Kashmir: The Time Has Come

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Magnum Photos
Srinagar, Kashmir, 1948; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

In late October 2008, on the eve of the election that would elevate him to the White House, Barack Obama made some of the most expansive comments about the Kashmir conflict that have ever come from an American presidential candidate. In an interview with Joe Klein of Time magazine, Obama acknowledged that Kashmir’s disputed territory was “obviously a potential tar pit diplomatically,” and yet, he continued:

For us to devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially make the argument to the Indians, you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower—why do you want to keep on messing with this? To make the argument to the Pakistanis, look at India and what they are doing—why do you want to keep on being bogged down with this particular [issue] at a time when the biggest threat now is coming from the Afghan border? I think there is a moment when potentially we could get their attention. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.

It was refreshing to hear an American politician speak honestly and seriously about Kashmir. Since 1989, when a popular rebellion erupted against Indian misrule, Kashmir’s violence has often been enshrouded by silence. Partly that is because neither the Indian nor the Pakistani government wishes to call attention to its contributions to the conflict. Pakistan’s intelligence service has stoked a low-intensity guerrilla war by funding and arming Islamic radicals and infiltrating them into the Kashmir Valley. India has responded with a brutal counterinsurgency campaign which at its height involved the systematic use of torture and extrajudicial killing. That campaign has lately eased, and the human rights performance of India’s government has improved, but not enough. Protests set off this summer by the shooting deaths of unarmed demonstrators have been the most intense in several years. By mid-August, at least fifty-five people had been killed. Kashmiri rioters have provoked and committed violence this summer, but much of the blame for the high death toll rests with the unprofessional performance of the Indian paramilitaries, whose approach to riot control too often involves indiscriminate firing at crowds.

At least 45,000 people have died violently in Kashmir since 1989. Local human rights groups continue to discover hundreds of unmarked graves containing the bodies of young men either shot in battle or murdered in Indian custody. The victims have left behind 30,000 orphans, according to the International Crisis Group, as well as thousands of widows and at least one thousand “half-widows,” whose husbands are among the missing but have not been proven dead.

The conflict has again and again spilled outside Kashmir. Just a month after Obama’s interview, on November 26, 2008, ten armed men came ashore in dinghies on Mumbai’s waterfront and embarked on a three-day made-for-television killing spree that left 175 people dead, including nine of …

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