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India and Pakistan ramp up threat of new war in Kashmir

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Issue 2644
India and Pakistan ramp up threat of new war in Kashmir

The conflict between India and Pakistan over their disputed border region of Kashmir threatens to unleash new hell on a land that has seen too much of it already.

Indian air force raids this week targeted “training camps” in Pakistan in retaliation for a car bomb attack on police in Kashmir last month.

Two jets were reportedly shot down in Pakistani airspace, with one captured Indian fighter pilot paraded on TV.

Bloodthirsty keyboard warriors in India responded using the #Indiawantsrevenge hashtag to call for more airstrikes. Not to be outdone, conservative forces in Pakistan demand its military be let off the leash too.

That two nuclear-armed powers are again on the brink of war should terrify us all – and make us want to understand the conflict’s roots.

Yet when Kashmir is reported on in the West, it’s presented either as yet another age-old conflict in a far-off land or as another example of the “Muslim problem”.

This is because the disputed region can only be understood by looking at the British Empire and its divide and rule policies.

In 1947 the British pulled out of India and partitioned it between Hindu majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan. Britain had no definite plan for what should happen to the semi-independent state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Despite an overwhelmingly Muslim population, it was governed by a Hindu King, Hari Singh. Against expectations, he decided that Kashmir would become part of India.

From their birth the two countries were at war over the territory and it took the United Nations (UN) to broker a ceasefire in 1949. That deal divided Kashmir along an arbitrary line, ripping apart communities. It still forms the basis of the border today.

Pakistani forces had been fighting in Kashmir in the hope of winning the local population to a revolt against the king. They were surprised to find that Muslims there were not keen on joining either country.

Instead, they gave their backing to the socialist Sheikh Abdullah, who led a movement for radical land reform. Abdullah rejected Pakistan because he believed it to be controlled by landlords. Instead his National Conference party fought for Kashmiri self-rule.

The UN peace deal promised that Kashmiris would be given a vote to decide their future. But despite India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreeing, no vote would ever take place.

It was in neither India’s nor Pakistan’s interests to allow a secession. Pakistan rulers rightly feared their weak authority could lead to the break-up of their infant state. India too worried that chunks of its territory would not bow to the central government if there was an example of an independent Kashmir to follow.

Abdullah’s party won a landslide victory in state elections in 1951, and he was declared prime minister. But instead of taking office the Indian government threw him in jail.

Workers launched a 20-day general strike in response and took to the streets. Indian troops fired on them, killing up to a thousand.

Just over a decade later the Kashmir crisis re-emerged. Abdullah was arrested again after he returned from a visit to China, India’s strategic rival with which it had recently been at war.

Pakistani forces chose this as a moment to mount an invasion, expecting that now Kashmiris had seen so much brutality from the Indian state they would be ready to turn to them. They were wrong. The expected pro-Pakistan rising never materialised and instead a new UN ceasefire agreement was signed.


But Abdullah’s party was also at an impasse – with no means of achieving independence, its leaders became corrupt and compromised.

From then on India’s rulers felt emboldened to regularly overturn elected leaders and instead replace them with governors accountable only to them.

When the Kashmiri independence movement resurfaced in the late 1980s more than a million marched in protest, and again Indian troops were used to quell the uprising with over 100 demonstrators killed.

This drove a layer of newly radicalised young people into a guerrilla war. Some joined socialist-inspired nationalist groups, still more fought with the jihadist Muslim groups that were better armed with Pakistani-supplied weapons.

Kashmir was now flooded with heavily armed Indian troops, armed militias and various criminal gangs. It descended into a hell of rival killings in which ordinary Kashmiris paid the price.

Today, months of a bloody crackdown by the Indian state have left dozens dead, and many hundreds injured, a new political crisis has seen the collapse of the regional government.

And, once again the New Delhi government is ready to intervene directly.

Many will look at the actions of the Indian and Pakistani states and rightly blame them for the continuing carnage.

But the roots of this conflict actually lie with the collapsing British Empire. And its fatal attempt to cling on to power by seeking to divide Hindus from Muslims who were together fighting for a free India.


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