Kashmir: The Most Dangerous Game

The Sorrow of War in Kashmir

An Indian soldier at Dal Lake, Kashmir, June 12, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

With mediation from Russia and the United States in June, India and Pakistan managed to back away from the brink of nuclear war. But no progress was made on the root of the conflict—the disputed state of Kashmir, which remains the subcontinent’s ticking bomb.

The boulevard beside the fabled Dal Lake is deserted, apart from some grazing cattle and a few forlorn souvenir stalls. Grand old houseboats are mostly empty and in disrepair. The lake itself is slowly dying, choked by an advancing tide of stinking weed and algae, the legacy of years of pollution and neglect.

This was once the peak tourist season in Srinagar, the time when thousands of travelers, from billionaires to budget trekkers, flocked to the Kashmir Valley to unwind amid the serenity of the lush green foothills of the Himalayas. Now the tourists have disappeared along with the jobs and prosperity they brought. Srinagar is now a city under siege in a brutal war zone. There are military checkpoints everywhere and fortified guard posts on most intersections. The streets are patrolled around the clock by trucks mounted with heavy machine guns and armored personnel carriers.

For half a century Kashmir has been the center of a bitter territorial feud between India and Pakistan; for 13 years it has been gripped by a separatist uprising that has claimed more than 34,000 lives, and for the past two weeks, it has been the focus of global trepidation at the prospect of the world’s first full-blown nuclear war. But as the military build-up continues on both sides of the Line of Control (LOC)—the U.N.-mandated boundary that separates the Indian and Pakistani halves of Kashmir—attention has scarcely focused on the history that has brought the two bitter rivals to the threshold of a fourth war since their partition at independence from Britain in 1947, this time under the menacing shadow of their newly acquired nuclear weapons.

India, which has threatened to attack Pakistan in response to a raid on a military base in Kashmir two weeks ago in which 34 were killed, and the assault on the Indian Parliament last December that left 14 dead, has won widespread international sympathy as a victim of terrorism. There has also been almost universal acceptance of New Delhi’s assertion that the root cause of the problem is Pakistan’s active support for militants infiltrating across the LOC.

This simplistic line—readily digested in the black-and-white world of post-Sept. 11 politics—largely ignores the extent to which India has been the architect of its own predicament. Equally, it ignores the fact that, while Pakistan has for years used Kashmir to fight a proxy war against India, at its heart the militancy in Kashmir is part of a broad nationalist movement that wants a future free of both meddling powers.

While acknowledging the provocation of Pakistan’s longstanding support for terrorist groups and their tactics, George Perkovich, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says: “India’s failure to offer decent governance and constructive engagement with Kashmiri dissidents created the current mess....”

The present crisis can be traced back to independence in 1947 when India seized the Kashmir Valley and its hinterland, promising the Muslim-majority population a plebiscite on their future, a promise that was never honored. The conflict turned violent in 1989 after years of corrupt and patronizing misrule from New Delhi, the rigging of elections to exclude nationalist candidates from power, and growing repression and human-rights abuses.

“For 40 years our people waged a peaceful and democratic struggle,” says professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of more than 20 separatist parties and groups. “It only turned violent after the Indians chose not to hear the heartbeat of the people and came down heavily on people waging a just...struggle.”

The cycle of violence has grown steadily worse over the past decade, with the Indian government responding to attacks on its forces by sending in more troops—estimated to total more than 500,000 before the latest border buildup—and cracking down harder on real and imagined threats.

In a report released last week, Amnesty International said an average of 100 people a month were killed by security forces and in indiscriminate attacks on civilian and military targets. “Hundreds of cases of torture, deaths in custody, extrajudicial executions, and ‘disappearances’ are reported every year,” the report said. “In most cases, no one is held to account for such human-rights violations.”

While its forces behave like an army of occupation, the government in New Delhi and its notoriously corrupt surrogate state administration treats the local population with contempt. Kashmir remains one of the most under-resourced states in India. There are no mobile telephone facilities in the state, and after the attack on  Parliament last December all STD telephone and Internet links were cut.

“Everything is now gone: security, order, honor,” says Bhat. “All structure of civilized life has come tumbling down amid the roar of guns....It is only the law of the jungle that prevails.” He argues that the separatist alliance does not condone terrorism but understands the motivation of “freedom fighters” opposing Indian rule.

Moderate Kashmiri politician Mehbooba Mufti, whose father was the Congress Party national home affairs minister in the early 1990s, says India is largely responsible for the present crisis: “They treat us like a colony....Every-thing is decided by Delhi. People cannot elect their own representatives. Every election has been rigged from the first one in 1951.” She says the international community is putting too much emphasis on calls for Pakistan to halt cross-border infiltration. “The question is not how sincere President Musharraf is, but how much power he has to control the situation. Pakistan must seek to stop the infiltration to ease tensions, but the Indian government must also take concrete steps to bring about a dialogue.”

The assassination of Abdul Ghani Lone—a separatist leader prepared to negotiate a compromise settlement with India—is seen as evidence that the terrorism in Kashmir has moved beyond the capacity of either India or Pakistan to quickly bring it under control. “The pan-Islamic jihadis (holy warriors) are pushing India and Pakistan toward conflict as part of their plan to polarize the region between Muslim and non-Muslim,” says political commentator Husain Haqqani, a former adviser to the Bhutto and Sharif governments in Pakistan. The killing is also seen as evidence that the militants, estimated to number as many as 3,000, and some of whom are Arabs and Chechens linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network, will not only ignore directions from Pakistan but will also fight any attempts by moderate Kashmiris to reach a peace deal.

Bhat says the Hurriyat parties are willing to be flexible and consider a wide range of possible outcomes if India is prepared to sit down and negotiate a solution to the crisis. One possibility, he says, is that both Indian and Pakistani troops withdraw from their parts of Kashmir under U.N. supervision and allow the establishment of an interim administration pending a referendum on the future of the territory after five years.

The problem is that India has shown no willingness to compromise over Kashmir in the past 50 years, and so far, there is little evidence that the United States and its allies are ready to acknowledge that New Delhi’s conduct in Kashmir is fundamental to the present crisis, let alone pressure India to honor the right to self-determination. And there is equal skepticism that Pakistan is about to surrender its political leverage in Kashmir.

“We are being held hostage by these two nations,” says Sajad Ghani Lone, the son of the assassinated politician.  “Kashmir’s interests do not converge with the interests of India and Pakistan. They only look at us in terms of miles of territory....” The pessimists’ view is that peace is as distant as ever for Kashmir because both Pakistan and India have powerful reasons for maintaining the conflict—provided it can be kept at a level short of outright war. Some analysts in Pakistan believe the uprising in Kashmir during the past decade has given Islamabad defense on the cheap with a relative handful of militants tying up more than half a million Indian troops. For India, others argue, Kashmir is justification for maintaining the power elite that has grown up around one of the world’s biggest armies.

“A lot of people have a vested interest in ensuring the problem of Kashmir is never solved,” says Sajad Ghani Lone. “It is a huge moneymaking machine. It’s big business with guaranteed profits: The more killing there is, the more money you make. Kashmir is about power and money. That is Kashmir’s sorrow.”