Running sore that has poisoned relations since Britain's rush from empire

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The Independent Online

It is conceivable that Tony Blair's visit to India and Pakistan will be rewarded with some shift in the political pack ice, some hint that thanks to his intervention there is willingness on both sides to move towards a more civilised relationship, from which the menace of nuclear holocaust is excluded.

It is just conceivable, but nobody thinks it likely. And that is not just because the problem has defied solution for more than 50 years. It is also because Britain was in at the creation of the problem.

The state of Jammu and Kashmir has been a running sore between India and Pakistan since a couple of months after partition and independence from Britain in August 1947. Once it was decided to split the subcontinent into majority Hindu and majority Muslim nations, it was almost inevitable that the fate of Kashmir would become controversial. Like the provinces that made up West Pakistan, with which it was contiguous, Kashmir had a Muslim majority – 77 per cent in the census of 1941. But like 564 other parcels of land big and small, Kashmir was not formally part of British India, but a princely state, ruled over by a Hindu maharajah.

By the summer of 1947, Britain, deep in economic crisis, was desperate to shed its Indian empire as fast as possible, and on 4 June the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, announced an accelerated plan to achieve partition and independence not within the 12 months previously envisaged but within 70 days. It was an impossible schedule. One result of the haste was the brutal hacking of the subcontinent into three chunks, which led to the massacre of up to a million people and one of the greatest forced migrations in history, as Hindus fled Pakistan and Muslims fled India. Another result was that on Independence Day, the Maharajah of Kashmir, presented with a choice between joining Pakistan (and voting in effect for his own downfall), and dragging Kashmir's Muslims into India, was still dithering.

Two months later the issue was decided for him: Afghan tribesmen invaded his state from Pakistan and in response India sent tens of thousands of troops to drive them out – one day after the Maharajah had agreed to accede to India.

Argument has raged ever since about the legality of Kashmir's accession. But if Mountbatten had not committed Britain to bolting from the subcontinent with such indecent haste, Kashmir's post-independence arrangements could have been hammered out while Britain was still in a position to enforce them.