Mission Kashmir

November 03, 2014

The Kashmir Issue has staged a comeback on the political scene. It has been a contentious issue ever since the British left these shores, dividing the subcontinent in two separate countries. Arbitrary lines drawn on a map divided people who had co-existed for almost a thousand years. The spectre of partition still hangs over the Indian subcontinent like a ghost that refuses to move away. Indo-Pakistan relations since the separation have been dominated by the dispute over Kashmir. It has provoked two wars (1948 and 1965), threatened war in 1987 and led to sporadic fighting from 1984 onwards on the Siachen Glacier.

In October 1947, Pashtun tribesmen from Pakistan (organizedclandestinely by military establishment in Peshawar) attacked Kashmir Valley. They were helped by veterans of Indian National Army (INA) from areas adjoining Kashmir (Poonch, Uri). This incursion was portrayed as a retaliation for the travesties that befell Muslims in Jammu and East Punjab. These irregular forces were able to wrest control of almost 30% of area under control of Kashmir’s ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh. The ragtag army started looting and plundering Kashmiris at the earliest possible opportunity, resulting in an aborted advance towards the capital, Srinagar. The first Kashmir war continued till 1949 when United Nations intervened in the dispute.
The Indo-Pak war of 1965 began with a strategic blunder known as Operation Gibraltar, and ended with Pakistan on the back foot. After the war, Pakistan’s wily foreign minister—Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto—vowed to fight India for thousand years on the issue of Kashmir. A fact that escapes most people is the sheer number of people who migrated from East Punjab to West Punjab (around 5 million) after partition. Mr. Bhutto, the first truly populist political leader from Pakistan, was harnessing the anti-India, pro-Kashmir sentiments of Punjabi heartland. His rhetoric won him electoral victory in the 1970 elections. After Pakistan lost its eastern half and thousands of military personnel in 1971, an agreement atShimla between Pakistan and India stipulated that Kashmir’s borders will be considered ‘Line of Control’.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Pakistan perfected the dark art of ‘proxy war’ in Afghanistan. In 1987, the Indian government rigged state elections, arresting opposition candidates and terrorizing their supporters. This event galvanized Kashmir’s oppressed youth, which had suffered neglect and discrimination at the hands of the Indian government. Pakistan used this opportunity to provide military training to thousands of Kashmiri youngsters in camps set up in Azad Kashmir. Using the cover of ‘Kashmiri youngsters’, state-sponsored organizations started sending motivated youngsters from towns of North and Central Punjab, to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. While the Kashmiris aimed at liberating their land from India, Punjabi militants crossed the border with the sole intention of ‘Jihad’. Pakistan-backed fighters also quelled voices of Kashmiris who sought an independent Kashmir, attached to neither India nor Pakistan. India deployed 0.7 million soldiers to maintain control of the scenic Kashmir valley during the 1990s.
Throughout the 1990s, both India and Pakistan ran propaganda campaigns through their respective media, to sensitize people across the border regarding their point of view on the Kashmir issue. Pakistan’s view focused on the ‘right of sovereignty’ for Kashmiris while Indian narrative included “cross-border infiltration” by militants armed by Pakistan. Bollywood films and PTV dramas competed toe-to-toe for attention. Any Mention of Babri Mosque demolition used to rile up people in Pakistan and names of Kashmiri Hamlets such as Anantnag, Sopur or Kupwara rolled off teenage boys’ tongues as easily as the schedule of Pakistan’s next Test Series. India was projected as the arch-enemy, conniving to bring Pakistan’s downfall through its machinations. Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami and LashkareTaiba held frequent anti-India rallies and they was reciprocated by Shiv Sena and RSS in India. Cricket Matches between the two countries were not just matters of winning or losing a game, it used to be much more than that. In the aftermath of 9/11, Pakistan had to focus its energies (and manpower) to the Western front, and the Kashmir issue was put on the backburner.
Pakistan’s ‘proxies’ came home to roost after 2001, resulting in an unprecedented wave of terrorism across the country. India maintained its stronghold over Kashmir despite the fact that ‘freedom movement’ of the 90s had almost died down. In June 2010, a series of violent protests and riots broke out in Kashmir due to a ‘staged encounter’ targeting three innocent Kashmiri men.
The rise in temperature over the Kashmir issue was expected after the electoral success of the Hindutva-inspired Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).India has achieved tremendous economic growth in the last two decades and it can’t afford the bad publicity and unrest that can result from another ‘freedom movement’ in Kashmir. Kashmir’s special status is also under threat because the BJP government wants to integrate Kashmir and its citizens to mainland India. Kashmir is an attractive tourist destination and the government wants to use this economic opportunity.
The border skirmishes between India and Pakistan that started last year have escalated recently. Jingoistic statements have been issued from political leaders on both sides of the fence. Bilawal Bhutto is using Anti-India, pro-Kashmir rhetoric to mimic his grandfather, adesperate and uninformed move to resuscitate his party in Punjab. Indian politicians are toeing this line to garner votes in state elections.
A wonderful film named ‘Haider’ was released recently, chronicling life in Kashmir during the 1990s. It has been castigated by right-wing elements in India while Pakistan’s ‘deep state’ refused to allow screening of a film that openly talked about Pakistan’s role in arming militants that wreaked havoc in Kashmir. It is a cruel fact of life in south Asia that we are still living as prisoners of our own past.

The writer is a freelance columnist.