Accessibility links

South Asia: Kashmir Dispute Rooted In Both Recent History And Centuries-Old Suspicions

  • Ron Synovitz

The dispute between Pakistan and India over the divided region of Kashmir goes back to 1947, the earliest days of independence for the two countries from British colonial rule. But historians say the Kashmir conflict is also a symptom of Muslim-Hindu animosities that date back hundreds of years. RFE/RL examines the historical background of a dispute that has brought two nuclear-armed countries close to the brink of war.

Prague, 31 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kashmir has been a divided region ever since India and Pakistan were granted independence from British colonial rule.

Pakistan was created as a Muslim state in 1947 when Britain granted independence to its colonial holdings on the Asian subcontinent. The partition of the subcontinent into Pakistan and India was the result of British policies that followed an idea put forward by the man Pakistanis consider to be the father of their country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

It was in 1938 that Jinnah outlined the "two-nations" theory and made the first formal demand for a separate Muslim homeland. But when partition took place in August 1947, the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir was technically a princely state governed by a Hindu ruler. And that Hindu ruler opted to join secular India rather than Islamic Pakistan.

That decision led to the first war over Kashmir between modern India and Pakistan in October 1947, when both states were less than three months old. Millions of people were forced to leave their homes as Hindus fled Pakistan and Muslims left Hindu areas. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in communal riots.

Indian forces promptly seized Kashmir on the grounds that its ruler was Hindu, despite the claim by Islamabad that Kashmir should be part of Pakistan because more than two-thirds of its population was Muslim.

The first war over Kashmir lasted until a cease-fire was declared on New Year's Day of 1949. That cease-fire deal created the first Line of Control dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

A second war over Kashmir erupted in August 1965. The fighting ended a month later when both sides agreed to a United Nations cease-fire deal that created a new Line of Control that gave India control over additional Kashmiri land that it had seized in the fighting. But even today, parts of the Line of Control are still disputed.

Furthermore, the dream of bringing all of Kashmir under the administration of Islamabad has never been forgotten by Pakistanis. Islamic militants launched a violent campaign in 1990 aimed at either winning outright independence for all of Kashmir or bringing the Indian-administered part of the region into a union with Pakistan.

Pakistani officials describe those militants as freedom fighters who are trying to overthrow an oppressive India, which Islamabad alleges is guilty of massive human-rights violations against Muslims in Kashmir.

India charges that the militants are supported by Pakistan's intelligence service and are fighting a low-level proxy war for Pakistan against Indian rule in Kashmir.

In fact, Islamabad makes no secret of its desire to rule all of Kashmir. Anyone who travels in the Pakistani capital today will encounter highway signs in English and Urdu that were erected by the government and that openly claim Islamabad's right to administer Kashmir.

Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh this week reiterated allegations by New Delhi that the Islamic militants responsible for violent attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir since 1990 have been trained and supplied by Pakistan's military and intelligence communities. "Let the world recognize that today the epicenter of international terrorism is located in Pakistan. Terrorists targeting not just India, but other countries too, receive support from state structures within Pakistan. The current war against terrorism will not be won decisively until their base camps inside Pakistan are closed permanently," Singh said.

Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, has repeatedly denied that Islamabad has ever supported Islamic militants in Kashmir. He has promised to put an end to any cross-border incursions by militants into India or Indian-administered Kashmir. But Musharraf continues to refer to the militants as freedom fighters.

Violence has surged in recent weeks, with Muslim extremists staging repeated attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir and Indian and Pakistani forces trading fire across the Line of Control. The conflict between the two nuclear neighbors has prompted Western officials like U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to schedule trips to the area.

Straw, in the region this week, stated resolutely that there is no truth in Islamabad's denials that Pakistan has ever supported cross-border incursions into Indian-administered Kashmir. "There isn't any doubt that Pakistan has, in the past, assisted what they would describe as freedom fighters -- I think the rest of the world describes [them] as terrorist activists -- across the Line of Control [in Kashmir]," Straw said.

Straw's remarks, which were made in New Delhi after he visited Islamabad earlier in the week, have increased the international pressure on Musharraf to do more than simply promise an end to Islamic militancy.

"The test of all these things has to be action and not just words. And there is a crucial imperative upon the leadership and the government of Pakistan to ensure that there is an effective and continuous sealing of the Line of Control and end to the supplying of the terrorists, freedom fighters, militants -- call them what you will -- who have been operating in Jammu and Kashmir," Straw said.

But analysts note that Musharraf is now caught between the conflicting demands of the international community and Islamic opposition groups in Pakistan that want more support for the militants staging cross-border incursions.

Aqil Shah, a Pakistan-based expert for the International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL that such incursions are particularly irritating to New Delhi because they have been going on at the same time that Pakistan is being welcomed as a key ally in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

"The impunity with which Islamabad has been conducting the so-called cross-border infiltrations -- the Indian policymakers are enraged by the fact that Islamabad is using its status as an ally of the U.S. to push the ante in Indian-administered Kashmir," Shah said.

Analysts say one explanation for the popular support within Pakistan for militancy in Kashmir can be gleaned from the country's national identity.

Historians note that Pakistan was founded on Jinnah's view that the Muslims of India form a nation and are entitled to a territorial homeland of their own. For Pakistanis, the issue of Indian control over Kashmir is one that cuts to the core of Pakistan's very existence.

Ira M. Lapidus, a respected scholar of Islamic societies at the University of California-Berkeley in the U.S., notes that Pakistan's ruling elite has fostered an Islamic form of nationalism as a unifying force within a state that otherwise suffers from deep ethnic, tribal, and local divisions.

In times of political crisis, Pakistan's leaders have historically turned to the Kashmir issue as a rallying point for domestic political support.

But understanding the roots of the Kashmir dispute also requires knowledge of the historic animosities between Muslims and Hindus on the Asian subcontinent. Those roots go back more than 1,000 years to the time when Muslim invaders began to conquer much of the subcontinent.

It was about 1,000 years ago that the Ghaznavid dynasty of Afghanistan began the Muslim conquest of what is now Pakistan and northern India. The advances of the Ghaznavids were followed in the late 12th century by local mountain chieftains who systematically conquered much of the northern subcontinent, including Peshawar, Lahore, and Delhi.

A series of dynasties followed that lasted more than 300 years. Known historically and collectively as the Delhi Sultanates, these dynasties lasted from the beginning of the 13th century into the early 16th century.

The Sultanates were Muslim rulers who were military lords from Afghanistan and Turkic Asia. Each Sultan was a senior-ranking official in a political society composed of local Muslim and Hindu lords. Kashmir was ruled by an independent Muslim sultanate for more than two centuries, from 1346 to 1586. It was then that Islam is thought to have emerged as the dominant religion in Kashmir.

The Delhi Sultanates leaned toward Muslim supremacy. They helped organized Islamic schools and opened the way for the conversion to Islam of lower-caste Hindus and pagans.

But the provincial Muslim leaders generally supported an integration of Muslim and Hindu cultures rather than Islamic supremacy. This led to a unique version of Islam in the region.

Islam expanded farther south on the subcontinent through the conquests of the Mughal empire that began with Babur in the 16th century and lasted into the 18th century. The final years of the Mughal era was a period when Muslim supremacy was favored over the policy of conciliation with Hindus.

Historians like Lapidus, who wrote the "History of Islamic Societies" for the Cambridge University Press, say the animosities now seen on the subcontinent between Muslims and Hindus can be traced to these final days of the Mughal era.

For Kashmiris, their region remained a province of the Moghul empire for more than 1 1/2 centuries, from 1586 to 1752.

When England became the paramount power on the subcontinent, Kashmir was administered through the Hindu Dogra dynasty from neighboring Jammu state.

With Kashmiri Muslims excluded by the Hindu princes from participating in the state's army, civil service, and education, the Muslim ruling class disappeared from Kashmir. Historians say the rule of the Dogra dynasty also caused Kashmiris to developed a deep suspicion of all governments.

The end of British rule on the subcontinent in 1947 left behind a situation in which both Hindus and Muslims felt distrustful of each other. It was exactly these conditions that led Britain to accept Jinnah's two-nations concept as the model for partition. More than 50 years later, that model is again at the center of a dispute that has brought the two sides to the brink of war, and this time, both are in possession of modern-day nuclear arms.

XS
SM
MD
LG