Origins of the Kashmir Conflict – An Essay

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Dec.Wed,19/03:52:04 PM

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Anthony Bonello

Writer, Filmmaker

The modern day interpretation of the Kashmir conflict is predominantly an ideological one—Muslims versus Hindus—however, it didn’t begin as such. Through power and international politics, it has become this way. Another significant aspect to consider in the development and resolution on the Kashmir issue, is the Valley-centric nature of the leadership and government that largely neglects the significant Pandit, Dogra (Hindu) and Buddhist populations. Through all this, the conflict is largely seen as India versus Pakistan, with little consideration for the interests of the people living in Kashmir, or those who have fled the violence as refugees.

In “Demystifying Kashmir”, the author Navnita Chadha Behera, draws out the process by which a largely harmonious, plural society has been divided along religious lines. The book also reflects on why the quest for independence has never become a reality.

In the 1930’s the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was ruled by Maharaja Hari Singh, a Dogra. The Dogras are a predominantly Hindu people. The Maharaja favoured Hindus for government and executive positions, with wealthy Dogras owning much of the land and monopolizing business. On the other hand, the majority Muslim and indigenous community formed a peasant class with little education and influence or forum for their political and ethnic aspirations. Throughout the 1930’s the popular Sheik Abdullah rose to prominence, lobbying for greater opportunities for suppressed communities. This lead to the formation of the National Conference which became a secular party representing “Kashmiriyat culture”.

The Dogra and Pandit community reacted to administration positions being appointed on the grounds of ethnicity rather than merit, and having their land re-allocated to those who worked it. This led to the Quit Kashmir campaign by the National Conference calling for an end to the colonial rule of the Maharaja.

Throughout the Quit Kashmir movement, it became apparent that the Maharaja was not the issue, but British rule. The Maharaja was merely a tool for the British, and hence the first movement for independence was launched on the back of India’s call for the British to withdraw from the sub-continent.

With partition in 1947 India courted Kashmir’s accession in order to strengthen it’s plural concept of nationhood as envisioned by Gandhi and the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Pakistan initially lay no claim to Kashmir, but encouraged it not to accede to India more so to disrupt Indian security and strengthen it’s “two-nation theory.” Initially, Pakistan never felt Kashmir to be crucial to it’s formation, but that by default the majority Muslim population would elect to fold into Pakistan for security and developmental reasons post partition. What Pakistan neglected was the unique, and patriotic nature of Kashmiri culture and the strong support Sheik Abdullah and the National Conference had.

In the lead up to partition however, Jammu and Kashmir took on an even greater importance for Pakistan and India. It was essential for both India and Pakistan to control the state of Jammu and Kashmir in order to secure defensible borders since it bordered on the USSR, China, and Afghanistan.

Kashmir was also important to Pakistan’s agricultural economy given that four of the five rivers in Pakistan (the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab and Ravi) originated in and across the mountain reaches of Jammu and Kashmir, hence Pakistan’s concerted efforts later to claim the region as it’s own.

Thus, the modern Kashmir conflict that has led to the current military stalemate and border dispute stems from a regional political agenda from both India and Pakistan instead of an ideological basis (Muslim vs Hindu). Meanwhile, the people of Kashmir have been battered by both sides and this lead to a call for independence in what was to become the militant war that began in 1989.

Independence has alluded Kashmir due to a number of reasons and Behera discusses this in Chapter 4 of “Demystifying Kashmir”. The first is because under the 1949 U.N. Resolution granting the people “the right to self-determination” stipulated the choice of remaining with India or acceding to Pakistan, but not independence. The wrestling match for Kashmir between India and Pakistan went before the U.N. in the first place when immediately following partition in 1947, Pakistan let loose a tribal invasion of Jammu and Kashmir in an effort to destabilize the new nation of India which it saw as a threat to Pakistan’s own independence as discussed previously.

Perhaps the most significant reason Jammu and Kashmir has not been able to seriously table a case for independence is the lack of a cohesive party lobbying for such. Jammu and Kashmir is made up of “The Valley”, which is majority Muslim and a strong hold of the National Conference, Jammu, which is majority Hindu, and Ladak which is majority Buddhist. The Dogra, Pandit (both Hindu peoples) and Buddhist communities have little desire to secede from India and fall under what is currently a Muslim dominated administration.

Kashmir is a special case in the nation of India since it has greater rights for self government. This has lead to the minority populations being subjugated, and their rights and development opportunities neglected by “Valley-centric” governments. The winter of 1989 marked the onset of the Kashmiri insurgency, but it was also the year the Ladakhi Buddhists began a violent agitation for status as a union territory in India along Buddhist/Muslim communal lines. This notion and the fact that Hindu interests are best protected by Kashmir being a part of the nation of India has fragmented the call for independence.

The Kashmir insurgency and call for independence may have been brought about by the Indian central government’s meddling with the democratic process in Kashmir throughout the 80’s, but the call for secession was upheld mainly by those Islamic factions interested in protecting their political advantage. As stated before, numerous communities feel their interests are best served with Kashmir as a state of the Indian nation.

This is an interpretation based on the political aspirations often of individuals. The voices of the people—Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, etc who have lived beside each other for decades and created a rich secular culture—are all too often not heard. In regard to the right to self determination—the option of acceding to Pakistan or remaining with India—the sentiment of the people is such.

“When Kashmir faces a choice between a democratic and secular India and an Islamic and military Pakistan, it will always choose India. It is only when it faces a choice between a repressive, communal India and an Islamic Pakistan that Islam may become a factor.”

The struggles of the people of Kashmir since the rule of the Maharaja have typically been political and not ideological. Because of this, the insurgency of the 90’s lost momentum and support from within Kashmir because the fundamentalist Islamic bent the militants from Pakistan and Afghanistan brought did not resonate with Kashmiri Muslims. Even from within the Kashmiri Muslim community, the lobbying for their interests has seldom been along religious lines, despite the fact that classes may have been demarcated by certain faiths in the instance of the Hindu Maharaja.

Hence, what is now seen by much of the media and international governments as an ideological conflict, began as a political chess match between an evolving India and Pakistan who were looking to support their own security, economic growth and founding ideals. The secular nature of Kashmir may have given rise to religious quarrels, but very its make up of numerous religious communities has also derailed the call for independence.

How does much of this pertain to a film by skiers with the ambition of “dispelling the stigma that it is dangerous to travel in Kashmir”? It doesn’t directly.

I do think, however, that it is important to acknowledge that historically, and to this day, Kashmir has not been a fundamentalist Muslim community in the face of today’s militants carrying the tag of “terrorists” by modern media and governments. These days, militants may well be terrorists, but many of them are foreign jihadis from Pakistan and Afghanistan and are lacking the support of the people of Kashmir. Kashmir is done with war and bloodshed.

I also think that while we are based in Gulmarg and Srinagar, in the Muslim majority “Valley”, it is important that it be understood that Kashmir is a multi ethnic and secular state consisting of more than just Muslims. It is important to also note that the brand of Islam here in Kashmir has been shaped in a large way by Hinduism, as has Hinduism by Islam.

This essay first appeared on the writer’s blog here.