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Kashmir: The Unending War

A full-scale insurgency against Indian rule broke out in the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir in 1990. Dissatisfaction with India had been building up over the previous decade, along with the desire for independence. In 1988 and 1989, armed young Muslim men began to attack government officials and Kashmiri Hindus; some of these young men even went over to neighboring Pakistan to ask for weapons and money. The custodial killings and torture by the Indian authorities of young Kashmiri men suspected of being insurgents made many more Kashmiri Muslims decide to seek military assistance from Pakistan, which had been hosting the decade-long CIA-sponsored jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

The unprovoked firings on unarmed demonstrators by the Indian police and army in the early months of 1990—a recurring, if little-reported, event in Kashmir over the next few years—alienated even pro-India Kashmiris. William Dalrymple, the English writer and journalist, who had managed to pass himself off as a tourist to Indian authorities—foreign journalists were then banned from visiting Kashmir—was walking with his wife behind a peaceful group of demonstrators in Srinagar, the capital, in May 1990 when bullets suddenly came flying from the military bunker in front. He managed to escape unhurt, but many didn’t. He had met a Kashmiri survivor of a previous, much bigger massacre who had been thrown, half-dead, by Indian soldiers into a truck full of corpses, which was then driven around the city for an hour before being unloaded at a police station.

Such cruelties—coming after the corruption and arbitrariness of Indian rule in the previous four decades—created a vast number of humiliated men in Kashmir, for whom there was something attractive about the upsurge of nihilistic energy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So intent were the Kashmiris upon arming themselves and fighting for independence that their cultural and political differences with the Pakistanis became relatively unimportant. The first men who went over to Pakistan were still thinking of an independent and secular Kashmir. But as the movement grew and the Pakistani army’s intelligence agency, the ISI, found more Kashmiris who were willing to fight for integration into Pakistan, the country stopped bankrolling the secular Kashmiri guerrillas who were seeking independence. They were betrayed to Indian intelligence agencies, and many of them also killed, by the more militant pro-Pakistan guerrillas. These new insurgents were seen as hard-line Islamic terrorists, especially after they kidnapped and killed Hindus and, later, European and American tourists in Kashmir. Among Kashmiri Muslims, who belong to the peaceable Sufi tradition of Islam, they came to be feared for their ultra-Islamic fanaticism, which often erupted into violence against women and other unprotected civilians.

Kashmiris, who had expected as much international support as had been given to the East Germans and the Czechs when they filled the streets in late 1989, were surprised by the cautious pro-India policies followed by the EU and America. But diplomats and policymakers in the West had their reasons to be worried. In 1994, as the Taliban achieved major victories in Afghanistan, the network of international terrorism began to spread. Islamic fundamentalist outfits in Pakistan became stronger; so did the ISI, which had come to play a large role in shaping Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policies. As the Taliban began consolidating its position in Afghanistan, the ISI and the fundamentalists began to export jihad to Kashmir. The Kashmiri guerrilla groups were brought together by the ISI in an umbrella organization called the United Jihad Council. The guerrillas, who had come as raw young men from Kashmir, were trained in the use of light weapons in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then sent back to Kashmir to wage war on India. The traffic across the border grew very busy. Almost every Muslim you meet in Kashmir has friends or acquaintances who went to Pakistan. The Pakistani involvement in Kashmir reached a new pitch when, in the summer of 1999, Kashmiri guerrillas along with Pakistani soldiers were discovered to have occupied strategic Himalayan heights in India-held Kargil. This almost caused a war.

There were other, larger reasons behind the insurgency in Kashmir, which lay in changes in India. Nehru’s secular vision was undermined by his successors throughout the 1970s and 1980s; the democratic institutions he helped to create were enfeebled by the determination of his successors, notably Indira Gandhi, to concentrate absolute power in the central government and to deny federal autonomy to the many diverse regions and ethnic and linguistic minorities that constitute India. In the early 1990s India’s nominally socialist, protectionist economy was opened up to foreign investment, giving rise to a new middle class of people in business and in the professions. As with most new middle classes its members were eager to hold on to what they had recently acquired; and their politics were on the whole conservative. As many of them saw it, India’s stability had to be ensured by brute force, if necessary, in places like Kashmir and the northeastern states, since stability was good for business, both locally and internationally. It was an attitude most strongly articulated by the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, which the new middle class helped elect to power in 1998.

Under the Hindu nationalists, India’s economy was further globalized, creating a small new elite of business tycoons and reanimating the cultural and emotional links many affluent Indian-Americans had with their home country. The BJP attempted to give India, and this global Hindu middle class, a greater international presence by conducting nuclear tests and lobbying for a permanent seat in the Security Council of the United Nations. The government’s obsession with India’s unity, and its deep suspicion of internal and external enemies, went beyond the nationalism of the Congress Party. As the party in power, the BJP has had more opportunity to enforce its nineteenth-century idea of nationhood—one people, one culture, one language—which now threatens to promote more conflict in a deeply pluralistic society.

The BJP had kept up a steady rhetoric on Kashmir throughout most of the Nineties, when they were out of power, even as a harsh crackdown in the state went on: India, they said, had become a “soft” state, easily bullied by its neighbors and secessionists; they spoke of a “pro-active” policy and “hot pursuit” of terrorists across the border into Pakistan. In 1999 the war with Pakistan-backed infiltrators in Kashmir broke out, the first in India to be fought before TV cameras, and suddenly many in the middle class adopted the BJP’s extreme rhetoric about the “Kashmir problem.”

During the long years of rule from Delhi, most middle-class Indians had been generally indifferent to local politics in Kashmir; for the more affluent, the valley itself was a vacation spot, cherished for sentimental reasons. Pakistan was now seen as an even more implacable enemy. Renewed patriotic sentiment and the televised demands for ruthlessness against the Pakistanis for their support of the guerrillas affected the Indian army: a friend back from the front told me of a Pakistani soldier in Kargil whose arms had been cut off and who, as he bled to death, kept pleading futilely to the indifferent Indian soldiers to take his money out of his pocket and send it to his children and aging mother in Pakistan.

As the Indian army announced one improbable victory after another, TV reporters and newspaper journalists emerged as cheerleaders, and then in July 1999 when, under American pressure on Pakistan, the infiltrators withdrew from the strategic heights, they led the country in celebrating what the Hindu nationalist government described as Pakistan’s military and diplomatic defeat. The jingoism—encouraged by Bill Clinton’s visit to India last spring, during which he seemed to endorse India’s claim to superpower status and reprimanded Pakistan—got louder after the news of further violence in Kashmir, including the massacre of thirty-five Sikhs in Chitisinghpura in March and the killing of over a hundred Hindus in early August.1


For much of the 1990s, when the Congress Party was still in power and Kashmir was ruled by a governor appointed by Delhi, Indian bureaucrats, often men of quality sympathetic to the Kashmiris, ran the state; they had made it possible for elections to be held in 1996 without fear of large-scale violence, and indeed with a larger turnout of voters. Since most of the popular political groups in Kashmir opposed to Indian rule boycotted the elections, Farooq Abdullah, the former leader of Kashmir’s National Conference Party, who had been backed by India, returned as Kashmir’s chief minister after many years of sitting idle. But in 1998, the BJP won the national election, promising, among other things, a “pro-active” policy in Kashmir. At a time when the tensions caused by nuclear testing by India and Pakistan in 1998 had barely lessened, the war in Kashmir began.

If the battles in Kashmir hardened public opinion in India, the well-reported arrests of Muslims, allegedly terrorist agents of the ISI, in various parts of India further fed Hindu suspicions about Muslims in general, and Kashmiri Muslims in particular. At Chitisinghpura, hours after the massacre of thirty-five Sikhs last March, I met a mid-level officer from the Border Security Force, one of the paramilitary organizations fighting the anti-India insurgency. He was a Kashmiri Hindu, a short, paunchy man. He wasn’t worried about the prospect of large numbers of Sikhs fleeing Kashmir after the massacre in the way the Hindus had done after being targeted by Muslim separatists.

Isolate the Muslims in Kashmir,” he said, “and then we’ll have a free hand to deal with them.” He thought all pro-Pakistan guerrillas were traitors and Pakistan’s henchmen deserved no mercy. He himself hadn’t let go of any of the separatists he had captured in the six years he had spent in Kashmir. He had, he said, used torture to get information from them and then killed them.

This reflected popular Hindu sentiment about the Kashmir problem, where human rights violations by the military, instead of being punished, became the accepted means of reasserting Indian authority over the state. I heard the same view about isolating the Muslims from Pakistan and dealing severely with separatists when I visited the southern, Hindu-majority city of Jammu in the plains, in an in-terview with a leader of the BJP, Mr. Khajuria, one of the up-and-coming men within his party. Supplicants—job-seekers, men with big shiny boxes of sweets to offer Khajuria—thronged outside his flat, often spilling into the living room furnished with the regulation green carpet of government offices and sofas upholstered in dark blue velvet, with toy airplanes on display in the glass cabinet, just below large framed pictures of stern-looking BJP ideologues. Khajuria, a small round man with a big wart on the bridge of his nose, kept scolding gently as he pushed his way through into the room: “Can’t you see I am doing an interview?”

He had been a leader of the student wing of the BJP at Jammu University, and still had the sweetly ingratiating manner of the ineffectual student politician. I could have predicted before the meeting most of what he said: India was facing “total war” with Pakistan which could only be ended by invading and conquering Pakistan; the ISI was now encouraging Indian Muslims to increase their population in India through hectic breeding; and Muslims were at best unreliable.

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