The South Asia Channel

In Kashmir, They Disappear: Civilians, Militants, and Democracy

In the busy repertoire of Hindi film releases this year, Haider has outshone many of its competitors. A critical and commercial success, it is a rarity in mainstream Bollywood in that it tackles some of the deepest scars of the Kashmir conflict. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Haider is set in 1995 Kashmir, at the ...

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

In the busy repertoire of Hindi film releases this year, Haider has outshone many of its competitors. A critical and commercial success, it is a rarity in mainstream Bollywood in that it tackles some of the deepest scars of the Kashmir conflict.

An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Haider is set in 1995 Kashmir, at the height of the militancy that wracked the state for more than a decade, and follows the story of a young man whose father has been "disappeared" after providing medical aid to a militant. His mother joins the many women in Kashmir who are called "half-widows" because of their husbands unknown whereabouts, and subsequently marries Haider’s uncle.

The film has elicited controversy over its commentary on the politics of the Kashmir conflict. In particular, Haider sheds light on the legacy of India’s brutal, albeit technically effective, counterinsurgency efforts in the troubled Valley. In the process, it raises questions that the Government of India should – indeed must – tackle.

Most external observers view Kashmir exclusively through the prism of the India-Pakistan conflict. The dispute between the two countries over control of Jammu and Kashmir dates back to 1947, an enduring legacy of Partition. Since 1948, India has effectively controlled the part of the province that is under direct contention – the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley. Border clashes between Indian and Pakistani forces along the Line of Control are fairly common and continue to the present day.

There is, however, a domestic dimension to the Kashmir conflict regarding militancy that is often obscured by the focus on India-Pakistan relations. Militant activity in Kashmir did not take hold until 1989, four decades after India’s independence. The insurgency, led at the time by Kashmiri Muslims though dominated more recently by non-Kashmiris, was the product of systematic attempts by the Indian central government to subvert the democratic process in the state.

In this, New Delhi was directly and indirectly aided by corrupt and inept state governments in Jammu and Kashmir. In 1987, for example, the central government flagrantly manipulated the voting process in the state elections, which escalated anti-Indian sentiment among Kashmiri Muslims. Disaffected Kashmiri youth found a ready outlet for their grievances in the militant training camps willingly offered by Pakistan. As militant activity surged, so too did the Indian government’s counterinsurgency efforts, creating a vicious cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals between Indian security forces and Pakistani-trained militants. Countless civilians, Hindus and Muslims alike, found themselves caught in the crossfire.

The situation has eased significantly over the past several years. According to data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, militant activity has declined precipitously in the last decade, from a peak of over 4,500 casualties in 2001 to barely 100 in 2012. Not coincidentally, during this time, New Delhi has allowed successively freer and fairer elections in the state and has reduced its military presence. 

Nonetheless, the Kashmir Valley continues to house widespread popular disaffection with the Indian state. An important point of contention is the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Expanded in 1990 to apply to Kashmir, AFSPA grants sweeping powers to the military to detain civilians, seize property, and prevent public gatherings. Army officers cannot be held accountable for their actions except through the direct intervention of the central government. In effect, these provisions give military personnel near total immunity.  Human rights organizations have repeatedly said that AFSPA facilitated large numbers of abuses during the height of the militancy, including disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions, and extrajudicial killings.

In the film, Haider, speaking in 1995, delivers a stirring monologue about the excesses of AFSPA. Almost two decades later, the Act remains in place and serves as a reminder not only of the abuses of the past; but also of the alienation of the Kashmiri people from the democratic promises of the Indian republic. Despite calls from numerous groups and even government-appointed interlocutors, the Indian Government refuses to repeal or reform AFSPA.

Even more egregious, the government also denies responsibility for the abuses that its security forces have committed. In August 2011, the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), a semiautonomous body related to the Kashmiri government, announced that it had found over 2000 bodies, dating from the early 1990s, in 38 unmarked graves. These bodies are believed to be those of suspected militants killed extrajudicially by Indian security forces. Many Kashmiri Muslims and human rights activists believe the bodies are linked to a long history of enforced disappearances of civilians by Indian security forces . A 2012 report, released by another human rights group, provided more evidence of state abuses. Yet, the government’s principal response to these damaging accounts has thus far been a deafening silence.

The Indian government has, perhaps, become complacent in the knowledge that India’s hold on Kashmir is strong. Pakistan’s claim is now left with little international legitimacy and the militant movement is weakened and splintered. Yet, the lingering scars of New Delhi’s counterinsurgency operations, coupled with poor governance, help keep the Kashmir Valley a perpetual tinderbox.

The conflict in Kashmir undoubtedly has an international dimension to it, but the Indian government currently has little incentive to make any decisive overtures toward a permanent international resolution. The time is ripe, however, to take some long overdue steps on the domestic front. The recently elected government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has a decisive majority in the Parliament, which has been bolstered by recent victories in regional elections. Modi himself is viewed as a strong, powerful, and nationalist leader. His government, therefore, has an unprecedented opportunity to make things right in Kashmir and build public trust in the state apparatus.

Given the current relatively low levels of militant activity, the government should promise greater protection for civilians from security force abuses and reform AFPSA. Today, AFSPA serves little practical purpose and perpetuates enormous public disaffection in the state. Equally important, government paralysis on reforming AFSPA raises troubling questions about the quality of India’s democracy. It is unlikely that the Government of India will pursue retroactive accountability for abuses committed during the peak of the insurgency, given the high political costs. However, the civilian leadership must take responsibility for the adverse effects of its decision to enact and enforce AFSPA. Shifting blame to the army would not address the roots of the problem and would adversely affect troop morale. Instead, Modi’s government should make credible commitments to the population of Kashmir that future security operations in the Valley and elsewhere in the province will be done under strict guidelines of civilian protection. Further, it should take concrete steps to create a stronger administrative and governance apparatus in the state, thereby giving Kashmiris a greater say in their own government and helping to keep disaffection to a minimum.

For Modi, tackling this thorny and controversial issue need not be a completely altruistic overture. For all the benefits that would flow to the Kashmiri people, resolving this long-neglected problem would also strengthen Modi’s legacy (and that of his party) as a bold and practical leader, in sharp contrast to the Congress party. Modi would also help build India’s international stature as a country that takes its own democratic processes and commitment to rule of law seriously. Indeed, Modi would actually reinforce his own hands when the time comes for the international aspect of the Kashmir conflict to be resolved.

For too long, the people of Kashmir have been, as Haider’s mother memorably says "aadhi bewa, aadhi-dulan [half widow, half-bride]." It is time for the Indian state to reach out to the Kashmiri people and assure them that they are full and equal citizens of the Indian republic.


Bidisha Biswas is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Washington University. She previously served in State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. She has recently authored the book, Managing Conflicts in India: Policies of Coercion and Accommodation.

Anish Goel is a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. He previously served in the White House’s National Security Council as senior director for South Asia.

Anish Goel is a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. He previously served in the White House's National Security Council as senior director for South Asia.