Roots of Kashmir conflict run deep


Warfare: Since gaining independence, India and Pakistan have fought two wars over the state. Now, with arenewed fighting, there are signs of a third.

May 28, 1999|By James S. Keat | James S. Keat,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's a tossup which is more intractable, the ethnic warfare in the former Yugoslavia or the religious-nationalist dispute over Kashmir. Both are deeply rooted in centuries of communal enmity that have no peaceful solution in sight.

One important difference is that the Serbs and their targets don't have nuclear technology, while India and Pakistan have the capacity to engulf the world in thermonuclear war. Another difference is that the international community has identified the villain in Yugoslavia, while India and Pakistan have so muddied the history of their 50-year-old argument that it's impossible to tell the good guys from the bad.

There probably never were any good guys, except for those Kashmiris who simply wanted to be left alone to make a living in the beautiful, mile-high valley in the Himalaya Mountains. They dreamed of being the Switzerland of South Asia, but that was extremely unlikely, given the passions their homeland inspires in neighboring India and Pakistan.

The two countries have fought three wars in their half-century of independence, two of them over Kashmir. Hard as it is to conceive that they would do so again, particularly using their nuclear arsenals, the leaders of both nations have miscalculated in the past. Communal mistrust has twisted the judgment even of leaders who were essentially secular in their personal beliefs. Secularism is in short supply in both countries these days.

The intensified fighting in recent days is particularly ominous. Neither side used air power during the skirmishing that led to the full-fledged war in 1965 until the fighting spread outside Kashmir.

The seeds of the Kashmir dispute were planted when Britain withdrew from India -- the jewel in the imperial crown -- in 1947. It partitioned the subcontinent into two nations, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Because of a legal fiction it had concocted almost a century earlier, Britain directly governed only part of the subcontinent. The rest consisted of the more than 500 so-called princely states, which were theoretically sovereign but acknowledged the "paramountcy" of the king-emperor in London.

Under the partition plan, princely states with Hindu majorities would opt for India and those with Muslim majorities -- in the northwestern and northeastern corners of the former colony -- would join Pakistan. By and large the scheme worked, though the actual partition of the subcontinent was carried out with sickening bloodshed and a massive exodus between the two new nations.

There were two notable exceptions. One is all but forgotten, though it is the flip side of the Kashmir dispute. The princely state of Hyderabad, in south central India, had a Muslim ruler and an overwhelmingly Hindu population. Its prince, the Nizam, toyed with joining Pakistan, though his landlocked state was completely surrounded by India. India settled the issue quickly and bloodlessly by sending in its army.

The other was the state of Jammu and Kashmir, its formal name. It has three culturally distinct parts. The Kashmir valley, roughly the size of the Baltimore metropolitan area, is its heartland, symbolically and physically. The valley's population is predominantly Muslim, though its Brahmin priestly caste is the highest of the high in the Hindu social structure.

To the southwest is Jammu, a Hindu-majority region in the piedmont between the plains and mountains. North of the valley is Ladakh, a mountainous region culturally and physically closer to Tibet than to India. China occupies a large piece of it and fought a brief border war with India in 1962 to protect its lines of communication at Tibet's back door.

When independence came in August 1947, Kashmir's Hindu ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, dithered over joining India or Pakistan. Within weeks, fierce Pathan tribesmen from Pakistan's western border crossed the new nation on the government-operated railway and swept into Kashmir. If the new government didn't actually organize the incursion, it certainly connived in it.

Alarmed, the maharaja quickly acceded to India in order to get help from Indian troops. To what extent he was forced to join India by the threat of withholding troops is in dispute. Indian soldiers were airlifted into the valley because there were at that time no modern roads from what was now India. Kashmir's historic lines of communication passed through what was by then Pakistan.

After months of fighting, India pushed the Pathans and Pakistani army reinforcements back into the western foothills bordering the valley. A cease-fire negotiated by the United Nations in January 1949 left both sides on the "line of actual control," which has become the de facto border between the Indian and Pakistani portions of the former princely state.

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