even forcibly marry off local women to their own members.

Anti-infiltration fencing surrounding the village of Gurez on the line of control which separates territorial claims by India an
Anti-infiltration fencing surrounding the village of Gurez on the line of control, which separates territorial claims by India and Pakistan.
Vasundhara Sirnate

Although Kashmir has had regular elections since the 1990s, with a few instances where Governor’s Rule prevailed, democratic practice has not endeared India to people in the valley. As a result, Kashmiris are trapped between two political processes, both of which are dubious and highly orchestrated: elections and insurgency. To understand contemporary politics in Kashmir, it is essential to look at both of these.

In Kashmir, democratic elections with high voter turnout are often mistaken as indicators of acquiescence to the Indian state. In fact, the government’s counterinsurgency campaign, the goal of which is less to win hearts and minds and more to completely obliterate insurgents, undermines its own appeal. Grievances against the armed forces are intense, and electoral democracy is seen as one the few vehicles through which citizens can resist the military. More than particular parties, politicians, or Indian governance, Kashmiris look to elect those who can protect them from the excesses of the military and the police and can provide social and public goods at a mass scale. Hurriyat Conference Chairman and separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani, for example, makes resistance to Indian military intervention a policy platform, although he offers few resolute measures.

In December 2014, these dynamics played out in a new way. For the first time since 1983, constituencies in Kashmir’s predominantly Hindu Jammu region voted the BJP into power with 25 seats out of 87. The results in the Muslim-dominated valley were different, with people supporting the People’s Democratic Party led by the Mufti family (28 seats). The BJP promised development and offers Kashmiri Hindus protections from New Delhi. For its part, the PDP rode to victory on a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the National Conference, which had mismanaged flood relief in September last year.

Following a brief period of central rule between January and March 2015, the BJP formed a coalition with the PDP to gain a majority in the state assembly, appointing PDP member Mufti Muhammad Syed as Chief Minister. This unlikely alliance was fractious from its inception, with a political tit-for-tat soon emerging between the two leaders. Syed praised Pakistan, the Hurriyat separatist movement, and militants for encouraging a smooth election in Kashmir, prompting rebuke by Modi who indicated that such remarks were out-of-bounds, given the BJP’s zero-tolerance policy toward militancy. Syed then released Kashmiri separatist leader Masarat Alam during his first week in office, prompting Modi to back down on the BJP’s threat to repeal Article 370 of India’s constitution—which grants autonomy to Kashmir. In turn, Syed backed away from his call for the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1990, which provides soldiers with near-blanket protection from prosecution against counterinsurgency maneuvers. Gone was the notion of Kashmiriyat (shared Kashmiri identity between Muslims and Hindus), in was factionalism.

Although they both want the same things—protection from counterterrorism gone awry and development—the preferred political means of Jammu’s Hindu population and Muslim Kashmiris have been veering in different directions from as far back as 2008. Only now is there open electoral competition rooted in differing visions of the future. Modi has expressed the need for serious compromises between India and Pakistan if the Kashmir issue is to be resolved. It is unlikely, however, that he will break from the stance observed by previous Indian governments by involving Kashmiris in the conversation about their own future, rather than treating the issue as a territory dispute.

A young Kashmiri girl draws water at sunset in a village near the line of control.
Vasundhara Sirnate

Modi’s script for Kashmir consists of development combined with hardline security measures aimed at greater integration of Jammu and Kashmir into India. Modi has also offered a right of return and resettlement for an estimated 400,000 Kashmiri Pandits, the only native Hindu group originally from the region that faced expulsion in the 1990s from a growing jihadi threat. Modi’s resettlement plans for the Pandit community within Kashmir, if successful, could provide a cultural tether to New Delhi, serving as political counterbalance to separatist movements. Furthermore, about 200,000 Hindu refugees from West Pakistan are to be normalized as residents in Jammu and Kashmir as well. Such moves do not bode well for a state that is already struggling with economic hardship and political uncertainty. Some local observers see the resettlement of Pandits in the Valley as a move to further root the BJP and its particular brand of exclusivist politics in Kashmir, cobbling together a constituency that can be looked to for electoral support in the long run. These technocratic fixes fail to account for history, as well as the severe societal trauma that Kashmiri people have consistently faced for nearly three decades.

Instead of forging ahead with Modi’s aspirations for the region, Kashmiris of all backgrounds need a position at the negotiating table between India and Pakistan if any lasting settlement has a chance of being reached. Insurgent political actors must also be included, rather than dismissed for their perceived criminality. The Indian state has achieved pacts with insurgent groups in Tripura, Mizoram, and Nagaland in the past: Not only were these insurgent groups mainstreamed, they were also turned into legitimate political stakeholders.

The reality of Kashmir is not often understood by Indian policy makers, who tend to reduce the conflict to an almost game-theoretic framework in which national interest and security concerns trump the stories of common gravediggers and reformed insurgents looking to spend their lives in peace.

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  • VASUNDHARA SIRNATE is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. She is also a Ph.D candidate at the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley.
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