SRINAGAR, INDIAN KASHMIR
— Cross-border firings, militant attacks, deadly separatist protests - the people of Indian-controlled Kashmir have witnessed nearly every type of violence in recent years.
Through it all, hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani - who remains under house arrest - says his one goal for Kashmir has not changed.
“Forces should withdraw and the United Nations Security Council should take control of Jammu and Kashmir, which was existing before August 14, 1947. And then, people should be given the right to self-determination,” he said.
Skirmishes have erupted along the Line of Control, the de facto border that divides Kashmir between nuclear-armed archrivals India and Pakistan. Geelani says calm will not return until the Himalayan region is demilitarized and Kashmiris determine their own fate through a plebiscite.
It’s a demand that many Kashmiris have fought for peacefully, taking to the streets in protest, and violently by taking up weapons as part of an armed insurgency that began in the late 1980’s.
Yasin Malik helped launch the militancy, crossing into Pakistan as a young man to receive training and then returning to India to fight the military.
Malik renounced violence in 1994 and now heads the pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, advocating for self-rule through peaceful means. He says the movement shifted in 2008, with many Kashmiris realizing their goal cannot be achieved by picking up stones or weapons.
The former militant, who claims to have been arrested more than 200 times and tortured in detention, tells VOA he resorted to violence after finding no space for political activism in Kashmir. But Malik warns a new generation is increasingly feeling the same, citing protesters who have been detained by authorities without cause.
“They have been harassed to the extent that now we have heard some educated boys have joined the militants, but it is unfortunate today that the U.S. is silent, the British government is silent, the Indian civil society is silent,” he said.
Malik and other separatist leaders say Kashmir is a forgotten conflict in the eyes of the world, with the international community now focused on places like Afghanistan and Syria.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the head of the separatist umbrella organization Hurriyat Conference, says if Kashmir does make headlines nowadays it’s only in relation to how India and Pakistan must resolve their territorial dispute in order to work together towards a more stable Afghanistan.
“The Kashmir issue is not to be resolved only because you have a problem in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a separate issue and it demands a solution, but Kashmir is a separate problem. It’s one of the oldest issues on the agenda of the United Nations,” said Farooq.
The moderate separatist leader adds that the international community must get involved to resolve the decades-long dispute that has seen little progress.
“If India and Pakistan were capable of addressing their problem bilaterally, then there would not have been three wars on Kashmir. We would not be seeing this amount of tension that is mounting day in and day out,” he said. “So, there has to be, whatever term you want to utilize, whether you say, assistance, mediation or involvement. We believe the time has come where we need third party intervention.”
Separatist leaders say above all, the 15 million residents of Indian Kashmir must have a seat at the table and be directly involved in any resolution.
Whether they will ever get this wish remains to be seen. The Indian government maintains Kashmir is an integral part of India. Pakistan also claims the region as its own.
As for the Kashmiri people, the uncertainty of their status still lingers, leading to the resignation that it will not be resolved anytime soon.
Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani at his home in Srinagar. (Aru Pande/VOA)
All Parties Hurriyat Conference Chair Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. (Aru Pande/VOA)
Streets of old Srinagar. (Aru Pande/VOA)
A Kashmiri woman looks out her doorstep in Srinagar. (Aru Pande/VOA)
Hazratbal Shrine in old Srinagar. (Aru Pande/VOA)
Women walk near Dal Lake. (Aru Pande/VOA)
Man herding sheep through Srinagar streets. (Aru Pande/VOA)