I was asked this week to write a brief, informal piece for a global audience about how the Kashmir conflict began in 1947 ... by the time the news organisation had decided that this didn't quite meet their purpose, the piece was written. It's posted below:
When I first arrived in Delhi as a correspondent – quite a while back – an old school Indian official promptly made contact. He was a ‘spin doctor’ of sorts – trying to persuade foreign journalists of the merits of India’s stand on Kashmir.
He took me out to lunch. ‘You see’, he explained with the sort of smile the knowing bestow on the innocent, ‘if you want to really understand what's been happening you have to know how the Kashmir conflict started - back in the autumn of 1947 …’ As we were sipping coffee about an hour or so later, he’d got as far … as the spring of 1948.
The history of the Kashmir conflict is complex – deeply contested – and both India and Pakistan give the impression that if they can demonstrate that they were ‘right’ back in 1947 then it follows that their claim to Kashmir is also beyond question.
That’s not quite the way the world works. But it’s true that you can’t really get to grips with a conflict unless you have a grasp of how it started.
During British rule in India, Kashmir had its own prince or maharajah. The princely family were Hindus; most of their citizens, Muslims. When the British pulled out in 1947, and rather messily carved up the region into the independent nations of India and Pakistan, Kashmir - stretching from the Punjab plains to the high mountain ranges - was caught between the two; it was up to the maharajah to decide which state to join.
He was more interested in hunting and polo than in politics – and he hoped that if he kept quiet, Kashmir might be able to become independent. He sometimes talked of Kashmir as a Switzerland of the East –mountainous, peaceful and politically non-aligned.
Two months after the end of the British Raj, Kashmir’s fate was still undecided. From Pakistan, a fighting force of tribesmen invaded Kashmir. The maharajah fled, signing up to India as he did so. Indian troops were flown in and the invaders repulsed.
India’s claim on Kashmir is that its princely ruler opted for India – and that in doing so he had the support, at the time, of the commanding Kashmiri political figure, Sheikh Abdullah. All that’s true.
Pakistan insists that the logic of Partition was that adjoining Muslim majority areas should become part of their new, explicitly Muslim nation. And that language, geography and trade tied the Kashmir valley more to Pakistan. They also argue that India’s pledge to allow Kashmiris self-determination has never been honoured. All that’s true too.
By the spring of 1948, Indian and Pakistani troops were at war in Kashmir – the United Nations got involved – the area was informally divided between the two countries, and has been ever since. Both continue to claim all of the sprawling former princely state. Though the active dispute is about just one part of it - the Kashmir valley, the crucible of Kashmiri culture, with a current population of about seven million.
So I've now got about as far as that Indian spin doctor when he introduced me to the origins of the conflict. An awful lot has happened since 1948, of course, but Kashmir has never escapade the legacy of that turbulence almost seventy years ago.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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