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Himalayan Ulster

Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy, 1846–1990

by Alastair Lamb
Roxford Books, 368 pp., £16.25

Kashmir Under Siege: Human Rights in India

an Asia Watch Report
Human Rights Watch, 161 pp., $15.00 (paper)

India: Torture, Rape and Deaths in Custody

an Amnesty International Publication
195 pp., $7.00 (paper)

On a map of the western Himalayas, the valley of Kashmir shows up as a smooth, oval-shaped patch amid a sea of surrounding peaks in what is today India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. For thousands of years, travelers, free-booters, and empire builders have set down their breathless impressions of this valley—the French writer François Bernier called it the “paradise of the Indies”—with its towering pine forests, deep lakes, flower-carpeted meadows, and fields of iridescent saffron. The seventeenth-century Mughal emperor Jehangir sighed on his deathbed that his last wish was to visit Kashmir. Indians today revere the valley as the place they long to visit, and it serves as the setting for countless romantic Indian films.

But for all that is written of Kashmir’s natural splendor, far less good has been spoken of the Kashmir people themselves. “Sullen, desperate and suspicious” is how one British writer described them in the late nineteenth century,1 while their overlords during the same period, the Dogra Maharajahs, dismissed the native Kashmiris as “worshippers of tyranny.” If those slurs have any truth to them, then they reflect the unfortunate history of the valley’s inhabitants, an ancient people who over the centuries have developed their own distinct identity, including language, dress, customs, and even, to some degree, appearance. Kashmiris often stand out because of their thin faces and hawkish noses, a trait that Kashmiris attribute variously to Afghan, Persian, and even, half seriously, some lost connection with the Jewish race.

Islam also sets the Kashmiris apart from much of the rest of India. Persian missionaries converted most of the predominantly Hindu Kashmiris in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. But even Sunni Islam is tempered by what proponents of Kashmiri nationalism call Kashmiriat, the uniqueness of Kashmir. They point to the Himalayan look of its mosques, which could be mistaken for Nepalese Hindu temples, to their friendly coexistence throughout most of the past four centuries with the Pandits, the Kashmiri Hindus who had never converted to Islam. They point as well to the fact that the leaders of India’s own Muslim population of approximately 100 million have failed to support the Kashmiri national cause.

The Kashmir character has also been affected by nearly 450 years of grinding oppression. Right up until independence in 1947, the valley was ruled by a succession of tyrannical Afghan, Sikh, and local potentates. At times, virtually the entire population was reduced to slave labor, and there was widespread starvation. Those generations of abuse made the Kashmiris close-knit, withdrawn, and “suspicious,” with a large potential for rebellion.

Today, rebellion has broken out, as Kashmir’s first generation of well-educated young, the sons and daughters of small-time traders, artisans, farmers, and government employees, has taken up arms to fight Indian rule—ironically, the least oppressive of the many regimes the Kashmiris have lived under. Unfortunately for India, it is confronted with the first Kashmiri generation that is sufficiently well fed to fight and sufficiently well informed to articulate a sense of grievance. Several insurgent groups, all advocating secession from India, are engaged in bloody guerrilla war with Indian forces. The valley has become a battleground, and in the narrow streets of the capital, Srinagar, automatic weapons fire breaks out every day among the ramshackle, ancient houses, where rebels and Indian forces stalk each other. Kashmiris were at first a bit surprised by their own audacity, and it was not uncommon to hear even those opposed to the rebellion remark, as one mullah did to me with immense pride. “People used to say that Kashmiris are cowards, but now we have shown that we too can use the Kalashnikov.”

No one calls Kashmiris “worshippers of tyranny” now, but the gunmen’s campaign has become a tragic folly. In early 1990, when tens of thousands of Kashmiris turned out for spontaneous anti-Indian demonstrations, many Kashmiris believed that they would soon achieve their goal of secession from India. The reason, correspondents heard over and over again, was a conviction that some ineluctable force for justice was at work in the world. Thanks to the BBC, even illiterate Kashmiris knew that the Soviets had retreated from Afghanistan, that the Berlin Wall had come down. With the egoism and naiveté peculiar to people who live in small, isolated places, Kashmiris thought that their turn was next.

Hamid Sheikh, a top leader in the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) until he was captured in August 1990 (he was recently released for medical reasons and then killed by security forces last November), told me in early 1990 that his movement had no military strategy as such. His main aim was simply “to create the problem, and our biggest success has been to put it before the world.” He believed that once the injustices of Indian rule—and the consequent rebellion—were widely known, that the UN, the US, the Islamic world, and other powers, in some combination, would come to Kashmir’s rescue.

But Hamid Sheikh, like many of his countrymen, did not understand that claims of “justice” can count for little among nations preoccupied with events like the collapse of Soviet power. The Kurds have also learned that lesson the hard way. Neither Washington nor most of the Islamic world (with the exceptions of Iran and Pakistan) nor other Western countries have supported the Kashmiris. How that may change in the case of Muslim countries after Hindu fanatics razed the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, central north India, remains to be seen. The Indian slaughter of hundreds of unarmed Kashmiri demonstrators in the first half of 1990, and a “pattern of gross and systematic human rights abuses” since then, as the excellent 1991 Asia Watch report Kashmir Under Siege put it, provoke expressions of concern in Washington and other capitals. But no country has been willing to put its relations with New Delhi openly at risk over Kashmir.

Since there has not been any strong international pressure on Kashmir, New Delhi has accepted the price of a war which ties down about 250,000 troops and security forces, and in which between 2,000 and 3,000 (depending on the source) people are killed each year, about 300 of them members of the security forces. Even if those numbers increase significantly, as they appear to be in the latter half of 1992, it is not considered a very high price by Indian standards, Kashmir’s governor, Girish Saxena, a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s top intelligence and dirty tricks agency, tells reporters, “We can keep this up for years, the way we did in Nagaland”—referring to a longstanding rebellion by tribes in the northeast.

Most Kashmiris see that Governor Saxena is probably right. As a result, what began as a spontaneous, immensely popular uprising has settled into a guerrilla war that leaves many Kashmiris with a growing sense of futility. They are unhappy with the young Kashmiri guerrilla fighters, who increasingly threaten merchants and others with violence in order to extort funds; they are annoyed with Pakistan, whose intelligence services have tried to give the movement an Islamic, pro-Pakistan character; and, most of all, they are full of hatred for India, whose troops maintain a state of terror in Kashmir. The ill-trained and -disciplined security forces have a record of gunning down suspects and innocents alike in cold blood, raping women, detaining people without any regard for due process, and routinely torturing prisoners. Despite the poor prospects of the rebellion, few Kashmiris seem willing to make peace with New Delhi. As a Kashmiri journalist told me, “They know that if they disown their boys, and make a deal with New Delhi, the Indians will make fools of them once again.”

The Kashmiris feel that they have been made fools of not only by New Delhi, but also, after the British left India, by their own leaders. The root of the disaster lies in the 1947 partition, which divided India and Pakistan. Drawing that boundary presented many problems, but none bigger than the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which one British writer called “a completely artificial area, a geographical monstrosity” that covered Buddhist Ladakh, predominantly Hindu Jammu, the mainly Muslim valley of Kashmir, where the rebellion is going on today, and a number of Muslim, but ethnically distinct, areas, in what is today Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir and the so-called northern territories.

Maharajah Hari Singh, a member of a Hindu ruling family known for its oppressive rule since the early nineteenth century, had to choose between taking his predominantly Muslim kingdom into India or Pakistan. He dithered, and a rebellion backed by Pakistan broke out in Muslim regions close to the Pakistan border and rapidly spread toward Srinagar, the kingdom’s summer capital. Hari Singh fled to New Delhi and pleaded with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Lord Mountbatten, then governor general of India, to send troops.

They agreed, but only on the condition that Hari Singh would join with India. The desperate maharajah agreed, and Mountbatten then promised in a letter

that as soon as law and order have been restored in Kashmir and her soil cleared of the invader, the question of the state’s accession should be settled by a reference to the people.

Several days later in an All India Radio broadcast, Nehru confirmed, “We have declared that the fate of Kashmir is ultimately to be decided by the people.” Indian troops reached Srinagar in time to save the capital, and eventually managed to gain control of about two thirds of Hari Singh’s domain; the rest fell to Pakistan.

Pakistanis have long believed that Nehru and Mountbatten conspired to bring about Hari Singh’s accession to India. The latest case for such a conspiracy, more a polemic than a solid historical work, is Alastair Lamb’s Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy. Lamb raises questions about the unexplained transfer of a border district of Punjab called Gurdaspur to India rather than to Pakistan. It was predominantly Muslim, and, according to the standards agreed to by both sides at the time, ought to have gone to Pakistan, but it also happened that through Gurdaspur lay India’s only access to the Kashmir valley.

Lamb does not prove his charges of a conspiracy; he is more successful when he tries to show that Pakistan was no more guilty than India of meddling in Jammu and Kashmir at the time of partition. According to the conventional view of this period, the Pakistanis were working behind the scenes to provoke the 1947 uprising. Lamb argues, however, that even if the Pakistan government gave help to the rebels the rebellions were genuine, and took place in regions with a long history of discontent. Lamb seems both cautious and fair when he concludes that there is “no simple legalistic explanation of the Kashmir dispute; and none which confers absolute moral right on one side only.”

The origins of discontent in Kashmir today lie in New Delhi’s failure to honor its promise of self-determination for Kashmiris, and its subsequent attempts to manipulate Kashmiri politics. Despite the hopes raised by Mountbatten and Nehru that a referendum would take place, and a strong 1948 UN Security Council Resolution on the same lines, India stalled, arguing (with UN support) that a plebiscite could be held only when Pakistan withdrew its troops from the parts of the state under its control. Pakistan refused, arguing that India should also withdraw, and the issue has since been deadlocked.

  1. 1

    This quote is from Walter L. Lawrence, The Valley of Kashmir, (Sringagar: Kesar Publishers, 1981). Lawrence was a British administrator who worked in the Maharajah’s court in the late nineteenth century. His study of the valley and its people is full of useful insights a century later.

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