The trouble with Kashmir

Will a land once renowned for its transcendent beauty ever know peace?

Thousands have died in Kashmir’s sectarian strife, and the terrorist attack on Mumbai showed the violence is spreading. Will a land once renowned for its transcendent beauty ever know peace?

What’s the source of conflict in Kashmir?

A toxic stew of religion, politics, and geography. Nestled between two Himalayan ranges on the northernmost Indian-Pakistani border, the region was once famed for its gorgeous views and cool mountain air. But for more than 60 years, it has been a bloody battleground. In 1947, Britain’s Indian colony gained independence and was partitioned into two countries—India and Pakistan, with Pakistan formed from the largely Muslim northwestern provinces. Both countries claimed Kashmir, which is around the size of Kansas. Most Kashmiris are Muslim, and Pakistan contended it should hold sway. But Kashmir’s monarch, Maharaja Hari Singh, a Hindu, hoped to keep the region independent, and predominantly Hindu India did not want to cede the territory to Pakistan. After Muslim rebels attempted to seize power from Singh, Indian troops rushed in to support him, sparking the first of three wars. India emerged in control, but vowed to hold a plebiscite to determine Kashmir’s future.

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Who won the vote?

We won’t know until it’s held. Six decades after it was first promised, Muslims are still waiting for a referendum on Kashmir. India doesn’t want to lose Kashmir, nor does it want the region to provide inspiration to secessionist groups throughout its sprawling, multiethnic nation. As things stand now, Kashmir is divided by the so-called Line of Control, which separates the Indian and Pakistani sections. India controls roughly two-thirds of Kashmir along with a majority of the region’s population of 11 million. But many Muslims have never accepted India’s rule, and separatist groups routinely boycott elections, most recently the races for state assembly last month. Last August, tens of thousands of Muslims rallied in Kashmir demanding independence from India. “India, your death will come,” some protesters chanted. Other Kashmiri separatists have worked for years to turn deadly slogans into reality.

What is Kashmir’s relationship to terrorism?

Direct and prolonged. Cross-border attacks from Pakistani territory, along with a Muslim insurgency inside Indian Kashmiri territory, have been going on for decades. In addition to the death toll from full-scale wars over Kashmir in 1947, 1965, and 1971, terrorist attacks and reprisals have killed some 60,000. To quell the insurgency, India maintains a huge military presence in Kashmir, with 700,000 troops and police officers. Kashmir is home to several Muslim insurgent groups. One of the most prominent, Lashkar-e-Taiba, works outside of Kashmir as well, and has targeted major Indian cities while reportedly allying itself with al Qaida and other Islamic extremists. (See below.)

Did Kashmiris attack Mumbai?

It appears so. Indian and U.S. intelligence analysts believe Lashkar organized the Mumbai assault, which left more than 160 dead in November. The terrorists left a trail of evidence, including cell phone records, pointing to Lashkar operatives in Pakistan. India also holds Lashkar responsible for a 2001 attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi that killed nine, nearly igniting another war. Destabilizing both India and Pakistan appears to be a goal of Islamic extremists, who hope to incite unrest among India’s 130 million Muslims and spark an Islamist takeover of Pakistan’s government.

What is Pakistan’s position?

Muddled. Pakistan’s newly installed President Asif Ali Zardari created a national uproar in October when he referred to Kashmiri separatists as “terrorists,” a stark break with the position of previous governments in Islamabad, which had openly nurtured the insurgency. After the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan’s government initiated a crackdown on Lashkar, arresting several key members. But elements inside Pakistan’s army and intelligence service actively support Lashkar and other insurgents, and similar crackdowns in the past have been short-lived. “They need to show us that this time it will not be a farce,” said B. Raman, a former Indian intelligence officer.

Is there a road map for peace in Kashmir?

It’s hard to see one. Fighting in the region has ebbed and surged, but neither India nor Pakistan has ever been inclined to surrender its claims. “Neither side is willing to compromise,” said Heritage Foundation analyst Dana Robert Dillon. Both nations have nuclear arms, but India has a decisively larger army, which has a deterrent effect on Pakistan. Even if Pakistan showed the will, and ability, to crack down on its homegrown terrorists, it’s not clear how the two nations would reconcile on Kashmir.

Is it hopeless?

Not entirely. Perhaps the only force powerful enough to compete with nationalist and sectarian animosity is commerce. Bus service was recently started on the road between Srinigar, on the Indian side of the border, and Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani portion. Kashmiri merchants are eager to deliver their goods on both sides of the divide. Tourism would surely blossom in Kashmir if terrorism receded; travelers long have been awed by Kashmir’s snow-capped peaks, crisp lakes, and rolling rivers. “The valley is an emerald set in pearls,” wrote one 19th-century visitor. Stone signs along Kashmir’s main highway read: “From here begins the happy valley, where the world ends and paradise begins.” But without a dramatic change in course, Kashmir seems destined to remain a paradise lost.

Militant and popular

Lashkar-e-Taiba—“Army of the Pure”—is officially banned in Pakistan, but its charitable wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, is both popular and powerful. It operates schools, hospitals, and social service centers throughout Pakistan and aided victims of a 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. Pakistani authorities tread carefully when confronting the group. Following the Mumbai attack, authorities shut down dozens of Jamaat-ud-Dawa offices in Pakistan and placed its founder, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who is also the founder of Lashkar, under house arrest. But Saeed’s imprisonment had a casual quality to it, with visitors seemingly coming and going at will. (At one point, Saeed was seen walking home from a mosque, as police stood idly by his house.) The kid-glove treatment is testament to the power of Jamaat-ud-Dawa—and by extension Lashkar. In the event of a true showdown between Lashkar and Pakistan’s creaky government, many Pakistanis would doubtless support the militants.

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