“It can’t be summed up in a few lines what growing up in the world’s most militarised region has meant. Growing up in Kashmir has meant that bedtime stories were replaced by fear and anxiety, it has meant shutting out lights and staying silent during curfews, and it has meant seeing your family, friends and loved ones get shot, get injured, and to even lose some forever.”

Over the last three weeks, violence in Kashmir has left nearly 50 people dead and more than 5,000 injured. The region has been a point of territorial dispute between India and Pakistan for more than 60 years and has led to three Indo-Pak wars since both countries gained independence in 1947.

The recent unrest was sparked by the killing of Burhan Wani, leader of Hizbul Mujahideen, by Indian government forces in Kashmir. Many in the region desire to be part of Pakistan instead of India, or are pushing for Kashmir to be independent from both countries. Burhan’s videos on social media, where he talked about injustices committed by the Indian state, often went viral in Kashmir. Although the Indian government considered him a “terrorist”, he represented the political aspiration of self-determination for many young people in Kashmir.

Following his killing, as clashes between civilians and security forces continued, the IPF attempted to speak to young Kashmiris about their take on the situation. However, communication blackouts and curfews made this nearly impossible. Instead, we tracked down three young Kashmiris living and studying in the UK. As they watch the unrest unfold from a distance, they tell the IPF about their fears and hopes for the future of their homeland.

Recent unrest in Kashmir

“The recent unrest is a symptom of decades of oppression,” said Rabia Khan, a graduate from SOAS University in Human Rights Law. Although the 24-year-old was born and brought up in the UK, her family is from the Poonch region of Kashmir. She told the IPF that deaths in Kashmir are not rare and that “perpetual state violence” had driven “dispossessed” youth to pick up guns and fight as martyrs. However, she explained:

“Occupied and marginalised people cannot be blamed for the violence when the army of the world’s largest democracy has made Kashmir the world’s most militarised zone, killed so many young men and raped countless women.”

Rabia slammed India’s “draconian” Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) for giving soldiers the permission to shoot to kill with impunity, which she said has exacerbated the situation in Kashmir. She said:

“India continues to legitimise its brutality in Kashmir under the guise of national security and terrorism. Kashmiri lives do not matter to the Indian state, but the loss of Indian soldiers is always mourned. Yet the state has the audacity to expect the people of Kashmir to be submissive and pro-India.”

Meanwhile, a Humanities student from Kashmir, studying in the UK, spoke to the IPF about growing up in the conflicted region and described the situation for her family back home. Choosing to remain anonymous to protect herself and her family, her situation illustrates the fear sparked among Kashmiri civilians by Indian authorities. For her, the current unrest is nothing new.

“It’s another uprising adding to the long list of uprisings and people-driven movements in Kashmir that have made demands for the right to self-determination. I hope and pray that this time there shall be a resolution to the world’s oldest unresolved international conflict.”

She added: “Kashmir is the most militarised region in the world. There is one armed soldier for every 15 or 16 Kashmiris, which isn’t normal. People are tired of being stuck in a limbo, of India’s denial to acknowledge that a political solution is needed for Kashmir.”

Another anonymous Kashmiri who is studying in the UK expressed concern for her family in the Valley: “They’ve been under curfew since 8 July without access to key necessities of life that the rest of India enjoys, such as supply of food, internet, cable TV and many times without water. The CRPF and police have been cracking down on protesters and also damaging houses of locals.”

She explained that even in the case of a medical emergency, people were unable to go to the hospital because they had heard reports of security forces were attacking ambulances as well. Expressing outrage at the situation, she described how people were relying on the supplies they had at home and said that many aren’t able to eat two meals a day.

“Videos of armed forces shooting in people’s houses and directly at unarmed protesters can be viewed online. The atrocities are available for the world to see if you search on Facebook.”

However, she also acknowledged that Facebook had come under fire for blocking dozens of posts relating to Kashmir, describing it as a “clear attempt of censorship”. Blaming Indian media for branding Kashmiris as “terrorists” or “anti-nationals”, she also condemned the international media’s silence on the recent unrest.

“Indian media perpetrates hate against Kashmiris by sensationalising the conflict and wrongly terming protesters as terrorists or unemployed ‘good for nothing’ youth.”

Pakistan’s role

“It’s not Pakistan that instigated the protests but the Indian army that killed a 21-year-old without fair trial,” said an anonymous Kashmiri student. “Blaming Pakistan generates hatred in Indian minds towards its neighbour, but it does not solve the problems created at home.”

Meanwhile, Rabia admitted that while she believed Pakistan had a role in training and arming those fighting against the Indian army in the Kashmir Valley, she did not identify this with the region’s anti-India sentiments.

“Anti-India sentiment in the Valley is solely a result of India’s heavy-handed tactics. Blaming Pakistan is not an accurate assessment of why protests occur so regularly.”

She added: “Disenfranchised youth who have grown up witnessing nothing but state violence and repression have every right to protest.”

The Kashmiri Humanities student also addressed the rumours about Pakistan’s role, acknowledging that she had heard suggestions of Pakistan paying young boys to go out on the streets to protest. Dismissing this, she said: “I don’t understand what would a young person do with that money, knowing that there is every likelihood that he’ll get killed out there on the streets.

“This is yet another narrative that invisibalises Kashmiris’ struggle for justice and self-determination,” she said. “Such narratives are emblematic of the denial that exists in India that paints people’s aspirations as rioting and law and order problems.”

Looking ahead: Kashmir’s future

An anonymous Kashmiri student said: “It’s unfortunate that the Indian government has made no efforts to solve the dispute since 1948. India has shown no motivation to communicate with the people of Kashmir. The solution to conflict cannot be achieved by attempting to fix law and order, but rather, a political solution is required.”

UK-born Rabia echoed these views for her motherland, adding that she would like to see the political solution be resolved through Kashmiri independence:

“I personally believe in independence for the whole region of what was formally the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. This requires the aspirations of the Kashmiri people being central to the discussion, having Kashmiris at the negotiating table, and not dismissing a referendum that the people have been promised and denied for almost seven decades.”

Rabia said she opted for Kashmiri independence based on the actions of both India and Kashmir over the years. In Indian-occupied Kashmir, she referenced “countless human rights violations”, including disappearances, rapes and torture. In Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, she said that there had been evidence of “complete and utter disregard of freedom of expression and political free will”.

“The only just way of resolving the conflict is to offer a referendum with three options for the people of Kashmir: India, Pakistan or independence. I admit that this is a little optimistic given the last seven decades in Kashmir.”

Speaking about the future, Kashmir’s anonymous Humanities student echoed Rabia’s views. Looking back at her time growing up in Kashmir, she told the IPF that everything – walking on the street, going to school, going anywhere – an army man with a gun was a permanent feature. She stressed that Kashmiris now deserve to determine their own future, according to their own aspirations.

“The only solution is to conduct a plebiscite and let the people speak for themselves.”