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The Kashmir conflict

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The Himalayan state of Kashmir is the main reason why India and Pakistan have remained bitter enemies for most of the sixty-plus years since Independence. The region’s troubles date from Partition, when the ruling Hindu maharaja Hari Singh opted to join India rather than Pakistan, and the geopolitical tug-of-war over the state has soured relations between the two countries ever since, at least until the last few years.

The conflict in Kashmir has taken two forms: firstly, a military confrontation between the Pakistani and Indian armies along the de facto border – on three occasions leading to fully fledged war (in 1947, 1965 and 1999); and, secondly, a violent insurgency-cum-civil war since 1989, during which both Kashmiri and foreign Muslim fighters have launched various attacks against Indian military and civilian targets inside Kashmir itself, leading to equally bloody reprisals by Indian security forces – a conflict which has now cost an estimated seventy thousand lives.

The roots of the problem

Following the cessation of hostilities in 1948, a UN resolution demanded a plebiscite should take place whereby the Kashmiri people would decide their own future. This India has resolutely refused to hold. The Ceasefire Line, or so-called Line of Control, became the effective border between India and Pakistan; the third of Kashmir held by Pakistan is referred to by those who support independence from India as Azad (Free) Kashmir. India lost a further slice of Kashmiri territory to the Chinese during the 1962 conflict before a resumption of hostilities with Pakistan during the Second Indo-Pakistan War of 1965. Again, Kashmir was the focus of attention, though at the end of the war both sides returned to their original positions. The Simla Agreement of 1972 committed both sides to renounce force in their dealings with one another, and to respect the Line of Control and the de facto border between their two states.

Insurgency and civil war

Simmering Kashmiri discontent with Indian rule and Delhi’s political interference in the region, which had been due to gain virtual autonomy in return for joining India, began to transform into armed resistance around 1989 – the arrival of mujahideen in the Kashmir Valley after the end of the war with Russia in Afghanistan is often blamed for the sudden surge of militancy. The key incident, however, was the unprovoked massacre, in 1990, of around one hundred unarmed protesters, by Indian security forces on Gawakadal Bridge in the capital, Srinagar. By the following year, violence and human-rights abuses had become endemic, both in the Kashmir Valley itself and further south around Jammu. Curfews became routine, and thousands of suspected militants were detained without trial amid innumerable accusations of torture, the systematic rape of Kashmiri women by Indian troops, disappearances of countless boys and men, and summary executions. The conflict continued to ebb and flow throughout the 1990s, with regular atrocities on both sides, while the region’s once-thriving tourist industry was dealt a fatal blow when the extremist Al-Faran Muslim group kidnapped five tourists trekking near Pahalgam in 1995; one was beheaded, and the others were never found. At the end of the decade, the crisis brought India and Pakistan to the verge of yet another all-out war. With both countries now fully fledged nuclear states, Kashmir has become one of the world’s most dangerous geopolitical flashpoints.

In May 1999, at least eight hundred Pakistani-backed mujahideen crept across the Line of Control overlooking the Srinagar–Leh road near Kargil and began to occupy Indian territory. India moved thousands of troops and heavy artillery into the area, and swiftly followed up with an aerial bombardment. In the event the conflict was contained, and by July 1999 the Indian army had retaken all the ground previously lost to the militants. All-out war was only narrowly averted again in early 2003 after intense diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on both sides by US emissary Colin Powell. Within Kashmir, long-established organizations like the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the All Party Hurriyat Conference, which had traditionally adopted a secular and nationalist stance, were being increasingly eclipsed by militantly Islamic and pro-Pakistani groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.

The road to peace?

The first signs of genuine rapprochement came in May 2003, when Indian prime minister Vajpayee made a declaration of peace, announcing that hundreds of Pakistanis detained in Indian prisons since the Kargil war would be released. Pakistani prime minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali responded by announcing that Pakistan would ease trade restrictions and improve travel and sporting links. In 2004 and 2005 the Indian and Pakistani governments also held their first-ever talks with Kashmiri separatists from the Hurriyat Conference, establishing a peaceful “Road Map” for progress in the region. A further round of Indo-Pak talks following the appointment of Manmohan Singh as India’s new prime minister resulted in further small but encouraging signs of progress, symbolized by the inauguration, in April 2005, of a fortnightly bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Further détente was signalled in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir in October 2005, which killed around 73,000 people in Pakistan and a further 1400 in Indian Kashmir, when the Line of Control was opened to speed up relief operations.

Various long-term solutions to the whole Kashmir issue are currently being mooted. These have ranged from India suggesting that the Line of Control might be converted into a permanent border to Pakistan possibly even being prepared to give up all claims to Kashmir if India allowed it some form of self-government. Kashmir’s future looks brighter now than it has for decades, although there is the perpetual risk that a single violent incident could trigger a new phase of conflict.

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