22 September 2002

Kashmir Is Still Ticking

By Gwynne Dyer

“The Pakistani uranium enrichment facilities, as far as we know, are working three shifts around the clock,” said Zia Mian, a Pakistani physicist at Princeton University, in late May. So far as we know, they still are. The threat of a war over Kashmir is not over; it has just gone quiet for a while.

But not, perhaps, for much longer. The last time that Pakistan and India went to the brink of a (potentially nuclear) war in May, it was Pakistan’s dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, who stepped back by promising to halt all infiltration of Islamist guerillas into the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. For two months he kept his word, but now the rate of infiltration is creeping back up again.

It’s not only the Indian government that is saying so. The US ambassador to New Delhi, Robert D. Blackwell, says that “infiltration is certainly still going on, and our judgement is that it is up in August and up in September.” Islamist terrorist groups in Pakistan who provide the volunteers for Kashmir say that the money and arms are flowing from the Inter-Services Intelligence agency in Islamabad again, if not as lavishly as before. The strongest evidence of all is the death toll since the Kashmir state elections were announced last month: over 300 people killed.

This is probably happening mainly because General Musharraf has scheduled parliamentary elections for Pakistan in October. As a military usurper of power, his only easy source of popularity is to take a hard line on Kashmir, a defining national issue for most Pakistanis. But if he doesn’t stop soon, then at the least we may expect another Indian ultimatum (the third this year). At worst, we may see an Indian attack designed to push the ‘line of control’ west and north beyond the passes that the infiltrators use.

An ideal time for that attack would be when everybody else is distracted by an American attack on Iraq. Many people in the Indian high command are convinced that they could sustain this kind of ‘limited’ offensive for at least a week before Pakistan pulled out its nuclear weapons — and then there would be a ceasefire that let them keep their gains.

This could be a fatal miscalculation that leads to the dropping of several hundred nuclear warheads on targets in India and Pakistan. Kashmir is obviously not worth megadeaths, and nobody has ever accused Indians and Pakistanis of being stupid, so how did things get this crazy? Why can’t they just make a deal?

The Kashmir problem is like an onion, with alternating layers of blame and guilt going all the way back to the partition of Britain’s Indian empire in 1947. The parts of the subcontinent that had been under direct British rule were simply divided between Muslim-majority provinces (Pakistan) and non-Muslim-majority areas (India), but the ‘princely states’ posed a special problem. They had signed treaties accepting the British empire’s protection as independent states, and theoretically a British withdrawal should mean they got their independence back.

In practice, the rulers of these states were all bribed or bullied into handing over their sovereignty very quickly except for Kashmir, where Hari Singh actually tried to re-establish it as an independent country. Since it had a highly mixed population, he reasoned — a narrow Muslim majority concentrated in the Vale of Kashmir, but also a large Hindu population and smaller Buddhist and Sikh communities — it didn’t fit well into either India or Pakistan.

That was unfair to India, which was explicitly a secular and not a ‘Hindu’ state, but it served Hari Singh’s purpose. If his gamble had succeeded, we would not now regard an independent, multi-ethnic Kashmir in the foothills of the Himalayas as any odder than an independent Nepal or Bhutan. But then tribal irregulars from Pakistan invaded Kashmir, seized about half the state (though mostly the mountainous, sparsely populated parts), and frightened Hari Singh into joining India.

The deal he cut gave Kashmir self-government in everything except defence, foreign and fiscal policy. The plebiscite on Kashmir’s future that was mandated by the United Nations in 1949 has never been held, but it could still have been a happy ending if the New Delhi bureaucrats and politicians could have left the deal alone.

In the first decades, sensible Indian governments accepted that the loyalties of Muslim Kashmiris, in particular, are always going to be a bit ambivalent, and worked with Kashmiri political moderates anyway. In the late 1980s, however. Indira Gandhi’s government began manipulating elections to produce more subservient Kashmiri leaders. When this led to armed attacks on Indian troops, New Delhi flooded Kashmir with soldiers and embarked on a campaign of savage repression. Reprisals, rapes, and political murders became commonplace, and one Indian official said publicly that “the bullet is the only solution for Kashmir.”

A great many bullets later, nothing is solved. Tens of thousands have died, and ISI-backed Pakistani Islamist groups have now largely supplanted the original local resistance (which is still more inclined to Kashmiri independence than to annexation by Pakistan). By now, there are so many layers of guilt that .every Indian and Pakistani can find plenty of reasons to feel self-righteous.

And unless Musharraf cuts back on infiltration again after next month’s election in Pakistan, we are heading for a war that would make Mr Bush’s planned Iraq outing look like a picnic.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“It’s not…killed”; and “An ideal…hope”)