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Jannat Fatima Farooqui
Department of Social Work, University of Delhi, India.

Growing up in a Conflict Zone: Identity and Captivity for Muslim Children in Kashmir

Growing up as a Muslim minority child in contemporary India can entail a complex process of navigating between religious and national identities, which are often placed antagonistic to each other. Communal and historical discourses around 'othering' of Islam has resulted in posing Muslims as a threat to Indian nationhood, security and culture. In the state of Kashmir, which is the only Muslim majority state in India, this socio-political dynamics of 'othering' has resulted in a long drawn territorial conflict and dispute in the region.

However, it is often forgotten that inter-group dispute and bigotry which emerges out of deep-rooted stereotypes can also manifest its adversities in the lives of young Muslims and can result in multi-layered alienation and discrimination for them. Kashmiri children and youth, parallel to their adult counterparts, have been constant witnesses to violence, army surveillance, coercive infringement of fundamental rights and freedom of civilians in the state. Being born and growing up in a long-drawn conflict zone has been researched to have adverse pyscho-social and negative mental health effects on young minds.

Based within a child-rights context, this study positioned young Muslim children from Kashmir as primary social actors in the research. It aimed to give voice to a child-centric experience of growing up in a conflict zone, while negotiating between religious identity and national identity. Using participant-led semi-structured interviews, data was collected from 36 Muslim children (N = 36), 14 – 18 years, sampled in the state of Kashmir. Narratives of children participants suggest that due to bigoted territorial conflict in the state, Kashmiri Muslim children feel a sense of alienation from concepts of national polity and citizenship and live in constant fear of expressing their ‘minority’ identity.

Kashmir: Identities in Conflict

The antagonism between Hindus and Muslims in India can be traced back to before 1947 when the country received independence from the British imperial rule. British India was divided into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. Partitioning of the country triggered mass migrations, deadly riots, gruesome communal violence between Hindus and Muslims (Khalidi,1995). Even after the partition, not all Muslims migrated to Pakistan and Muslims remained a sizeable minority group in independent India, making up around 10% of the population in 1951 (Khalidi,1995). As Indo-Pak animosities prevailed, Muslims in India have often been suspected of manifesting loyalties towards Pakistan. A high-level committee report on conditions of social, educational and economic status of the Muslim community detailed on how Muslims in India face problems relating to security, identity and equity (Sachar, 2006). The report revealed that Muslims carry the constant burden of being labelled as anti-nationals, terrorist or secret sympathizers, agents or spies of Pakistan.

Contextualized amidst post-colonial animus between Hindu-Muslims in India, historical evidences exhibit the intergenerational mind-set of the Hindu religious-majority towards Muslims to be that of suspicion, fear, hostility, discrimination and exclusion (Khalidi,1995). Communal discourses around ‘othering’ of Islam demonstrate Muslims as a threat to Indian nationhood, security and culture. In the state of Kashmir, with a majority of 68.31% Muslim population, this socio-political dynamics of ‘othering’ has resulted in a lengthy territorial conflict in the region (Kazi, 2008).

Following the partition of India in 1947, Kashmir has been a divided state between Pakistan and India. For more than seven decades, both countries have claimed their nation-building right over Kashmir which resulted in a long drawn territorial conflict in the state (Fazili, 2011). In an environment of perpetual political strife, people from Kashmir have often stated that they are not associated with any country. Further, they do not even consider Kashmir to be a part of any country and demand their right to secession and self-determination (Kazi, 2008). They strive for their own autonomous nationhood and independent (azad) Kashmiri Muslim identity. Pro-separatist movements have been suppressed through state-wide detainments, house-arrests and internet /phone connectivity blackouts (Kazi, 2008).

The struggle for a separate Kashmiri Muslim identity, has led to years of insurgency and bloodshed in the state. With an aim to ‘control’ the insurgents, Kashmir has seen heavy deployment of personnel from the army, special forces, and paramilitary units. In this military backed ‘democracy’, there has been negligible public accountability of gross human rights violations inflicted on Kashmiri civilian population (Amnesty International, 2015).

Kashmiri children and youth, parallel to their adult counterparts, have been constant witnesses to violence, army surveillance, coercive infringement of fundamental rights and freedom of civilians in the state. Being born and growing up in a long-drawn conflict zone has been researched to have adverse pyscho-social and negative mental health effects on young minds (Amnesty International, 2015).

Objectives and Methods

A small study was undertaken to highlight the voices of young people to better understand the effect of the interaction between religious and national identity formation on Muslim boys, growing up in a conflict zone, amidst secessionist demands for a free (azad) Kashmir. Using a child participatory methodological approach, focus group discussions were conducted with 36 boys (N=36) attending a senior secondary school in Srinagar, Kashmir. Group discussions were structured around the topic of “What are your experiences of growing up in a conflict zone?”

Growing up in a Conflict Zone

Empirical evidence from Kashmir have reported how democracy, citizenship and nationality are being comprised in this state at different levels. Kashmiri residents are denied basic civil rights of freedom of speech, assembly, travelling within and outside the state, registration and investigation of civilian complaints . In the name of national security, Kashmiri people are subjected to unlawful harassment, unexplainable home searches, stopping/checking of vehicles, arbitrary arrests, detention, attacks and killings (Fazili, 2011). Victims of violence are often not able to report cases to the national judiciary as they face threats and intimidation (Amnesty International, 2015).

Group discussions from research participants in the study were indicative of how children and youth growing up in Kashmir are constant witnesses to these coercive infringement of fundamental rights and freedom of civilians in the state. An overarching sense of group alienation from the nation state was deciphered from the narratives of the participants. The young boys in the study have seen their friends, family and acquaintances being labelled as ‘terrorist’ and being subjected to constant suspicion, surveillance, imprisonment, disappearance, and midnight raids. Since all the participants were teenage boys, several of them had been victims to such incidents themselves.

“I have been searched by army men so many times without any reason. I try not to make eye-contact with them while walking on the street…its best not to go out alone…”
- Participant, 16 years

With on-going conflict on streets, schools, hospitals, markets and playgrounds remain closed for weeks at an end. In their foundational years, children are subjected to a lack of security, education, medicines, food, nutrition and recreation (Fazili, 2011). Participants narrated how even when schools reopen, parents fear sending their children outside.

“I am often absent from school because my father says that my safety is more important than education… it effects my studies and I get bad marks, especially in Maths.”
- Participant, 15 years

“…there is often a curfew outside. Playgrounds become army camps and are filled with soldiers.”
- Participant, 14 years

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Growing up as Participants in Inter-Generational Conflict

It has been theorized that when children are raised in conflict zones, their ego-identity formation gets centralized around that conflict. Higher inter-group conflict can result in higher intra-group solidarity. Day-to-day survival through conflict and violence takes place when members of one group stick together and collectively abide by the practices and values of their own ‘in-group’. The ‘out-group’ is seen to be posing a constant threat, real or symbolic. Identity formations which take place around such territorial conflicts are often resistant to change and are carried forward from one generation to another (Sherif & Sherif, 1953).

“The government thinks Muslims are bombers and they do not trust ‘us’. But even ‘we’ do not trust them.”
- Participant, 17 years

In this case, there has been an age-old conflict between military forces claiming political authority over the state and Kashmiris seeking an independent identity of their own. The army, media and governance was seen as a Hindu ‘outgroup’ for the Muslim Kashmiri ‘ingroup’ population. It was observed that identity salience of children in the study was framed around their Kashmiri Muslim identity, which stood distinctly antagonistic to an Indian Hindu identity.

“We feel safe within our Muslim community in Kashmir…it is not safe to go outside Kashmir”
- Participant, 15 years

Narratives of participants of the study suggested how being born and growing up in a long-drawn conflict zone, and their experiences of discrimination and prejudice, resulted in alienation from the polity and citizenship. Following their ancestral secessionist demands, young minds of Kashmir also believed in an autonomous (azad) Muslim Kashmiri identity which is independent from their national identity.

Social Work Response to Child-Based Religious Discrimination

Conflict has shaped the identities of young Muslims in Kashmir. Their experience of discrimination and oppression has impacted on the individual’s identity, it undermines their confidence and self-esteem, making them feel, isolated and marginalised.

Social Work Response to Child-Based Religious Discrimination

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Social workers have a clear role to support them to challenge and mitigate these adverse effects with the aim to build holistic, safe, inclusive and mutually respectful communities. These identity issues are complex and multi-layered, however as a starting point, the given model may support social workers, educationalists and other professionals, to visualise, discuss and put in place preliminary actions to support young people, particularly those growing up in conflict zones.


Amnesty International (2015) “Denied”: Failures in accountability for human rights violations by security force personnel in Jammu and Kashmir. London, UK: Amnesty International. Available from: amnesty.org
Fazili, G. (2011) ‘Kashmiri marginalities: Construction, Nature and Response’. In S. Kak (eds.) Until my freedom has come: The new intifada in Kashmir, New Delhi, India: Penguin Book, pp 213-228.
Kazi, S. (2008). Between democracy and nation: Gender and militarisation in Kashmir. PhD Thesis. London, UK: London School of Economics and Political Science.
Khalidi, O. (1995). Indian Muslims since independence. New Delhi, India: Vikas.
Sachar, R., Hamid, S., & Oommen, T. (2006). Social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community of India: A report. Prime Minister’s High Level Committee Cabinet Secretariat: Government of India.
Sherif, M., & Sherif, C. W. (1953). Groups in Harmony and Tension; An Integration of Studies of Intergroup Relations, New York, NY: Harper and Brothers.