By Ras H. Siddiqui
When one thinks of India and Pakistan here in the United States images of extremely crowded cities and a hot tropical climate usually come to mind. Rarely do Americans who have not visited a special place there think of encountering alpine forests and scenery similar to the California Sierras and even Switzerland. Kashmir (or Jammu and Kashmir as it is has been known) is such a place with its orchards, fields of saffron, beautiful lakes and formidable glaciers. The apples grown in this formal princely state are delicious. And they do find their way to markets all over the South Asian sub-continent where well over a billion people live. But during the past two weeks a symbolic applecart in the Kashmir region has been upset by India. And this turn of events could get out of control.
But why should readers here in America even care? The majestic beauty of Kashmir hides a sad and ongoing tragedy which has dragged on for over seven decades. But one may argue that there are other beautiful places that are also equally if not more miserable around the globe. Kashmir today unfortunately remains a disputed territory where three (yes three) countries armed with nuclear weapons meet. India, Pakistan and China still share a contested border with this land. If that does not make it the most dangerous place in the world then one cannot imagine what does. It has been a “hot” border (known as the “Line of Control”) between India and Pakistan for over 70 years now, especially during the past 30 during which a low intensity conflict has been continuing. Ironically both these countries have just celebrated their independence days in mid-August, while the Kashmiri people have had little to celebrate ever since the partition of British India created two countries in 1947.
It is a complex situation but a solution could have been found decades ago if the world have cared. During the partition of India, the areas not directly under the British known as the “Princely States” were given a choice to join either Hindu majority India or Muslim majority Pakistan. There was supposed to be consideration given to areas which were geographically contiguous to each country and the religious beliefs of the majority there. As one Kashmiri leader that once I met put it “According to the logic of partition, Kashmir should have been a part of Pakistan.” But that did not happen. The ruler of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir was Hindu while the clear majority of the people in the state were Muslims. A similar parallel could be drawn with another large princely state in southern India called Hyderabad where a Muslim (the Nizam), ruled over a predominantly Hindu population. That state was taken over by India via “police action” the day after the founder of Pakistan died. Kashmir was not so lucky. Its ruler could not decide who to join and when armed tribesmen from Pakistan came in to change the status quo, the Maharajah acceded to India with the condition that the will of the people of the state would be taken into consideration in the future. That thought was enshrined in Article 370 of the Indian constitution giving a level of autonomy to Kashmir and a special status.
In the years 1947 and 1948 the Kashmir situation was fluid and a war ensued, Pakistan ended up with about one third of the formal princely state and India two thirds. The matter reached the United Nations and Kashmir thus became a recognized international dispute. A part of the territory was lost to China by India in 1962 during a war which India lost badly. Pakistan on the other hand was able wise enough to negotiate a border agreement with China and the two countries have had good relations since. By the way, the United States had cautioned Pakistan not to take action in Kashmir against India while it was fighting the war with China and assured Pakistan that it would use its influence to assist in a future settlement. Talks did take place between Pakistani Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Indian counterpart Swaran Singh soon after but India was in no mood to cede any territory, so the negotiations failed, leading to a war between the two counties in 1965 which can best be described as a stalemate.
But subsequently, the “Bangladesh War” that the two countries fought in 1971 had a clear winner and it was India. In an agreement that followed Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and India’s Indira Gandhi agreed to convert the former “Cease Fire Line” between the two countries in Kashmir into a “Line of Control”, further agreeing to solve the dispute bilaterally between them in future. That agreement was reached in the town of Simla in India, and came to be known as the Simla Agreement of July, 1972.
For 47 years now since Simla, India and Pakistan have not found a solution to their Kashmir dispute while the suffering of the Kashmiri people has steadily increased. India while agreeing to only engage Pakistan bilaterally and not allowing any outside mediation in a surprising move this past week decided to solve the issue unilaterally. How one solves a dispute between two counties unilaterally is interesting. By abolishing Article 370 of its constitution India has now officially attempted to absorb the area of Kashmir that it controls and has announced that it will split the territory into two states. But making an announcement and implementing it are different challenges. The people of the Kashmir valley are not going to be happy. They have been calling for Azadi (Freedom) from India for many years now. How will they be easily convinced to change their minds now? One hopes that things do not get ugly.
Pakistan’s own romance with Muslim extremism during the past four decades has been a dismal failure but recently secular voices in the country are emerging and gaining traction. In India of all places Hindu extremism and religious intolerance is on the rise. Muslims there have been lynched for allegedly consuming, possessing or transporting beef. For India’s (non-Kashmiri) Muslim minority of close to 200 million the going has been rough. It is as if they are still somehow paying for the creation of Pakistan, an idea that their ancestors already rejected by not moving there. A Kashmir flare up will not help them now either.
India has pretty much rejected both the UN Security Council Resolutions on Kashmir and the Simla Agreement with Pakistan by its recent action. President Trump had offered to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir just last month when Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Washington. Khan welcomed the offer of mediation but is it now too late? Let us hope that cool heads continue to prevail in Pakistan on this change of events and only diplomatic means are utilized to help the Kashmiri Muslims of the valley who will resist. But their continued desire for Azadi may create a situation where outside intervention could become necessary.
(Ras is a Sacramento, California based South-Asian writer who has written for various publications for over 25 years)