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International relations

Kashmiris see ray of hope in India-China standoff in Himalayas

Locals expect help but global community remains silent about Delhi's crackdown

An armed conflict between China and India, Kashmiris have come to believe, might be a good thing. (Photo by Bhat Burhan)

SRINAGAR, India -- A clash last month in the Himalayas between Chinese and Indian troops that left casualties for the first time in 45 years has raised the specter of war between nuclear-armed neighbors. Although the sides officially maintain that they want to resolve the dispute peacefully, a third party sees war as a more attractive option -- the people of Indian-controlled Kashmir.

A number of computer-enhanced images circulating on social media have become popular among Kashmiris in recent weeks. One shows the face of Chinese President Xi Jinping superimposed on a Kashmiri male in traditional garb and preparing a traditional wazwan meal. The other image is similar -- Xi's face is superimposed over that of a local bus driver who is calling out to commuters that the bus is headed to Ladakh -- the Indian-controlled Kashmiri region where the clash took place.

The images are a form of sarcasm that Kashmiris are using to remind India of its inability to stop China at the border.

They stand in contrast to what many other Indians are sharing online.

Beyond the digital jabs, Kashmiris are discussing the possibility of China's military occupying their region. "Ladakh Kheow Chenan (Ladakh has been taken over by China)" is the most discussed topic these days. During a demonstration on June 21 in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir's largest city, protesters mocked the police by chanting "Cheen aya Cheen aya (China is coming)" slogans.

Kashmiris' discontent and moroseness have been on the rise since last August, when the Indian government revoked Article 370 of the country's constitution.

The Article had allowed Kashmiris a degree of autonomy and included a provision barring anyone from outside the state of Jammu and Kashmir from permanently settling there. The special status was given when Kashmir was incorporated into India after a local king in 1947 gave up on forming an independent nation that many Kashmiris still hope for.

The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year also divided the state into two Union Territories -- Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, thereby bringing both parts directly under central rule.

Kashmiri women protest against the abrogation of Article 370 in Indian-controlled Kashmir on September 6, 2019. (Photo by Bhat Burhan)

At the same time, New Delhi brought thousands of additional forces into the region, detained hundreds, including three former chief ministers of the dissolved state, and enforced a harsh lockdown to thwart protests. Although the lockdown was gradually eased after several months, the erstwhile state remains cut off from high-speed internet service.

According to a report on the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir that covers the first six months of this year, at least 229 killings in different instances of violence have taken place in the region. The report cites "extrajudicial executions of at least 32 civilians in J&K, besides killings of 143 militants and 54 armed forces personnel." It was put out by the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a prominent human rights group.

"The doing away of Article 370 was the last nail in the coffin. It broke the back of every Kashmiri and the fear of settlement of outsiders seems a reality to all of us now," said 30-year-old Waqas Ahmad, a government employee who lives in downtown Srinagar, known as a hotbed of resistance to Indian rule. So far over 25,000 non-natives have been granted domicile certificates.

Amid seething anger -- over the political machinations to change the region's demography and the relentless military operations -- Kashmiris have been keenly following the ongoing India-China standoff, with many endorsing China's aggressive move.

Younis Ali, a political science student from south Kashmir's Pulwama, is among those whose Facebook timelines is replete with posts expressing this sentiment. He also shares memes on Twitter that often lead to online battles with right-wing Indians. For Ali, China's intervention spells "hope."

"We have tried everything to put our cause forward, from militancy to peaceful protests," Ali said. "However, nothing seems to have worked. ... I now believe that a big event is needed for the resolution of the Kashmir issue, and the India-China standoff could be that big thing."

An Indian army convoy moves toward the Union Territory of Ladakh on June 18, 2020. (Photo by Bhat Burhan)

Experts mostly concur with what the locals say. "Generally," said senior journalist and political commentator Gowhar Geelani, "people are of the view that a new geopolitical situation could be to their advantage in terms of ending the political uncertainty in Kashmir."

Geelani, who has covered the region for over 15 years, believes some people do think that even if it takes a war to resolve Kashmir once for all, so be it. He also noted that Pakistan's weak economy and military "has also led some to pin their hopes on a stronger China."

Pakistan controls about one-third of the Jammu and Kashmir region -- which existed as an Indian state between 1954 and 2019 -- and claims sovereignty over the entire region, including the area under Indian control. India has often accused the Muslim-majority nation of directly training and arming militants in Kashmir. Pakistan rejects this charge and maintains that its role is limited to providing moral and diplomatic support to the "legitimate" Kashmiri struggle for self-determination.

"There's good reason to believe that many Kashmiris will derive pleasure from seeing their oppressor bogged down by an emboldened, aspiring superpower that is a bitter rival of New Delhi and a close friend of Islamabad," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Ashok Swain, a professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, is of the opinion that Kashmiris are excited about the Ladakh clash because of the perception that China has become a party to the Kashmir conflict, after experiencing hopelessness and despair with "the near silence of the international community over serious human rights violations" by Indian forces in the region.

"As long as Kashmir was a dispute between India and Pakistan, India had an upper hand militarily as well as diplomatically," Swain said, adding that China's open opposition to India's constitutional changes of the state of Jammu and Kashmir as well as the strength it showed in the clash have "revived the hope of Kashmiris of an open alliance between Pakistan and China on the Kashmir issue."

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