A Conversation on Kashmir: Finding Humanity Amidst Conflict

By Grace Cajski

When I first walked into room 101 of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, I was struck by the age of the group assembled. After one month at Yale I was used to seeing people between the ages of 18 and 21, but the subject of this talk appealed to a much broader audience. There were middle aged people, young students, and scholars, the majority of whom were from East Asia. They had come to see “A Conversation on Kashmir: Finding Humanity Amidst Conflict.” This was a panel discussion co-hosted by the Yale International Relations Association (YIRA) and the South Asian Society and was moderated by Shreeya Singh 21.

The speakers of the panel were Dr. Supriya Gandhi, a senior lecturer at Yale, Sushant Singh, the Deputy Editor of the Indian Express newspaper and a lecturer at Yale, Salaman Anees Soz, a member of the Indian National Congress and graduate of the Yale School of Management, and Sarah Khan, a lecturer convertible at Yale.

The panel began with a brief overview of recent events in Kashmir, a region in northwestern India that is contended between India and Pakistan. It is the only Muslim-majority area in India and currently the most militarized zone on Earth. A little over a month ago, the Indian government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had provided Kashmir with special status including autonomy on most policy, its own constitution, and its own flag. This led to a military crackdown, communications blackout, and underreported human rights violations in the region.

Sushant Singh spoke first. He began by noting that Kashmir is too often seen as a conflict over territory rather than a conflict that involves seven aspects. The first is territory. The second is imagination, meaning an imagination of what India and Pakistan should be. The third is history. The fourth is identity, including national and subnational identities. The fifth is religion, which involves Muslims, Hindus, and Christians in the area. The sixth is resources, such as water rights. The last aspect is about the people⁠—a fundamental question concerning the conflict is who the people in the disputed area belong to.

Singh also touched on the fact that Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority state in an India whose central government is becoming more and more Hindu-centric. There is a lack of trust between the people and their government. This was, according to Singh, especially exacerbated by the incongruencies of the federal discourse. The Indian government claimed that abrogating Article 370 would improve democracy and the standard of living, but it was a violation of human rights to shut down communications for over fifty days and to lock up Kashmiri leaders.

Supriya Gandhi spoke next. She also remarked on the religious landscape of the region, noting that there has been increasing narratives about Muslims in South Asia and the supposition that Islam is linked to violent conquest. Gandhi noted, however, that Islam was spread throughout the region through a gradual process that was generally nonviolent.

Gandhi also spoke about the rhetoric of Indian officials. She posited that it borrows from the rhetoric of the monarchical age, hinting at old models of sovereignty. Their rhetoric, without being overtly belligerent, demonizes the Kashmiri people, Gandhi claimed.

Sarah Khan then spoke from a Pakistani point of view. In response to the announcement of the abrogation of Article 370, the Pakistani government downgraded its already tense diplomatic ties with India. It expulsed India’s top diplomat and suspended trade between the two countries. Khan also noted that where there had been a willful ignorance of the preferences of the Kashmiri people there is now a deliberate silencing of those voices.

Salaman Anees Soz spoke last by sharing statistical facts with the audience. Firstly, after 30 years of conflict, the Kashmiri people have sustained heavy losses. It is estimated that 48,000 people have died from the conflict thus far, and this number is likely to be an underestimate. Doctors Without Borders estimated that 40% of Kashmir’s population have symptoms of depression and 20% of the population have post-traumatic stress disorder. Soz warned that these numbers will not change for the better until there is peace between Pakistan and India.

He also condemned the Indian government for its actions. When the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution was announced, the Indian government detained Kashmiri officials and severely violated human rights. According to Soz, this action could not have been in the name of bringing development or removing corruption because Kashmir is average or higher in measures of development and the Indian government itself is corrupt.

Soz ended on a somber note. The India of today, he warned, is no longer the India of Gandhi. Gandhi built India’s reputation off of ideals of nonviolence, and the Indian government’s treatment of  Kashmir goes against his teachings. Young people of today must work together to make the region safe, peaceful, and prosperous, he concluded.

Grace Cajski is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. You can contact her at grace.cajski@yale.edu.