Since kissing was once taboo in Bollywood, what did lovers do to show their feelings for each other? Why, they sang, of course! As I recall from watching old Indian movies, they are likely to do this while dancing amid the flowers of the Kashmir valley or reclining in one of those curtained houseboats floating along Kashmir’s part of the Indus River. For both sides of the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, Kashmir is Heaven on Earth.
But as recounted and documented by Alastair Lamb, the physical beauty of the land is only one of the many factors causing the tragedy in Kashmir. Lamb only deals with the beginning, as his book’s title suggests, Birth of A Tragedy Kashmir 1947. Since then, the situation there has become, along with the Israeli-Palestinian, one of the world’s two longest-standing conflicts leaving thousands in casualties and horrific human rights abuses. It now appears to be more complicated than ever.
To talk of Kashmir today is to talk of at least two conflicts. One is about the rivalry between India and Pakistan born of the Partition of British India into two Dominions. Right away the Indus River alone was to be a bone of contention. It meanders for a great part in Kashmir and irrigates vast tracts of agricultural lands of both countries. No country was willing to leave control of the river to the other. Between battles, the two countries entered into a treaty on the management of the Indus, removing this thorn in relations between the two countries.
But the controversial manner in which the once Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir was de facto partitioned between India and Pakistan remains at the core of the conflict over Kashmir. Kashmir was among the biggest of the princely states that were not incorporated into British India proper and whose rulers were allowed appearances of sovereignty, including gun salutes, palaces, and taxation. After partition, they were asked to choose and accede to either Pakistan or India. The ruler of Jammu and Kashmir Hari Singh prevaricated, hoping instead to regain the fully independent status of the state before the British came.
Hari Singh was Hindu and the majority population of Kashmir was (and is) Muslim. It is widely believed that the decision of Pathan paramilitary forces with the aid of Pakistani officials to force the issue pushed Hari Singh to accede to India. The circumstances, according to Lamb, were more involved. Hari Singh shared Jammu and Kashmir with other princes of the Dogra dynasty and he decided to compel the others to submit to his supremacy. The new young ruler of Poonch however believed himself equal in status. Hari Singh taught him a lesson by not only removing such princely trappings as gun salutes but requiring Poonch to turn over to his treasury such inordinate amounts in taxes as even windows and having wives were made subject to tax, making the Muslim population rebel with their Hindu Prince against Hari Singh. In the course of the rebellion, Hari Singh was reported to have undertaken an ethnic cleansing of Kashmir with the aim of reducing the majority held by the Muslim population. The Pakistani invasion was sought by the Poonch rebels and was partly inspired by the desire to save the Muslim population of Kashmir from genocide amid the slaughter taking place in the cross-migration of Hindus and Muslims in the Punjab.
In response India , purportedly at the invitation of Kashmir’s ruler, deployed its national army and stopped the invaders from taking Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital located in the Kashmir valley. Where the invasion stopped marks the origin of the line of control accepted as the de facto international frontier within Kashmir.
Lamb devotes much of his attention to the role played by the machinations of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who regarded Kashmir as his ancestral homeland and could not see Kashmir fall into Pakistan’s hands. Taking advantage of his close friendship with Lord Mountbatten, he maneuvered to make the rulers of Kashmir susceptible to acceding to India. Mountbatten himself advised Hari Singh to sign the accession papers. Nehru must have perceived that the accession of the ruler was the only way India could justify its occupation of Kashmir.
In his conclusion, Lamb blames the tragedy of Kashmir on the haste with which Lord Mountbatten under the influence of Nehru executed the Partition of British India. It prevented the conceptualization of a plan that would ensure a peaceful transfer of power in Kashmir. One such plan was to grant to Kashmir independence guaranteed by its neighboring Dominions. He overruled partition as a solution since as shown in the case of Palestine, partitions only tend to prolong and expand the conflict.
It was India that presented the Kashmir question to the United Nations. But India’s primary objective in doing so was to get the UN to identify Pakistan as the aggressor in the 1947 conflict. Contrary to this initial expectation, the UN proposed the holding of a plebiscite in the whole State of Jammu and Kashmir to ascertain the wishes of the people. India was to object to the first and subsequent UN Security Council resolutions because they did not tag Pakistan as the aggressor. Pakistan objected to resolutions that required the withdrawal of its troops first, insisting that withdrawal by both countries of their troops be simultaneous. Later, India announced that the State of Jammu and Kashmir had become part of Pakistan because of the treaty of accession signed by the ruler. It was pointed out that the act of accession was by itself incomplete. It must be ratified by all the people in the state in a plebiscite. India then held that the participation of the people in elections it held served as ratification.
In recent years , the India-Pakistan conflict has been overshadowed by the separatist movement in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. The evolution of the movement is described by the Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer in his work Curfewed Nights.
“The agreement of accession that Hari Singh signed with India gave Kashmir great autonomy. Gradually, the autonomy disappeared. In 1953, India jailed Sheikh Abdullah, who was new Kahmir’s prime minister, after he implemented a radical land reform and gave a speech suggesting the possibility of an independent Kashmir. In the following decades India installed puppet rulers, eroded the legal status of Kashmiri autonomy, and ignored the democratic reights of Kashmiris. Sheikhh Abdullah remained in jail for around 20 years; when he was released, he signed a compromise with the Indian government where he gave up the demand for the plebiscite that UN had recommended. In 1987, five years after Sheikh’s death, the Indian government rigged elections, arresting opposition candidates and terrorizing their supporters…”
Curfewed Nights is also a moving account of the sufferings of the Kashmiri people under Indian occupation. It devotes quite a number of pages to a kind of torture widely practiced by Indian forces on suspected militants: “They tied copper wire around your arms and gave high voltage shocks. Every hair on your body stood up, but the worst was when they inserted the copper wire into my penis and gave electric shocks. They did it with most boys. It destroyed many lives. Many could not marry after that.”
The Sher-e-Kashmir Institute reported, “We have had hundreds of cases here. Those electric shocks led to impotence in many, and many lost their kidneys.”
These sufferings have only thrown fuel into the movement turning a bonfire into a forest conflagration. This work was published in 2008. In 2016, the funeral of the young poster boy of the movement Burhan Wani was attended by 200,000 people. Because it is the Muslim practice to bury the dead in 24 hours, an element of spontaneity marks funerals of martyrs of the separatist movement. The cot bearing the dead “floated over the heads; bodies jostled and hands stretched out to carry it. The wave became a flood as if invigorated …Some cried, some held back tears, and some burned with anger. Many brushed their hands over the shroud and then rubbed their palms over their foreheads and chests. The procession moved forward, chanting slogans:
Arif your blood will bring revolution!
O tyrants? O tormentors ! Quit our Kashmir!
Ask Arif ! He cries: Freedom!
Congratulations martyr! You have earned martyrdom!”
According to Peer, there is a legend spreading that if you open the graves of the martyrs of the movement, you will find their remains intact and wafting a heavenly fragrance as saints of any religion do.
One day, when I was Ambassador to Pakistan, I received a delegation of young Kashmiri militants in my office. Curiosity as to what Kashmiri militants were after made me throw the possibility that they might be terrorists to the winds. Besides, Islamabad being but less than an hour’s drive to Kashmir, I often watched in awe the intricate designs the Kashmiris embroidered into their pashminas or shawls and painted on their papier-mache products. And of course, I would often feel with pleasure the wool sold in the local markets, so light but so warm bearing the name of the place it was made in: Cashmere! I greeted the delegation thus: “Welcome you beautiful nation doing beautiful things!”
After a conversation about how creativity seems to be a common character of our peoples, I asked what was it the Kashmiris really wanted. Azad (Free) Kashmir or the part under Pakistani control was autonomous. Don’t you like being part of one of the fastest growing economies in the world? What they wanted was neither to be part of Pakistan nor India but to be an independent state, the same condition they were in before the British came. The UN Security Council resolutions calling for a plebiscite to determine whether the people of Kashmir wanted to be part of Pakistan or part of India ought to be revisited and the people of Kashmir given a third option: independence.
Fine! The right to self-determination is enshrined in the UN Charter. I expressed the hope that they would pursue its attainment through solidarity and peaceful means in the tradition of Gandhi and the Filipinos at EDSA. Had I foreseen the ruthlessness with which Indian forces fired at the crowd joining the procession of Burwan Wani, I might have had second thoughts about giving this advice. The gun pellets they used blinded children and brought a painful death to many a man and woman.