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Current Events: The History of the Kashmir Crisis
It seems that if one digs deep enough, one can blame the British and the French for pretty much every conflict going on today...
Kashmir has been dubbed “the most dangerous place on Earth” and media outlets like VICE and the BBC get a real kick out of sensationalizing the intermittent violence that occurs in this hotly contested region. But what Western media outlets often fail to mention, is that the current territorial dispute over what was formerly known as the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu, can be essentially boiled down to “imperialist meddling”.
On August 14, 1947, the former British Raj split into the countries we now know as the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This is known as “the Partition of India” and the split involved the division of two provinces, Bengal and Punjab, and occurred along religious lines, displacing over 10 million people of both Hindu and Muslim faiths in the process. As the British colonial project usually favored indirect rule, there were also 560 “princely states” within the former British Raj that needed to choose between joining India, Pakistan, or declaring independence. Some princely states chose India, others Pakistan, and some chose independence, only to be forcibly annexed by India, as was the case with the princely state of Hyderabad, or forcibly annexed by Pakistan, as was the case with the princely state of Kalat. The decisions of the princely states were overwhelmingly NOT decided by plebiscite, and the rulers of these princely states generally made the decision based on their own judgment and the judgment of their courts. In states like Hyderabad and Kashmir and Jammu, this caused increased political tension because the rulers of these states were of a different religion than the majority of their population. In Hyderabad, the Nizam or ruler, was a man named Osman Ali Khan, and he was Muslim whereas the majority of the population of Hyderabad was Hindu. Because of this, the Nizam opted for independence in 1947, hoping the contingent of British Army troops and and Muslim militia known as Razakars, would keep the peace and autonomy of Hyderabad. Sadly, the militant Razakars instead fueled mass violence in an attempt to quell the Telegana uprising, and Indian Army forces invaded Hyderabad in September 1948 to compel the Nizam to stop the violence. The Nizam subsequently acceded to India, and Hyderabad formally joined the Dominion of India that same month. The Sunderlal Committee, commissioned by Indian Prime Minister Jawahalal Nehru, estimated that upwards of 200,000 people lost their lives between 1947 and 1948 during the Telegana Uprising, Razakar massacres, and the Indian invasion of Hyderabad.
In the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu, the situation was similar, but with a reversal of religions. The Maharaja Hari Singh was the Hindu ruler of Kashmir and Jammu, and the state was 77% Muslim at the time of the dissolution of the Raj and the Partition. Like the Nizam, the Maharaja initially opted for independence as a means of keeping the peace, fearing that acceding to India would spark violent revolt amongst his majority Muslim population, and that acceding to Pakistan would put the Hindu and Sikh minorities of Kashmir and Jammu in danger. However, the Maharaja sent mixed signals when he fired his Prime Minister, Ram Chandra Kak, who had advocated for Kashmir and Jammu’s independence. This move was seen by both Pakistan and India, as a sign that the Maharaja was about to join Kashmir and Jammu to the Dominion of India. The Pakistani response was swift, violent and…stupid. Instead of promising the Maharaja that Hindus and Sikhs in Kashmir and Jammu would have full rights in the newly created state of Pakistan, the Pakistani government instead funneled weapons to paramilitary groups inside Kashmir and Jammu, to stir up revolt against the Maharaja. Some say Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father and first Governor-General, wrote to the Maharaja promising favorable treatment if he acceded to Pakistan, but this is still speculation, as there is no hard proof this letter exists. There is, however, evidence that Jinnah’s All-Muslim League encouraged armed revolt in Kashmir and Jammu, and planned a full scale invasion of the state to occur that year.
Things only got worse as displaced Hindus and Sikhs from Rawalpindi and Sialkot began trickling into the Jammu division. They brought with them horror stories of the violence faced by Hindus and Sikhs leaving Rawalpindi (now known as Pindi) and Sialkot, which are both located in the present day Punjab province of Pakistan. This led to reprisals by Hindus and Sikhs in Jammu, with many Jammu Muslims being killed or driven into West Punjab, which is now part of the Punjab Province of Pakistan. There is significant evidence that the Maharaja encouraged these violent reprisals and supported groups like the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) a right wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization. The widespread Muslim belief that the Maharaja instigated the violence in Jammu led to an uprising in Poonch in the spring of 1947, and the establishment of a breakaway Azad Kashmir government.
The Maharaja’s new Prime Minister, Mehr Chand Mahajan, reached out to Nehru and the Indian statesman Sardar Patel in September 1947 for India’s help in procuring essential supplies that the Pakistani government and the Azad government were blockading. Mahajan communicated the Maharaja’s willingness to accede to India, but Nehru demanded that the Maharaja release the jailed Muslim political leader Sheikh Abdullah to demonstrate his willingness for peaceful resolution, and then the state would be allowed to accede to India. Jawahalal Nehru was a secularist Hindu and a protege of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, and also the one time friend and colleague of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He was imprisoned by the British during the Quit India movement of the 1940s, and he believed that the British had played Muslims and Hindus against each other in the 1930s and 1940s to stifle the Indian independence movement. Considering that the British government began courting Muhammad Ali Jinnah soon after he left the Indian National Congress in 1920, and the British only arrested members of the National Congress in 1940, while allowing the equally separatist All-Muslim League to dominate Indian politics freely, Nehru may have been right.
The Maharaja agreed to release Sheikh Abdullah on 29 September, but Pakistani troops invaded before any reforms or redress could be made. The Maharaja’s troops were outnumbered and he reached out to the head of the British provisional government in India and Pakistan, Governor-General Lord Louis Mountbatten, for assistance. As the Governor-General of India, Lord Mountbatten was required to oversee the Partition and the movement of British troops out of India and Pakistan. While the troops remained, however, their main job was to keep the peace during the transition and in that, the British government failed spectacularly. Although the Hindu nationalist factions had been imprisoned and subdued throughout the Indian independence movement, once independence was achieved, the British government, headed by Mountbatten, seemed to favor India over Pakistan in all matters. Instead of mobilizing British forces to assist the Maharaja in keeping the peace, Lord Mountbatten instead insisted that the Maharaja accede his majority Muslim populated state to INDIA before he would allow India to intercede on the Maharaja’s behalf. On 26 October 1947, the Maharaja of Kashmir and Jammu did just that, and the modern day Kashmir conflict was born.
Jawahalal Nehru, being much less of a fool than Lord Mountbatten, added a proviso to the accession that essentially made it provisional. It stated that “reference to the people" after the state is cleared of the invaders, since "only the people, not the Maharaja, could decide where Kashmiris wanted to live”. The National Conference of Kashmir and Jammu, the largest political party in the state, headed by the recently released Sheikh Abdullah, endorsed the accession on those terms, and on 27 October 1947, Indian troops were airlifted into Kashmir and Jammu and lifted a siege on Srinagar Airport. National Conference members also assisted in this effort, and journalists and observers marveled to see Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs all working together to assist one another and rebuild their communities. It seemed all was well in Kashmir and Jammu, and Nehru and Abdullah looked forward to working together to ensure that all Indians, regardless of religion, would be able to live peacefully in the region. Ah, but the British…
Within the state of Kashmir and Jammu, in the northernmost part of the state, lies the Gilgit Agency. The Gilgit Agency was an administrative district that had been leased to the British Army from the Maharajas of Kashmir and Jammu, for the purposes of preventing Russian encroachment into the British Raj, but was returned to the Maharaja after independence. A special force known as the Gilgit Scouts was recruited from the local population, and served under the leadership of British commanders. One such commander, a Major W.A. Brown, decided he did not like the Maharaja’s decision to accede to India, and rebelled against the government of Kashmir and Jammu on 1 November 1947. It was a bloodless coup, and local leaders in Gilgit appointed Shah Rais Khan as President and Mirza Hassan Khan as Commander-in-Chief. But Major W.A. Brown had other plans. He had already communicated to the Pakistani government that he wanted them to take over. The provisional government raised by the local leaders in Gilgit were unable to persuade the majority of the population that independence was more favorable and as such, most of the Kashmiri leadership agreed to accession to Pakistan. This move led to the First Kashmir War between Pakistan and India.
From 1948 onward, lots of diplomatic ink was spilled in both directions as a means of ending the conflict in Kashmir, but two things have repeatedly hindered the peace: Pakistan’s use of irregular forces in Kashmir, so as to maintain plausible deniability, and India’s dishonest dealing. When Jinnah proposed a plebiscite so that the people of Kashmir could decide which country they wanted to be part of, he was also secretly arming tribal groups in the Punjab hinterlands to continue sneaking into Kashmir, and when Nehru agreed to the plebiscite, he did so with no intentions of upholding the vote if it did not go in India’s favor (at least, according to V.P. Menon, a secretary in India’s Ministry of States). The United Nations has interceded on multiple occasions, as have the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States, but in these instances, the UK and US governments were primarily interested in exploiting the conflict to prevent both Pakistan and India from turning to the Communist USSR for assistance, and so neither country was ultimately any help. Throughout all of this, the Kashmiri people have suffered and their wishes have gone unheard, as the now nuclear states of Pakistan and India continue their deadly dance for control of the region.