“If there is heaven on earth, it is here, here, here,” the emperor Shah Jahan had said of the Kashmir, so inspired was he of the beautiful valley with its majestic mountains and flowing lakes. Sadly, today the name conjures images of gunfire, violence, terror and brutality. Located between India and Pakistan with both nations claiming it as their own and fighting wars over it, Kashmir has become a source of an unending conflict between these two powers. These hostilities are further compounded by the nuclear status of both nations, making the Kashmir conflict a source of alarm for the world community.
Victoria Schofield’s book comes at a time when the Kashmir issue has started to get international attention. Therefore it is very timely to learn about the origins of the conflict, the rise of militancy and the voices of the common people of this region. The book begins by tracing the history of the state beginning from the last century, when this predominantly Muslim region was sold by British India to a Hindu maharajah, Gulab Singh, who subsequently merged it with his other states, Jammu and Ladakh, to make the state of Kashmir.
A century later, in 1947, when the British left India, British dominion was partitioned into India and Pakistan with the Muslim majority areas of British India, namely the northwestern provinces, West Punjab and East Bengal going to the latter. The several independent princely states that were under the British dominion were allowed to choose between joining India or Pakistan. While most of these with their predominantly Hindu population chose India, Kashmir faced a different situation altogether with its Hindu king and largely mixed population of Hindus and Muslims. The King of Kashmir, Maharajah Hari Singh, decided to refrain from joining either by declaring independence.
This gave rise to severe unrest among the local populace. The Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, the two major political parties of India and Pakistan, both decided that a way out would be to leave the mandate to the people. However, as all this was being worked out and both countries were out to woo both the king and the local leaders, tribesmen from the northwest frontiers, partially aided and abetted by the newly formed Pakistani army, attacked Kashmir. Hari Singh had no other option but to seek India’s help in repulsing the attack. The precondition that India made for helping out, based on the advice of Mountbatten (the last British Viceroy turned first Governor-General of India) was that Hari Singh sign the Instrument of Accession acceding to The Indian Union.
However, a condition was entered thereafter with the UN stating that a plebiscite would be held in Kashmir at the earliest opportunity. Pakistan’s occupation of a portion of Kashmiri territory after the attack has given the Indian government an excuse to withhold the plebiscite until the whole of Kashmir is unified. Other problems are the ethnic and religious complexities of the region. There is an absence of collective will amongst the heterogeneous populace comprising Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as also tribal people. According to Karan Singh, son of the erstwhile Maharaja, the only rational solution in 1947 would have been to initiate a peaceful partition of the state between India and Pakistan. “But that,” he says “would have needed clear political vision and careful planning over many years.”
Any book on Kashmir would require a great degree of neutrality to show the two sides of the conflict. Although Schofield tries to be objective for the most part, she is more inclined at times to state the Pakistani perspective. For instance, she discusses in great detail the extent of human rights abuse by the Indian security forces, but not much mention is made of the extensive arming of jihadis by Pakistan’s ISI or of the large scale violence against Hindus that has led to their exodus and thus altered the religious heterogeneity of the valley; this sentiment of course has wrongly been played upon by the right wingers in India to increase interreligious tension.
So will there ever be an end? Schofield does have some sincere approaches towards a solution. First and foremost, both India and Pakistan need to improve their relations, open trade and establish a loose economic union. Both governments also need to address the grievances of the Kashmiris - India by addressing the issue of self determination, and Pakistan by refraining from waging a “proxy” war. Tall order, this, but if the past year and the greatly successful India-Pakistan cricket season are any indication, political divisions may yet become secondary to human interactions.