Kashmir is an area often ignored in Western newspapers, yet it is this region—not Afghanistan or Iraq—that is “the most militarized territorial dispute,” according to the CIA World Factbook. Thousands continue to die in the bloodshed or “disappear” with no trace. The film Project Kashmir reveals a small slice of the daily conflict ensuing in this hotly contested zone—Indian army crackdowns, home-leveling bomb blasts, gunshots in the distance, militant groups by the dozens, a computer screen filled with lists of new victims…
Kashmir has been the source for much of the tension between India and Pakistan. Three wars have been fought over the area, and both countries have developed nuclear arms. The Line of Control, set by the United Nations in 1949, dictates a larger parcel of land to India, including the most populated area, the valley. Yet neither country is satisfied with controlling only part of the state. The Indian government, for its part, states its entitlement to Kashmir as declared under the Indian Independence Act with Britain, and blames Pakistan repeatedly for inciting the violence and funding insurgency. Pakistan holds that Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim state, is being occupied by India against the will of the people. Meanwhile, various Kashmiri political groups have supported India, Pakistan, and independence from both.
In 1989, Kashmiris under Indian rule staged an uprising, and India responded by sending 500,000 troops, a number it largely maintains today. In the film, residents say they are continually subjected to rigged elections, pat-downs and security checks, curfews, interrogations, and state-sponsored terror. With all the monies poured into keeping Kashmir under either country’s authority, little has been done to build the infrastructure. Muzamil Jaleel, a journalist for Indian Express and a guide to the filmmakers, says 90 percent of Kashmiris live in rural villages that lack proper water supply, electricity, and other basic infrastructure.
The premise of the film is uncomplicated—an Indian Hindu, Geeta V. Patel, and a Pakistani Muslim, Senain Kheshgi, travel to Kashmir in the hopes of understanding the decades-long conflict between their communities. Their naïveté develops into the subplot of the story as they wrestle with their interpretations of the Kashmiri struggle as informed through their identities.
Though the area is heavily militarized, human rights activist Khurram Pervez says the military has done little to protect the people. “There is an uncertainty we have in Kashmir—people go out in the morning but they don’t return,” he says. Pervez lost a leg a year before the filming of the documentary when the vehicle he was in hit a landmine. His colleague and the driver were killed in the blast.
Similar to the tension and bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims during Partition, filmmaker Kheshgi says what god someone worships has little to do with the conflict. “Religion had been used to divide the people, then the land,” she says.
The Kashmir valley, once home to thousands of Hindus, has few, if any, left. During the uprising, militants started to kill Hindus—referred to as Pandits in Kashmir—and the Pandits fled to refugee camps in Jammu, south of the valley. Aarti Tikoo Singh, a journalist for The Times of India, was one of thousands who fled. “Why did it become religious? If it was political, why weren’t we included?” she asks.
Jaleel, the Indian Express journalist, answers those questions in another scene—Pandits were an elite minority and the struggle was class-based, not religious. Pandits didn’t support the freedom struggle, he says, and that apathy met the anger of the Muslims who were targeted by the army.
More than 60 years later, it seems nothing has been resolved. The United Nations advised in 1949 that the Kashmiri people be allowed to decide their government. The residents in the film argue that this basic right is all they are fighting for.
Tuesday, May 18, 10 p.m. PBS. Check local listings.www.pbs.org/independentlens.