With much speculation as to what exactly happened in Kashmir in recent months, it is important to frame the conflict with both historical and geopolitical context. In order to understand whether this is ‘business as usual,’ or a genuine change in status quo, one must first understand the nature of the region. In this piece, Ananay Agarwal attempts to provide an overview on the history and geopolitics of the region which form the seeds of the modern-day conflict. It will also attempt to explain points of view from both the Indian and Pakistani perspective.
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Legend has it that when the great Central Asian conqueror Babur, descendent of both Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame, first set foot into Kashmir on his quest to conquer the Subcontinent, he exclaimed that “if there is a heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!”
On entering the region, he would have discovered breathtaking geography, and the diverse and complex demographics that tend to congregate in all places of natural geographic wealth. Those same features persist in Kashmir to this day, and in this primer, we will attempt to understand the geography, history and geopolitics of Kashmir and the wider region, and provide a lens through which to view this tense and divisive subject.
Until the mid-19th century, the term “Kashmir” denoted only the lush Kashmir Valley between the Himalayas and the Pir Panjal Range. But today, it colloquially denotes a greater area that includes the Indian-administered territory of Jammu and Kashmir (which includes the divisions Jammu, Kashmir Valley, and Ladakh), the Pakistani-administered territories of Azad Kashmir (Free Kashmir) and Gilgit-Baltistan, and Chinese-administered territories of Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract. This corresponds roughly with the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, formed in 1845 after the First Anglo-Sikh War. The historical capitals have been Srinagar in the Muslim dominated Vale of Kashmir, and Jammu in the region of Jammu.
It is also home to sources of many of the major rivers of the Subcontinent. The rivers in green flow into Pakistan and in Blue to India.
India administers Jammu, the Kashmir Valley, Ladakh, and the Siachen Glacier, while Pakistan administers Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. China administers the mostly uninhabited Shaksgam Valley, and the Aksai Chin region.
It can be tempting to think of Kashmir as a region with a homogeneous identity, a nation state stuck between three nuclear armed neighbours. But like always, the devil lies in the details.
As per the 2011 Census of India, the Kashmir Valley accounts for over half (54.9%) of the population of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and a little less than 15.7% of the total landmass area. Almost all (96.4%) of the Valley’s population is Muslim. The Jammu Division accounts for 42.9% of the population of J&K, and over 25.9% of its total landmass area. Almost 62.5% of Jammu’s population is Hindu, and the remaining 33.5% Muslim. Ladakh, which accounts for just 2.8% of the population of J&K has 58.4% of its total landmass area. It further comprises of Buddhist-dominated Leh and Shi’a Muslim-dominated Kargil. Muslims constitute about 46.4% of the population, the remainder being Buddhists (39.7%) and Hindus (12.1%). The people of Ladakh are of Indo-Tibetan origin, while the southern area of Jammu includes many communities tracing their ancestry to the nearby Indian states.
The population of Azad Kashmir, according to the preliminary results of the 2017 Census of Pakistan, is 4.45 million and is almost entirely Muslim. The people of this region culturally differ from the Kashmiris living in the Kashmir Valley, and are closer to the culture of Jammu. The estimated population of Gilgit-Baltistan in 2013 was over 2 million and consists of many diverse linguistic, ethnic, and religious sects, due in part to the many isolated valleys separated by some of the world’s highest mountains. The population of Gilgit-Baltistan is entirely Muslim and is denominationally the most diverse in the country. The region is also the only Shi’a-majority area in an otherwise Sunni-dominant Pakistan.
Aksai Chin consists mostly of uninhabited land, salt flats and is inhabited largely by nomadic groups that travel in and out of the region from the North East Corner. As such, reliable information on Aksai Chin is unavailable.
As this shows, the modern-day territory of “Kashmir” is a far-cry from the homogeneous area some would have you believe. It is important to understand this as this helps understand the nuances of the situation.
Two Nation Theory
To go a little into the history of the Sub-continent, we must first understand the foundational nation building theory of India and Pakistan.
The British Empire had a policy of ‘Divide et Impera’, or divide and rule, which it used very effectively. Essentially, this was a policy of pitting different groups of people within the same territory against each other so that they couldn’t unite against a common enemy, i.e. The British Empire. Its effects can still be felt in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Cyprus, and of course, the Sub-continent is no different. Here, the Empire sowed mistrust between were Hindus and Muslims. Over a long period of nearly 200 years, this policy was so fruitful that it even caused a schism in the language spoken by the two communities, with Hindustani breaking into Hindi and Urdu.
This policy gradually reached a head when views were propounded that Hindus and Muslims represent essentially two different civilisations in the subcontinent, and are “two separate nations by every definition”. This is the founding principle of the state of Pakistan. On the other hand, the founding principle of the Republic of India is a more secular approach, arguing that Hindus and Muslims in the Subcontinent are two inter-twined communities and thus are a single Indian Nation. This theory is central to the conflict.
The 1945 Tug-o-War
When the Last Viceroy of India announced his intention to partition British India in 1947, the 550 or so princely states were given the choice to join either of the new emergent states of India or Pakistan, or to remain an independent state altogether. Under this backdrop, 3 states became the flashpoints in the struggle between Pakistan and India. We will look at the two – Hyderabad and Junagadh – before Kashmir. It is these two that set the precedent for the conflict in Kashmir and the state of J&K.
Hyderabad was the wealthiest and most powerful principality in British India. The Nizam of Hyderabad was a Muslim ruler presiding over a largely Hindu population, surrounded by India on all sides. He chose independence and hoped to remain separate from both of the new states. After repeated diplomatic attempts, India found it necessary to send troops into the state in September 1948 (a year after the British left) to ‘compel’ the Nizam, and he subsequently signed an instrument of accession, joining India. This annexation, known as Operation Polo, resulted in a large loss of life, with estimates ranging from 30,000 to 40,000.
From the Indian perspective, Hyderabad was annexed because it represented a large and credible geopolitical threat to the stability of the new country. The erstwhile princely state almost divided the country in half and could very well have been a thorn in India’s side.
But Pakistan saw it differently. From its perspective, it saw that India had just established the precedent that it was the population of a princely state that decided if it would join ‘Hindu’ India or ‘Muslim’ Pakistan. The religion of its ruler was immaterial.
The state of Junagadh represents a different story altogether. The Nawab of Junagadh was also a Muslim ruler ruling over a Hindu majority population. However, after some thinking, the Nawab Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III decided to join Pakistan. When Pakistan accepted the Nawab’s instrument of accession in September 1947 (just a few months after independence), India was outraged. How could ‘Muslim’ Pakistan accept the accession of Junagadh despite the argument that Hindus and Muslims could not live under one nation?
India offered Pakistan time to reverse its acceptance of the accession to hold a plebiscite in Junagadh. However, eventually India forcibly annexed the principality. A plebiscite was conducted in December 1947, in which approximately 99.95% of the population chose India over Pakistan.
If Hyderabad represented a confirmation of the two-nation theory, then Junagadh represented its anti-thesis. Clearly, the matter was far from clear.
Partition of Kashmir
Now that we have a strong idea of the backdrop of the setting, the problem of Kashmir can be seen with a clearer lens.
The King of the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir in 1947 was Hari Singh, who had ascended to the throne in 1925. In the run up to partition, the two major parties in the state were the National Conference (tilting towards India) and the Muslim Conference (tilting towards Pakistan). While the Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists of the kingdom were firmly in favour of joining India, the Muslim population was much more divided. While the Muslim population of The Frontier Districts Province (labelled ‘Northern Areas’ in the map) was fiercely pro-Pakistan, the Muslim population of the Kashmir Valley was much more ambivalent. They were neither caught up with the Two Nation Theory of Pakistan nor of the secular Nationalism of India. To decrease pressure from both nations to join either of them, the King signed a standstill agreement with Pakistan, allowing citizens of the princely state to continue to trade and travel with the new country. India did not sign a similar agreement.
Pakistan made significant efforts to persuade the King of J&K to join the state, however the King remained indecisive within the capital city of Srinagar. Meanwhile, partition fuelled sectarian violence raged across the nascent nations.
This is where the events of history get conflicting. From the Indian perspective, soon large swathes of western J&K were overrun by pro-Pakistan rebels, funded by Pakistan. In September of 1947, Pashtun tribal warriors from Pakistan also began streaming into Kashmir. The King fled to India and asked for help, but India stated that in order to gain military assistance, the state would have to accede to India. The King agreed and signed the Instrument of Accession in October 1947, thus becoming a part of India officially.
According to Pakistan however, India had acquired the accession through “fraud and violence,” since the majority of the population was Muslim. Further, Pakistan claims that Indian forces were in Kashmir before the Instrument of Accession was signed, and that therefore India had violated international law and coerced the King. The resulting First Kashmir War lasted until the end of 1948.
Hence, it is not a simple thing to unravel this geopolitical quagmire.
The matter was put to the UN, and the UN Security Council passed Resolution 47 on 21 April, 1948. The measure called for an immediate cease-fire and called on the Government of Pakistan ‘to secure the withdrawal from the state of Jammu and Kashmir of tribesmen and Pakistani nationals not normally resident therein who have entered the state for the purpose of fighting.’ It also asked the Government of India to reduce its forces to ‘minimum strength’, after which the circumstances for holding a plebiscite should be put into effect ‘on the question of Accession of the state to India or Pakistan.’ It was not until 1 January 1949 that the ceasefire could be put into effect.
Conflict also arose between the two countries in interpreting the resolution. From India’s perspective, it had legal possession of the princely state due to the signing of the Instrument of Accession, and that the assistance given by Pakistan to the tribesmen and rebels was a hostile act and de facto invasion of Indian territory. A plebiscite was therefore to confirm the accession, which would only be conducted when Pakistan removed its presence from the territory.
Pakistan, however, ascertained that J&K had signed the Standstill Agreement, whoch precluded the princely state from signing any agreements with other countries. It also held that since the King had fled from his capital and his people had rebelled, he had no authority to execute a legal accession. Furthermore, the rebellion and tribal incursions were – from Pakistan’s perspective – actually indigenous and spontaneous, not being assisted by Pakistan. It also believed that if it were to remove its troops from the territory, India would rig the plebiscite and not conduct a genuine one.
Hence, even today, no agreement has been reached with regards to demilitarisation.
Abrogation of Special Status
To skip over 70 years of proxy war and two full-blown wars, we come to 2019 when the Indian government announced a change in its policy towards the state. The Indian government abolished two special provisions granted to J&K, the Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, and split the state into two ‘Union Territories’.
As per this Article, the Indian Parliament in New Delhi needed the state government’s concurrence to apply laws in all matters except defence, foreign affairs, finance and communications. Thus, in effect the state’s residents lived a under separate set of laws from the rest of India, from those related to fundamental rights to those of citizenship.
India argues that the Article came into effect in 1949, a full two years after accession. Further, the wording of the law makes it clear that it was a ‘temporary provision.’ Hence, India feels it is within its rights to strike down the law and allow full integration of the state into India. However, Pakistan and indeed many Kashmiris feel that India betrayed the people of Kashmir in removing this article.
This Article was adopted in May 1954 through a Presidential Order, and empowed J&K to accord ‘permanent residents’ of the state special rights and privileges. Non-recipients of this status were not extended these privileges and rights. These rights included, but were not limited to purchase of property within the state, obtaining of government jobs, voting in elections, and others. India believed that this article granted a free hand to the J&K government to discriminate against citizens of India. The article was deemed especially discriminatory to women, since if a Kashmiri women were to marry an ‘outsider,’ she could never inherit or buy property in the state, in perpetuity.
The constitution of India defines a union territory as an administrative division of the country that is governed directly by the central government of India, unlike a ‘state’ that has its own state government. The new borders of the union territories are mapped below:
Importantly, India did not segregate Jammu from Kashmir, only separating Ladakh. This can be seen as another continued rejection of the Two Nation Theory by India.
As always with geopolitics, the future remains uncertain. The Indian Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, has stated on record that ‘full state status will be restored to J&K at appropriate time.’ However, he has not given a timeline to implement the change nor has he stated what exactly would qualify as the ‘appropriate time.’
Meanwhile, both countries have been on a diplomatic blitzkrieg. Pakistan believes that the recent change will ‘push more people into extremism’, while India views this as a strictly internal matter. Regardless, the Valley of Kashmir – as of writing this article in September 2019 – is still under a heavy military presence. In the personal assessment of the analyst writing this piece, the threat of escalation to full-blown war between the neighbours is quite low, especially taking into account the nuclear deterrence enjoyed by both sides. Meanwhile, there is a high expectation of the diplomatic “war of words” to continue into the near future.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
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- War at the Top of the World (Eric Margolis)
- Shadow States: India, China and the Himalayas 1910-1962 (Bérénice Guyot-Réchard)
- Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War (Victoria Schofield)
- The Kashmir Conflict: From Empire to the Cold War, 1945-66 (Rakesh Ankit)
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Ananay Agarwal is a graduate of Delhi University and is currently a master’s student of Economics at the Institut d’études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), and focuses on India and the wider South Asia region in both modern and historical geopolitics. He has gained first-hand experience in India’s burgeoning public-policy sector, having worked with several Members of Parliament during his studies.
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Photo credit: Aatiph