Accessibility links

India/Pakistan: Fighting Ignores Kashmiri Interests

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 30 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- India and Pakistan are clashing again over Kashmir, but many Kashmiris want no part of the struggle and hope instead for independence.

For two months, Indian forces have fought to dislodge what the Indian government charges are soldiers and guerrillas sent by Pakistan. These fighters have seized strategic mountain heights just inside the two-thirds portion of Kashmir controlled by India.

The heights command one of the few militarily useful targets in remote and mountainous eastern Kashmir. That is a highway connecting the territory's only major town, Leh, with Kashmir's main northern city of Srinagar. India says it is determined to retake the heights to prevent Pakistan from shelling the road and hinder India's administration of eastern Kashmir.

The Pakistanis tell the opposite story. They say the battle is part of a struggle by Kashmiri insurgents to wrest Moslem-majority Kashmir from India and join it to Islamic Pakistan. Pakistan claims it is giving the guerrillas only moral support.

But analysts say that the fighting has little to do with Kashmir's population or with what it wants. The region, officially known as Jammu and Kashmir, has been unevenly divided between India and Pakistan as the result of three wars over it since 1947. A mix of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, many of whom feel no allegiances to either side, populate the region. Steven Cohen, director of South Asian programs at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., says that India and Pakistan are primarily competing for the Valley of Kashmir, where most of the province's population is Muslim and lives under Indian control. He says that most of the Valley Muslims want independence and not union with Pakistan. Steven Cohen says: "There are about four or five regions of Kashmir which are quite different. The major bone of contention is the Vale, most of the population lives there and the population there is 90 percent Moslem and 10 percent Hindu. Many of the Kashmiris in the Valley, many of the Moslems in particular, would like to see an independent state,. They don't want to go either to India or Pakistan. But if you move to other parts of the state, they do have their preferences for either India or Pakistan."

An internal struggle has consumed the Valley of Kashmir for almost a decade. Elements of the Sunni Moslem majority oppose India. The goal of the struggle is independence or some form of autonomy.

Analysts say that decades of dissatisfaction among Muslims has fueled the independence movement since Jammu and Kashmir became part of India when the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. The Hindu maharajah of the region determined that choice when he agreed to join his possessions to Hindu-dominated India rather than to Islamic Pakistan.

Since Kashmir became part of India, its Muslim majority -- as well as many other groups -- have accused India of administering Kashmir like a colony.

Cohen says that -- while India has invested money into Kashmir for roads and education -- it has not allowed much political freedom. Correspondents report that India has manipulated local politics and jailed popular leaders for decades. New Delhi argues that it must do so to ensure a loyal Kashmiri leadership and prevent Pakistan from seizing the valley by force.

Many Kashmiri Muslims express anger over India's managing what they say were rigged elections in 1989 to tighten control. That event prompted a number of young Muslims to go to Pakistan to receive military training. When they returned to the Valley of Kashmir, they formed the nucleus of an armed independence struggle that surprised both India and Pakistan. India was surprised because it thought Kashmir was securely under its control. Pakistan was surprised because it had been urging Kashmir Valley Muslims for years to revolt and join Pakistan.

Cohen says that the Kashmir Valley Muslims seek independence because they don't want to exchange Indian domination for Pakistani rule. Steven Cohen says: "Many of them say we don't want to trade Indian oppression for Pakistani oppression. In the Pakistani (controlled) parts of Kashmir, the Pakistanis have usually not allowed any kind of democracy to flourish, so the valley Kashmiris look across to the (Pakistani-held) west and they do not see much of a democracy there. The valley Kashmiris are not motivated by Islam so much as just by autonomy and nationalism."

But Cohen says that what began as an independence struggle in the Valley has since turned increasingly into a battle between Indian and Pakistan. He says that Pakistan increasingly has dispatched Islamic fighters through Pakistan into the Valley. The unrest has intensified through this decade into a terrorist and counterterrorist war that has taken some 25,000 lives. The presence of the Islamic fighters -- many of whom fought in Afghanistan -- has overwhelmed the original insurgents and increasingly put direction of the revolt in Pakistan's hands. Steven Cohen says: "The Pakistanis started sending in non-ethnic Kashmiri Moslems and it's become since 1990 onward sort of a global Islamic Jihad like Afghanistan was. Groups have entered from a number of different countries but mostly ex-Afghans and Pathans to fight in Kashmir. Kashmiris themselves, even the separatists, were not fanatic Moslems at all. They had a special kind of Islam, almost a pacifist Islam (and) their chief goal is a separate state."

Analysts say that the Kashmiri Muslim's struggle for independence has now become submerged in the much bigger conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad that both sides seem determined to win.

Pakistan, which was built on the idea that all Muslims living on the subcontinent should live in their own states, has never accepted Kashmir's accession to India. India is just as determined not to lose Kashmir either to Pakistan or by granting it independence or too much autonomy. It fears that letting Kashmir go in any of these ways would only encourage separatist movements in other Indian states with their own ethnic or linguistic identities.