Originally published in April 2019 journal, A New Normal, page 19 cont. page 38
When Padmaavat was released in January 2018, it was primed to succeed. The movie stars Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, whose wedding in December arguably upstaged Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas’ wedding, and boasted one of the largest production budgets in Bollywood history. The movie, and the cultural context behind it, is key to understanding India’s conflict with Kashmir. However, Padmaavat was banned in several countries.
Padmaavat is the retelling of a Muslim king’s obsession with a Hindu king’s wife in medieval India, and while compellingly written, it is not rooted in any verifiable history. It portrays Muslim king Alauddin as a onedimensional, ruthless villain, while extolling the virtues of Ratan Singh, the Hindu Rajput king. The creation and success of Padmaavat reflects right-wing Hindu nationalism that has dominated Indian politics over the past five years with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been slow to respond or, in some cases, silent on rape and murder of minority communities in India—particularly Muslim, Dalit, and Adivasi groups. Most of the murders were spurred by “cow protection,” vigilante Hindu groups that seek to safeguard cows, considered sacred in Hinduism, from slaughter. These lynchings have primarily targeted Muslims, who make up the largest minority group in India. In the past three and a half years, at least 44 people were murdered by these groups, 36 of whom were Muslim, according to Human Rights Watch. During that same time period, around 280 people were injured in over 100 different attacks.
This political and cultural tension is fundamental to understanding the conflict with Kashmir, a disputed territory in the northernmost region of India. Tensions have existed for centuries within the region. Since medieval times, it’s traded hands between Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims.
Today, Kashmir is controlled by India, Pakistan and China. India controls 45 percent of the region, while Pakistan controls 35 percent and China controls 20 percent. India and Pakistan have fought three major wars over Kashmir in less than four decades, as both countries rely heavily on the region for its resources. Kashmir provides over 80% of water for irrigated agriculture in Pakistan, where agriculture is a major industry, and hydroelectric dams in Kashmir power most of India’s electric energy.
Many people resented India’s heavyhanded rule of the region, and in 1989 a Muslim separatist movement began, which called for independence or a merger with Pakistan. India responded with more troops in the region. Since then, Kashmiri residents have expressed frustration with India’s overpolicing of the region, high unemployment rate, and lack of economic autonomy.
Tensions have escalated recently. On Feb. 14, a Kashmiri suicide bomber killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary officers in the deadliest attack in decades. The bomber belongs to Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistan-based militant group which seeks Kashmiri independence or a merger with Pakistan. Pakistan banned the group in 2002, however India blames Pakistan for allowing it to operate freely. The event prompted India to launch airstrikes in Pakistani territory to target the group’s base. In a tit-for-tat, Pakistan shot down two Indian planes that entered their airspace, and captured an Indian pilot. The entire exchange raised international alarm. Imran Khan, prime minister of Pakistan, decided to release the pilot. At the same time, Pakistan released a video of the pilot expressing how well he was treated. Indian officials said this video was part of the problem, reminding the public that displaying prisoners for propaganda violates the Geneva Conventions.
Conflict between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, has serious global consequences. Kashmir’s independence in such a region would be challenging to navigate, especially since the state is untested on the international stage and will not be able to raise a strong military with the immediacy that is necessary--or ever, given the size of their population. Although Kashmir may have the financial resources necessary to support itself, given its water supply, both India and Pakistan, are likely to put up a fight. Kashmir is too valuable to both countries, and since they have both controlled parts of Kashmir, they would have the infrastructure necessary to make things difficult for an independent Kashmir.
Many Kashmiris say they would prefer a merger with Pakistan, if state independence is not feasible. However, the main argument for a merger with Pakistan rests on its status as a Muslim state. While shared religion can be an important uniting factor, it should not overrule more important economic and political factors that will ultimately guarantee the success of a region. Furthermore, the argument that Kashmir should merge with Pakistan because they are both majorityMuslim states is reductionist and ignores Kashmir’s minorities.
Kashmir’s choice of Pakistan or India is not black and white, and both countries want Kashmir for its resources. In the end, Kashmiris deserve agency and have the right to choose which country they join. As my Kashmiri-American cousin put it, “They want the resources, but not the people”. Ultimately, the country that shows they will embrace the Kashmiri people will win Kashmir.
It is unclear if India will win the Kashmiri people. Right now, the country entertains a state of casual discrimination against Muslims, evidenced by national dialogue and the success of Padmaavat, and this is likely to remain with Modi and the BJP expected to win reelection in May. Given the national dialogue around Muslim Indians, who share many similarities with Hindu Indians, it is unlikely the country is ready to accept Muslim Kashmiris, who are considered distinct in both ethnicity and religion. However, if one thing is clear, it’s that if Kashmir does eventually accede to India in a permanent, sustainable solution, India’s ability to win the Kashmiri people has great implications for the future of the nation-state. In a world where immigration is shifting what it means to be a “nation”, India’s potential to integrate the Kashmiri people, as a distinct, ethnic group into the nation will serve as a test for the viability of the nation-state in years to come. In order for this to be possible, though, India must start by treating its other minorities with dignity.
That is why it is essential for India to reform its culture of casual discrimination against Muslims. Changing a culture is difficult, no doubt. However, this starts with rejecting all forms of political Islamophobia and enforcing real consequences for vigilante groups who attack Muslims and other minorities in India. Change starts from discourse at the top, and the Indian government must take leadership by steering national dialogue away from such forms of casual discrimination. If not with Modi and the BJP, then eventually with the next administration