Perhaps the most famous of the struggles among the princely states and the resulting oppression and violence in the modern history of India is the story of Kashmir. Today’s post tells the brief history of the origins of the Kashmir conflict and its origins.
Most people throughout the west have heard the name “Kashmir” and recognize its significance but they know little about the background and the story that has unfolded there. Former US President Bill Clinton cited Kashmir as one of the most dangerous places on the planet after both Pakistan and India had secured nuclear weapons in the 1990s. Kashmir will be covered in greater detail later in this series but I want to begin the story with how things started.
Origins of the Kashmir Conflict – Backgrounder
The princely state of Kashmir and Jammu was an artificial design by the British Raj. In the Kashmir Valley, the population was overwhelmingly Muslim and the ruler was Hindu. Prior to independence, a nationalist movement had already developed in Kashmir thanks in large part to the oppression of the ruling princely family against the Muslim majority population.
A system of extortion had repression existed for some time and when the Kashmiri people appealed to the British over the Hindu ruler’s head he retaliated with an extensive system of retribution and oppression which peaked in the 1920s.
What resulted was an official Kashmiri nationalist movement that was dedicated to the ouster of the princely rulers and Kashmiri’s own independence.
Origins of the Kashmir Conflict – Sheikh Abdullah
A man known as Sheikh Abdullah became the father of the Kashmiri nationalist movement. In the early 1930’s he and his organization began working to unite both Muslim and non-Muslims into this movement to push for their own independence and freedom.
Abdullah formed an alliance with Nehru when the Indian National Congress leader was invited to Kashmir. Together the two men toured the area and Nehru witnessed firsthand not only the influence of Abdullah among the nationalists of Kashmir but also the drive of the Kashmiri people for independence.
Many reports suggest a personal bond between the two men developed at this time as they both found a reason for admiration in one another.
Keep in mind that at this time the idea of a divided India along religious lines was not taken seriously by anyone. It was not until 1945 when Nehru returned once again to Kashmir and his old friend Abdullah that he began to see firsthand how the lines had been drawn between Muslims and Hindus on very nationalistic grounds.
Abdullah was an educated Islamic scholar but was more of a secularist when it came to politics. He did not want a Muslim state. He wanted an independent Kashmir and that is what he and his organization pushed for.
Origins of the Kashmir Conflict – Partition
In August 1947 as India declared its independence the governments of both Pakistan and India looked to the prince of Kashmir and Jammu to learn which way he would decide to go. The violence of the partition was surrounding the regions around Kashmir. The Pakistanis thought that the Muslim majority population would push Kashmir toward Pakistan but there was the chance that the Hindu Prince would opt for India which technically he had the right to do under the British rules set out during the partition negotiations.
Rather than choosing one side or another, the Hindu prince stalled.
Mountbatten gave clear instructions to Jinnah and the government of Pakistan that any military incursion into Kashmir would be frowned upon by the British. The Indian government meanwhile continued its efforts to woo Kashmir into its union.
Sheikh Abdullah and his nationalist organization pushed for Kashmiri independence and grew more and more frustrated by the day at the prince’s delay.
Origins of the Kashmir Conflict – Invasion
The straw which finally broke the camel’s back came by way of an invasion from Pakistan on the western border of Kashmir. The source of the invasion is debated to this day. Some believe Jinnah or one of his underlings gave the order. Others believe it was an independent provocation by some of the tribes in the Pakistani frontier.
In any event, the invasion was a complete backfire for Pakistani hopes. The invaders did not come merely to conquer but entered into Kashmiri territory looting, massacring and raping wherever they went. It appeared that the waves of violence that made up the terror of the partition violence had finally washed over into Kashmir lands.
The prince, terrified by the invasion from Pakistan, quickly publicized his choice for India and India sent in troops and arms to push back the invaders from Pakistan.
The Indian military’s intervention into Kashmir was supposed to be temporary. The United Nations was invited to intervene and help mediate the struggle.
It was agreed that once all the Pakistani invaders had been removed from Kashmir then India’s forces would also withdraw and a vote could be taken among the people to determine which way Kashmir would go – India or Pakistan.
The Pakistani forces were removed but India never left and the vote was not given.
Origins of the Kashmir Conflict – India Takes Charge
In 1949 the prince was removed from power in Kashmir and India gave the reigns of the government to Sheikh Abdullah.
Abdullah was under the misguided impression that Kashmir was on the path to full and sovereign independence. Although the former prince had signed power over to India and no vote had taken place yet, Kashmir, as Abdullah saw it, had a special status among the princely states. It would be independent and sovereign except for in the areas of defense and foreign policy. In other words, India would not interfere with Kashmir’s internal and domestic issues and internally Kashmir would not be subject to the laws of India and the rule of the Indian National Congress.
This was not the same as what the Indian National Congress was envisioning and it was they who had the power to act. For some time the Indian National Congress and Nehru wooed and cajoled Sheikh Abdullah to come around to their way of thinking but Abdullah would not budge.
Finally, in 1953 the Indian National Congress had had enough and they orchestrated what amounted to a coup in Kashmir.
Abdullah was accused of plotting with Pakistan and removed from office and one of his lieutenants put in charge by the Indian National Congress.
Kashmir exploded in protest and violence. Indian troops arrested thousands of protesters and often fired on crowds thus copying the same behavior which the Indian independence movement had abhorred at the hands of the British only a few decades earlier.
Trust between Kashmiris and the government of India was at an all-time low and would seem to never recover. Meanwhile, in western Kashmir where Pakistani forces had remained, living conditions were becoming intolerable and Kashmiris were beginning to migrate away from Pakistani rule.
Origins of the Kashmir Conflict – Missed Opportunities
Kashmir would become known as the last unanswered question of the great partition. It would become the point of focus for the great struggle between India and Pakistan.
This was not necessarily by design but over the course of the coming decades, Kashmir came to epitomize why Pakistan and India could not trust and could not allow one inch from the other. Kashmir was the place where their arms would become locked into position toward one another.
Meanwhile, on the ground, the Kashmiri people themselves would come to suffer under the weight of this contest between the two states. Any movement by the people one way or the other seemed to render oppression from either Pakistani or Indian forces. This helped fuel the flames all the more for independence and their own sovereignty which seemed was never coming. Neither India nor Pakistan could surrender their rights on Kashmir for fear of what the other would do in their absence.
Today it has become the place of stalemate and the frontlines of the battle zone in a war of attrition between the two nations.
As for Sheikh Abdullah, he felt nothing but betrayal from his one-time nationalist friend Nehru. After 1953 he was imprisoned for four years without trial by the Indian government. In 1958 he was released and immediately drew a crowd that began chanting the question “Why did you betray us, Nehru?” He was arrested once again and a conspiracy trial was concocted in which Abdullah was held in prison now for another 6 years.
By the early 1960s Nehru, the great ruler and father of India had had enough and he wanted to be done with Kashmir. He was determined to see the issue resolved in his lifetime. Abdullah was released from prison and the two met in Delhi India. Nehru notified Abdullah that the Sheikh should meet with the Pakistanis and if they were willing to work out a final solution to Kashmir then so was Nehru.
Abdullah flew to the area of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan and was met by cheering crowds and the leadership of Pakistan. Options were discussed with the Pakistani leadership and progress was, at last, being made. Abdullah took to the airwaves to announce that at long last peace was near. While he was speaking a colleague rushed into the room he was speaking from and whispered the news into Abdullah’s ear. Nehru had died.
At the news of Nehru’s death, Abdullah broke down in tears. The Pakistani representatives packed their bags and returned home and the Indian National Congress resolved their firm stance on the issue of Kashmir.
There would be no resolution and the struggle would go on and on for generations more.
If you are enjoying this post on the origins of the Kashmir conflict, then you should check out my India Backgrounder. It features a full online series on the history of the world’s largest democracy along with podcast episodes and various explainers to give you an understanding of the current issues unfolding in India.