The danger that lurks in a beautiful land

Kashmir hostage crisis: The kidnapping of Western tourists illustrates the desperation of a peaceful people driven by the desire for independence

Tim McGirk New Delhi
Monday 14 August 1995 23:02

The struggle for Kashmir, a staggeringly beautiful land on the snowy roof of the Himalayas, was a forgotten war. The capture of Western hostages in recent years changed all that, which is, of course, just what the rebels wanted.

But there is another reason for the world to take notice; Kashmir may yet be the cause of the world's first nuclear conflict. Twice, India and Pakistan have come to blows over Kashmir. Both countries are now believed to possess nuclear weapons and neither has promised not to use them.

The Kashmir issue - unresolved since Britain partitioned its old Indian empire in 1947 - continues to poison relations between the two neighbours. Tavleen Singh, an Indian author and journalist, has written: "What happens in Kashmir will determine whether the Indian sub-continent lives in peace or destroys itself over a beautiful but tiny piece of land." On available evidence, India and Pakistan are both bent on pushing each other to the limit over Kashmir. The people who inhabit this Himalayan land have been consistently betrayed and abused by both sides.

The Kashmiris have a reputation for being peaceful by nature; this was one of the few border regions during partition where Hindus and Muslims did not slaughter each other. The kidnapping and killing of Western tourists, if nothing else, shows their desperation.

Any British visitor to Srinagar, an ancient city of lakes and canals surrounded by mountains shining with ice, is invariably accosted by Kashmiris who angrily demand that John Major sort out their troubles. It is wrong to assume that the turmoil in Kashmir today is Britain's fault, even though Kashmir is often referred to as the "unresolved business" that the Crown left behind when it vacated the Indian empire. Nonetheless, Britain may have a moral obligation to the Kashmiris, if only because it sold Kashmir valley, and its mainly Muslim population, to cruel Hindu kings known as the Dogras in 1846 for a pittance of 7,500,000 rupees.

Though sealed off by the Himalayas, Kashmir for centuries has been an important stop on caravan routes criss-crossing between Central Asia, Tibet and the gleaming Moghul cities of northern India. Its people are a varied ethnic mix: Hindus reside in the southern foothills, while Muslims inhabit the valley of Kashmir and the Hindu Kush mountains near Afghanistan. In the eastern Himalayas, near Tibet, live the Ladakhi Buddhists. At the time of partition, the Muslims outnumbered the Hindus by three to one inside the kingdom.

Kashmir's last maharajah, a selfish, petulant man named Hari Singh, at first refused to join either nation. When Pakistan tried to conquer his kingdom, the maharajah had no choice but to turn to India. The prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, agreed on the condition that Hari Singh cede his territory to India in October 1947.

At the time, many Kashmiri Muslims preferred the idea of secular India over Islamic Pakistan, and picked up guns and joined the Indian army, to repel the invaders. Pakistan still occupies a western chunk of Kashmir, while the United Nations monitors a line-of-control between the two armies, which often fire shots at each other.

On the Indian side, autonomy was promised by New Delhi but never given to the satisfaction of the Kashmiris. Prominent Kashmiri leaders were often arrested, state elections rigged. The Kashmiris rioted sporadically. Simmering resentment against India finally spilt over into revolt on 20 January 1990, when Indian security forces fired on a peaceful demonstration, killing more than 100 Kashmiris who were trapped on a bridge.

Dozens of Muslim militant groups sprang up. Some wanted independence, while others wanted to join Pakistan. The pro-Pakistani groups flourished, not because Kashmiris really wanted annexation, but because Islamic groups in Pakistan set up militant training camps and gave the Kashmiris some of the huge weapons surplus left over from the Afghan war against the Soviets.

However, Indian security forces committed the worst acts of barbarism. So far, more than 20,000 Kashmiris have died since that 1990 shooting on the bridge which started it all.

Had India tried instead to reason with the Kashmiris rather than crush them, the secessionist rebellion might be over. Moreover, it is likely that many more will die before India and Pakistan agree to sit down and talk sensibly. A 12th century poet wrote: "Kashmir may be conquered by the force of spiritual merit, but never by the force of soldiers."

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