A Kashmir primer
The "Kashmir problem" dates back to 1947 and the partition of India and Pakistan. Maharaja Hari Singh, the hereditary ruler of Kashmir, delayed for several months a decision as to which nation Kashmir would join, hoping to achieve independence for his principality. Singh, a Hindu ruling a majority Muslim population, finally agreed to Indian dominion on October 27, 1947, partly to gain Indian military assistance against an Islamic revolt. Muslim Kashmiris have always challenged the Instrument of Accession; India regards it as final.
In the past 50 years, India and Pakistan have fought three wars-two over control of Kashmir. The issue has been on the United Nations docket as long or longer than any other a U.N. military observer's office has monitored activities at the "line of control," the cease-fire line separating the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir, since the end of the first Indian-Pakistani war in 1947. The cease-fire, which gave 65 percent of Kashmir to India, was to be temporary. A plebiscite was supposed to follow, allowing the Kashmiris to decide their future. To date, there has been no plebiscite.
Kashmiris today still want self-determination-which includes the opportunity not only to choose between India and Pakistan, but to opt for independence, which neither of Kashmir's dueling masters finds acceptable.
Pakistan favors a solution that implements a 1948 U.N. resolution giving Kashmiris the right to choose between the two countries. India prefers the "Simla agreement", signed in 1971 by Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which calls for India and Pakistan to resolve the issue bilaterally. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists Hopes for a unilateral decision by India to organize a plebiscite have always been wishful thinking. India is not about to allow this strategic northern outpost to simply walk away. The Indian government also has an interest in the state's non-Muslim population, who are far from willing to fall in line behind the idea of Islamic unity. There are marked ethnic and religious differences among the three regions-Ladakh, Jammu, and Kashmir-that make up the Indian state. Ladakh, across the Himalayan divide, is sometimes called "Little Tibet" It is sparsely populated and 70 percent of its 200,000 residents are Buddhists.
To the southeast, in Jammu, the majority ofthe 3.5 million residents are Hindu, and most of the region is peaceful. However, in Jammu's mountainous Doda district, the population is evenly divided between Muslims and Hindus. The population in the "Vale of Kashmir" and of the surrounding highlands is predominantly Muslim. It is here, with a population of 4.5 million, as well as in Doda, where violence poisons everyday life.
In this mountainous part of the state, Muslim militants hide in well-camouflaged caves. The terrain is ideal for guerrilla warfare; effective patrol is impossible.
The population of Kashmir was once overwhelmingly Hindu. But in the fourteenth century, Kashmiris converted to Islam under the influence of King Ranchan Shah, a ruler from Western Tibet who was influenced by a Sufi saint, Shah Hamdan. More conversions from Hindu to Islam occurred under the influence of another outside ruler, Shah Mir of Swat, an area in western Pakistan. Hindu influences are still found among the Muslims of Kashmir. Kashmiris sing and chant Koranic verses in a manner similar to Hindu practices. The Sufi influence is strong, too, and many organizations fighting for Kashmir self-rule want to maintain a separate Muslim identity under the name of "Kashmiriyat".
First-time visitors are usually struck by the appearance of Kashmiris themselves. Fair skin and prominent noses suggest a Semitic origin, but there is no actual evidence for that, only speculation-one theory being that Kashmiris are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. Kashmiri is also the only language of India that, like the languages of Iran and Afghanistan, belongs to the Dardic group of central Asian languages.
The rise of the "mujahadeen"
While India and Pakistan wrangled over who, finally, would control the region, many Kashmiris grew tired of living in political limbo. Over the years, calls for a plebiscite were punctuated by short-lived uprisings against Indian rule.
In 1984, Farooq Abdullah was deposed by his brother-in-law, Ghulam Mohammed Shah, who had gained the backing of New Delhi. Before the next election in 1987, the national government decided to re-install Farooq Abdullah, and Shah was dumped as the candidate of the National Conference. The move continued a long-running policy of political destabilization that has prevented any Kashmiri leader from building a strong power base, and which has kept potential chief ministers beholden to New Delhi. Abdullah was elected to another term in polling that most Kashmiris believe was rigged. After the elections, several leaders of the Muslim United Front, which was formed to oppose the National Conference, were jailed for three to four months for accusing the authorities of vote fraud. Upon their release, many fled to Azad Kashmir in Pakistan,where they formed organizations from which the guerrilla forces first sprang, and where many groups maintain headquarters today. These political rivals of India's ruling party were armed by Pakistan and later joined by Afghan war veterans.
The uprising began in July 1989, when bombs exploded at three sites in Srinagar. Sporadic fighting broke out in the months that followed, but it was not until December that the revolt heated up. In December, the daughter of the Indian Home Minister, a Kashmiri, was kidnapped by separatists in Srinagar. In exchange for her safe return, five hard core pro independence militants were freed from Indian jails.
Anti-government and anti-India rallies broke out all over Kashmir, celebrating victory. The ranks of the Islamic militants swelled. Within weeks, combat ripped across the Vale. In a region that had previously known little armed violence, the new Afghan-Pakistan connection poured in guns, rocket launchers, and grenades. Kashmiri boys identifying themselves as "mujahadeen" and armed with automatic rifles launched a jihad (holy war) for control of the only Muslim-majority state in India.
Protesting the move as too extreme, Chief Minister Abdullah resigned, and the federal government assumed direct control. Many of the leaders of the National Conference quit the party, largely to take themselves off hit lists compiled by separatist guerrillas. The Indian military deployed five divisions-at least 250,000 men, including 1,500 companies of paramilitary and state police, who engaged in counterinsurgency. On the other side of the line of control, Pakistan deployed an equal number of army divisions. Heavy artillery pieces on both sides of the border were wheeled into place. Border skirmishes became common-nearly 2,000 exchanges of fire took place in 1995. At the Siachin glacier, where the temperature remains below freezing all year, a pitched battle, the continuing occupation by the two armies, and supply drops by helicopter have despoiled the once-pristine environment.
Efforts to re-start Indian-Pakistani negotiations have failed, and both countries have planted thousands of land mines at border crossings. As a result, hundreds of civilians living in border villages have died or been crippled.
Both armies have taken over border villages; villagers are used as unpaid laborers by the troops of both countries; and civilian entry to the villages is by identity card or special permission only. In the first year of the uprising, property was destroyed, schools and bridges turned to rubble, and killing became the commerce of everyday life throughout Kashmir.
The streets and neighborhoods of Kashmir are battlegrounds upon which the rebellion plays out. The tourists' paradise has new landmarks with names like "martyrs' graveyard" or "site of a major massacre." Streets and neighborhoods now bear the names of those killed fighting Indian troops. Luxury hotels have been turned into barracks; gun-toting Indian soldiers in battle gear man sandbagged bunkers at nearly all major road intersections and important installations; most of the government-owned eateries that once dotted the countryside have been torched. The once flourishing tourist trade is in shambles. The conflict is not limited to armed combatants, and recent incidents have specifically targeted the few vacationers who have come to Kashmir.
Last summer, six Indian tourists were killed at Lake Dal, allegedly by Muslim militants. In a case that drew international attention, six Western hikers were kidnapped by the insurgent group Al Faran in the first week of July 1995. One of the captives, an American, escaped; another, a Norwegian, was beheaded by his captors in August 1995. The remaining four are presumed dead. Internationalizing the conflict The Indian government alleges that Pakistan, with calls for Islamic unity, is recruiting Muslim mercenaries; Pakistan has denied the charge, saying that other Muslims feel it is their moral duty to help Kashmiri Muslims.
Already, hundreds of foreign mercenaries have joined the Kashmiri cause. Exact numbers are impossible to come by, but at least 200 foreign fighters have already been killed in assorted gun battles, and at least 60 foreigners are in Indian jails. The majority are from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but there are scattered fighters from Sudan, Libya, Chechnya, Iran, and other Islamic countries. Indian army officers say that the Afghanis, who are veterans of guerrilla warfare and carry more arms and ammunition, are more formidable foes than other militants. Many Indians believe that if Pakistan would stop the flow of arms and money, the separatist movement would die out in days.
Guerrilla leaders admit privately that they rely on financial aid and arms from Pakistan, but they deny that the movement would fail without Pakistani support. "Our boys are dying for the better future of Kashmir, and we are not that fool who will dance to others' tunes. We are holding the gun with full consciousness and will continue to fight till we achieve our goal of freedom,"
Majid Jehangir, divisional commander of the insurgent group Hizbul Mujahadeen, told me in a recent interview. Kashmir's Muslim militants have tried to "internationalize" the Kashmir issue; in addition to kidnappings, they have relied on sieges at Kashmir's most revered and famous holy shrines to generate attention and sympathy for their cause.
In October 1994, two dozen Kashmiri militants occupied the famous marble Hazratbal ("Home of the Prophet") Shrine in Srinagar, believed to house a strand of the Prophet Mohammed's beard. The militants even threatened to blow up the building, and the local population took to the streets, demanding that security troops, who had ringed the shrine, be withdrawn. More than 50 demonstrators were killed by the paramilitary Border Security Forces when they tried to march on the shrine in a show of support for the militants. The siege lasted a month, after which the militants surrendered; they were soon released by local police. Another siege occurred in 1995, when militants and their followers occupied the shrine in Chrar-Sharief. Indian troops cordoned off the town, and on May 7, in the midst of gun battles, fire broke out. Before it could be contained, 700 structures were gutted and the seventeenth century carved-wood shrine was destroyed. Yet all of the militants, including a number of foreign mercenaries, escaped. In all, 30 people were killed some by bullets, some by fire.
Then in March 1996, militants again took control of the Hazratbal Shrine. This time, a gun battle took place in which a police officer was killed. But as they had done in the first occupation of Hazratbal, the militants negotiated a surrender to be followed by a quick release. They were allowed to exit the shrine still in possession of their weapons and assemble at their headquarters in a nearby building. It was commonly believed that the group had recently worked out a deal with New Delhi, and that they had switched sides and were fighting against the independence movement. But during the siege, authorities began to worry that the group was going to change sides again and support Pakistan. Two days after their surrender, 30 militants were rounded up and executed.
In their official statement to the press, the police said that the militants "were killed in an exchange of fire when they again tried to take control of the shrine." But off the record, one senior police official said of those who were killed: "They doublecrossed [us] and so they deserved it."
Cats and mice Human rights organizations have highlighted incidents in which troops have wantonly killed militants or their sympathizers. In fact, Amnesty International has stated that "torture by security forces is a daily routine and so brutal that hundreds have died as a result." Amnesty warns that "the entire civilian population is at risk. Torture includes beatings and electric shocks, hanging people upside down for many hours, crushing their legs with heavy rollers, and burning parts of their bodies."
Last spring, attorney and human rights activist Jalil Andrabi was taken from his car, allegedly by a counterinsurgent group with ties to Indian security troops. His body was found floating in the Jhelum River two weeks later. Also last year, the police reported that a most-wanted militant, Hilal Beg, and his brother-in-law, Naim Khan, were killed in an "encounter" with security troops on the outskirts of Srinagar. But Beg's wife said that security troops had actually arrested the two while they were at home the previous evening. Family members say that tales of encounters are fabrications used to conceal the fact that militants have been tortured and killed in cold blood.
One common way of rounding up suspected "sympathizers" is a dangerous game of "cat and mouse." The "cats" as they are known in local jargon, are informers captured militants whom the Indian security troops use against their former comrades in arms. The "mice" are any Kashmiris suspected of taking part in the insurgency. I have been forced to play this game on three occasions. A "crackdown" or cordon and search operation starts before sunrise. A neighborhood is sealed off and the residents awakened by the sound of a loudspeaker:
"This neighborhood is under a cordon-and-search operation. All adult males must come out of their houses and assemble in the square."
Sleepy-eyed, hurriedly looking for my slippers and in my nightclothes, I join the ever-increasing queue of men being herded near the burned-down cinema. My press card is of no help. The assembled crowd grows silent. I see people reciting verses from the Holy Koran as the fear that they may be arrested increases. Those who have been assembled are made to parade one by one past a half-dozen vehicles with tinted glass windows, behind which sit shadowy militants-turned-informers making identifications.
On one occasion, three teenagers were arrested in front of me and taken to an unknown destination. The neighborhood is sealed by heavily armed Indian soldiers wearing flak jackets who search house-to-house for weapons and hidden militants. These crackdowns, in which nearly every Kashmiri male between the ages of 15 and 35 has been paraded at least once in front of the dreaded cats, have on occasion turned into gun battles. At least four to six cordon and search operations take place every day. While government troops and their agents have been cited in the majority of the atrocities committed in Kashmir, the Muslim insurgents are also guilty of attacks against non-military targets. The Hindu Pandits a self-described high caste group to which Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru belonged-were an early target of the insurgents. In 1990, a dozen members of the sect, all of whom held important government posts, were killed by militants in separate incidents. After their deaths, the remaining Kashmiri Pandits fled. Most have resettled in various areas of India. As a relatively educated group, most Pandits have been able to adjust to life in other Indian states, although their cultural identity diminishes with every passing year.
One Kashmiri Hindu scholar told me, "The Kashmiri Pandits have lost nothing except their homes; we have been able to protect our education and intelligentsia. The Kashmiri Muslims on the other hand have lost their education, their intelligentsia, and their leaders-by the gun."
And yet, Srinagar booms No one can fully fathom the trauma to the 8 million Kashmiris, living for years now with gunfights between warring militant groups or between insurgents and counterinsurgent forces an everyday occurrence.
A new generation is being brought up in the shadow of the gun, deprived of a normal social life, and often of education. More than 1,000 school buildings have been set ablaze; all the sports stadiums are closed. Strangely, however, people have become acclimated to living under siege. Searches, torture, and harassment are routine.
Despite the violence across Kashmir, the state is experiencing a peculiar economic boom. There are no shortages all the department stores are full of goods. You will find no Kashmiris who are homeless or dying of hunger. The explanation is that a great deal of money is being pumped into the Kashmir valley. Pakistan supplies money to the 30 odd militant and political organizations. Meanwhile, India supports a half-dozen militant turned renegade groups to counter the insurgents. And some 250,000 soldiers are permanent tourists who buy nearly everything locally. By giving business to locals, the security troops make useful contacts and have more sources of information. All the money that is coming in is used directly or indirectly by the Kashmiris. Before the uprising, a merchant who wanted to operate in a busy commercial center like Lalchowk ("Red Square") in Srinagar had to pay a premium of $30,000 for the right to open a shop. Now that figure is close to $60,000. In a battle-ravaged state, one would expect rates to come down. But that is not the case. People no longer pay their electricity or water bills. By order of the militants, they no longer pay taxes, either. The entire Kashmiri economy now depends on the presence of soldiers, insurgents, and counterinsurgents to support the people. Farming, construction, and education-the building blocks of everyday life- have all been disrupted. Thousands of Kashmiris risk growing up with no skills other than fighting.
Almost a decade after the last elections in Kashmir, the Indian government held much-publicized elections in September 1996. Designed to bring peace to the turbulent valley, the elections created only more confusion and more killings. The elections became something of a farce in which, by manipulation, the Indian government was once more able to impose its chosen government. While claiming it was restoring the democratic process, India rejected all requests of foreign observers to monitor the elections. New Delhi hopes that the new administration will be able to bring peace, but since the installation of the state government and its chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, Kashmiri Hindus have been selling their properties in Kashmir. Abdullah is the same man whose earlier term as chief minister ended abruptly in 1990, when he resigned under pressure from the central government following the outbreak of the Muslim uprising. His return to power was supposed to provide more moderate Kashmiris with a political alternative to violence, but so far Abdullah has not been able to reduce the level of security troops. In fact, he recently asked for more.
Those fighting for Kashmiri independence called the elections a sham.
The All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), an association of 30 pro-independence and pro-Pakistan parties, boycotted the elections to protest the lack of international oversight of the polling, and the absence of a referendum on self-determination. The group launched an anti-election campaign in which they urged Kashmiris to stay away from the polls. As a result of these efforts, the leaders of the APHC were jailed in the weeks leading up to the elections. In sympathy, a general strike was observed on voting days, which idled the valley.
Anyone who stood for office was declared a traitor by the mujahadeen, who passed death sentences on the candidates "according to Islamic law."
Both the guerrillas and the counterinsurgents made veiled threats of violence against anyone who voted, or did not vote, respectively. In spite of stepped-up security arrangements, the Muslim militants attacked several polling places. And in the border town of Kargil, Indian troops were forced to relocate polling stations because of continuous shelling by Pakistani forces. In all, more than three dozen election-related deaths-close relatives of candidates, supporters of candidates, or agents working for candidates-were reported in the weeks immediately before and after the election.
With the elections over, government buildings are once again targets. The guerrillas regard the formation of the new government as yet another challenge, and they have vowed to intensify their attacks on security installations.
In late October, two drivers were killed and several cars damaged in a car bomb attack on the main gate of the five-story legislative hostel, where many members of the state assembly live. In spite of a three-tier security system, militants had managed to sneak in and install the device. The bombing occurred only hours after Abdullah delivered an ultimatum giving the militants 30 days to surrender. The chief minister has become a magnet for assassination attempts. There have been three separate incidents since the election. In the first, a bomb was triggered before he arrived at a public rally, killing five people. In December, Abdullah was en route to a ceremony at the grave of his father when another blast created a panic in the waiting crowd. Then in January, while Abdullah was on a pilgrimage to Mecca, a massive explosion outside of his home killed four and injured a dozen others. Occurring in one of the most heavily fortified neighborhoods in Srinagar, the blast sent a signal that no place in Kashmir was beyond the insurgents' reach. Local police are now more likely than ever to be targets. They are sandwiched between warring militant groups and the new administration, which wants to energize them to take action against the militants. But the rebels, by killing local cops, are sending a warning not to cooperate. Local police are caught in a deadly bind. Many are assumed by government officers-who come from other parts of India-to be sympathetic to the separatists' cause. If the police pursue the insurgents, they open themselves up to attack by their neighbors. If they are lackadaisical in their efforts, they risk being openly branded a "sympathizer" by security troops. Either way, they know that they are not only exposing themselves to danger, they are jeopardizing the safety of their families as well.
Despite the continuance of violence, the Indian government calls the recent elections a "victory of the ballot over the bullet." But the elections have done nothing to solve the Kashmir problem. The assembly members have no contact with the locals, and they have done nothing to provide jobs or peace for Kashmir. With no plan for addressing the real needs of the people of Kashmir, the new government will probably fail even sooner than the one before it. Roadblocks to a solution For all of its efforts from ballot stuffing to games of cat-and-mouse the Indian government has been unable to put an end to the uprising in the troubled state.
At the same time, militant Muslims have yet to score the kind of major victory that would force the Indian government to withdraw from-or negotiate the future of-Kashmir. And what would that future be?
Polls show that more than half of all Kashmiri Muslims would prefer to live in an independent state rather than place themselves under Pakistani rule. Yet in Hindu-dominated Jammu and in Buddhist-dominated Ladakh, the rebel movement is nearly invisible. The inhabitants of these areas want to continue to live under Indian rule. Only in the Kashmir valley and parts of the Doda district in Jammu, where about 65 percent of the total population lives, does unrest continue.
Certainly the question of Kashmiri independence weighs heavily on Pakistan. It would be naïve to think that Pakistan would supply weapons and money to create a new, independent state on its northern border-even if it were a Muslim nation. Since the partition of the region in 1947, Pakistan has sought to annex Kashmir as its northernmost state. The continuation of a low-level proxy war guarantees to both Pakistan and India that the question of Kashmiri independence will be kept on the back burner. Pakistan's continued support of Muslim insurgents creates an ongoing thorn in the side of India, while potentially swaying Kashmiris to the possibility of someday joining Pakistan. For India, relenting on the question of Kashmiri independence would invite dissent from other Indian states who are watching developments in Kashmir. There is already unrest in the northeast states and in Punjab; India would not dare to stir up more trouble in these regions, and hence it will always try to linger on the Kashmir issue on one pretext or another. And so the two regional powers continue to send guns to the still-lovely Vale of Kashmir, where factional strife has made the development of a unified Kashmiri voice seem more and more difficult.
Three big "ifs"
Hanging over the prospects for a peaceful solution in Kashmir are a series of "ifs." If India were willing to negotiate with the separatists, if Muslim militants would accept something less than complete independence, and if Pakistan would stop funding the insurgents, peace would be possible.
I believe these conditions could be met, if only one of the parties would make the first move. A vital step would be for the three parties-India, Pakistan, and Kashmir-to freeze the issue of Kashmiri autonomy for five years, similar to the cooling-off period agreed to by Russia and Chechnya. An immediate cease fire could be observed by all forces operating in Kashmir, and the line of control could be demilitarized. Once the situation at the border quieted, the line could be opened so that Kashmiris could cross between the Indian state and the Pakistani province without fear of ambush or harassment. India has a precedent for this kind of demilitarization: A long-running territorial dispute with China over a portion of eastern Jammu and Kashmir was defused by a similar strategy. Muslim militants and the All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) would need to become actively involved in the political process. The unified political front would have to have concrete positions and a clearly defined role inside Jammu and Kashmir. Asking for self-determination is a vague request; the political parties would have to clarify their demands and prove that they could mobilize mass support without resorting to violence. During the cooling-off period, India and the APHC could enter into negotiations aimed at creating stable conditions in which economic development, education, business, and tourism could proceed and bloodshed could end. A five-year timetable would allow the two parties to slowly build trust between them, and alleviate any pressure to devise an immediate solution.
At the same time, talks could take place between India and Pakistan about the fate of Kashmir. Clearly, no permanent solution could be reached without including Pakistan, as both countries are knee-deep in the Kashmir problem. Once India and Pakistan begin to meet, they could ask for participation by the genuine representatives-Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist-of the troubled state. It is at this point that expanded autonomy for Indian-administered Kashmir (with India maintaining control of defense, currency, and telecommunications) could be discussed and elections, overseen by international monitors, could be planned.
- First, fundamentalist influences-whether Hindutava or Islamic fundamentalism-must be jointly discouraged from clouding negotiations on Kashmir's future.
- Second, the task should not be left only to politicians, but should draw upon a cross section of Kashmiris, including academics and businesspeople.
- Finally, all parties must realize that human rights abuses lie at the root of much of the resentment that has fueled the conflict.
No just and lasting settlement can be achieved unless the abuses are ended and those responsible brought to justice. India and Pakistan must begin this process on their own; the United States is monitoring the Kashmir situation but is not interested in interfering. Past visits by American officials have raised the hopes of Kashmiris who expect wonders from Americans, but most Americans are not concerned about Kashmir. Officially, Washington doesn't want to take sides; unofficially the United States is trying to apply pressure
on India and Pakistan to start negotiations.
This article originally appeared in the "The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists"
By Surinder Singh Oberoi, recently made a Fellow at the Bulletin, University of Chicago. He reports from Kashmir for Agence France Presse.
All photographs by Robert Nickelsberg.
For photo rights, please contact the agency, Gamma Liaison.
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