Kashmir: The Valley of Sorrow

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A potential nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan looms over the subcontinent. The flashpoint is the state of Kashmir.

The British ruling class quit India in 1947. But as it did so, it divided the subcontinent between two independent states, India (supposedly secular) and Pakistan (a homeland for Muslims). Pakistan was a bizarre entity which had 1,000 miles of India separating its western and its eastern wings--a state of affairs that would last until 1971 when, amidst tumult and war, the east broke away and became the state of Bangladesh.

The partition of the subcontinent was utterly avoidable, and based on the acceptance of the so called 'two nation' theory of Jinnah's Muslim League which claimed, only from 1940 onwards, that Muslims and Hindus were separate nations. The subcontinent was divided amidst terror. One million died in the communal killings that accompanied partition, and millions more were forced to transfer to one side of the new borders or another.

But what was to become of Kashmir? This beautiful valley dotted with lakes right in the far north borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, with the former USSR a stone's throw away. It has historically been a bulwark for whoever has controlled it. The majority of the population were Muslim peasants who suffered at the hands of the Hindu Dogra kings. But they were Muslims who, generally speaking, did not want to join Pakistan. The leader of the independence forces in Kashmir was Sheikh Abdullah, a secular socialist with a vision of land reform to improve the living conditions of the majority of Kashmiris. This hugely popular figure rejected Jinnah's Pakistan, rightly fearing that a Pakistan dominated by landlords and the military would stand in the way of land reform, and indeed other social and political reforms. Whilst Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs slaughtered each other in the Punjab during partition, the League did not gain a foothold in Kashmir. How was the question to be resolved?

Kashmir presented an ideological problem for both states created by partition. If the Muslims of Kashmir did not want to be part of Pakistan, there was little left of Jinnah's two nation theory. And if a Muslim majority state could not survive in India, there was little left of Indian National Congress leader Nehru's vision of a secular independent India.

But it was not just a question of ideology. Also at stake was the securing of the strategic boundaries of the new states and controlling the important mountain passes which run to Kashmir. To this day China controls a mountainous eastern zone of Kashmir, taken after a short war with India in 1962. The ruler of Kashmir had the power to decide which way the state would go. He avoided making such a decision for two months after independence until tribesmen invaded northern Kashmir at the behest of the Pakistani army. So the king hastily gave his consent to join India so that Indian troops could 'legally' enter Kashmiri territory to rebuff Pakistan's forces.

Nehru promised that the decision to join India, made by an undemocratic Hindu king, would be put to the people at a later date, but that 'later date' has always been denied. Kashmir was granted a concession, however. Provision 370 of the Indian constitution, giving 'special status' to Kashmir, dates from this time and is much loathed by the Hindu chauvinist BJP today.

Pakistani forces were forced back by Indian troops and a ceasefire was brokered by the United Nations in 1949. The 'line of control' which today divides Indian-occupied Kashmir from Pakistani-occupied Kashmir is the ceasefire line that was drawn at the end of this, the first of three wars India and Pakistan have fought over the control of Kashmir. For the first 40 years after partition there was little support for joining Pakistan. Shaikh Abdullah's National Conference swept the board in elections in 1951, winning everything--pro-Pakistan candidates were wiped out. But it soon became clear that the Indian state was not going to withdraw its troops, and nor was it going to allow the population of Kashmir to have any say over its future.

Troops fire on demonstrators

The Indian central government engineered the ousting and imprisonment of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953--but not before he enacted widespread land reform which broke the power of the Kashmiri landlords and allowed land in the state to be owned only by Kashmiris, something else much resented by the BJP today.

Abdullah's imprisonment was met with a 20 day general strike, during which Indian troops repeatedly fired on demonstrators, killing as many as 1,000. When he was released six years later, one million people lined the streets to welcome his return. Abdullah was imprisoned again, after visiting China, and again there were strikes, demonstrations, arrests, repression--and growing bitterness against India. Pakistan launched a second war in 1965, thinking it could exploit this situation and spark off an uprising. But it was wrong about the mood in Kashmir--the movement was not expressing a desire to be part of the thoroughly undemocratic state of Pakistan.

The 1972 Simla agreement between India and Pakistan renamed the ceasefire line as the line of control and both sides agreed to respect it, cementing further the division of Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah was released from prison and, in 1977, was re-elected with a huge majority. But he was, by then, prepared to make his peace with India. His regime was increasingly corrupt, and when he died in 1982 his son Farooq simply took over. Growing numbers of Kashmiris were frustrated by the corruption, which was compounded by the lack of jobs--especially for educated Kashmiris--and growing authoritarianism of the state government. At the same time Kashmir's 'special status' had been systematically eroded.

During the 1980s the Indian government increasingly intervened in the state, dismissing elected governments, imposing states of emergency, and installing hardline anti-Muslim governors. The fiddling of the 1987 election created deep bitterness, but it was really in 1989 that a huge insurgency began against India. 'We felt that if the Berlin Wall could be dismantled, so too could the line of control,' said one participant. But India and Pakistan certainly did not want the reunification of Kashmir, and Russia and China feared the effect a successful movement in Kashmir would have on minorities within their borders.

When the Indian army massacred 100 demonstrators in Srinagar in 1990, rebellion seized the whole population of the valley. Some 400,000 marched, then a million, of whom 40 were shot dead. A younger generation of Kashmiris decided to fight, and began a guerrilla army campaign. This partly reflected their frustration, and partly the impact of the end of the war in Afghanistan against Russia which meant a ready supply of arms and volunteers. So alongside guerrillas who were fighting for an independent Kashmir and were inspired by Che Guevara, were groups of Islamist guerrillas fighting to join Pakistan. The Pakistani state, via the ISI intelligence service, armed and sponsored a number of the groups, particularly Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Harkatul Mujahadeen. But it was Indian army repression which drove the young Kashmiris into the arms of Pakistan and the jihadis.

The fight for independence

The Indian army used classic counterinsurgency tactics, taught to them by the British. One explicitly anti-Muslim governor imposed by the central Indian government declared: 'Every Muslim in Kashmir is a militant today... The bullet is the only solution for Kashmir. Unless the militants are fully wiped out, normality can't return to the valley.' Some 600,000 troops were stationed in the area in the 1990s. During this period it had the highest ratio of troops to population anywhere in the world, and 70,000 Kashmiris were killed. There were mass arrests, disappearances, widespread torture and rape. A 1995 poll in the Economist assessed that 75 percent of the population of the valley supported the fight for independence. But the insurgency was concentrated only in the valley. Indeed the valley's Hindu population--some 140,000 people--fled after the insurgency began. The rich went to their second homes in Delhi, the rest to miserable refugee camps in Jammu. There was also fighting between Muslims and Buddhists in Ladakh at the end of the 1980s.

The guerrillas could not beat the Indian state, and the population of the valley became weary. The guerrillas alienated more and more people as they became increasingly bullying, divided, and responsible for random--and communal--acts of violence. Tariq Ali wrote in the London Review of Books last year that in the late 1990s, 'The groups killed each other's militants, kidnapped western tourists, drove Kashmiri Hindus out of regions where they had lived for centuries, punished Kashmiri Muslims who remained stubbornly secular and occasionally knocked off a few Indian soldiers and officials.' Today secular opposition groups have been pushed to the margins.

The dominance of the jihadi leadership of the movement only exacerbates the fear of the Hindu and Buddhist populations that they are going to be dominated by the Muslims of the valley who want to join Pakistan. And the BJP and Hindu communalists are only too happy to whip up such fears. How can communal divisions be prevented from spreading? What should the stance of socialists be?

I believe socialists should say three things. Firstly, neither India nor Pakistan can be supported as a preference. The repression of the Indian state is vile and must be opposed, but there would not be greater peace, freedom or security if Kashmir were to join Pakistan, a country still dominated by the army and the landlords. Both powers must withdraw.

Secondly, Kashmiris must be given the right to genuine self determination, including the choice of independence, with guaranteed rights for Buddhists and Hindus. The Pakistani state claims to support self determination for Kashmir but does so in rhetoric only. It opposes independence, insisting only accession to India or Pakistan are the options. In reality it wants the military incorporation of the state into its boundaries.

Thirdly, socialists must stress the need to build unity of the poor and exploited throughout the region, be they Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh. The Baluchis developed quite a sophisticated understanding of this whilst fighting the Pakistani state in the 1970s. 'We will fight for our right to self determination,' they said. But 'what is the point of fighting for my own self determination, if I do not also fight the landlords and the exploiters?'

The legacy of partition is that the people of the sub-continent have been divided on the grounds of religion and nationality. The alternative is undermining these divisions by building unity through class struggle.