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Victoria Schofield

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Why Kashmir is Still Important, Asian Affairs, Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, March 2015.



Who has not heard of the Vale of Kashmir
With its roses the brightest that earth ever gave
Its temples and grottos and fountains as clear
As the love lightened eye that hang over the wave?

The  oriental romance, Lalla Rookh,  written in the 19th century by Irish poet and songwriter, Thomas Moore, demonstrates the interest and love of a region which Moore had never visited. So why is this distant region – Kashmir - so important?  Or more precisely,   why should we still be concerned about the state of Jammu and Kashmir located where the three great mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush Karakorams and Himalayas meet? Why am I standing addressing this issue seventeen years after I last spoke to the Society on Kashmir in May 1997?
Firstly, because - since then - the ground realities have barely changed.  Yet the world has become more dangerous. As you all know, since the independence and partition of the sub-continent in 1947 the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir  has been regarded as a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, the dispute arising from the fact that at independence  its future allegiance was not agreed.   

Governed by a Hindu Maharaja the majority of its people were Muslims – and the provision of Britain’s partition plan   in relation to the princely states (of which there were approximately 560– some as large as a European country, others as small as a landed estate- ) was that the rulers should be able to decide whether they would join the new dominion of India or Pakistan.  There was no provision for any of them to remain independent. In making up their minds,  the rulers were urged to consider their state’s geographical location and, if possible, the potential preferences of the inhabitants.  But there was to be no compulsion nor was there any provision for representative consultation. 

In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, while the history of the weeks leading up to independence indicate that  Maharaja Hari Singh wanted to retain his state’s independence,  both India and Pakistan claimed the state in its entirety, India because its future rulers, notably Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, presumed that as a Dogra Hindu, the Maharajah would choose union with  majority Hindu India, Pakistan because of the majority of the inhabitants, especially those living in the Valley of Kashmir, were Muslim. Inevitably,  since both newly independent countries envisaged the state as coming within their  respective borders, there was bound to be conflict.

Fighting immediately broke out and within months of independence the two countries were at war. The outcome of this first war over Kashmir fought between 1947-49 was an uncertain ceasefire along what we now know as the line of control (LOC). Two-thirds of the state remained under the control  of India, one third under that of Pakistan  – the narrow strip of land known as ‘Azad (Free) Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit –Baltistan (formerly the Northern Areas),   India retaining control of the vast expanse of Ladakh sparsely inhabited by Buddhists and  Muslims, majority Hindu Jammu and the predominantly Muslim valley.

The recommendation first made by former Viceroy and  Governor-General Lord Mountbatten – agreed to by both Prime Minister Nehru and Pakistan’s Governor General, Mohammed Ali Jinnah - and endorsed  by the United Nations - for a plebiscite to be held was not enforced. Discussions over the holding of the plebiscite did, however, introduce a vital element into the debate. Instead of the decision being up to the governments of India and Pakistan, the proposition to hold a plebiscite meant that the debate could not be regarded simply as a territorial one but one about the rights of individuals to determine their future. 

Although the state has remained de facto divided along the line of control, the fact that its de iure position has not been resolved has meant that the dispute has continued to fester, poisoning relations between India and Pakistan, their enmity   erupting again into war in 1965 and 1999 with another war fought in 1971 over the secession of Pakistan’s eastern wing, now Bangladesh.

As recently as President Musharraf’s tenure in office (1999-2008), while trying to initiate a peace process with India, he refused to contemplate dividing the state along the line of control, maintaining that Pakistanis were ‘allergic’ to
it.  What he really meant was that in terms of loss of face it was far too big a step down to accept what for over sixty years successive governments in Pakistan – both civilian and military - had rejected. Accepting the LOC as the international frontier also did not take into account the aspirations of the people and the pledge that their future allegiance would be determined by a plebiscite. Countering the Pakistani position, the official Indian position has consistently been that  the entire state - including Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (referred to as POK or ‘Pakistan Occupied Kashmir’ - is part of India, maps produced in India not even indicating where the LOC is located.

This was the situation when I addressed members of the Society in 1997; this is the situation today.  So the first reason why Kashmir deserves our attention is because it is an unresolved dispute between two nations –  affecting the lives of millions. And, as the history of other troublespots throughout the world has demonstrated,   any dispute which is unresolved has the potential to flare up at any time destabilising the region and causing immense suffering...

This article was given as a talk  to the Royal Society for Asian Affairs on 24th September 2014.



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