The Forgotten War in Kashmir Is Turning Nasty

A protester throws back a tear-gas shell fired by police in Srinagar, India, during a protest against the recent killings in Kashmir on August 26. Danish Ismail/reuters

Ever since they entered into a cease-fire agreement in the disputed Kashmir, relations between Pakistan and India never seemed to be unraveling.

Over the past month and a half, however, the South Asian giants are on the brink of redefining their relationship and essentially unscrambling thanks to a full-blown pro-independence uprising in India-controlled Kashmir.

It began with the killing of a popular and talismanic rebel commander, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, on July 8 in south Kashmir. In no time, Kashmir erupted in anger.

The funeral prayers for the 21-year-old—offered back-to-back 40 times—were participated in by more than 200,000 locals, despite a government clampdown. Countless absentia funeral prayers in Kashmir's mosques followed.

Since then, the valley has been witnessing tense nights and curfewed days. About 70 stone-pelting protesters and bystanders have been shot dead. Kashmir's hospitals are full of patients targeted with bullets and other lethal ordnance. Their number has swelled to 8,500 in the past 51 days as the longest-ever and strictest curfew of the last 30 years endures.

India has come under fire for using deadly pellet-firing shotguns (or the pump-action shotgun). Officially, more than 1.3 million rounds of pellets have been fired on protesters in Kashmir, blinding or maiming hundreds. New official data reveals that more than 1,400 have received ricocheting pellets in the eyes. Billed as "non-lethal" weapons by the Indian paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), pellets are taking lives in Kashmir. A few weeks ago, doctors at one of the region's key hospitals discovered more than 300 pellets in the torso of a dead boy.

The pump-action shotgun is also used as a war weapon. These guns are used in close-quarters combat and were used by the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War.

The doctors' association in Kashmir is worried over how to pass pellet-hit patients through MRI scanners. The scanners, the association says, generate a strong magnetic field as a result of which pellets lodged in the body could move. Doctors say this would be particularly dangerous if the iron or lead pellets are located near vital organs like the brain, heart or spinal cord.

The use of pellets in Kashmir has been likened to the use of white phosphorus in Gaza or the use of chemical weapons in Syria. New reports suggest that India could introduce "PAVA shells," a chili-based ammunition, after widespread condemnation of shotguns.

Other weapons Indian authorities have used to block the Kashmir rage include oleoresin grenades, flash bombs, electron shells, plastic bullets, pepper balls and stun grenades. Recently, Indian armed forces admitted using electron shells against protesters without offering any description of the newly introduced weapon.

These arsenals, according to a doctor friend, have taken a toll on suckling and expecting mothers, the elderly, and heart and asthma patients. As well as more doctors, Kashmir urgently needs weapons experts to better advise the embattled government on the effects of ordnance before it is used.

Night raids, roadblocks, stone pelting, killings, and deadly sieges of villages and cities have reached unprecedented levels in the past 51 days. Internet and mobile services remain blocked. Pressure on local media and a self-embargo of news out of Kashmir by much of India's national media means the protests in Kashmiri villages go largely unreported. Except for reports on a few Middle East–based TV channels, the uprising in Kashmir has received scant global attention.

Even as the current standoff between Indian soldiers and Kashmiri protesters endures, the organizers, under house arrest or in hiding, including the region's powerful Hurriyat (an amalgam of several pro-independence parties), have vowed to continue protesting until India pulls back troops and agrees to hold a referendum backed by the U.N. in the region.

The organizers direct the uprising by issuing protest calendars every week. People in hamlets and towns, wary on account of the failed protests of 2008 and 2010, follow the protest timetable to the minute, sometimes with a ferocity that surprises even the campaigners themselves. Trade bodies, fruit growers, contractors, rights activists and even teachers have thrown their weight behind the campaigners.

As India tightens control of the region and vows to defeat what it alleges are "radicals" paid for by neighboring Pakistan, the government in Islamabad has written to the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the U.N., Pope Francis and others seeking diplomatic support on the dispute. Islamabad is dispatching 22 envoys to meet world leaders in the hope of garnering more support.

Away from the realities on the ground in Kashmir, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose in a speech on August 15 to increase tensions by raising the human rights issue of Pakistan's Baluchistan province. However, the Indian opposition parties and a section of the Indian intelligentsia were quick to scoff at Modi's unrealistic equivalence between Kashmir and Baluchistan. Modi's rhetorical tactic of applying an illogical substitution to expose Pakistan's fault lines has only united Pakistanis against India.

For its part, the OIC called for a referendum in Kashmir—as it has done many times in the past. Powerful OIC states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman hold some sway over India. New Delhi buys petroleum hydrocarbons from the Gulf and also receives billions of dollars from the Middle East in remittances.

India has a sizable Muslim population, yet it remains blocked in the OIC. Privately, Pakistani officials acknowledge that the country might even support India joining the OIC in return for New Delhi agreeing to settle the Kashmir dispute.

With the U.S. and the U.N. refusing to designate the Kashmir rebellion as terrorism, the mutiny in the mountains could continue for decades as more young men are drawn into the conflict. Since Wani's killing, scores of young men have joined the rebel bands living in the forests.

Though not a big threat to the more than half a million Indian troops stationed in Kashmir since 1947, funerals of the young fighters draw tens of thousands of villagers and townspeople and often turn into pro-independence rallies that are dispersed with the full might of the Indian army.

While it may seem that Kashmir is slipping away from Indian control, past experiences suggest that the Himalayan region can expect even more militarization by the central government in Delhi and even more violence from the rebels.

But the greatest danger is that both Pakistan and India are armed with nuclear weapons and have shown little interest in reducing the size of forces or their stockpiles of nuclear missiles.

In the past seven decades, India and Pakistan have fought three wars—two full-blown encounters and a mini-war in 1999 in the Kargil heights over Kashmir. Though the advent of nuclear weapons in the region may have averted full-scale conventional confrontations between the two countries, the saber-rattling by the Asian superpowers, and the carte blanche various non-state actors in the region enjoy, means Kashmir will remain a flashpoint of global concern.

We ignore it at our own risk.

Kashmiri journalist Baba Umar is a Chevening journalism fellow.