Dangerous neighbours

India and Pakistan have long fought over Kashmir. Now, as nuclear states, they have never needed peace so badly
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While the attention of the West's politicians and media is focused on the bombing campaign in the Balkans, another air campaign has been getting under way in South Asia. Its implications, should the conflict intensify, are even more chilling than Kosovo's. The combatants are proud possessors of nuclear weapons, which they have tested within the past year.

On Wednesday, using MiG strike aircraft and helicopter gunships, the Indian air force launched its first strikes inside Kashmir for almost 30 years. Pakistan threatened retaliation; so far the Indians have lost two fighters and a helicopter.

The Indians were targeting sections of Himalayan territory around Kargil, close to the disputed border between India and Pakistan. These mountainous and largely uninhabited areas had been taken over by Pakistani-backed Afghan militants several weeks ago. Most are believed to come from the Islamic guerrilla group Tehrik-i-Jihad. The Indian press estimates that about 250 people have been killed since the skirmishes began. Last August nearly 100 people were killed in shelling and artillery fire between the rival armies on either side of the "line of control" which divides the two countries.

With India's collapsing government gearing up for the country's third general election in less than three years, and the Pakistani leadership becoming overtly aggressive towards its internal opponents, the scope for a worsening of the latest crisis in South Asia is considerable. There is no tradition of detente between the two countries and no clear structure to prevent a local skirmish becoming a full-blown war, except a hotline between the heads of the respective armies.

India resolutely refuses to contemplate outside mediation in the Kashmir dispute. It was a failure to understand India's acute sensitivity over internationalisation of the subject that led Robin Cook to blunder so spectacularly during the Queen's visit to the subcontinent in 1997.

Unlike the Cold War, when the doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" reigned, here both sides have a reason to strike first. They have no nuclear-armed submarines circling the oceans, ready to hit back in the event of a first strike. South Asia's nuclear stockpiles are - by Cold War standards - small, and a pre-emptive strike might conceivably knock out the other side's capability. Moreover, Pakistan knows that it could never win a conventional war with India.

Both India and Pakistan are firmly convinced of their own righteousness when it comes to Kashmir. In India, in particular, there is an assumption even among respected political commentators that because the state is ruled by New Delhi, its inhabitants must wish to be ruled by New Delhi. There may be continued unrest, they admit, but that is only because Pakistani- backed militants are fomenting trouble by leading the otherwise loyal Kashmiris astray. Nor is Pakistan blameless. There has been persistent support, infiltration and training of terrorists by successive governments, especially over the past 10 years.

The root causes of the present conflict lie in the unjust way in which the Indian government took control of Kashmir at the time of independence in 1947, subsumed a Muslim-majority kingdom within India's borders, and then rode roughshod over the Kashmiri people for the following half century.

Although the Maharajah of Kashmir, Sir Hari Singh, was Hindu, 91 per cent of the population of the Kashmir Valley, where more than half his subjects lived, were Muslim. Yet as ruler he made little effort to incorporate the majority of his people into the running of the state. When it became apparent in early 1947 that Attlee's post-war Labour government wished to get out of India as fast as it could, the Maharajah refused to accept what was taking place. He was abetted in his vacillation by British incompetence. When independence came on 15 August 1947 it was still undecided whether Kashmir would join India or the new Muslim Pakistan, or try to stand alone as a neutral "Switzerland of Asia".

In the weeks following independence, an uprising by Muslim farmworkers against their Hindu landlords in the province of Punch was joined by irregular Pathan soldiers from the frontier areas, encouraged by sections of the Pakistani government. In late October this rag-bag army advanced slowly to- wards Srinagar, looting, raping and murdering as they went. When they reached an electricity supply station 30 miles from the capital and cut off its output, the terrified Maharajah fled.

The new Indian government, led by Jawaharlal Nehru - himself a Kashmiri Hindu by descent - took swift action to gain control of Kashmir. Having deposited supplies of fuel, weapons and ammunition inside Kashmir's borders, it organised a substantial airlift of troops and weapons into Srinagar. When the Pakistani government tried to send its own army into Kashmir to counter-attack, the order was blocked by the British commander- in-chief of the Pakistani army, on the grounds that the state of Jammu and Kashmir was now legally part of India.

This legal technicality rested on a document authorising an Indian takeover, which the Maharajah of Kashmir had supposedly signed the day after he fled Srinagar. In fact, it is apparent from documentary evidence that he could not have signed the "instrument of accession" on that day, and that the Indian airlift took place illegally, before his signature was appended.

Violence continued in Kashmir through subsequent months, with most of the state coming under Indian control, except for remote northern territories around Gilgit and the area around Punch. Nehru installed the leader of the pro-Congress All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, Sheikh Abdullah, in power in Srinagar, and the Maharajah retired into obscurity.

In January 1949 a UN-brokered ceasefire came into effect, establishing what was later called the "line of control" and the presence of international peacekeepers, whose mission has lasted half a century. One of the UN's key conditions was that a referendum should be held in Jammu and Kashmir over the state's future, but India has never allowed this to take place.

When I first visited Kashmir Valley, in 1986, it was peaceful and awash with tourists. There was certainly bitterness over the events of the 1940s, but these were seen as a moment in history which had now to be accepted. There was no great enthusiasm for joining Pakistan, a country scarred by military dictatorships for much of its short life. There was, however, considerable support for the idea of an independent Kashmir, or at least an autonomous one, free from the interference of either New Delhi or Islamabad. Since then up to 20,000 people have lost their lives in the region, either to the bombs and bullets of Pakistan-backed militants, or to the barbarity of Indian security forces.

India's response to the uprising in Kashmir - which itself was initially a reaction to repeated meddling in Kashmiri politics by New Delhi - has been ruthless, especially during the early 1990s. As Tavleen Singh, one of the few Indian journalists to have covered the story fairly and in depth, wrote in 1995: "It is this complete disregard of the human rights issue that has helped keep the freedom movement alive. The way Kashmiris see it is that no matter how badly their own militant leaders behave, they never behave as badly as the Indian security forces. The result is that India has lost its moral authority."

Today the mass insurgency has been largely suppressed, and Kashmir has a quasi-democratic state government again, run by Farooq Abdullah, son of the Sheikh. Yet the situation in the region is now becoming more dangerous than at any time since 1990, when the CIA judged that the world faced "the most serious threat of nuclear conflict since the Cuban missile crisis". The Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was initially reluctant to authorise the current air strikes, since he feared this could "escalate the crisis into a full-scale war".

With relations between Islamabad and New Delhi under severe strain since the nuclear tests that both countries conducted last summer, Kashmir has again become the focus of the chronic mistrust and hostility between the two nations. There was a brief respite in February when the leaders of the two countries met in Lahore, but the optimism engendered then seems to be fading fast.

In practice, the present crisis will probably decline, just as similar moments of tension have before. Yet underlying the Kashmir dispute is a significant problem. Both India and Pakistan say that they want to resolve this pressing issue, but neither side gives any indication of being willing to make concessions.

Patrick French is the author of 'Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division' (Flamingo).