Kashmir: idyllic battleground?

By Subir Guin | 1994-07-01 12:00:00

Kashmir, India's fabled valley, is the scene of turmoil that is nearing its fifth year. Kashmir continues to be a major flashpoint in the sub-continent, where separatists have been increasingly violent, emboldened by the support of men and arms flowing across the border from Pakistan. The disturbances have ruined the tourist industry and have enabled anti-Indian elements to exploit the serious rift between its people, local administrators, and law-enforcement agencies.

Over the past year, the ratio of India's Border Security Forces (BSF) and military personnel to local residents has increased. This alone causes great resentment amongst the predominantly Muslim population. Hindu residents, vastly outnumbered before the trouble began, became easy targets for widespread threats and fled the valley to the safety of Jammu. The Eastern sector of Kashmir-specifically the province of Ladakh-adjacent to Tibet and familiar to many travellers, is predominantly Buddhist.

New Delhi must bear some responsibility for years of bureaucratic bungling and insensitivity towards local concerns that have antagonized Kashmiris and even Ladakhis. The fact that the nation is beseiged by a host of problems, most of which defy quick solutions, does not excuse Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's cabinet for failing to resolve a problem that has been festering since Indira Gandhi was at the helm. Rao needs to provide an administration that not only upholds secularism but one that implements policies that can restore a degree of normalcy and demonstrate sensitivity to regional concerns. Until these prerequisites are addressed, Kashmiris will be reluctant to negotiate with officials appointed by Prime Minister Rao.

However, dissuading Kashmiris from offering sanctuary to separatists is not something that can be achieved easily.

Incidents such as the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya by anti-secularist Hindus have not helped, even though most Indians are aware that it was organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) purely for a political purpose-to consolidate the right-wing Hindu vote.

Pakistan of course seizes such opportunities to paint a picture of nationwide attacks on Muslims, while their Inter Services Intelligence (ISI-Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA) actively fuels a proxy war. The separatists loudly protest human rights violations on the part of India's Border Security Forces (BSF), random arrests and detentions without charge --issues that Pakistan's Ambassador to the United Nations tabled at Geneva. India admitted that the BSF may have at times used excessive force in their zeal to track down terrorists; however, given the war-like environment that prevails, the Indian government's decision to augment the military presence in this strategic part of the country may be an unpopular but unavoidable option if negotiations don't work.

More to the point, Islamabad has never forgiven India for her role in the split that created Bangladesh. Now Pakistan wants to wrest Kashmir from India, and has skillfully enjoined other Islamic nations to assist them in this "Holy War." Fundamentalists and volunteers from Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and even Bosnia are being actively recruited to "liberate" their fellow-Muslims in Kashmir.

Afghans have been involved ever since the subcontinent was partitioned; more so since 1979, after their Mujahideen were supplied by the CIA with sophisticated weapons for use against the Soviets. These weapons have been turning up in the hands of captured terrorists in Kashmir. Islamabad denies being involved, but the gun running business at the Afghan / Pakistan border is flourishing as never before.

In his book, The Diffusion of Small Arms & Light Weapons in Pakistan & Northern India, Chris Smith of the Centre for Defence Studies in London states that "in Pakistan, the ISI have largely pursued their own national and foreign policies... providing weapons and training for Kashmiri and Punjabi militant groups since the early '80s."

This was borne out when Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was tipped off by personal friends in the U.S. administration about a nuclear strike on India her own generals were planning! Further-more, Pakistan's Air Force is acquiring F-16 interceptors from the U.S.-a highly destabilizing agreement, from India's standpoint, since F-16s are capable of carrying nuclear bombs. If Pakistan's military leaders have problems taking orders from their Head of State, how can her neighbors feel secure?

The State Department's investigations into Pakistan's recent covert attempts to acquire components for nuclear weapons, revealed that their military brass had their own agenda. Had Pakistan not played such a useful intermediary for arms shipments to the Afghan Mujahideen, the U.S. might have declared Pakistan to be a terrorist state for providing sanctuary to separatists from India.

One of the principal fundamentalist groups active in Kashmir, Hizbul Mujahedin, want the State to be part of Pakistan. At the moderate end of the political spectrum is the JKLF (Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front), advocating independence for Kashmir, rather than joining either India or Pakistan. In between there are groups who would be content with a degree of autonomy for the State. The insurgency as a whole bears some resembiance to the Afghan Mujahideen who were frequently at cross purposes with one another.

Some argue that without Pakistan's interference in Kashmir's problems, the level of insurgency would be nowhere as serious as it has been since 1989. However, the Congress Party's choice of leaders, their dismissal and subsequent reinstatement, destroyed Kashmiri confidence.

The emergence of the BJP has added yet another problem for the present administration. It is the only political party of note that challenges the Indian Constitution article prohibiting non-Kashmiris from purchasing real estate in the province. The purpose of this clause was to prevent non-Muslims from settling in Kashmir, thereby upsetting the demographic mix.

As Sumit Ganguly points out in Current History (December 1993), "oddly, ... the spate of violence is an indicator of the success of Indian democracy. Because of the...extension of the franchise, long-quiescent minorities are beginning to demand ...their privileges in society... (Their) increased assertiveness and slowly improving socioeconomic status have sown misgivings among many in India's dominant group."

The BJP has chosen to play on the fears and anxieties these developments have aroused among the Hindu majority, whipping up communal hatred and bloody conflict."

Indians will have to ponder the consequences of such detrimental policies and then decide if they want parties like the BJP to govern their country. The situation in Kashmir will in all likelihood continue to simmer until Delhi's Home Minister S.B. Chavan and Rajesh Pilot, Minister for Internal Security, settle their squabbles: Chavan resents Pilot's proposal to dialogue with some of the militant groups. Meanwhile the BSF and lndian Army try to keep the militants at bay and maintain a semblance of civil order.

Subir Guin is an editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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