60,000+ dead over 7 decades, 3 wars between 2 nuclear-armed states, and countless human rights violations - Kashmir continues to be the heavily occupied and militarised region with the recent spikes between India and Pakistan.

The story of Kashmir deeply saddens and troubles me.

Before the British partitioned India and Pakistan, Kashmir, located in the Himalayas, was a region rich in natural resources and diverse in its history. It was home of Buddhists and Hindus by the ninth century, and it was only in the fourteenth century that Islam emerged as Kashmir's major religion. Under Akbar Zain Ul-Abidin, Kashmir prospered through religious inclusivity and progressive policies.

Muslim rule ended in 1819 when the Sikh kingdom of Punjab captured the region from the oppressive Afghan Durrani empire. After the Anglo-Sikh war of 1845, the British East India company annexed most of the land from the Sikhs. As the British were hardly shy at distributing the land that they seized without considering the indigenous people, the Kashmir valley was quickly sold to the Hindu Digra Raja Gulab Singh, on the condition that he acknowledges the British government supremacy. To which he agreed.

The ruling thereafter was cruel and greed insatiable. Kashmiri Muslim families were subject to slave labour, heavy tax and state violence. Demonstrated in 1931 when 22 protesters were shot and killed at the trial of an anti-Maharaja activist - the day is known as Martyr's day.

Kashmir's struggle for freedom started long before the creation of India and Pakistan.

When India gained its independence from the British empire in 1947, the country was ideologically split. Majority of Muslim provinces became the new created Pakistan and a majority of Hindu provinces remained as India. The partition was and still is one of the bloodiest in history, with almost one million being killed in the sectarian violence.

Kashmir's Maharaj Hari Singh was asked to join one or the other. Fearing they would join India, some Kashmiri Muslims rebelled. The maharaja tried to quell the uprising. Around 200,000 died. Hearing reports of attacks on Muslims, tribesmen from Pakistan's north-west frontier invaded Kashmir. The Maharaja asked India for help. India obliged. But on one condition, Kashmir joins them.

The Maharaja of Kashmir Hari Singh then signed the instrument of Accession but it was agreed that a vote would be held once the fighting ended. The proposed referendum would have no option of independence though. Kashmiris would join India or Pakistan.

When the war ended in January 1st 1949, the UN-backed ceasefire line split Kashmir between Pakistani and Indian administration but the vote never happened. To this day, Kashmiris still haven't been able to decide their own future.

Following the conflict, the western portion of Kashmir came under Pakistani administration. Kashmiris seeking their rights here have been met with political repression and torture at the hands of Pakistani authorities. But it's the larger portion of Kashmir which came under Indian rule that suffers from the most violence and unrest. It's majority Muslim with a number of Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. China controls the most uninhabited area, called the Aksai Chin, in the northeast of Kashmir.

Pakistan and India fought over Kashmir again in 1965 and 1999.

In the 1980s, increased opposition to Indian rule led to armed resistance against Indian troops. Pakistan provided weapons, training and financial support to the separatists. The region's insecurity forced a hundred thousand Kashmiri Hindus out of the valley. By early 2000, India had seemingly crushed the movement through mass arrests, suppression of rights, counterinsurgency operations, and political initiatives.

Today, India administered Kashmir is the most militarised zone in the world with over 700,000 soldiers occupying the area. Their presence only further complicates Kashmir's already divided politics.

In 1957 India claimed Jammu Kashmir as an autonomous Indian state, absorbing it into their state assembly. Elections in 2014 resulted in a coalition between the Hindu nationalists BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) India leaning PDP (People's Democratic Party). So Kashmir's current government is essentially pro-India.
The pro- Pakistan and independence groups generally fight for their rights outside the process as faith in the elections was lost in 1987 when a popular coalition of anti-Indian parties gained only 4 seats. This election was reportedly rigged. Now many Kashmiris can't take elections seriously. The raiding of polling stations and mistreatment of activists during the 1987 election is seen as the spark that ignited the armed rebellion against Indian influence.

Although the Indian government says that the armed resistance in Kashmir has reduced from 30,000 fighters during the 1990s to less than 100 today, it's army still maintains an authoritarian presence there. Hundreds of people have been killed every year since a wave of non-violent protests erupted in the Kashmir valley in 2008. The killing of rebel commander Burhan Ali in July 2016 sparked the biggest uprising in decades. The 21-year-old was seen as a symbol of Kashmir's indigenous youth-led armed resistance. Tens of thousands came to the streets calling for freedom. They were met with force from Indian troops. The protests were quelled immediately with mass arrests, cutting communication, and region-wide curfews.

Activists say Indian troops routinely get away with a multitude of human rights violations on Kashmiris living their daily lives.

Rape, extrajudicial killings, widespread use of torture, mass graves in the mountains of Kashmir which are unmarked. Who are those people? Why were they killed? There is no answer. In addition to that, there are thousands who have disappeared. More than 10,000 have disappeared. Mothers searching for their sons who (as young as 13) have disappeared. There have been many cases of fake encounters where they would take innocent Kashmiris to a forest, murder them, mutilate their faces, and then dressed in a way so they could be passed off as the dreaded militants of Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Indian army denies most of these claims but the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society has documented hundreds of cases of people being abused or killed. Most recently it was the case of Farooq Ahmed Dar, who in 2017 was used as a human shield to protect an Indian army jeep from stone throwers. Iron pellets are also used to disperse protesters continues to blind Kashmiris despite condemnation from human rights groups.

Amnesty International says Indian government policy in the region gives its army legal immunity for their actions making conviction rates close to zero. Pakistan regularly raises the Kashmir issue at the UN and India accuses Pakistan of exploiting the unrest in Jammu and Kashmir to further their goals in the region.

So why do both countries want control over the region?

India claims Kashmir maintains their secular status by being the only Muslim majority region. Whilst Pakistan says a majority Muslim state should naturally be part of a Muslim nation. But it's more likely over water. Pakistan's only water supply is the Indus River, which happens to first flow through Indian administered Kashmir. The Indus water treaty signed by both countries in 1960 gave Pakistan control of 80% of the river but also gave India the power to utilise the remaining 20% in Jammu and Kashmir. India uses the water for irrigation and has started multiple dam projects which could reduce the rivers flow through to Pakistan.

As the two nuclear-powered nations grow in population, the need for both water and hydro-powered electricity continues to increase. Yet it's the Kashmiris who lose the most. Both in lives and resources and this only fuels their drive for independence.

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