Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy, 1846–1990
Kashmir Under Siege: Human Rights in India
India: Torture, Rape and Deaths in Custody
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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.