For Kashmiris, resolution to decades of conflict remains a distant dream

SRINAGAR, India — Kashmiri poet Zareef Ahmad, 80, has unmatchable energy. He talks animatedly and feels passionately about his past. His study is filled floor to ceiling with books in Urdu, English and Farsi — some of which he has authored.

Ahmad won India's highest award for literature. But one of his most prized books is a small notebook filled with handwritten notes in Urdu.

Carefully cataloged are exact dates and locations of the hundreds of chinar trees he has planted in various parts of Kashmir for over 30 years. "I have planted them in police stations, government offices and universities, where they can use its shade to cool off tensions," he says.

The Himalayan region he calls home — hailed for its picturesque alpine beauty — has been roiled by conflict for decades, with both India and Pakistan staking claim to it. When Indians mark 75 years of independence this month, Ahmad and others in Kashmir may feel there's not much to celebrate.

A painful history

Pakistan was created as a homeland for the Subcontinent's Muslims when it and India emerged independent from British-ruled India in August 1947. But Kashmir's Hindu maharaja decided his Muslim-majority princely state would join India after armed tribesman from Pakistan invaded the region in October 1947.

A United Nations-brokered cease-fire ended those hostilities in 1949. But over the decades, the two nuclear-armed neighbors have fought other wars over Kashmir and there have been more crises. Today, both India and Pakistan administer some parts of the territory. In India, it's called Jammu and Kashmir, and in Pakistan, it's known as Azad (Free) Kashmir.

In India, Kashmir has become emblematic of the country's recent authoritarian slide under a Hindu nationalist-led government. In August 2019, India revoked Jammu and Kashmir's constitutionally guaranteed special status, canceling its partial autonomy. Indian troops poured into the streets, the internet in Jammu and Kashmir was shut down for an extended period into the following year, phone service was cut and the media were severely restricted.

Today, there is an uneasy calm in the valley. People fear speaking out in public, press freedoms have been limited and local politics is dysfunctional and unresponsive to Kashmiris' everyday needs.

"While Indians celebrate their independence from [British] subjugation, they must also introspect as to what kind of union gets created by force," says Mirza Saaib Beg, a Kashmiri human rights lawyer. "And whether such forced unions merit celebration."

Opportunities have faded for diplomatic solutions

Zareef Ahmad's generation, born before India's Partition, remembers a time when a resolution to the Kashmir conflict seemed to be within reach. They hoped to see a return to self-rule.

"Kashmir is a nationality of its own, a civilization of its own, with more than 5,000 years of history," Ahmad says.

He lives in the older part of Srinagar, the largest city in Indian-administered Kashmir. His home is in an area surrounded by a Sufi shrine, a Hindu temple and a gurudwara, a Sikh place of worship.

"Kashmir's was always a composite culture, until India and Pakistan were divided on religious lines. We saw religion become a huge part of our division only after the countries were born," says Ahmad.

He and his generation expected a resolution to come from diplomacy and dialogue. The newly created United Nations got involved. India and Pakistan were initially led by statesmen like Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan. Kashmiris had their own leaders who exuded promise.

But in successive decades, the opportunities for a diplomatic resolution died a slow, painful death.