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The Birth of a Nation

The Muslims of India were late to embrace the inadvertent benefits of colonial rule in the nineteenth century: the access to the modern world that Western-style education provided to the Hindus and that created a pan-Indian intelligentsia—people like Gandhi, Nehru, and Tagore—who went on to assume the leadership of the freedom movement. Many of the Muslim leaders still dreamed of reviving the power and glory of Muslim rule over India, which the British had comprehensively destroyed. As independence from colonial rule began to appear a possibility in the early twentieth century, many educated Muslims began to know new anxieties about their people’s inferiority vis-à-vis both the British and the Hindus.

It is no coincidence that the person who articulated best the fears and frustrations of Indian Muslims was a Kashmiri, Mohammad Iqbal, one of the most important Muslim philosophical thinkers of modern times. Iqbal was born in 1876 in what is now Pakistan to an illiterate family of shawl peddlers and tailors. His parents managed to send him to school and college, where he did very well. He was already famous for his poetry when he went to Cambridge in the early years of the twentieth century to study philosophy.

Iqbal followed many other Indians in being deeply impressed by the progress made by Europe in the nineteenth century; the idea of individual struggle and fulfillment, and the related idea of the individual’s responsibilities to society and the nation, could not but come as a revelation to people from listless subject communities. Iqbal came to admire Nietzsche. The idea of the Superman, of self-creation and self-assertion, spoke to him in the powerful way it always has to people from colonized countries. But he was also disturbed by racism and hypercompetitiveness, and while in Europe, struggling with the complex mix of admiration, fear, and insecurity the place aroused, he became even more aware of his Muslim identity. The history of Islam acquired new meanings for him; from a ship the sighting of Sicily, the setting of one of Islam’s greatest triumphs in Europe, could make him weep.

He came back to India convinced, like many Indians before him, that the progress of his community lay not in imitating Europe but in reforming and reviving the religion he had been born into. To this end, he began to exalt masculine vigor and the great Islamic past in his writings. He became a determined critic of Sufism, of the mystical and folk traditions within Islam that advocate the rejection of the ego and the self, and that had found such a hospitable home in his ancestral Kashmir. He saw these traditions as emasculating Muslims, making them inadequate before the outstanding tasks demanded of the self and of the larger Islamic community.

Iqbal’s ideas about Islam in India had to have political ramifications. Politics itself at that time of colonial oppression was primarily a quest for dignity, an assertion of identity first, and then only secondarily an attempt at creating new institutions. As such, it could not be separated from religion, from the larger sense of a shared culture and past which was the beginning of the political sense for all deprived and subjugated peoples. If, as Iqbal believed, Islam had weakened itself by mingling with the local traditions of Hinduism, its original purity under the democracy established by the first four caliphs couldn’t be recovered within an India dominated by Hindus. True Islam, as Iqbal conceived it, could be reinstated only if Indian Muslims formed a separate nation. The idea which Iqbal put forward at an important political meeting of Muslims in 1930 was the beginning of the two-nation theoryå? which, seventeen years later, worked itself out in the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan.

1.

For most Hindus in India, Iqbal is the misguided instigator of the movement for Pakistan. I hadn’t really thought of him in connection with Kashmir until recently, when I met Dr. Mohammad Ishaq Khan in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital. Dr. Khan teaches medieval history at Kashmir University in Srinagar, and has done pioneering work on Islam’s acculturation in the Hindu-Buddhist environment of Kashmir. He is a small, round-faced man, gentle in demeanor; he speaks slowly, as if unaccustomed to talking much of his work, but in clear qualified sentences that indicate a quietly active mind. During the past decade, the years of the insurgency, when the university ceased to function, he has done his best work: a book on the spiritual dimensions of Islam that stressed the contemplative aspects of the faith over the ideological ones.1

In one of the Kashmiri newspapers I read during a recent visit to Kashmir—pages that were full of bad news but always offering something lively in their editorial pages—I read a piece by Dr. Khan describing his recent visit to Pakistan. He had met many Kashmiris settled there; but he had stayed away from the awkward subject of politics altogether. When asked why he and other Muslim intellectuals in Kashmir weren’t involved in the anti-India insurgency, he had thought of the Persian sufi Rumi’s words: “The intellect is destroyed by partial reason.”

But he did visit Iqbal’s tomb in Lahore; and in a striking passage he describes how overwhelmed he was with emotion as he approached the tomb: “I couldn’t control myself. Tears started pouring from my eyes.”

Dr. Khan’s allegiance was to the Sufi tradition of Kashmir, which Iqbal had rejected. His suspicion of Islam as ideology had only grown after the violence and suffering caused by the insurgency, which one of his own students had joined, someone whom Dr. Khan remembered as denouncing, in the way Iqbal once had, Sufi Islam for turning the Kashmiris into apathetic slaves of Hindu India. The student had gone to Pakistan for training in the military camps and risen high within the leading pro-Pakistan guerrilla group, Hizbul Mujahideen, before being killed in Srinagar early last year.

Iqbal’s personal response to Europe and Islam and the melancholy beauty of his poetry had been reduced in the end to simple ideologies that had sent thousands of other young men to an early death. Nevertheless, the idea of Iqbal as the man who had brought a hope of redemption to the Muslims of the subcontinent survived, and—this is what struck me—still had the power, many decades later, of moving even someone like Dr. Khan, committed to the intellectual life, to tears.

It was somewhat easier after that to imagine the impact Iqbal had on millions of Muslims across India with his poetry and philosophy—something comparable to Gandhi’s influence on the Hindus; and it was somewhat easier to enter the Indian Muslim’s sense of dispossession, and understand how much the charisma and persuasive power of men like Iqbal derive from the raw unformed nature of their communities.

For Kashmiris the person who came to embody their fate a generation after Iqbal was Sheikh Abdullah, once hailed as the Lion of Kashmir, who for more than half a century since the early 1930s remained the most popular leader of Kashmiri Muslims. His funeral in 1982 was attended by hundreds of thousands of mourners. But eight years later, his grave was desecrated—a moment that marks not only the beginning of the insurgency, but also the decline of the politics of personality in South Asia.

Abdullah’s early mentor was Iqbal, whom he had met in 1924 in Lahore, when Iqbal was at the height of his fame. Iqbal had first visited Kashmir, the land of his ancestors, three years before, and had come away distressed by the condition of the Muslims: “In the bitter chill of winter shivers his naked body,” he wrote, “whose skill wraps the rich in royal shawls.”2 He had joined the Muslim-owned newspapers of Lahore in highlighting the fate of the Kashmiris Muslim under Hindu rule: how though they formed 96 percent of the population the rate of literacy among them was only 0.8 percent.3

Iqbal was sympathetic to Abdullah, who, like himself, came from a family of poor shawl sellers, and was one of the few Kashmiri Muslims who had managed to educate themselves up to the point where they found their way blocked by discrimination on grounds of religion: under the Maharajah, only Hindus, who were a mere 4 percent of the population, were allowed to aspire to higher education and better jobs. Abdullah had to leave Kashmir and go to Aligarh, near Delhi, where the first college providing Western-style education exclusively to Muslims had been set up in 1875. On his return to Kashmir in 1930, he had joined a small group of graduate students from Aligarh who called themselves the Reading Room Party.

Barely a year later, Kashmir witnessed the first major disturbance against the autocratic rule of the Maharajah. A Muslim called Abdul Qadir who was working as a butler for a European resident was arrested for giving a seditious speech. Crowds who came to protest at the prison gates were arrested; more protests followed, and then at some point the police fired on the demonstrators. Twenty-one people died. Then the procession carrying the bodies for burial became unruly, and Hindu-owned shops along the route to the graveyard were looted.

The Maharajah’s Hindu army cracked down more brutally on Muslim dissenters. Abdullah spent a year in prison with other members of the Reading Room Party. When he was released in 1932, he announced the formation of the Muslim Conference: it was the first organized opposition to the regime of the Maharajah in Kashmir. There was a special edge to Abdullah’s relationship with the Maharajah. No two men could have been more dissimilar: the horse-racing Maharajah with a weakness for fraudulent Hindu holy men, and the devout Muslim and brilliant manipulator of the masses. In his opposition to the Maharajah, Abdullah found himself supported by leaders of the Indian nationalist movement against colonial rule, particularly Pandit Nehru, who under Gandhi’s patronage had become the unchallenged leader of the Congress Party. The friendship between Abdullah and Nehru grew fast.

There was a special reason for that friendship. Nehru’s Brahmin ancestors came from Kashmir, and had moved just a few decades before his birth in 1889 to Delhi and Allahabad, where they became one of the first families of modern India. There was always an air of the solitary visionary about Nehru. He was sent to Harrow and Cambridge by his Anglophilic father. During his time in Europe he was much influenced by European ideas of socialism and nationalism. His discovery of India came later and made all the more valuable for him the discovery of his roots in Kashmir, the ancestral connection which was deepened by the pantheistic feeling he, a man who disdained organized religion, had for the Himalayas.

In 1924, Iqbal had told Abdullah that though his body was confined to India his soul existed in Kashmir. Nehru came close to making the same claim in his various scattered writings on Kashmir. He himself visited the state as a young trekker and was enraptured. In The Continent of Circe, Nirad Chaudhuri wrote of the Hindu sense of loss associated with the Himalayas: the cold regions the Aryan settlers of North India had come from, the longing expressed by Nehru himself when he wrote in his autobiography, “And I dream of the day when I shall wander about the Himalayas.”4 In official and personal correspondence, Nehru kept coming back to what he himself described as his “partiality for Kashmir.”

That partiality took several forms, and was to shape Indian attitudes toward Kashmir well after his death. By the time he met and befriended Abdullah in the mid-1930s, he had already begun to put into shape his blueprint for an independent India. In Abdullah, he saw someone who shared his conviction that the old social and economic order of India, represented by the maharajahs and big landlords, had to be destroyed through land reforms and centralized economic planning. Abdullah was also receptive to his advocacy of secularism: it was under Nehru’s persuasion that Abdullah changed the name of the Muslim Conference to the National Conference, and acquired a greater following among the small minority of Hindus in the Kashmir valley, as well as among the Hindu majority in Jammu, the southern part of the state, which, though distrustful of Abdullah, found reassuring his growing proximity to Indian nationalist leaders.

2.

As the creation of Pakistan became a certainty, much to the heartbreak of Gandhi and others who had wanted to see a united India come into being, Nehru became determined that Kashmir and its Muslim majority should be part of the India he had envisaged and so painstakingly worked toward: an India that was committed to democracy, secularism, and socialism. He was convinced that the idea of a separate nation for the Muslims—the “two-nation” theory first proposed by Iqbal and embraced by the feudal Muslim elite of North India—was a mistake; he didn’t think it could solve the prob-lem of the Muslim community, the problem he defined as social and economic backwardness. He thought the landlords and mullahs who had kept the Muslim masses away from the benefits of education would merely consolidate their power in a new state.

Abdullah’s own view of the demand for Pakistan was more qualified and less emotional. He felt, as he confessed in his autobiography, a subconscious sympathy for it5 ; he saw it as a Muslim reaction against Hindu sectarianism, which he believed, despite his personal regard for Gandhi and Nehru, the Congress Party insidiously practiced. Indeed, he thought he could discern strains of Hindu revivalism in Nehru’s sentimental attachment to Kashmir.

He could also see that Kashmir’s Muslim-majority population and geographical location made for a natural affinity with the new state of Pakistan being carved out from the western, as well as eastern, parts of British India. At the same time, he felt himself out of sympathy with the men leading the agitation for Pakistan, particularly Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the pork-eating barrister from Bombay, who did not disguise his contempt for the Kashmiris and yet assumed that the state with its Muslim majority had no option but to join the new homeland for Indian Muslims. Abdullah also feared that the poor Muslims of Kashmir would get a bad deal in the feudal setup of Pakistan. So it was that in the years leading up to the partition of India Abdullah came to think of independence and democracy as the best option for Kashmir.

The same idea, without of course the democracy bit, had struck the Maharajah, who, as the time of British withdrawal from India came nearer, was faced, as the ruler of the largest of the 562 states under British paramountcy, with a choice between India and Pakistan.

The Maharajah’s autocratic ways continued as local opposition to him intensified. In 1946, he put Abdullah and other members of the National Conference in prison for running a highly popular “Quit Kashmir” campaign against him. Nehru’s support for Abdullah had already alienated the Maharajah from the Indian leadership; Gandhi’s questioning the legitimacy of his rule over Kashmir, which had its dubious origin in a sale deed in 1846 between the Maharajah’s ancestors and the British, made him more receptive to emissaries from Pakistan who began to visit him with greater frequency. The partition of India was three months old and he was still talking with both Indian and Pakistan representatives, hoping to buy time and preserve his regime, when a quick series of events forced him to act.

Violence and rioting during Partition had affected the southern part of the Maharajah’s state, where Sikh refugees from Pakistan joined Hindu nationalists and members of the Maharajah’s police in attacking Muslims. Tens of thousands of Muslims were killed. (Half a century later, I heard an old Sikh speak of these murders with pride at Chitisinghpura, the Kashmir village where in March this year thirty-five Sikhs were massacred by unidentified gunmen.6 ) Many more Muslims fled to Pakistan, where the news of their suffering outraged the always very volatile Muslim tribesmen of the northwestern provinces on the Pakistan border into declaring jihad against the Maharajah. In one of the impetuous and confused actions that inaugurated and forever marked the Pakistani position on Kashmir, a few officers of the Pakistani army provided a ragtag army of jihad-minded tribals with arms and helped them across the border into Kashmir—all this at the time when the Pakistan government was still trying to win over the Maharajah to join Kashmir with Pakistan.

The Maharajah’s army was no match for the energetic tribal forces, who advanced swiftly through the northwest parts of Kashmir; an older generation of Kashmiris still remembers the killings and looting and rapes that they committed on their way to Srinagar. The Maharajah panicked as they came closer and closer. His son, Karan Singh, describes in his autobiography7 the moment when the lights went out in the palace—the invaders had destroyed the power station—and the noise of howling jackals suddenly arose in the darkness and silence. The Maharajah appealed to the Indian government for military assistance; but the legalistic response from Delhi was that the Indian army could enter Kashmir only after the state had formally acceded to India. There was no choice now for the Maharajah. As the tribal army drew nearer to Srinagar, he fled the city for the Hindu- dominated city of Jammu, where he went to bed after instructing his aide-de-camp to shoot him in his sleep if the Indian government’s representative didn’t turn up with the instrument of accession. He never returned to Kashmir and died in far-off Bombay in 1962.

The Indian army finally arrived in Srinagar in late October 1947, and its offensive against the invaders became a full-fledged war with Pakistan that lasted more than a year. A cease-fire was eventually declared under the auspices of the UN on January 1, 1949, by which time the Indian army had driven the invaders out of the valley. However, the northwestern part of the princely state, which is different, culturally and socially, from the Kashmir valley and closer to the Muslim Punjab, remained under Pakistani control, and, though named Azad (Free) Kashmirå? is effectively as much a part of Pakistan as the valley is of India.

It was Sheikh Abdullah, released from prison just three weeks before the invasion, who had organized the defense of Srinagar. The National Conference came out in support of the Indian army. Abdullah not only endorsed the accession to India, but also worked up popular Kashmiri support for it, which wasn’t hard since the atrocities committed by the tribal army had put fear of Pakistan in the Kashmiris, and this fear took a long time to fade.

In retrospect, the tribal invasion seems to have spoiled everything. Now the issue of Kashmir acquired a degree of complication from which it never recovered.

Nehru took the dispute to the UN on January 1, 1948, and offered to hold a plebiscite under international auspices to confirm the accession to India. This sounds generous given that Nehru already had what he wanted: physical control of the valley. But Nehru also wanted the legitimacy of popular support for Indian rule over Kashmir. He was confident that, with Sheikh Abdullah on his side, India would win a plebiscite in Kashmir.

As things turned out, the Indian offer of a plebiscite under the supervision of the UN was never redeemed. There was no withdrawal of the Indian and Pakistan armies from Kashmir, which had to be achieved before the plebiscite could take place, and the issue got bogged down in various legalities as the years passed. Pakistan remained in occupation of one third of the state, and denounced the accession to India as fraudulent since in its view the Maharajah had surrendered all authority by fleeing Srinagar after the Muslims rebelled. The Indians kept dismissing the claim and saying that it was Pakistan that had acted illegally by invading the state and frequently raised the rhetorical ante—as they still do—by saying that the only unresolved issue for India was the return of Pakistan-occupied territories.

Positions hardened on both sides as the cold war came to the subcontinent. The State Department under John Foster Dulles always suspected Nehru of being soft on communism, and was openly contemptuous of his non-aligned position. The US drew closer to Pakistan, which it included, in the mid-1950s, in such military treaties as CENTO and SEATO. This further stiffened Nehru’s position on Kashmir; there was no more talk of a plebiscite. The Soviet Union under Khrushchev became a consistent supporter of Nehru’s line, which became the official Indian line, that Kashmir was an integral part of India, and thus not subject to any international arbitration. The cease-fire line between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, called the Line of Control (LOC), became a de facto international border.

This would have been the end of the dispute: the status quo accepted by all parties as an unalterable reality. Certainly, in those early years, the populations in both Indian- and Pakistani-held Kashmir seemed content to be where they were. Sheikh Abdullah was now in charge, and almost the first thing he did in his five difficult years as prime minister of Kashmir from 1948 to 1953 was to initiate a series of ambitious land reforms whereby ownership rights to lands in excess of twelve and a half acres were abolished. In effect, this meant taking land away from the Hindu landlords and distributing it among poor Muslim tenants. It was a mini-revolution, and it assured Abdullah the gratitude and support of two generations of Kashmiri Muslims.

But less than four decades later, Kashmiris were to take up arms for the first time in their long history; India was to face a popular insurgency in Kashmir, and come close to nuclear war with Pakistan. The grave of Sheikh Abdullah, eight years after his crowded funeral, was to require round-the-clock protection from vandals.

3.

Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan had innocuous beginnings: from being a desire for a guarantee of Muslim rights in a Hindu-majority India, it developed into a demand for a confederation of India where Muslims would not have minority status but would share power with Hindus. However, the Hindu leaders of the Congress Party, so close to achieving real political power for the first time, were in no mood to share it.

The clumsily partitioned provinces toward the eastern and the western borders of India weren’t what Jinnah has asked for—there were almost as many Muslims in India as in the new state of Pakistan—but it was all the Congress was prepared to part with. In the end, with the British impatient to depart and hustling everyone else, it was the Congress that was eager to settle for partition in order to consolidate its hold on the much bigger Hindu-majority provinces and the institutions of the colonial state—the army, the bureaucracy, and the police—that were its great inheritance from the British.

Among the people who took a harder line as a result of the demand for partition was Nehru, who, for most of a lifetime spent fighting the British, had never accepted the idea of Pakistan, and had held on to the idea of a united multicultural India. The bloodshed that accompanied the partition came as a bigger blow to him; he was now more convinced than ever of the need to have, in the colonial way, a strong central government for India, with as little autonomy as possible for the diverse communities that constituted it. He was to regard all regional assertiveness—and there was much of that across India in the Fifties—with suspicion. National unity, along with secularism, became his mantra, which was taken up by almost all political parties, and echoed by the colonial bureaucracy that was keen on holding onto its own power.

It was hard, nevertheless, to keep down sectarian demands in a country as diverse as India, where independence had released a new longing for self-expression, where millions of previously disfranchised people could find a political voice only through the community they were born to. A lesser leader would have proved disastrous here. Nehru dealt astutely with the demands for a linguistic reorganization of India, which in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for example, had developed into a movement for outright secession. He used a carrot-and-stick policy—a mix of limited democracy and state repression—to pacify various regional groups and keep them within India.

But his own emotional connection with Kashmir made him wield a big stick there with Sheikh Abdullah, who, soon after becoming prime minister, had come up against the problems of running a large multi-ethnic, multi-religious state—problems not unlike those Nehru himself faced, but which Abdullah was much less equipped to deal with. He was primarily the leader of the Muslims of the Kashmir valley, who represented the majority of the state’s population, 53 percent. But there were also the influential Hindu majority in Jammu to the south, who resented Abdullah’s radical politics, and the Buddhists of Ladakh, who were worried about the power of the valley’s Muslims.

As usually happens, the lack of a political opposition, partly ensured by Nehru, turned Abdullah into an authoritarian ruler. Impressed by the Soviet model, he made the party inseparable from the administration; and, as the aggrieved tone of his letters to Nehru shows, he interpreted all opposition to him as an attempt to undermine his personal authority, and, by extension, the right of the Kashmiri Muslims to run the state after centuries of foreign rule.

When the Hindu nationalists in Jammu, the forebears of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which dominates the current Indian government, organized in the early 1950s the dispossessed landlords and followers of the sulking Maharajah into a movement for greater integration with India, Abdullah became more insecure. He had bargained hard with the Indian government to preserve the state from excessive interference by New Delhi; Kashmir, he argued, needed special guarantees for the protection of its autonomy. He now revived his idea of an independent Kashmir, bringing it up with, among other visiting diplomats, Adlai Stevenson in 1953.

This was disturbing news for Nehru. He now felt Abdullah moving away from him and toward a course of action that was likely to end in India’s losing Kashmir, and losing with it its secular credentials. He was quick to act: Abdullah was dismissed in 1953 and put in prison, where he stayed, initially without trial, for all but four months of the next eleven years.

This sounds rather unbecoming of Nehru, who by then was known internationally as a statesman. But national unity had become his obsession. He had praised Abdullah’s land reforms; he had ensured that no political opposition to Abdullah could grow in the state; he had offered personal friendship to him. But now Abdullah was working against the “national interest.” The support and dismissal of Abdullah was consistent with Nehru’s belief that politics in Kashmir revolved around personalities. It was what he had told an activist who was arguing for a democratic opposition to Abdullah: there was, Nehru asserted, “no material for democracy in Kashmir.”8

The other side, then, of Nehru’s enchantment with Kashmir was a fear of losing control, a possessiveness that he gradually transformed into a national imperative: Kashmir, he began to argue, couldn’t be separated from India without exposing the Muslims in the rest of India to retaliation from Hindu fanatics. You still hear a version of this idea in liberal circles in India: that communal riots of the same scale and intensity as those during the partition of India are around the corner if Kashmir is allowed to break away.

And then, in 1953, an old protégé of Abdullah named Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed took over as prime minister of Kashmir, and did everything Nehru wanted to constitutionally integrate Kashmir into India. Promises of autonomy made earlier to Abdullah were cancelled; and fear of violence came to dictate Indian policy.

Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed was himself sidelined after serving ten years as the India-approved prime minister of Kashmir, and was imprisoned in 1965 when he sought to undermine an India-backed chief minister.9 Kashmir without Sheikh Abdullah reverted to being what it was for centuries under Mughal rule: a dependency, its fate controlled by a distant great power whose representatives could do what they wished to as long as no one rocked the boat. Its political life, which had really only begun with Abdullah, came to be dominated by small men with small aims of personal empowerment and enrichment, by constant intrigues and betrayals.

Elections were held periodically in order to demonstrate before the world the democratic nature of the Delhi-imposed regime. But they were farcically rigged: the nomination papers of opposition parties would be rejected or their candidates beaten up and arrested; the National Conference won most elections unopposed. A concerned Nehru had to tell Mohammed that it might look better if he were to lose a few elections to a few “bona-fide opponents.”10 The central government poured money into the state for development and education; and, for a few Kashmiris at least, the stakes for holding on to power went higher. A new elite of politicians and bureaucrats emerged out of the culture of corruption that grew around the administration.

4.

As in the history of any dependency and its court politics, what you come to miss in accounts of Kashmir is a sense of the people, the way life went on in the villages and towns. One of the images that comes to mind is of the corrupt government official in his large house, his sons studying in the best colleges of India. The other image is of the peasant in his rice field and mud hut, living as depressed a life as he was when, in 1831, the French botanist Victor Jacquemont visited the region and found it the most wretched in all of the subcontinent.

But the image alters as you read about the rise in literacy levels in the state. In all likelihood, today the peasant’s son has gone to school—one of the hundreds opened by the Indian government—and has even gone up to the new university or the medical and engineering colleges; the peasant himself hasn’t done badly with his apple orchards—horticulture still forms the mainstay of the economy.

In less than two decades, the peasant’s son has become ready for a job, but then finds that his options are very limited. Modern education has taken him away from a life in the rice fields or the apple orchards; but there is no local industry in the valley. The only jobs are to be had with the government; and here he finds himself excluded by the culture of bribery and nepotism. In India, he finds himself a foreigner, likely to be discriminated against on grounds of religion; it is not easy for a Muslim to find a job or rent a house in a Hindu-dominated region.

It is this sense of a blocked future that educated Kashmiris came to have, along with the realization, hammered into them by repeatedly rigged elections, of their political impotence, that eventually led to the insurgency in the early 1990s.

In 1975, out of jail and once again chief minister of the state, Abdullah entered into an arrangement with the Indian government whereby he promised to give up the demand for self-determination in exchange for becoming what other men before him had been: a satrap of the Indian state in Kashmir.

There was a downside to the total investment of faith invited by charismatic individuals like Iqbal, Abdullah, even Nehru. In the absence of institutions, the welfare of a country comes to depend on a few favored ideas, and, more dangerously, on personal temperament. The success or failure of individuals has consequences, sometimes damaging, for many future generations. With Iqbal, the danger always was that his followers would go for the simplest and most emotional of the ideas he was trying out in his mind; and after the first flurry of land reforms, Abdullah wasn’t able to offer anything more to Kashmiris than his formidable rhetoric and the glamorous myth of the prisoner of conscience.

A few months before he died, Abdullah, in the style of third world dynasts, anointed as his successor his son, a UK-based doctor. Farooq Abdullah, inexperienced but enthusiastic, had barely begun when he ran into problems with Indira Gandhi, who had by then evolved her own authoritarian style. In 1975 she brought her father’s anxiety about national unity to a new hysterical pitch as she arrested opposition leaders for being “anti-national” and suspended fundamental rights.

In Kashmir, Mrs. Gandhi found herself thwarted by Farooq Abdullah, who refused her offer of an election alliance between her party, the Congress, and the National Conference. Abdullah’s victory in the elections of 1983, and subsequent hobnobbing with other politicians opposed to her, made Mrs. Gandhi determined to get rid of him. Her tactics here resembled those of the colonial state, something the British had employed to great effect: encouraging religious sectarianism in order to downplay regional disaffection with the central government. In Punjab, she had built up Bhindranwale, an illiterate Sikh preacher, as a counterweight to the province’s anti-Congress government; the preacher subsequently turned into a murderous demagogue and declared war on India. Undeterred by the setback in Punjab, she set to work on building up an atmosphere of Hindu jingoism over the issue of Kashmir.

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.

5.

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. 1

    Mohammad Ishaq Khan, Experiencing Islam (New Delhi: Sterling, 1997).

  2. 2

    Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Flames of the Chinar: An Autobiography, abridged and translated from the Urdu by Khushwant Singh (New Delhi: Viking, 1993), p. 3.

  3. 3

    See Victoria Schofield, Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan, and the Unfinished War (I.B. Tauris, 2000), p. 16.

  4. 4

    Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 38.

  5. 5

    Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Flames of the Chinar, p. 56.

  6. 6

    See my article “Death in Kashmir,” The New York Review, September 21, 2000, pp. 36-42.

  7. 7

    Autobiography (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 57.

  8. 8

    See Balraj Puri, Kashmir: Towards Insurgency (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1995), p. 47.

  9. 9

    The head of Kashmir’s elected government was no longer referred to as prime minister after 1965, but, as in other Indian states, was known simply as chief minister.

  10. 10

    Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, Vol. 2 (Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 262.

  11. 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.

  12. 12

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

  13. 13

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

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