Aman Banka and Rishita Sharma
During the British Raj, the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) was ruled by a Dogra Rajput line of kings from Jammu, which is the Hindu part of the region. Before the colonial era, the kingdom was a vassal of the Sikh Empire, and it ruled over adjoining areas such as Ladakh. The capital, Srinagar, was (and is) situated in the Kashmir Valley, where the population was about 60-70% Muslim, becoming increasingly Islamic as you get away from the city.
Although the British liked to pretend the princely states were semi-autonomous, in fact, they weren’t autonomous at all, and they were inextricably linked with India. Nehru noted this in his “Discovery of India,” pointing out that when the Crown took over India from the East India Company, the princely states went along with all the other territories as a package deal.
In 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh refused to end his reign and join either India or Pakistan, reckoning he could make J&K independent, with the U.N.’s help, if he just stalled long enough. Pakistan raised the stakes, after independence, by blockading Kashmir and sending in a proxy army of tribals from the Northwest Frontier.
At the last minute, Hari Singh asked for Indian military aid, in return for which he had to cede J&K to India. When Indian forces became involved, however, Pakistan sent in its own army, and soon the U.N. intervened creating an insoluble situation, with part of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan, and part of it occupied by India, separated by the LOC, or Line of Control.
The skulduggery began when the U.N., Pakistan, and India started to consider a plebiscite – i.e., letting he Kashmiris decide their fate at the polls. But then the cheating and the excuses began. Both sides said it was too soon to hold an election; they sent in settlers; they complained that due to refugees fleeing the state, and new people coming in, the original population was now distorted, and a plebiscite meaningless.
On their side of the LOC, Pakistan had created a hand-puppet state called Azaad Kashmir (“Free Kashmir”), largely populated by new settlers and occupied by 250,000 troops who continually insist that they can’t find more than 50 terrorist training camps in an area of just 5,000 square km.
On the Indian side of the LOC, Kashmir existed all this time as a quasi-state within the Indian Union. The relationship was spelt out under Article 370 of the Constitution, which defined Kashmir as autonomous with respect to all matters except defence, foreign policy, and communications.
To put it another way, India treated Kashmir just like the British treated the princely states before independence. Later, provision 35A was added to Article 370, permitting the government of J&K to define citizenship. To prevent further demographic changes, non-Kashmiris were not permitted to buy property in Kashmir, but at the same time, it was made difficult for people to leave Kashmir without giving up their Kashmiri citizenship.
Time went by, and India and Pakistan fought a few wars. China also became involved in 1962 and occupied Aksai Chin, as well as another area ceded to them by Pakistan a few years later. In 1972, however, India was finally in a position to force Pakistan to accept the Shimla Agreement, which essentially stated that the two countries would resolve the Kashmir dispute themselves, without external interference.
Kashmiri Muslims attempted to assert their sovereignty during the 1950s and 1960s, but the Indian Government wavered. At times, it negotiated with the Kashmiri leaders, and at times it threw them in jail. Then, in 1990, the situation finally blew up. Protests turned into a revolt – a revolt that escalated very quickly into a proxy war, one that had an extremely ugly side – “ethnic cleansing,” aimed at the Kashmiri Hindu community, known as the Pandits. Hundreds of thousands of people had to flee to other parts of India. Meanwhile, India poured troops into Kashmir – about 700,000 of them – making it one of the most militarily occupied places on earth, with 1 soldier for every 7-8 citizens.
The insurgency has been going on continuously for 29 years and has cost tens of thousands of lives. The Indian Army and a large paramilitary force are pitted against a whos-who of terror outfits backed by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Pakistani ISI, ISIL, and no one at all. The conflict, in fact, has been so convoluted at times that the Indian forces have quietly allied with some of the less extreme outfits against their rivals! To give some idea of the ease with which the Afghan and Kashmir conflicts merge, you can hop in a car and drive from the Afghan border to the LOC in about a day. This region was also the scene of the famous 1999 Kargil War, in which India thwarted a Pakistani covert attempt to cut the only road leading into Ladakh.
Strategically, Kashmir is incredibly important. The Jammu area, for instance, basically enables the Indian Army to out-flank the Pakistani forces on India’s border, in Punjab. Indian troops are practically within artillery range of Islamabad and Lahore. The headwaters of the Indus, moreover, are in Ladakh. In fact, many of Pakistan’s rivers flow out of J&K. On top of all this is J&K’s natural beauty, reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, and its potential to once more be the tourist draw it was prior to 1990.
So, what just happened is this: a clause within Article 370 was invoked, enabling the President of India (not the Prime Minister) to scrap the document – everything, that is, except the clause describing Kashmir as an “integral part” of India. Now, this might not be so bad, because J&K would just become a normal state within India. However, that’s not what was done. Instead, the upper house of the Indian Parliament voted to divide J&K, splitting off Ladakh. It then turned the two areas into Union Territories.
Ladakh will be a UT without a legislature (essentially a colony), and J&K will be a UT with a legislature, but with a governor appointed by the Centre in Delhi. Many people say this won’t matter much as the J&K state government hasn’t really been functioning for a while anyway. Provision 35A has also been scrapped.
This is a very tough call, frankly, and I’m in two minds. To begin with, I was never happy with the U.N. meddling in Kashmir, or with Article 370 charade, which put Kashmir in perpetual limbo. I have always felt that India should have ignored the U.N., annexing J&K after taking the whole place by force in 1948. Sure, there would have been short-term repercussions, but the US and the UK would have let Nehru off with a slap on the wrist.
Once China became involved, all hope of going back to the starting point ended. It is possible that Kashmir could have become an independent Himalayan state, somewhat like Nepal, but it might have succumbed to Islamic jihad, by now, and who knows what sort of military interventions. Many displaced Kashmiri Muslims I have spoken with favour independence, but that’s a very abstract dream that is ill-suited to the political reality of the region. A landlocked country in the middle of the Himalayas is going to end up dependent upon someone.
What is worrisome about what just happened in Kashmir is the manner in which it occurred. There is no precedent for turning a state into a Union Territory, especially by executive fiat. The rushing of the decision through the Rajya Sabha, without consulting the Lok Sabha, is also ominous.
However, if there is a long-term strategy behind all this, I think it maybe this: Tibet. China has created a situation in Tibet that makes the Dalai Lama’s return impossible – the PRC wins. India may be planning a similar endgame in Kashmir.
Union Territory status, in fact, maybe a heavy-handed but clever precaution – an elimination of any kind of legitimate Kashmiri regime that might secede from India. Now, the Indian authorities will have full control of the political situation, and can deftly label anyone who opposes the integration of J&K as an insurgent, terrorist, etc. The whole thing is very Machiavellian. Whether it works, or whether it blows up into something even worse than what existed before remains to be seen.