Eqbal Ahmed: Kashmir – India’s Nemesis

Eqbal Ahmed
[Dawn, 10 February 1990]

For its persistence as an unresolved international conflict, the question of Kashmir resembles the question of Palestine. For two decades, beginning in 1947, it occupied world attention. India and Pakistan fought two inconclusive wars over it – in 1948, and 1965. Then, after India defeated Pakistan in 1971 during the Bangladesh crisis, the issue was shelved at the United Nations and forgotten by the world. The outbreak last month of popular agitation against India and Indian military intervention in Kashmir has again focused international attention on the disputed state. India and Pakistan are again haunted by the spectre of war, and the long-suffering people of Kashmir are subject to reprisals and repression.

The conflict has its roots in the history of colonialism and decolonisation. After 1858, when India was formally declared Britain’s “Crown Colony”, colonial authority was exercised in dual fashion. The largest portion of the subcontinent was administered directly by the Government of India. In addition, there were the “princely states” in which government remained in the hands of local rulers – Maharaja, Raja, Nawab, or Nizam – in return for their acknowledging the “paramountcy” of Britain.

There were no less than 560 princely states in colonial India: they varied in size from tiny fiefdoms to giant states like Mysore, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Kashmir. These states had ceded to the British their sovereign rights to conduct their own foreign policy, organise defence forces, or carry on international trade. Within the framework of British dominion over India, their status was ambiguous and resembled the ‘protectorate’ system. This ambiguity was played out at the time of independence in 1947.

At independence, India was divided along religious lines. The northern and eastern areas where Muslims were in the majority became Pakistan; Hindu majority areas remained as India. The ‘princes’ argued that when the British leave India, the rules of ‘paramountcy’ need not apply to their relationship with the successor states, i.e. India and Pakistan. They demanded the right to be independent. The nationalist leaders of India as well as Pakistan objected that this would result in an intolerable fragmentation of the subcontinent, and the princely rulers’ choices could also be contrary to the wishes of the states’ inhabitants.

Britain accommodated the contrary positions: it conceded that paramountcy would lapse on August 15, 1947 – the date of independence – which was understood as allowing the princely states the choice of independence. It also gave them the option of “acceding” to either India or Pakistan. Furthermore, the Transfer of Power agreement provided that in making their choices the princely states must take into account the wishes of their inhabitants.

For the majority of the princely states, the only viable choice was to accede to the country which surrounded them territoriality. Within weeks of independence, they acceded either to India or to Pakistan. But there were three – one minor and two major – exceptions. One small state – Junagadh – whose ruler was Muslim but majority of subjects were Hindus chose to join Pakistan. Revolt against him occurred. Using the revolt as pretext, India invaded; the Nawab fled. Junagadh was absorbed into the Indian Federation after a plebiscite in which the population voted overwhelmingly in India’s favour. Junagadh’s precedence became important to the Kashmir dispute; at the U.N. India would be haunted by it.

The major exceptions were Hyderabad and Kashmir. Both large in size and thought capable of choosing independence. Roughly the size of Egypt, Hyderabad was the largest of the princely states. Since the 17th century, It had been ruled by Muslim families. The Nizam – reputed at the time to be richest man in the world – opted for independence. It was an unrealistic choice, for Hyderabad was situated in south central India, without access to the sea, and with an overwhelmingly Hindu, i.e. pro-India, population. In September 1948, a mechanised division of the Indian Army moved into Hyderabad and brought the rule of the Nizams to an end. The state was integrated into India.

Kashmir, in size larger than Syria, presented a contrasting case. Its ruling family, installed in mid-nineteenth century by the British, was Hindu and more than three-quarters of the population Muslim. Its trade and communications links were with Pakistan. Situated to the north along China and U.S.S.R., Kashmir is a strategic state famous for its extraordinary beauty. Both India and Pakistan coveted it. The Maharaja remained aloof for a while hoping perhaps to remain independent. Both India and Pakistan signed a “Stand Still Agreement” with him allowing him time to decide.

As rumour spread that the Maharaja was about to join India, a revolt broke out in the Kashmiri district of Poonch; it was reinforced by a sizeable number of tribals from adjoining Pakistan. The Pakistan government denied having a part in it; but there is little doubt that the Pakistani volunteers were supported by their government which thought it prudent to avoid direct intervention. On October 25, 1947, as the rebels and Pakistani tribals neared Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital city, the Maharaja announced his accession to India. Airborne Indian troops arrived on time to save the capital from the invading tribals who, like the Afghan Mujahideen in the last year, were hopelessly divided by the prospects of victory.

The Pakistan army, led by a British commander-in-chief, stood by as the Indian army routed the volunteer army hill after bloody hill. Finally, in the spring of 1948 the Pakistan army was ordered into battle. As it began to push Indian forces back and all out war seemed imminent, India brought the case to the United Nations. A cease-fire came into effect on January 1, 1949. The generally barren and sparsely populated northern portion of Kashmir fell on the Pakistani side, and the rest on the Indian side of divided Kashmir. U.N. peacekeeping forces were deployed on both sides of the cease-fire line until 1972 when India asked the U.N. to leave; they are now stationed only on the Pakistan side of the cease fire line.

Solutions to the question of Kashmir, like the question of Palestine, were sought through several U.N. mediators: and it has been the subject of numerous U.N. resolutions. All have been ignored. Most important of these was the U.N. Resolution of 1949 which called for the holding of a plebiscite, under U.N. supervision, to elicit the wishes of the people of Kashmir. They were to have a choice between federating with either India or Pakistan, and becoming an independent state. India assented to the plebiscite; after all its Governor General had laid it down as a condition for Kashmir’s original accession to India.

In practice, India rejected each of the many U.N. proposals for the plebiscite proceedings. In frustration, Admiral Nimitz, the U.N.-appointed plebiscite administrator resigned from a duty he could not discharge. Similarly, successive proposals by U.N. mediators – General McNaughton of Canada, Sir Owen Dixon of Australia, Dr. Graham of the United States – were rejected by India. It took the position that Kashmir had joined India and the only acceptable course was the complete withdrawal of Pakistani forces from Kashmiri territories. In January 1957, when the matter came up before the Security Council seriously for the last time, India found itself completely isolated. Even the U.S.S.R., India’s traditional supporter, did not weigh in for it. India’s position is that the U.N. has no Jurisdiction in the matter, for Kashmir is now an integral part of India. The U.N. Secretary General disagrees.

If India had allowed them the right to self-determination, it is not at all certain that Kashmiris would have opted for Pakistan. For decades, Kashmiri politics had been dominated by the charismatic Sheikh Abdullah, the father of modern Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah was among those Muslim leaders who opposed the Pakistan movement and favoured a united, independent India. He was a friend of Nehru, and like him an associate of Gandhi. His relations with Mohammed Ali Jinnah and other Pakistani leaders were not known to be good. If he were allowed a free choice Abdullah would most Probably have steered Kashmiris to opt for union with India while claiming for Kashmir a special autonomy. Even as the dispute was being debated at the U.N., he attempted unsuccessfully to achieve this end. In the process he calmed Kashmiri resistance to India’s intervention.

To assuage Kashmiri resentment, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ordered the Maharaja deposed, and invited Sheikh Abdullah to become Prime Minister of Kashmir. In time the Sheikh had a Constituent Assembly elected; the constitution he envisaged provided for Kashmir’s autonomy. In August 1953, the renowned “Lion of Kashmir” was summarily deposed by Delhi and put in prison; widespread repression followed. Sheikh Abdullah remained a captive for more than a decade. In 1956, a vote by the State Assembly led to the integration of Kashmir as an Indian State. Years later, when he was released to become Prime Minister, following another uprising, the aging Sheikh lacked strength and also the ability to control his corrupt associates and son – Farooq. The Sheikh lost credibility and the awesome popularity he had commanded among his people.

In 1990, the issue has been focused differently. On the earlier occasions Pakistan took the lead not only in raising the issue but also in precipitating confrontation with India. This time the initiative has come entirely from the Kashmiris themselves; the opposition movement in Indian held Kashmir appears to have widespread and active popular support. There is no Sheikh Abdullah to calm the resistance which is a product of accumulated discontent, and collective yearnings for self-determination. The Sheikh’s son – Farooq Abdullah – was a prime target of the recent uprising and had to be removed from his post as Chief Minister of Kashmir.

The lingering dispute has had long-range repercussions. It led Pakistan to military alliance with the United States and to join the Baghdad Pact and SEATO alliances; it augmented military spending in both countries and caused wars between them. Above all, for the hapless Kashmiris, it has meant living in a limbo of territorial division and economic stagnation, resistance and repression. The latest uprising underlines an overriding truth: that once it is formed, the collective will of people is not susceptible to military suppression and bureaucratic management. India has tried these for four decades, and it did not work.

India has three options: it may continue to suppress the opposition which would entail endless brutalisation of Kashmir and of the Indian polity. Secondly, it may blame Pakistan and seek redress through war. But war did not resolve the problem before, and is unlikely to do so now. Finally, it may recognise that the problem is political and its solution can only be political which implies an absence of war, an end to repression, and an admission of Kashmiri right to self-determination.

Taking this last course will not be easy, although it may be to India’s benefit. Prime Minister V.P. Singh, a thoughtful man of integrity and courage, leads a coalition government which depends for its survival on the right-wing Hindu Party – the Bharatya Janata Party – which is pressuring the government to take even harsher measures in Kashmir. Over the last two years, a coalition of right-wing groupings have brought their anti-Muslim campaign to fevered pitch; thousands of persons have been killed in Hindu-Muslim riots, villages have been burned, and towns destroyed. India’s political environment is unfavourable to reconciliation and compromise. A similar situation exists in Pakistan where Miss Benazir Bhutto’s weak and directionless government faces relentless pressure from its right-wing rivals. The risks remain high of continued repression, violence, and war.

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About Al Shaheed

writing wounds without the trace of blood
This entry was posted in 1990s, Articles, Kashmir and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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