MUSLIM SEPARATISTS are creating rising tension in the northern Indian province of Kashmir, strategically located on the borders of both Pakistan and China.
The immediate background of the current furore goes back to the 1947 partition of India. The division of the subcontinent gave the Muslims a separate homeland, Pakistan, which remains a theocratic state to this day. India, which has many religious minorities-not only Muslims but also Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Buddhists, Ba'hais, Jews, and others-maintained a commitment to secularism backed up by its constitution.
Kashmir, properly known as Jammu and Kashmir (J&K,) had been ruled by Muslims until the nineteenth century but then came under Hindu rule. At the time of partition all 565 rulers of India's princely states were given the option of joining India or Pakistan. Hari Singh, the Hindu ruler of Kashmir at the time of partition, could not make up his mind. But after Pakistan-sponsored tribesmen launched an unprovoked attack on his territory, he chose to join India. It was after this incident that Prime Minister Nehru sent Indian troops to protect the Western border with Pakistan from further incursions.
Meanwhile local Muslims under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah -a charismatic secularist and friend of Pandit Nehru-had been agitating against Hari Singh's right to decide on the future of Kashmir. In Abdullah's view, the people of Kashmir were much better qualified to determine their future than a degenerate ruler, whose extravagant and scandalous lifestyle was seen as particularly revolting, given the widespread poverty amongst his people.
Despite their dislike of Hari Singh, most Kashmiri Muslims at the time had no desire to join Pakistan, which was regarded as a feudal state. They were not lured by any material gains from India, it was simply that their ideals of justice, tolerance and equality matched India's commitment to Gandhian principles. This is logical, considering the strong Sufi traditions that have prevailed in Kashmir ever since Islam took hold in the region.
Of the seven million inhabitants of J&K, five million are Muslim, the rest are Hindu and Buddhist-the latter concentrated mostly in the Northern province of Ladakh. In the wake of violent attacks by separatist Muslims, most Hindus have fled from the valley of Kashmir to the Southern province of Jammu, where they are the majority. The Muslim separatists attacks accuse Indian security forces of using excessive force on innocent civilians. New Delhi has in fact reinforced its military personnel in the region, to counteract the Pakistan-backed secessionist movement.
Kashmiris have legitimate grounds for disgruntlement with their State administration. Under Sheikh Abdullah's leadership, corruption was rampant and development plans were sorely neglected. Indira Gandhi's advisers did not help matters by spreading rumours that Abdullah secretly desired to join Pakistan, which was untrue. In July 1984, her Congress Party coaxed Farooq Abdullah's brother-in-law, G.M. Shah, and other "defectors" from Abdullah's National Conference Party to overthrow him. This enraged most Kashmiris as well as opposition leaders throughout India. Nevertheless, Mrs. Gandhi sent in her troops to quell the riots that broke out all over Kashmir.
Mr. Shah's Congress-backed government did not last long, however. After Indira Gandhi's assassination, her son Rajiv called for national Parliamentary elections in which all three seats for Kashmir were won back by Farooq Abdullah's National Conference.
Ironically, the separatists, quick to exploit these political machinations, regarded Farooq Abdullah as Delhi's puppet-hardly plausible, given the trouble Farooq and his late father had convincing India's leaders of their genuine desire to keep their distance from Pakistan. Farooq Abdullah has also been unfairly suspected of being sympathetic to Sikh militants.
The J&K Liberation Front (JKLF) under Amanullah Khan, based in Azad (Pakistan-occupied) Kashmir, have been calling for an independent and reunited Kashmir. This group is believed to have engineered the kidnapping and eventual assassination of an Indian diplomat in Britain. Recently, they organised a march of volunteers who were prepared to cross the border, but were turned back by Pakistani troops.
Islamabad was not prepared to back the JKLF, presumably because even in international circles, the march was seen as a provocative move that would lead to further trouble: India said any border violations would be met by swift retaliation. Pakistan has already lost three wars with India over disputed territorial claims, while another squabble, over an undelineated frontier to the Karakoram Pass, continues to simmer.
There are two other factors. An independent Kashmir, could fuel separatist aspirations in Pakistan's own secessionist provinces of Sindh, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province. And JKLF publications expose the role of Inter Service Intelligence (Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA) in kidnappings and killings in Kashmir, and reveal the ISI's role in setting up a training base in Katmandu for Kashmiri militants.
Recent rallies in Britain organised by Kashmiri separatists disclose significant participation by Sikhs advocating an independent Khalistan.
For years, Western correspondents covering the menace of terrorism in Punjab-including the Globe and Mail's Bryan Johnson-have scoffed at Indian reports of training camps for terrorists in Pakistan and of the inflow of Afghan men and arms from Peshawar. But India Today, a well respected magazine, published an article by one of its correspondents, who was interviewed last year by a self-styled Sikh commando, on location at one such camp in Pakistan. Accompanying photographs made it evident that the separatists were not exactly publicity shy!
The Simla Agreement signed by Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1972, was drawn up to put an end to years of bickering by mutual acceptance of the 1950 ceasefire line of actual control. This could leave 30% of pre-partition Kashmir to Pakistan. However, the fires of Islamic fundamentalism have been raging across the Valley, helped along by militant proddings from Azad Kashmir and beyond.
A former Indian Ambassador to Pakistan recently drew attention to two significant factors that make it unlikely this problem will be quickly resolved. First, arms originally destined for the Afghan mujahideens are still finding their way to both Kashmir and Punjab. Secondly, the climate of terrorism and separatism in the region is being promoted by Pakistan's Intelligence and Security Service, which is not accountable to the "tripod" of power-shared by the President, the Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff.
India will need to create a climate of confidence in Kashmir that will provide locals with their basic needs, security and a committed administration before tourists begin to return and boost the economy. If Prime Minister Narasimha Rao can find an able administrator to address these problems over the next year or two, Kashmir's once placid surroundings could regain their place as one of India's foremost tourist attractions. This would also help put local craftsmen and entrepreneurs back to work. Because the only access to Kashmir from the south is via Punjab, it is vital for peace and stability to be restored in Punjab before Kashmiris can expect to see change for the better.
A peaceful solution to territorial, political, social and religious feuds in the entire region is crucial, now that both India and Pakistan are eager to establish direct links with neighboring Central Asian republics. Perhaps the bottom line for all nations will be to decide whether to take the fundamentalist route or opt for a secular approach that would allow pluralism to flourish within their borders.
Originally from India, Subir Gum is now a Toronto-based peace activist.