Kashmir: The roots of the crisis

Kashmir has been fought over by India and Pakistan ever since British imperialism’s divide-and-rule partition of the subcontinent in 1947. The Kashmiri people have been brutally oppressed, denied democracy and self-determination, and suffered two wars and many military mobilisations. Today a million troops face each other across the Indo-Pakistan border.

Kashmir’s history has been one of domination by foreign powers: firstly by different feudal regimes, then by British imperialism and, more recently, by Indian and Pakistani capitalism and landlordism. All have used divide-and-rule policies to remain in power, making ethnic, religious and tribal tensions more acute in the process. The failure to build a genuine mass socialist, revolutionary force in the Asian sub-continent, the only force which could appeal to the working class and poor peasants across the communal divide, has held back the struggle for Kashmiri national liberation.

The Indian and Pakistani elites had important strategic, territorial and economic interests in Jammu and Kashmir in the period leading up to partition following independence from British imperialism in August 1947.

Over the decades the armed conflict between the Indian and Pakistani regimes led to open war in 1947, 1965 and 1971 (in East Pakistan – which soon after became Bangladesh). This embedded the issue of Kashmir into the core of the ideology and strategy of both ruling classes in their approach to politics. In 1947, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the future prime minister of Pakistan, explained to Louis Mountbatten, British imperialism’s last viceroy in India before independence, that the K in Pakistan stood for Kashmir. In 1970, Indian prime minister, Indira Ghandhi, summarised the historical position of the Indian ruling class: "The accession of Kashmir is part of our history, and history cannot be reversed or changed. The Kashmir question has been settled once and for all". For the economic, political and military elite in both countries, the struggle for who controls Kashmir is synonymous with their power and prestige. Both ruling classes have used Kashmir as a propaganda weapon against the other to bolster their own domestic positions. Both have falsely and hypocritically claimed to represent the best interests of the Kashmiri people.

Jammu and Kashmir was one of the largest of the 565 ’princely states’ that were part of British imperialism’s Indian empire. These were semi-autonomous areas ruled by feudal despots but recognising the authority of the British empire. Jammu and Kashmir came into being during the last half of the nineteenth century under the rule of the Hindu Dogra Rajputs. Formerly an ally of the Sikh kingdom, the British sold the Valley of Kashmir to the maharaja of Jammu in 1846. This followed the defeat of the Sikh kingdom by British imperialism during a war in 1845-46. The Valley of Kashmir was taken by the victors as part of the surrender terms.

The sale was an attempt to weaken the Sikh kingdom, as well as provide a friendly buffer territory on the empire’s Northern Indian border. It eliminated the need to station a large military force far away from the centres of British rule and over difficult terrain. By the late 1850s, the Dogra dynasty controlled hill kingdoms in Gilgit, Baltistan (with a Tibetan Shia Muslim population) and Ladakh (with a majority Tibetan Buddhist population) to the north and east of Kashmir. It finally won control of Poonch (with a majority Pathan Muslim population) from another branch of the Dogra dynasty in 1936. Part of Ladakh was formally recognised by the British authorities in India as being part of Chinese territory (Aksai Chin) in return for concessions to build economic links with this part of China in 1899.

The Northern Frontier areas (Gilgit, Baltistan, and Ladakh) bordered China’s Xinjiang province (dominated in the border areas by Muslim minorities) and Afghanistan. They were also in close proximity to territory into which the Russian Tsarist empire was expanding. This made the Northern Frontier far more important for British imperialism. While the Northern Frontier areas were ringed with huge mountain ranges, the representatives of British imperialism feared that the expansion of the Tsarist empire could lead to economic exploitation of China’s unstable Xinjiang province and even its annexation. It was for this reason that it leased the border areas of the Gilgit Agency from the maharaja to allow British influence over trade, communication, defence and ’foreign affairs’. The Russian revolution in 1917 and the setting up of the Soviet Union made these border areas even more important for British imperialism in the interwar period.

National consciousness

Like many of the other feudal despots of the Indian ’princely states’, the maharaja lived in luxurious splendour while brutally crushing any resistance. Although the Valley of Kashmir was only 10% of the landmass of the state, it was the most populous and economically developed. Its main industries were silk and shawl production as well as agriculture and tourism. The Valley was made up of a Muslim majority with a Hindu Brahmin (high caste) minority. Most Kashmiri Muslims lived in grinding poverty and were barred from education and office in the maharaja’s administration. At various times the maharaja rested on sections of the Brahmin minority to consolidate his rule.

The fact that the Valley of Kashmir had existed as a cohesive unit for hundreds if not thousands of years (although often under foreign rule) meant that there was a strong national consciousness when it was sold to the Dogra maharaja. As a result of the autocratic nature of maharaja rule, national consciousness grew. It had its own Kashmiri language and culture – the Kashmiryat. This was a fusion of the Sufi wing of Islam (based less on religious practise and more on the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims alike) and elements of the Hindu religion. Despite attempts by the maharajas to promote the Hindu Brahmin minority in order to foster division and communalism, they failed to divide the population on religious lines. National consciousness was at a lower level in other parts of the state, particularly in the Northern Territories, reflecting less social and economic development there. The population of Poonch resented their incorporation into the Dogra kingdom while communal strains developed periodically in Jammu, encouraged by reactionary parties on both sides of the religious divide and the maharaja’s rule.

Under the influence of the Russian revolution and growing independence struggles in the colonial world, movements (centred on the Valley) began to develop against the cultural, political and economic exploitation of the mainly Muslim population. For example in 1924, 5,000 Muslim workers at the Kashmiri State Silk Factory went on strike for more pay. The strike was brutally suppressed by the maharaja’s administration but crystallised demands for an end to discrimination against the Muslim population and for democratic rights. Young Kashmiris, such as Sheikh Abdullah – who had returned from study at Indian universities where he had come into contact with the Congress Party (one of forces leading the struggle for independence) and the Communist Party of India – came to the forefront of this movement, forming the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference.

This struggle reached a high point in 1931. A movement developed in the Valley when rumours circulated of religious discrimination by Hindu groups (supported by the maharaja) against Muslims in neighbouring Jammu. The maharaja’s police fired on a mass demonstration in Srinagar, killing 22 demonstrators.

The British government in Dehli feared the overthrow of the maharaja if concessions were not made. As a result of its pressure, a constitution allowing for an elected Legislation Assembly was put in place in 1934. However, the Assembly provided the merest wisp of democratic legitimacy to the maharaja’s rule. Elections were intentionally organised on communal lines, thus fostering division. Only 3% of the population participated!

In the late 1930s the Muslim Conference leadership grew closer to Jarawahal Nehru’s Congress Party and subsequently formed the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference under the leadership of Abdullah. A more reactionary section of the Muslim Conference however, which favoured moving in the direction of Islam and closer links with Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League government-in-waiting, later revived the Muslim Conference. The National Conference passed what was a radical ’New Kashmir’ manifesto in 1944 which promised a society whose aim would be to: "perfect our union in the fullest equality and self-determination, to raise ourselves and our children from the abyss of oppression and poverty, degradation and superstition". This manifesto was not socialist. It reflected the character of the National Conference – a petty bourgeois-led radical nationalist movement with wide support amongst sections of the working class and peasantry. The Muslim Conference gained support amongst non-Kashmiri-speaking Muslims who feared persecution by sections of the much larger population of Hindus and Sikhs in areas like Jammu.

The period just before partition was one of extreme friction in the Valley. Abdullah’s National Conference launched a ’Quit Kashmir’ campaign designed to drive the Dogra dynasty from the Valley.

Violent partition

British imperialism had no option but to relinquish its colonial possessions following the second world war. It could no longer hold back the independence movement in India, was politically and economically weakened after the war, and faced a radicalised working class at home. Undoubtedly, British imperialism would have rather kept the sub-continent undivided under a federal structure. However, having developed and exacerbated religious and ethnic tensions during its rule – particularly through the implementation of communal voting constituencies – they were unable to persuade the Muslim League leaders to turn away from their policy of ’two nations’ (Hindu and Muslim), ’two states’ (India and Pakistan). Congress leaders were adamant that India should remain whole and be a secular nation. As a result, British imperialism proposed to divide India between Muslim- and Hindu-majority areas.

Pakistan was made up of two parts: West and East Pakistan. The western portion consisted of the mainly Muslim areas of Punjab, North West Frontier Province, Sind, and Balochistan. East Pakistan was made up of the mainly Muslim area of Bengal. This meant that the two wings of Pakistan were separated by over 1,000 miles of Indian territory at opposite sides of the sub-continent. The maharajas of the ’princely states’, while theoretically given the opportunity to remain independent, were forced to accede to either India or Pakistan.

The new boundaries were drawn up by a commission whose decisions were supposed to be impartial and in secret, with the results only shown to the leaders of the two new states after independence had been granted. However, it is clear that Mountbatten was biased in favour of the Congress leaders, particularly over the question of the status of Kashmir. Nehru, who himself was a Kashmiri Hindu Brahmin, explained that: "What happens in Kashmir is, of course, of the first importance to India as a whole… because of the great strategic importance of that frontier state". On Mountbatten’s behalf, Congress leaders assumed that the National Conference wanted to join the Indian Union and that this represented the mood of all of Kashmir’s people. Future events would show that both these assumptions were incorrect.

The Muslim elite suspected that British imperialism and the Congress Party leaders regarded the new Pakistani state to be extremely unstable and unable to survive for long. It feared that the Boundary Commission wanted to award Kashmir and its strategically vital Northern Territories to India to help this process along. The Muslim League argued that Jammu and Kashmir should join Pakistan because of the economic links between the two, the fact that the source of Pakistan’s main water supplies were to be found there, and that a majority of its population was Muslim. All parties involved in partition were agreed on one thing, however: Kashmir would not be allowed an independent existence because of its strategic importance.

The Boundary Commission awarded the majority of the Gurdaspur district (which occupied the area where India, Pakistan and the most southerly part of Jammu and Kashmir met) to Nehru’s Indian Union. However, the population of Gurdaspur was Muslim and, under the principles of the commission should have been awarded to Pakistan. But to deny this territory to India would have meant that it would have had no accessible rail and road links with Jammu and Kashmir.

Partition brought horror on a truly stupendous scale to India and the biggest migration of people in world history. All areas awarded to the two states had ethnic and religious minorities. Communal bloodletting on an unimaginable scale exploded, particularly in the Punjab, encouraged by reactionary organisations from the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities. Between ten and 17 million people were uprooted, travelling thousands of miles to an existence of abject poverty in the new Indian and Pakistani states. Up to one million predominantly poor workers and peasants were slaughtered. Whilst the Valley of Kashmir was relatively calm (mainly as a result of a more developed national consciousness), there were serious communal clashes in Jammu leading to up to 500,000 Muslims fleeing the state to Pakistan.

Initially, maharaja Hari Singh attempted to argue for an independent status for Jammu and Kashmir. However, events in different parts of Jammu and Kashmir forced him in the direction of accession to India. Demobilised Muslim soldiers returned to Poonch and Mirpur in Jammu and Kashmir to find that the maharaja was refusing to accept them into his army. In the post-war period, the maharaja increased taxes, leading to widespread poverty. This provoked massive protests, particularly in Poonch where, in October 1947, an uprising was led by demobilised soldiers, armed by tribes in the North-West Frontier Province region of Pakistan.

On 4 October this uprising gave rise to a provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Kashmir. None of the bourgeois historians mention this development but it undoubtedly represented an attempt to move towards a struggle for an independent future for the Kashmiri people. The uprising lit the fires of rebellion against Dogra rule in other areas. At the end of October, soldiers of the Gilgit Scouts – British imperialism’s fighting force in the Gilgit Agency – rose up. There were less well-developed protests in Ladakh.

The provisional government only lasted until 24 October. It was shunted aside by one of the pro-Pakistani leaders of the Muslim Conference, supported by sections of the Pakistani military and backed up by armed fighters from North-West Frontier who entered Jammu and Kashmir on 22 October. Sections of Muslims in the maharaja’s army began to desert, going over to the side of armed fighters and putting his rule under increasing threat.

In these circumstances, Hari Singh signed an accession agreement with India and requested troops and armaments in return. As a concession, Singh was forced to agree that Sheikh Abdullah would head a new ’emergency’ government in Jammu and Kashmir. By the end of 1948 Singh, the last maharaja of Kashmir, had left the state, driven out by popular discontent.

Line of control

The arrival of Indian troops in Srinagar led to clashes with Pakistani forces and a war that lasted until January 1949. At the end of the war Pakistan controlled one third of Jammu and Kashmir (including parts of Poonch, and the whole of Gilgit and Baltistan) while India controlled the remaining two thirds (Jammu, the Valley of Kashmir, and Ladakh). A ceasefire line (which after the 1971 war became known as the Line of Control – LOC) divided the two parts of the state.

Although the Indian-controlled portion had joined the Indian Union it still retained greater autonomy than other areas at the time (enshrined in article 370 of the 1950 Indian constitution). The New Dehli government controlled communications, defence and external affairs. Unlike other ’princely states’, Jammu and Kashmir was allowed to fly its own flag, elect a prime minister and sadar-I-riyasat (a presidential type figure).

The United Nations sponsored ceasefire called for a referendum on the future status of Jammu and Kashmir. Initially, both the Pakistani and Indian regimes publicly agreed to this. However, both sides called for the withdrawal of the other’s troops before giving the go-ahead for a referendum. Despite the Pakistani Muslim League’s call for ’azadi’ (freedom) for Jammu and Kashmir, the ’governments’ they oversaw in the Pakistani-occupied sector of the state were its puppets. All candidates for election in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir have to pledge an oath of loyalty to Pakistan. The real power in this region has always lain in the hands of the Pakistani military and their shadowy Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) organisation. The Northern Areas have continued as a Pakistani version of the ’Agency’ method of rule implemented by British imperialism. This followed the signing of the Karachi agreement of 1949, when the non-elected administration in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir handed over administration of these territories to Pakistan without consultation of the population in the areas concerned.

The Indian regime subsequently backed away from the idea of a referendum, claiming that the 1951 elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly indicated the wishes of the Kashmiri people. Their main fear was that a referendum could result in independence or a wish to accede to Pakistan. Abdullah’s National Conference won the 1951 elections overwhelmingly. But these elections were far from democratic. Only 5% of the electorate voted and in 73 out of 75 seats National Conference was elected unopposed. This was to be a theme of most elections held in Indian Occupied Kashmir from then on.

Friction soon developed between Abdullah and the central Congress government in India. Abdullah criticised the discrimination against Muslims in India while Congress leaders stood behind Hindu nationalist parties in Jammu who were campaigning for a full merger of the state with the Indian Union. Abdullah began portraying the Indian and Pakistani regimes in the same light. This was an extremely dangerous development for the Indian ruling class and so, under the influence of the Indian Congress government, Abdullah was overthrown by a ’palace coup’ from amongst his own circle of supporters in 1953. He did not return to power until 1975 after spells in prison.

Under the new administration, the accession of Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian Union was confirmed and reflected in a new constitution. Democratic rights were further undermined by the introduction of detention without trial for five years. This was the start of a process which after ten years would, in effect, remove the special status of the state within the Union and vastly increase the power of central government in determining events there.

The arrest of Abdullah led to mass protests in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir and a campaign calling for the crossing of the ceasefire line. The Pakistani government realised such a development could lead to an explosive and uncontrollable movement for independence on both sides of the ceasefire line. They promptly arrested the movement’s leaders, some of whom had held senior positions in the Pakistani Occupied Kashmir government. This was yet another indication of the hypocrisy of the Pakistani ruling class in claiming to support ’freedom’ for Kashmiris.

Following the 1962 war between India and China over border territory, in which the Indian military was defeated, regional power relations altered considerably. To counterbalance the danger it felt was posed by the Chinese Stalinist regime, US imperialism increased weapons sales to India. The New Dehli government was able to announce a doubling in its armed forces as a result. This elicited a strong reaction from the Pakistani regime who felt its status as ’most favoured ally’ of the US was being undermined. US imperialism attempted to make some progress in negotiations between the two countries over Kashmir to reduce the tension, but failed. In fact, the situation worsened as the Indian government passed legislation implementing direct rule in Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir at the end of 1964. This followed mass Muslim protests in Srinagar, capital of the Valley, following the disappearance of a sacred Islamic icon from the city.

The 1965 Indo-Pakistani war took place against the background of these tensions. Border clashes were a prelude to major fighting between the Indian and Pakistani forces in Jammu and Kashmir. The Pakistan military felt that an invasion in Kashmir would lead to a popular uprising of a pro-Pakistani character in the Valley and that the Indian regime would be forced to the negotiation table. This was a big miscalculation and the war resulted in a stalemate with the ceasefire line, in reality, unchanged.

Armed liberation struggle

The guerrilla struggles for national liberation in Algeria and Vietnam inspired a new layer of Kashmiri activists to move in the direction of armed struggle. Armed wings were formed in the mid-1960s which evolved into the Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front (JKNLF). This was based initially in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir but also organised operations on the other side of the LOC. The JKNLF believed an armed struggle would bring the world’s attention to the issue of Kashmir, opening the way to genuine independence from both India and Pakistan.

Undoubtedly, the many hundreds of youth who rallied to its banner were extremely heroic and committed to the national liberation of their country. One of their leaders, Maqbool Bhutt, who was eventually hung by the Indian authorities, has become a symbol of the fight for national liberation for many Kashmiris. But this guerrilla struggle, based on the active participation of a tiny minority of the population, had no possibility of driving out Indian forces or liberating Pakistani Occupied Kashmir because of the balance of military forces. Only a struggle to overthrow capitalism and landlordism involving workers and peasants in all parts of the sub-continent could have led to Kashmiri national liberation.

This was even more the case in the period after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. This followed a move for increased autonomy for East Pakistan after the massive election victory of a Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League, in the December 1970 elections. The West Pakistan-based army attempted to crush all opposition to keeping both parts of Pakistan united. The Indian army intervened on the side of the Awami League leading to a new war. The Pakistani army was surrounded by a hostile population and a militarily stronger Indian army and was forced into a humiliating surrender in late 1971. The defeat was a major blow to the Pakistani military. Pakistan’s population was more than halved and the country lost important economic interests. The 1972 Simla agreement reflected the changed balance of forces between the two countries and meant that the Pakistani government was forced to accept that the LOC in effect represented the ’international’ border between itself and India. Public Pakistani claims of fighting for the rights of all Kashmiris were put into cold storage. However, this did not mean that the military elite had given up its ambition to restore its shattered prestige through further military campaigns.

The development of regional separatist movements in India (particularly amongst the Sikh population) in the 1980s also hardened the Indian ruling class’s opposition to concessions to autonomy or independence in occupied Jammu and Kashmir.

The activity of guerrilla groups like the JKNLF had not succeeded in breaking the stranglehold of the Indian state forces. Its lack of success and the small number of forces it could organise as an underground, secretive guerrilla organisation opened the way to its infiltration by both the Indian and Pakistani regimes. The same applied to a number of armed groups which had proliferated on both sides of the LOC. In the late 1980s the biggest growth was amongst the Islamic jihadi groups (such as Hizb-Ul Mujahadeen, Lashkar-E-Taba) fighting for an Islamic Kashmir.

The only lasting exception to the general tendency of growth in support for Islamic fundamentalist groups in this period was the formation of the Jammu and Kashmir National Awami Party in 1995 in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir. Members of the National Students Federation (first organised in the wave of radicalisation that took place in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir in the mid 1960s) set up this left nationalist party.

The Islamic fundamentalist groups had come to prominence as a result of the CIA-funded struggle against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. US imperialism funnelled millions of dollars through the ISI to develop the madrassahs, or religious schools, based in Pakistan, which trained fighters against the Soviet-backed Afghan regime. However, these ultra-reactionary forces did not limit their activity to Afghanistan and saw the opportunity to spread their jihad to areas such as Indian Occupied Kashmir. This led to the development of the so-called ’Kalashnikov culture’ throughout Jammu and Kashmir. Many Muslim youth on both sides of the LOC have either volunteered or been forced into service of these groups in the last two decades.

Insurgency & state brutality

The late 1980s was a decisive turning point in Indian Occupied Kashmir and represented the crystallisation of decades of indignity, attacks on democratic rights and brutal oppression. Armed opposition and mass rebellion gripped the Valley in the period following the rigged elections in 1987. In this contest, despite a high turnout of 75% and indications that the opposition Muslim United Front would make a strong showing, stooge parties for the Indian government won a sweeping parliamentary majority. Acts of sabotage, kidnappings of state officials and assassinations against those suspected of sympathy with the Indian regime climbed. The Indian government responded by sending Shri Jagmohan back to govern Indian Occupied Kashmir by decree.

Insurgency exploded from the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990. The Indian regime responded with an occupation force whose rule made the actions of the Israeli Defence Force in Palestine pale into insignificance. Between 30,000 and 80,000 people are estimated to have been killed. In 1990 Jagmohan gave Indian occupation forces the right to shoot on sight any demonstrator or ’insurgent’. Months-long curfews were put in place, particularly after more than a million people demonstrated against Indian rule in Srinagar in March 1990. Wave after wave of protest shook the province as a national uprising threatened Indian control.

There is evidence that Jagmohan and the Indian-directed administration encouraged the Valley’s Hindu Brahmin minority to leave in the early 1990s. This was then used to justify increasing repression and to undermine what remained of the Kashmiriyat. Well-known members of the Hindu Brahmin community had been attacked and up to 140,000 Brahmins left for refugee camps in Jammu and Dehli. However, the Indian claim that the Hindu community of the Valley had been driven out by Muslim groups bent on communal pogroms is undermined by the accounts given by Brahmins who said that they left the keys to their property with Muslim neighbours to look after.

By the end of 1990s different wings of the Indian security forces had set up 63 torture centres and had between 200,000 and 600,000 soldiers or special forces in the occupied territory.

The current threat of conflict between India and Pakistan, although having drawn back from the brink of all-out war, demonstrates that the national aspirations of the Kashmiri people have never been further from being solved. The existence of two weak and reactionary regimes in India and Pakistan makes armed conflict over Kashmir a certainty in the future unless the working class and poor peasants of the Asian subcontinent can overthrow capitalism and landlordism.

The history of Jammu and Kashmir shows that the territorial and strategic interests of the Indian and Pakistani ruling classes, as well as the intervention of US imperialism, have vastly complicated the situation in the region. Attempts at negotiation have failed because they try to achieve the impossible: a capitalist solution to the problem.

The struggle for socialism, and thereby the genuine national liberation of the Kashmiri people, will have to take account of the history of developments in the state. Socialists would struggle for a socialist independent Kashmir as part of a socialist confederation of the sub-continent. However, such a programme must include guarantees for the cultural and language rights of all ethnic, religious, and tribal minorities within the state. This would include rights of autonomy in areas such as Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh where there have been past fears of Muslim domination. Only in this way can the millions of workers and poor peasants who have suffered so cruelly in the last five decades find a solution to their social, economic, and national aspirations.

This article appeared in Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (England and Wales)

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