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The Birth of a Nation

A few stray anti-India demonstrations and violent incidents were held up as evidence of Farooq Abdullah’s unreliability. The Indian press, which for decades had faithfully followed the government line on Kashmir, went along with Mrs. Gandhi. Not that the Hindu middle classes needed much persuasion. By then Nehruvian nationalism had begun to degenerate into Hindu nationalism, into a search for external and internal enemies—the enemies who, when they were not the CIA or Pakistan, invariably belonged to the minority community, whether Sikh, as in the case of Punjab, or Muslim. The mass murder arranged by Congress leaders of 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 came out of that frenzy of Hindu xenophobia Mrs. Gandhi had herself encouraged.

Abdullah’s elected government was illegally dismissed in 1984 by Jagmohan, a governor specially appointed by Mrs. Gandhi after shifting the previous governor, who had refused to move against Abdullah, out of Kashmir. The new government, made up of defectors from Farooq Abdullah’s party, the National Conference, had to impose a curfew for seventy-two out of its first ninety days in office in order to keep down public agitation against it. Then, in early 1986, Jagmohan dismissed the government and took charge.

During his tenure as governor of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the Eighties and then again in the early Nineties, Jagmohan did more than anyone else to provoke insurgency in the state. He came to be known as a pro-Hindu bureaucrat during Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency when he sent bulldozers into Muslim slum colonies in Delhi as part of an attempted “beautification” of the city. In Kashmir, an isolated state with a docile population always seeming ready to be trampled upon, he was no more subtle.

He saw the distinct cultural identity of Kashmir as something that had to be undermined before the state could join what in India is referred to, without irony, as the “national mainstream.” With this all-subsuming idea in mind, he sought to impose a peculiarly Hindu modernity on the state, where the unrestricted sale of alcohol was permitted but Muslims were forbidden to slaughter sheep on a Hindu festival day—a pointless act since no prohibitions on meat exist for Kashmiri Hindus. The number of Muslims being recruited in government service went down. The Hindu nationalists are known to admire the resettlement policies followed by the Israeli government in the occupied territories in the 1970s, and Jagmohan may have been inspired by them in encouraging non-Muslims to work in Kashmir.

The backlash was not long in coming: what a colonized people fear most is the possibility of being swallowed up by the dominant alien culture in their midst; that’s why the British had left the great religions of the subcontinent and their many subcultures more or less untouched. As in Algeria, Iran, and Egypt, anxiety about modernization, cultural influences from elsewhere, and rampant unemployment turned, because of Jagmohan, into an anxiety about religion: the notion that not only Muslims but Islam itself was in danger—the same fear that had led many Indian Muslims in the mid-1940s to suddenly embrace, after years of relative indifference toward it, the idea of Pakistan.

The popularity of Islamist parties grew and grew all through the 1980s, helped by the growth of madrassas, the privately owned theology schools which were often run by Muslims from Assam in eastern India, over a thousand miles away, where mass killings of Muslims in the early Eighties had forced their migration to Kashmir. These Muslims from outside Kashmir brought their own fundamentalist variety of Islam to the valley: the clerics suddenly wanted to impose new prohibitions restricting women’s rights; they wished to ban Bombay films and beauty parlors.

The Islamist parties came together to fight the elections of 1987, in which Abdullah teamed up with the Congress. Just three years after being thrown out by the Congress, Farooq Abdullah decided he couldn’t do anything in Kashmir without the support of the ruling party. But his power-sharing arrangement with the Congress was seen as another humilia-tion for Kashmir. To no one’s surprise, he won the elections, and Kash-miris still talk about the active rigging that went on by Indian election officials. Opposition candidates comfortably in the lead suddenly found themselves defeated; candidates and polling agents were beaten up and tortured. Syed Salahuddin, the current leader of Hizbul Mujhadeen, the leading Pakistan-based guerrilla outfit, was imprisoned after having nearly won his race.

There is no material there for democracy”: the expressed contempt of Nehru’s belief, amplified over time, at last began to affect a new generation of Kashmiris, the young, educated sons of peasants and artisans already reduced to futile resentment by corruption and unemployment. It was also around this time that the first groups of young Kashmiri men, most of them highly educated, some even with engineering degrees, and almost all of them jobless, stole across the vast open border into Pakistan.


The young men were received by middle-level army officers in Pakistan, and set up well, with salaries and private housing. They were trained in the use of light weapons for some months; many of them were asked to return to the valley and bring back more young men. Other recruits smuggled arms and ammunition into the valley. Slowly, the traffic across the border grew: in less than three years thousands of young Kashmiri men had been across the border, where they formed the first guerrilla groups that began a war of liberation in 1990.

Pakistan was a natural choice. It had tried to liberate Kashmir by force twice by sending in armed infiltrators—first in 1948 and then in 1965—and on both occasions had failed to muster enough support among the local population, which, though not entirely happy with Indian rule, was also wary of Pakistan. But the fast-growing disillusionment with Indian rule through the 1980s made many Kashmiris look toward Pakistan for assistance: it was the only country in the world that consistently affirmed, at least rhetorically, the Kashmiri “right to self-determination.”

For the Pakistani army officers who received the Kashmiris, the creation and support of the guerrilla groups required no expertise; they had done similar things, on a much larger scale, for the mujahideen fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan since 1979. Most of them worked for the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) which was set up to coordinate the war effort in Afghanistan with the CIA, and had come to have a very large extra-constitutional role in Pakistan.

The army’s control of Pakistan had never weakened since the last months of 1947, when the war with India over Kashmir turned the new country, lacking the administrative center or the infrastructure of the former colonial government, into a national security state, with over 70 percent of the national budget being spent on defense. Ethnic and linguistic affinities have always been stronger than religion in the subcontinent, and Islam turned out to be a weak nation-building glue in Pakistan. The feudal and professional Muslim elite’s fear of being overwhelmed by Hindu India mutated into an anxiety about the assertion of ethnic identities in Sind, Baluchistan, and East Pakistan. The need to pacify ethnic minorities while affirming the power of the central government—a tricky maneuver which in a stronger and more democratic state like India had ended up promoting political life—only further expanded the role of the army and the bureaucracy in Pakistan.

In 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan was thirty-two years old, and still without a coherent political life. Just eight years before, it had suffered the traumatic secession of East Pakistan with its large Bengali Muslim population, which became, with India’s assistance, Bangladesh. It was ruled despotically by an army general, Zia-ul-Haq, who had just hanged his former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and the primitive economy with a tiny manufacturing base was propped up by export of cheap labor to the Middle East.

The CIA found Pakistan a ready host for its proxy war against the Soviet Union. Billions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition arrived in Pakistan over the next ten years, transforming the social and political landscape of the entire region while creating a strong Islamic fundamentalist movement all around the world.

The arms went to the mujahideen fighting the Soviet army, and their sale in the black market was also used to finance an illegal drug trade—a disastrous link that eventually resulted in, apart from cheap heroin on the streets of New York, an estimated five million heroin addicts in Pakistan. The army was brought into the civil administration, and organizations like the ISI acquired their currently limitless and sinister power during this time.

Most damagingly, Zia-ul-Haq revived the idea of an Islamic society in order to postpone the transition to civilian rule he had promised soon after his coup against Bhutto. The state funds that were made available to Islamic organizations went into raising armed outfits that attacked Muslim minorities such as the Shi’ites and the Ahmediyas; and violent conflict within rival Islamic groups broke out in many parts of the country.

Of the three million Afghans who came as refugees to Pakistan, many went to the province of Sind, where local opposition to their presence developed into a particularly savage civil war in Karachi, the largest city. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees were given food, shelter, and elementary Islamic instruction at madrassas run by an Islamic organization close to the Pakistani army and sponsored by Saudi Arabia. It was the students at these madrassas that, assisted by Pakistan, went on to form the extremist Taliban that now controls much of Afghanistan.

The Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989 was claimed as a victory by the fundamentalists. The fantasy of a new extensive jihad, such as the one in the seventh and eighth centuries that had established Islam as a world religion, attracted thousands of Muslims from countries like Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Sudan to Pakistan. It was one of these men who attempted to blow up the World Trade Center in New York in 1993. This globalized jihad, which began as a CIA-initiated move to unite all Muslims against godless communism, found new promoters after 1989, such as Osama Bin Laden, whose network of Muslim militants now spans the world. Many of the Muslims trained in Afghanistan went on to become leading activists within Islamic fundamentalist movements in Egypt, Algeria, and the Central Asian republics.

In Pakistan, about a hundred thousand unemployed men went to fight the jihad in Afghanistan; and a few thousand among them would go on to fight in Kashmir. The Pakistani army itself was infiltrated by Islamic fundamentalists; and there is a quite real possibility at present of these fundamentalists seizing political power in a nuclear-armed Pakistan. There are other equally ruinous aftereffects of the American-Pakistani adventure in Afghanistan. The generous American and Saudi Arabian support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan created and enriched a powerful lobby composed of army officers, smugglers, and drug barons, whose special, often conflicting, needs now shape Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policies, and usually work against Pakistan’s own larger interests.11

Jihad alone brings about a degree of consensus among Pakistan’s corrupt ruling elite; holy war is now the very profitable raison d’être of many of them. As the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid points out in his alarming book, when American interest in Afghanistan dwindled in the early 1990s the ISI turned its attention to the longstanding dispute over Kashmir, which had always aroused much patriotic sentiment within Pakistan.12 All through the 1990s, the uprising against Indian rule in Kashmir, and the hectic mobilization by the intelligence officers of the ISI for a fresh jihad against India, came in especially handy as distractions from the many social and economic breakdowns within Pakistan.

India was always the significant enemy. The war over Bangladesh with India in 1971 had ended in utter humiliation for the Pakistani army, with 90,000 of its soldiers taken prisoner; and revenge motivated many ISI officers as much as the need to keep pressing the hot button of jihad. One reason why American arms and money for the mujahideen in Afghanistan were so eagerly accepted by Zia-ul-Haq was that they seemed to give Pakistan a “strategic depth” in any potential conflict with India over Kashmir. In the mid-1990s, the government of Pakistan risked international isolation in supporting the Taliban, partly because the latter provided facilities in Afghanistan for the training of Muslims committed to the jihad in Kashmir.

The war in Afghanistan thus brought Pakistan to an unexpected fulfillment of its original mission: instead of becoming the pure homeland of Muslims, it became the capital of a global movement for jihad, a holy war against infidels, who seemed to be everywhere. It wasn’t what Iqbal, insecure after his time in the West, thrown back to regretting the dead glory of Islam in Europe, could have imagined when he first proposed a democratic society of believers. And it wasn’t what the Kashmiris, accustomed to a more benign version of Islam, could have imagined when they turned spontaneously to Pakistan for assistance in their struggle against India, and found themselves enlisted into a jihad.

The first murders, kidnappings, and bombings by Pakistan-backed guerrillas began in Kashmir in 1989, while Farooq Abdullah was still heading a civilian government. Later that year the daughter of the home minister in the federal government in Delhi, a native of Kashmir, was taken hostage, and then released in exchange for five guerrillas. Large crowds welcomed the released men on the streets of Srinagar. They were fired upon by Indian police; five men died. There were more protests, bigger and bigger demonstrations: hundreds of thousands of men and women filled the streets of Srinagar, shouting “Azadi, Azadi” (Freedom, Freedom). People still speak of the strange energy in the air at the time: everyone shared the heady expectation that freedom was just around the corner, and the news of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and television images of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the great demonstrations of Eastern Europe only deepened the delusion.

It was then, early in 1990, that the Indian government again appointed Jagmohan as governor; he arrived with a sense of mission whose fanaticism approached that of the Islamic guerrillas. Farooq Abdullah resigned, leaving Kashmir without an elected leader. A series of ruthless actions quickly followed. Hundreds of young men suspected of being guerrillas were taken away from their homes, tortured, and sometimes killed. Unprovoked firings on demonstrators alone cost hundreds of lives—thanks to jumpy soldiers far from home, given a simple idea of the enemy, and licensed to kill. Thousands of Indian soldiers were brought into the valley—their current number is between 300,000 to 400,000. Foreign journalists were expelled and local journalists found themselves confined to their houses.

A whole set of severe laws were introduced—not that so many were needed, since all safeguards for civil liberties had completely collapsed by then. You could be picked up anywhere, interrogated, or killed; and no one would ever come to know what happened. Third-degree methods of torture were used on old men and even the very young. The Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali quotes a doctor who attended to a sixteen-year-old boy released from one of the interrogation centers: “Did anything in his lines of Fate reveal that the webs of his hands would be cut with a knife?”13

By the time Jagmohan was replaced, after six months as governor, the entire Muslim population of the valley had revolted against Indian rule. The local police mutinied; the legal sys-tem staffed by Kashmiris was close to collapse; more than a hundred thousand Hindus fled; the hospitals were flooded with tortured and maimed young men; and thousands of young men were missing, presumed dead, or in Pakistan.

—This is the second of three articles on Kashmir.

  1. 11

    The costs for Pakistan’s already feeble economy have already been high. In 1997-1998, the smugglers, working with impunity, alone deprived Pakistan of $600 million in customs revenue.

  2. 12

    Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2000).

  3. 13

    Dear Shahid,” in The Country Without a Post Office (Norton, 1997), p. 43.

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