Kashmir, a tragic feud

Enemies: The first war was in 1947, soon after the partition of India and Pakistan, and the large and beautiful state is still the subcontinent's powder keg.

January 13, 2002|By Trevor Fishlock | Trevor Fishlock,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

POOR KASHMIR. It lies in the Himalayan ramparts where the borders of India, Pakistan and China rub together. Reality mocks its beauty. There is no escaping the permeating melancholy of a land that lies under the gun. It is as if malevolent gods, jealous of its loveliness, placed a curse on it.

The poison entered the garden in 1947 when the war-weary British quit their Indian empire and partitioned it. They had no wish to cut it up: One of their imperial achievements, they said, was to have united India and made it secure. They divided it to meet the demands of Muslim leaders who said that Hindus and Muslims could not live together in one country, that the communities formed two separate nations. Pakistan was created as a homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims.

Britain ruled India with the cooperation of more than 500 Indian princes, a galaxy of maharajahs, rajahs, ranas, raos, khans, mirs, jams, nizams and nawabs, loyal to the British crown, well-oiled with flattery, some fantastically rich and a few of them barmy. In the summer of 1947, these rulers had to choose whether to take their states into India or Pakistan. It was a personal decision, without referendum.

Public opinion hardly came into it. Most princes joined India. Most knew they would be extinguishing themselves as a ruling class, but it was clear to all but a few that the game was up. On the eve of independence, all had made up their minds except four.

The Maharajah of Kashmir, Sir Hari Singh, was one of the ditherers. He was vain, pompous and addicted to hunting bears and shooting ducks. As a young man he had an unfortunate scrape in London, being found in bed with a woman at the Savoy Hotel and milked for money by a blackmailer pretending to be the woman's husband.

At partition, Kashmir, more fully known as Jammu and Kashmir, was in a key position: a prize because it was a large state and famously beautiful, a honeymooners' resort of lakes and cool alpine meadows.

Given its place on the map, it could have swung to India or to Pakistan. Because of its overwhelming Muslim majority, Pakistan's new leaders expected that it would join their Islamic entity. But the maharajah had to decide - and he was a Hindu. This was not unusual. In princely India, Muslims often ruled Hindus and vice versa. But Hari Singh dithered. He could not believe that the British would really go home. He did not want to join Pakistan because he could not bear the thought of his state being subsumed. He dreamed that Kashmir could somehow be an independent country, and he could keep his power.

India and Pakistan became independent in August. Hari Singh was still dithering in October. As he fiddled, the storm broke. Thousands of Pathan warriors from the North-West Frontier, bordering Afghanistan, rushed into Kashmir, vowing to seize it for Pakistan. They were a rabble, but they might have succeeded. They were close to Srinagar, the capital, when they were delayed by their lust for loot and women. While they pillaged towns and raped girls and nuns, Hari Singh gathered up his diamonds and Purdey shotguns and fled his palace in a motorcade.

India acted decisively. In a flurry of action, the maharajah agreed to join India, and Indian forces flew to save Srinagar. This was the first Kashmir war, not an all-out confrontation but a series of fights and communal conflicts. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of Pakistan, wanted to send the new Pakistan regular army into action, but did not do so when the absurdity of the situation was pointed out: The forces of India and Pakistan shared a British commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, while many officers on both sides were British.

Kashmir was left divided along the line where fighting stopped in 1948. A United Nations cease-fire went into effect Jan. 1, 1949.

In 1965, Pakistan tried and failed to annex Kashmir and was defeated in brief and bitter fighting. At one stage, Indian forces were almost at the gates of Lahore and could easily have taken it. Pakistan's leaders believed that Kashmiris would welcome Pakistani troops as liberators. It was a shock that they did not. In 1971, India and Pakistan went to war again, India assisting the secession of East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh. Pakistan was left truncated and humiliated.

Yet the story of a vacillating maharajah and the ensuing bloody quarrel over territory is only the half of it. Kashmir is a tragedy for its divided people and a continuing source of danger in a subcontinent inhabited by a fifth of the world's population. The tragedy has deep roots. Kashmir is the offspring of bitterly divorced parents. Pakistan aches for it but will never possess it. India will never let it go. The trouble is that both sides define themselves by this feud.

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