The Himalayan valley of Kashmir, which sits on the most northerly border of India and Pakistan, has been a repeated source of tension and war between China, India and Pakistan. But the wishes of those who live there have rarely been considered by those who have fought over it.
Despite an overwhelmingly Muslim population, at the time of Britain’s departure in 1947 Kashmir was a ruled by a Hindu king, Hari Singh. Initially reluctant to align his kingdom with either India or Pakistan, Singh agreed that Kashmir would join India after guerrilla fighters from Pakistan crossed its borders.
To the surprise of the Pakistani forces, Kashmiri Muslims were not generally in favour of joining either country. Instead they gave their backing to the socialist Sheikh Abdullah, who led a movement for radical land reform.
Abdullah rejected incorporation into Pakistan because he believed the country to be controlled by landlords. Instead his National Conference party fought for self-rule.
The United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1949 that partitioned the state along a line that continues to act as the border between India and Pakistan today.
The peace deal promised that Kashmiris would be given a vote on the future allegiance of the state. However, it was in the interest of neither India nor Pakistan to allow this, and so the referendum has never taken place.
And, when the National Conference swept the board in elections in 1951 and Abdullah was declared prime minister, the result was greeted as a threat by both powers.
The Indian government imprisoned Abdullah in 1953, and workers in Kashmir launched a 20-day general strike in response, taking to the streets in enormous numbers. Indian troops fired on protesters, killing up to a thousand.
A second conflict erupted after Abdullah was arrested again in 1965 when he returned from a visit to China, with which India had recently been at war. The Pakistani army invaded Kashmir believing it could capitalise on the anger but again misjudged the public mood. The expected pro-Pakistan uprising never happened.
Following the 1972 ceasefire, which instituted a border called the “Line of Control”, Abdullah’s government became increasingly associated with corruption and lack of economic development.
Growing anger with Abdullah’s government – and that of his son, Farooq, who replaced him after his death in 1977 – became the pretext for the Indian government to repeatedly intervene in Kashmir, dismissing elected governments and replacing them with anti-Muslim governors.
But by the late 1980s Kashmiri anger with India exploded into a new movement for independence and an end to the hated Line of Control. Both Pakistan and India saw the protests as a threat because neither wanted the reunification of the state unless they could control all of it themselves.
More than a million people marched in protest – and following the Indian army’s massacre of 100 demonstrators in the city of Srinagar in 1990, a new generation of Kashmiris joined a guerrilla campaign against the Indian occupation.
Some fighters were motivated by socialist ideas and wanted independence, others joined groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba, that were inspired by the Pakistani security services, and fought to join the Pakistan state.
But it was the action of the Indian state that was to drive Kashmiris into the arms of the Jihadists. Around half a million Indian troops were sent into the state and immediately began ruthless repression. More than 70,000 Kashmiris were killed in the violence that followed, and mass arrests, torture and rape were commonplace.
Unable to break the hold of the Indian state – and with the valley’s population weary of war and economically broken – the various Kashmiri militias had by the mid-1990s descended into killing each other. Left wing fighters were marginalised.
The division of Kashmir, and repression by the India state, remains a source of conflict today. In August this year Indian troops shot at thousands of demonstrators – killing four – who were demanding the right to take their agricultural produce over the Line of Control.
Families long separated by heavily fortified borders and repeatedly bombed from all sides will never understand why powers from outside Kashmir were allowed to destroy their lives.
The Line of Control is one of the starkest reminders of the irrationality of the way India was divided by partition.
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