The Perilous Triangle #5: Kashmir

The speakers for Lecture #5 were two women, Dr. Haleh Esfandian, an Iranian-American woman who was held in solitary confinement in Iran for 105 days (though she didn’t talk about that in her lecture — she spoke about women’s rights in Iran) and Dr. Abigail McGowan, an associate professor of history at the University of Vermont, who did a 1-hour summary of the Kashmir situation. I knew virtually nothing about Kashmir before her lecture, other than that it is a disputed region that Pakistan and Indian both claim.  These are notes from her lecture, which was breath-taking in its speed of delivery and in its comprehensiveness given the time-constraints.


map of kashmir
map of kashmir

(Kashmir is the yellow region.)

Kashmir: Political Flashpoint in a Nuclear Age

(For more info, McGowan recommends the BBC Special Report section on Kashmir, from which much of her information seems to have derived.)

India-administrates Kashmir is Hindu; the Pakistani part of Kashmir is Muslim.

In 1947, Britain partitioned British India. There have been three wars since then.

The Kashmir dispute is crucial to:

1. determining Pakistan’s foreign relations

2. the build-up and dominance of military power in South Asia

3. the proliferation of terrorism in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan

4. triggering a nuclear war in South Asia

** McGowan said she would give some history of the dispute, talk about why the dispute continues, how it affects the politics of the region and why it matters, and the prospects and obstacles to peace.

History of the dispute:


Kashmir consisted of

  • Jammu: plains, Hindu and Sikh, not Muslim
  • Vale Valley: 91% Muslim (Srinagar is here)
  • Ladakh: high altitude desert, Tibetans Buddhists
Ladakh (in Kashmir)

Gulab Singh, the Maharajah of Kashmir, was allied with the British in the 1840. He was allowed to buy Kashmir for 1.5M pounds, and it became a princely state prior to 1947. A line of Hindu kings ruled over a majority Muslim state.

In 1947, Pakistan and India became independent from Britain. There were a lot of separate states that weren’t Muslim in the subcontinent, all with local princes ruling them. Muslims were clustered mainly in the northwest and in the area near Bangladesh. (In all of British India, there were 565 princely states, which made up two-fifths of India and had a population 99 million.)

The princely states were promised that they could decide which nation to join, Pakistan or India, but some didn’t have viable options, e.g., Hyderabad, a Muslim area (founded and ruled by Islamists) completely surrounded by Hindu states.

Kashmir actually did have options because of its geography and because it is a Muslim-majority state ruled by Hindus. It could have gone either way. Most Kashmiris at the time wanted to be independent and secular.

During the time of independence for British India, 10-11M people switched sides (Muslims trying to get to Pakistan, Hindus to India)  and 1-2M people died in a very bloody partitioning process.

In July 1947, no one knew what Kashmir would decide to do. The Maharajah (Hari Singh) tried to play both sides. By late Sept. his hand was  forced when there was a Pashtun (Muslim) tribal uprising against Hindus and Sikhs. With the state under siege, the Maharajah went to Delhi and told Nehru (the first PM of India) that he’d join India if India would send troops to protect him from the incursion. Nehru demanded that Kashmir legally join India and required that the Maharajah get popular support for this.

India accused Pakistan of controlling the incursion. Pakistan denied it but it does seem to have been Pakistan supplied, advised and led. This is the first war over Kashmir.

The UN got involved and negotiated a cease-fire in Jan. 1949. A Line of Control was marked which gave India 69% of Kashmir and Pakistan the rest.  (This division left out a glacier wasteland area that later caused another war.)

Kashmir and Jammu were supposed to later have a plebiscite to choose whether they wanted to go with India, Pakistan or neither (independence). This plebiscite has never taken place and is the cause of much anger in Kashmir. The reason it’s never taken place is that Kashmir is absolutely vital to both India and Pakistan’s national identities.

India >

India says the Maharajah gave Kashmir to India, fair and square. And since Pakistan has never removed its troops from the region, India won’t either.  To the question of national identity, India can’t give up Kashmir because  its premise is that it is a secular nation that allows all religious rights. By having Muslims fighting to be part of a Hindu country, their point is made.

Pakistan >

The agreement between the Maharajah and Nehru is illegal. To the point of national identity:  The main reason Pakistan was formed was as a homeland for Muslims [surprisingly similar to Israel’s reason for being]. Pakistan cannot abandon a majority Muslim region without betraying its premise. If Kashmir is fine in India, then there is really no justification for Pakistan existing. If a Muslim majority can remain a part of India, then the raison d’être of Pakistan collapses.

Why the conflict continues:

1. India has imposed a too-strong central government into Kashmir, especially in the 1980s, when many states were trying to secede from the country. India has also committed atrocities and political illegalities.

2. The rise of the Hindu right in India in the 1980s led to Hindus feeling that Muslims are spoiled, have special privileges, and needed to be put in their place.

3. Pakistan sees Kashmir as a means to advance their case that Muslims need a country of their own.

4. Pakistan uses Kashmir and the threat from India to justify the extreme power of its military

5. Since the 1970s, radical Islamism has been growing, overpowering secularism. Alliances have been formed among Islamic groups who use Kashmir as a pawn in their fight.


India >

Promise of autonomy for Kashmir  – up to India to win Kashmir over but it has not effectively integrated Kashmir. It also has not respected Kashmir’s autonomy.

Sheikh Abdullah, who fought for Kashmir to be part of India was imprisoned for 22 years when he realised that New Delhi was trying to impose control and challenged its central authority.

1960-1980s: India extended its central power into Kashmir via jerryrigging of elections and other illegalities.

1980s: the Gandhis wanted to revive the power of India’s central government in the midst of many secessionist groups (not just Kashmir), so they cracked down in many outlying areas.

1987: Kashmiri election: widespread voter intimidation and fraud by India.

1989: popular uprising in Kashmir against Indian rule. India brought in a massive police crackdown, which has been there ever since. Widespread atrocities: torture, lack of legal protections, killings, many civilian deaths over the years. This has led to a martyr culture in Kashmir.

Pakistan >

From the 1970s, Pakistan saw India as a threat, when India sided with Bangladesh (which used to be East Pakistan) in its war for independence.

Pakistan got a massive implosion of cash from the CIA when it was funding the mujahedeen against the USSR in the 1980s. Also gained skills in training insurgents then.

Pakistan didn’t start the 1989 Kashmir insurgency but it saw it as a great opportunity, so it supplied arms, intelligence and training camps in its quest to “support self-determination for Kashmir.”

In the mid 1990s, the leadership of the Kashmir insurgency was Pakistan-based, and Islamist groups took over for Kashmir-based secular groups, with a different agenda.

Why It Matters:

The nature of the Kashmir dispute is so unstable that it has created:

1. Military build-up and military instability.

For example: The third war, in 1999, the Kargil War, was very high-elevation fighting in an area normally controlled by India. Due to cold winters, India comes down from these areas, and while they were away that winter, Pakistan went up and took control over the Line of Control. The response to this incursion was very muted by India (unlike in 1989), possibly because of the nuclear threat Pakistan poses.

The  Indian army is 2-3 times larger than Pakistan’s; Pakistan’s only real option to defeat an attack by India is a nuclear response.

Since 1999, India has stationed tanks and troops on the Pakistan border to enable it to retaliate to small-scale skirmishes (it says) within 48 hours.

2. Tension across the region.

By 2000, the insurgency moves out of Kashmir into India, which has been wracked with attacks since then, especially Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, and Mumbai. There have been 12 major attacks in the last 5 years, with former Kashmir insurgency groups claiming responsibility. Now also in Pakistan,  targeting those who funded the very same groups in the past! And also now in Afghanistan (2009-10), there have been 3 attacks on Indian workers or consulate staff by Kashmir insurgents.

free kashmir
Supporters of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, 2004 (image from Dismal World)

Prospects for Peace:

Bright spots:

There is now bus service between India and Pakistan through Kashmir (in Srinagar), since 2005. This represents a huge normalisation of relations.

Also, rhetoric has changed a bit:  Gen. Pervez Musharraf (former President of Pakistan until 2008)  is saying, Ok, let’s accept the Line of Control if there are UN peacekeepers there. (Not accepted by UN.)

The new president, Asif Ali Zardari, is talking about improving relations between India and Pakistan, and he even called Islamic ‘freedom-fighters’ in Kashmir ‘terrorists’ (though he later backed off that characterisation).

Three major obstacles:

1. There are so many players who have to agree to anything – not only India and Pakistan, but insurgents on the ground. India won’t internationalise the dispute or allow envoys, etc. Considers it a domestic dispute.

2. Hindu-Muslim relations not good. Muslims accuse India of trying to Hindu-ise Kashmir. Right-wing passions are strong on both sides.

3. It’s hard to see how Pakistan can give Kashmir up – its conflicted existence is central to Pakistan’s identity and justification for its military budget and power.  And, wider radical Islamist groups don’t want to give it up, either, because it serves their purposes.

Prospects are grim.


Question and Answer Period:

Q Would it work to simply regularise the Line of Control?

A Pakistan and India might agree but 90% of Kashmiris want independence now, and the insurgents don’t want this the line regularised, either. This solution won’t appeal on the ground.

Q How will the U.S. impact the next war?

A Shifting alliances with Pakistan. U.S. is heavily invested in P’s military  ($10B in 9 years), and Pakistan assumes U.S. intervention and support in event of a nuclear threat (they assumed this in 1999 Kargil War, too, and were wrong).

On the other hand, India jumped in with support after 9/11, saying it’s been fighting Muslim terrorists for years. Feels U.S. on same side in that war.

So – remains to be seen.


Note: Lecture #4  was given by Lina Abirafeh, a Lebanese-Pakistani woman, the author of Gender and International Aid, who has worked in Afghanistan since 2002, and Jennifer Fluri, an assistant professor of geography and of women’s and gender studies at Dartmouth College. They spoke on women and education in Afghanistan, and specifically about how aid given to countries in conflict often goes awry because it isn’t given to indigenous organisations and isn’t given within a context of true understanding of the local culture. I didn’t learn much new so I’m not transcribing my notes here.


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