Paradise Lost: The Ordeal of Kashmir

December 1, 1999 Topic: HistorySociety Regions: South AsiaAsia Tags: Cold WarKashmirMutual Assured Destruction

Paradise Lost: The Ordeal of Kashmir

Mini Teaser: The tortured history of the Princely State, one which may be today's ground zero in Asia.

by Author(s): Alexander Rose

In Kashmir, this year's "annual spring exercises"--as the more worldly local commentators like to joke--escalated into the most severe and sustained bout of fighting since 1971, when India and Pakistan clashed for the third time since Partition. In the Kargil Mountains, at an altitude of 17,000 feet, where the air is so thin the trajectory of artillery shells cannot be predicted and helicopter rotors have difficulty generating lift, Pakistani-backed "freedom fighters", mostly imported from Afghanistan, battled with Indian troops. After eight weeks of fighting, many hundreds of deaths, and international alarm over a possible nuclear exchange, the ceasefire line remains basically where it had been before the fighting began, and Kashmir stays partitioned.

Divided between three nuclear-armed powers--India, Pakistan and China--Kashmir remains one of the great unsolved, perhaps insoluble, questions in world politics. In this Himalayan Kosovo, Kashmir's owners cannot give an inch for fear of setting off a chain reaction of ethno-religious turmoil within their own countries and the surrounding region. Indeed, all but the unfortunate Kashmiris (and even they are divided between Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists) may emerge better off if Kashmir is sacrificed on the altar of regional stability. This predicament may be unfair, but it lends a semblance of order and balance to South Asia.

How did tiny, paradisiacal Kashmir end up in this terrible position? History and geography go a long way toward providing an answer. Indeed, for centuries before the current dispute began in 1947, geography alone practically foreordained that Kashmir would become a pivotal space on the earth's surface.

In 1320, after twenty-one dynasties of ruling Hindus, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Jains, and five centuries after Hamim the Syrian brought Islam to Kashmir, the first Muslim sultan of Kashmir ascended the throne, and over the next few generations most of the population converted to their lords' religion. The Muslim sultans were replaced in 1586 by the Moghul Emperors, who were in turn supplanted by the Afghans in 1753. Then in 1819 the martial Sikh Empire of Lahore--the creation of the one-eyed Maharajah Ranjit Singh--turned Kashmir into a tributary.

One of those who marched in the Sikh army was an illiterate twenty-seven year-old Hindu chieftain, Gulab Singh, described by a contemporary as

"a fine tall portly man. . . . To all appearance the gentlest of the gentle, and the most sincere and truthful character in the world . . . but he is the cleverest hypocrite in existence, as sharp and acute as possible, devoured by avarice and ambition and when roused horribly cruel."

He had already distinguished himself in battle, and as reward in 1820 or thereabouts the Maharajah conferred upon him the small, hilly principality of Jammu.

By 1840 the freshly minted Raja had brought most of the surrounding principalities and kingdoms under his sway. Gulab Singh's expanding empire brought him into contact with the British, who were equally intent upon expanding theirs. In December 1845 a Sikh army crossed the Sutlej and, after fighting four battles in fifty-four days, was finally defeated by the British and their Indian sepoys. As a prize for remaining neutral during the Anglo-Sikh war, the East India Company allowed Gulab Singh, now raised to Maharajah, to purchase the Sunni Muslim-populated Vale of Kashmir for a knockdown price--on condition that he "and the heirs male of his body" acknowledge "the supremacy of the British Government." It was laid down in the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar that Gulab Singh's annual rent to the governor-general, Sir Henry Hardinge, was to be a horse, twelve perfect goats and three pairs of cashmere shawls.

Hardinge was no fool: there was now a powerful, pro-British ruler with a proven army sitting on the Sikhs' flank. At the time, the fact that the ruler was a Hindu and most of the people he ruled were Muslim did not seem particularly important. After Gulab's death in 1857, his son extended Jammu and Kashmir's border northward into Gilgit. Maharajah Ranbir Singh was, in many ways, a typical Victorian, in that he built schools and funded public works. But unfortunately his tax reforms failed miserably, and corruption set in among the ruling Hindu bureaucratic class. Within four years of Ranbir's death in 1885, Kashmir was bankrupt.

Nevertheless, Ranbir's son, Pratab Singh, held a trump card that ensured continued British support for the Singh dynasty: Kashmir's strategically unique position as the guardian of the ancient invasion routes into British India at a time when the Great Game--the struggle for supremacy in Central Asia between the jostling Russian and British Empires--was in full swing.

In 1925 the childless Pratab was succeeded by his nephew, Hari Singh, whose time in England had not been wholly unremarkable (he was blackmailed over his love life). During Hari's reign two Kashmiri men came to prominence in India: the first was a Hindu, Jawaharlal Nehru, who issued a call for Purna Swaraj (Indian independence from Britain) at the 1929 Indian National Congress; the second, Sir Mohammad Iqbal, was a Muslim intellectual who in 1930 declared the millions of Muslims throughout the subcontinent a distinct political, cultural and religious entity. Iqbal's goal of creating a separate, post-Raj Muslim state was excitedly pursued in Kashmir, where Hindu rule was becoming more onerous. By the summer of 1931, Muslim agitation against the Maharajah was rife. Even when the Maharajah offered concessions, such as a state constitution, it was too late to stop the ethno-religious contagion spreading throughout India.

Liberated by the Maharajah's concessions, a Kashmiri Muslim Conference was formed. In the winter of 1933, a pamphlet, Now or Never, was distributed advocating the creation of "Pakistan" (an acronym supposedly formed from the first letters of Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sind and the "tan" from Baluchistan) as a Muslim homeland hived off from Hindu-dominated India. Then in 1940 Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League unanimously resolved that, after the war,

"no constitutional plan would be acceptable [unless] geographically contiguous units are demarcated into regions [where] the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in the majority . . . should be grouped to constitute Independent States."

Nehru and other leaders of the Indian National Congress, the party founded in 1885 to promote independence, had other ideas. They were determined to unite a country that had in fact never been conceived by its British overlords as a bona fide country.

Particularly galling to them were comments by such luminaries as Sir John Strachey, a veteran Imperial administrator, who in the 1880s had counseled:

"this is the first and most essential thing to learn about India--that there is not and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity, political, physical, social or religious: no Indian nation, no 'people of India', of which we hear so much."

At bottom, however, Nehru was a thoroughly Anglicized Brahmin (educated at Harrow and Cambridge, he even served time in His Majesty's prisons), and he found the British way of administration crucial to his conception of building a centralized and unified state, clothed, as he said, in the "garb of modernity." Taken with the West's traditions of democracy and socialism, Nehru was less enamored with Europe's cultural homogeneity. Imposing one cultural tradition--inevitably Hindu--on an India of, as Congress literature now trumpets, "920 million people, 4200 communities, 1652 dialects, 26 states, 18 official languages [and] nine major religions" in the hope of creating a single form of Indian-ness would invite dissolution. So, to evolve a shared Indian national identity, Nehru strove to balance a democratic framework, overwhelmingly loaded in the Hindus' favor in terms of votes, with religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural equality for all. In a kind of preview of contemporary multiculturalism, moreover, minorities were encouraged to buy in to the Indian dream with legal exemptions, economic breaks, recognition of linguistic boundaries and assorted other benefits (for instance, Section 370 of the Indian constitution limits the power of the federal parliament to make laws for Kashmir). In the Nehruite conception, India's Muslims would be protected from Hindu domination, and Pakistan, therefore, was a needlessly divisive extravagance.

The Departure of the British

At the end of the Second World War, the Attlee government set in motion a hurried British withdrawal from the Raj, ending 350 years of imperial rule. To fill the immense vacuum, there were to be two new independent states--India and Pakistan--created, Big Bang-like, at the same instant on August 15, 1947, when Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority areas would be partitioned. The task of leaving the directly administered British areas, which accounted for about two-thirds of the subcontinent, and transferring power to Indian or Pakistani authorities proved relatively simple; what was diabolically intricate were the arrangements pertaining to the 565 or so Princely States taking up the remaining third.

These Princely States were spread

"from the 200 states of Kathiawar or a score of states of Rajputana in the west, to the Manipur and a score of Khasi chieftainships in the extreme east, from Kashmir and minute Simla Hill states in the north, the Mysore and Madras province states in the south, a limitless miscellany of hundreds of states of every shape and size . . . with a total area of 712,000 square miles and a population of 81 million (1931 census) or nearly one-quarter of the Indian population. They ranged from states like Hyderabad, as large as Italy, with 14 million of population, to petty states like Lawa with an area of 19 square miles, or the Simla Hill holdings, which were little more than small holdings."

Kashmir, of course, was one of these autocratic Princely States. But a combination of three factors made it unique: it was a Muslim-majority state ruled by a Hindu; it was geographically contiguous to both India and Pakistan; and its strategic location was highly prized, convincing both the Muslim League and the Congress party that possession of it was a non-negotiable national interest. Nehru, for instance, explained to Clement Attlee that "Kashmir's northern frontiers . . . run in common with those of three countries, Afghanistan, the USSR and China. Security of Kashmir . . . is vital to the security of India." Liaquat Ali Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, offered similar reasons why "the security of Pakistan is bound up with that of Kashmir", but paid special attention to the Indian menace from the south.

The man chosen in February 1947 to carry out the British "exit strategy" was Lord Mountbatten of Burma, the last Viceroy of India and a man composed of colossal vanity, grinding snobbery and vaulting ambition in equal, but competing, parts. On June 3 he presented a plan conceding the right to the creation of an independent Pakistan "on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims." He soon established two Boundary Commissions (one for the northwestern Punjab, and the other for northeastern Bengal) to determine the new borders. Their chairman was an eminent British barrister, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had never been to India before he was chosen for the job of dividing the Raj. Making sure he kept himself strictly aloof from Indian and Pakistani pressure, Radcliffe was to present his hand-drawn map to Mountbatten a few days before the handover.
As Auden's penetrating lines on Radcliffe in the poem "Partition" attest, the chairman's mission was a thankless one:

"Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day / Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away, / He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate / Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date / And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect, / But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect / Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot, / And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot, / But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided, / A continent for better or worse divided. / The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot / The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not, / Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot."

Indeed, as soon as his job was done, Radcliffe destroyed all his papers relating to the Boundary Awards, departed for England, and never returned to India. He left behind a gnawing Kashmir problem. While the Boundary Commission was supposed to rely on majority geographical contiguity in its map-making, the June 3 plan added that "in doing so, it will also take into account other factors"--which were left unspecified. This was done for leeway's sake, for, as Mountbatten recalled, he told Radcliffe, "It's up to you, but basically I hope that you are going to get the right population on the right side of the line. But the line must make some sense [because] if you make it an impossible line to work along, there'll be trouble."

Unfortunately, one such "impossible line", one requiring Radcliffe to take "other factors" into account, was situated on the southern intersection of Kashmir, Pakistan and India: the Gurdaspur District, a Muslim area of 1.4 million people. On both geographical and religious grounds, Gurdaspur was destined for Pakistan, but Radcliffe awarded three out of its four sub-districts to India. Of those three, two were substantially Muslim-majority, making the decision even more bewildering.

Radcliffe later explained that "there [were] factors such as the disruption of railways, communications and water systems that ought in this instance to displace the primary claims of contiguous majorities." It is true that Radcliffe's decision kept these systems intact, and, more important, ensured that the Sikh Holy of Holies, Amritsar, was not surrounded by hostile Muslim territory, but for the outraged Pakistanis this was self-justification ex post facto. The real reason, they felt, was that Nehru had leaned on Mountbatten (already, and rightly, suspected of pro-Indian leanings), who in turn had leaned on Radcliffe to alter the boundary: it was no coincidence that the only road and railway linking India with Kashmir ran through the new Indian sub-districts of Gurdaspur.

"Had the Gurdaspur District not been awarded to India", judged the soldier Lord Birdwood, "India could certainly never have fought a war in Kashmir", since it would have been nearly impossible to send troops to Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital. Mountbatten, who himself had a great deal of military experience, was certainly aware that without Gurdaspur India could wave goodbye to Kashmir. For decades, nonetheless, the Pakistanis were accused by Mountbatten's defenders of slandering the Viceroy. Then in 1992 the last British official with intimate knowledge of the Partition process, Christopher Beaumont (Radcliffe's private secretary), revealed that Radcliffe had originally allotted two contiguous sub-districts to Pakistan, but at lunch Mountbatten successfully prevailed upon him to change the Award. The result is that Pakistan remains bitterly convinced that Nehru, in collaboration with the deceitful Mountbatten, defrauded the Muslims out of their rightful property. (It may or may not be relevant that Mountbatten's wife, Edwina, and Nehru were intimate friends and possibly lovers.)

The Accession Question

Gurdaspur is just one of several bones of contention that continue to poison relations between India and Pakistan. More substantial is the Accession question, which today forms the basis for each country's allegation of the other's illegal occupation of Kashmir.
As Radcliffe's writ did not apply to the Princely States, their rulers (not the people) were given the stark choice of acceding to either India or Pakistan (a third option, independence, though technically permissible, was frowned on). Almost without exception the choice was an obvious one, so that by the mid-August handover 552 out of 565 princes had made up their minds. One of the few exceptions was Kashmir.

For more than two months after the August 15 deadline, Maharajah Hari Singh dithered. Then, so the Indian version goes, in late October "thousands" of rowdy Pathan tribesmen--semi-nomadic Afghan warriors from the northwest frontier--crossed into Kashmir. Capturing Muzaffarabad on October 24, they advanced--razing, raping and pillaging--toward Srinagar. Alarmed, Singh appealed to New Delhi. Mountbatten and Nehru decided on October 25 to send a detachment of airborne troops (using the Gurdaspur road would have taken too long), but they did not mobilize until the next day, when, as the price for New Delhi's rapid intervention, the Maharajah voluntarily signed the Instrument of Accession assenting to Kashmir's transfer to India. On October 27, as the airborne troops landed at Srinagar airfield and proceeded to beat back the marauders, Mountbatten formally accepted the Maharajah's decision and Kashmir officially became part of India.

The Indian version of events hinges on dates, but the Pakistanis pick gaping holes in the chronology. They say, first, that far from being disinterested saviors, the Indians took advantage of the Maharajah's panic to impose the Instrument of Accession by telling him the Pathans were organized by Pakistan, whereas they were actually acting on their own accord. Second, the Pakistanis ask how Hari Singh could have signed the Instrument on October 26 when it is known he was travelling that day by motorcade from Srinagar, which he had abandoned, to Jammu, his winter capital, and was therefore incommunicado. Hence, Indian troops were on their way to Kashmir even before the Instrument had been signed and accepted, indicating that the Maharajah's assent was obtained under duress.

It is easy to see both how Pakistan can regard Kashmir as having been stolen from underneath its nose, and how the Indians can claim they were saving it from Pakistani aggression. Though it is clear that the Pathan invasion was not spontaneous (it seems to have been a covert operation cooked up by several zealous Pakistani colonels), the Indians still have a lot of explaining to do. They have never, for instance, been able to produce the original copy of the Instrument of Accession.

It seems that neither side acted honorably or entirely honestly that October. But instead of allowing the Indo-Pakistani enmity to simmer down, Mountbatten's letter accepting the Instrument of Accession brought the inflammatory principle of self-determination into conflict with the Indian desire for territorial integrity. In his letter, Mountbatten stated that, "It is my Government's wish that, as soon as law and order have been restored in Kashmir and its soil cleared of the invader, the question of the State's accession should be settled by a reference to the people."

At first, the Indians were willing to grant such a plebiscite, but they dropped the idea when it was realized that a non-Hindu majority was unlikely to vote their way. In 1966, drawing upon Nehru's concept of Indian identity, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, uncompromisingly explained New Delhi's eternal policy on the matter:

"India agreed and indeed suggested a plebiscite at the time, but on condition that the State was first cleared of the invader [Pakistan] and peace restored. . . . Since this basic condition was never fulfilled by Pakistan, there could be no question of a plebiscite. . . . Any plebiscite today would by definition amount to questioning the integrity of India. It would raise the question of secession. . . . We cannot and will not tolerate a second partition of India on religious grounds. It would destroy the very basis of the Indian State."

Hardened Positions

Thus, India cannot afford to appease the "Pakistani invaders" in Kashmir. Nor can it even acknowledge that Kashmir is "disputed territory" without stoking the fires of religious secessionism in its other states. From the Indian perspective, then, Kashmir is the key to holding the subcontinent together, especially in this era of increasing ethno-religious nationalism. Consider that, according to the 1991 census, there are Christian, Sikh or Muslim majorities in five Indian states. Further, consider that in another six states Hindus coexist with significant Christian and Muslim minorities. There are already Sikh separatists in Punjab fighting for an independent "Khalistan", and virtually the entire east of India (bordering Bangladesh, Myanmar and China) is overwhelmingly non-Hindu and may agitate to depart from New Delhi's rule if Kashmiris are allowed to secede.

Indians of every political color profoundly fear the consequences that would follow Kashmiri independence. Atal Behari Vajpayee, leader of the "Hindu nationalist" BJP, and current prime minister of India, warned Pakistan in 1990 that "if it is asking for four million Kashmiri Muslims, it should be ready to receive 120 million Indian Muslims in case Kashmir secedes from India." Though the BJP has since moderated its tone, it continues to reject the Nehruite "salad bowl" philosophy where all creeds assimilate into a newly invented Indian identity that glories in, and legally protects, their diversity. Rather, the BJP demands that these discriminatory legal and political protections (such as Kashmir's exemptions provided for in Section 370 of the constitution, as well as the promise of a plebiscite) be dismantled for the sake of the Hinduist "melting pot." Hence, mindful that religious difference casts aspersions on their loyalty, Muslim groups have lately been vociferous in asserting their allegiance.

For Pakistanis as well, Kashmir is essential to maintaining national identity. Ceding control of the third of the country it occupies to the Indians would be regarded as a betrayal of Pakistan's historic portrayal of itself as a pan-Islamic homeland. Currently exulting in the Middle East's adoration owing to its possession of nuclear weapons, Pakistan risks its standing if the Indians were to profit from their Partition "perfidiousness." Indeed, the Pakistani military believed its own government had been perfidious when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pulled the insurgents out of Indian-held Kashmir. The commander of the armed forces and the strategist behind this year's "spring exercises", General Pervez Musharraf, was reportedly concerned about the withdrawal, which contributed to his decision to oust Sharif. As in India, there is a great deal of ethnic strife within Pakistan that could explode if Islamabad falters in what Benazir Bhutto called a "thousand-year war." In the province of Sind, for example, the native Hindu Sindhis and newly arrived Pathans and Punjabis are at odds with the socially and economically dominant Mohajirs (Muslim settlers who came from India in 1947), leading to secessionary fears.

There is also the China factor. From the 1950s onwards, Beijing has laid claim to an eastern portion of Kashmir named Aksai Chin, which lies between the Chinese province of Xinjiang and Tibet. In 1957 the Indians were infuriated to discover that the Chinese had secretly built a road between Xinjiang and Tibet running through Aksai Chin, which India regards as sovereign territory. China's defeat of India in the 1962 border war confirmed Beijing's say in any future negotiations regarding Kashmir's status. Whereas during the 1960s and early 1970s China was very close to Pakistan (which it regarded as anti-Soviet), in recent years the Chinese have shelved their traditional support for "Kashmiri self-determination" (a pro-Pakistan code for a plebiscite) in favor of bilateral Indo-Pakistan negotiations.

It was not just the fall of the Soviet empire, or the rise of India as the regional superpower, that brought the change in Chinese foreign policy. Since the late 1980s--contemporaneous with the birth of the Kashmiri independence movement--there have been numerous uprisings among Turkic separatists in predominantly Muslim Xinjiang, which shares a long border with Kashmir. In such a remote region the last thing Beijing desires is more dangerous talk of plebiscites and the possible spread of Muslim unrest from Kashmir into western Xinjiang. So for China, maintaining the status quo between India and Pakistan is a necessity, even if it comes at Kashmir's expense.

Similarly, while India's and Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons may be decried, there is something to be said in favor of the South Asian nuclear triangle as it now stands. India's overwhelming conventional superiority, which might otherwise have tempted New Delhi into conquering Kashmir, has been neutralized by Pakistan's reservation of the right to first-use. Moreover, Pakistan would be foolish to launch a surprise nuclear attack, given Indian efforts to build a deterrent capable of surviving a first strike. Finally, China will retaliate if its territory--including Aksai Chin--is attacked by either side.

To be sure, this is not an overly reassuring picture. But if the fighting in Kashmir can be kept at the relatively low level we saw earlier this year, there is a possibility that, in time, the anger and distrust of Partition and four wars will slowly ebb away. For the moment, the most inflammatory thing the West could do is try to impose a peace where it is not wanted.

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