New York, September 30, 2015

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif takes the floor at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and makes a speech far more direct than most in the audience expect. “Since 1947, the Kashmir dispute has remained unresolved. [The] UN [United Nations] Security Council resolutions have remained unimplemented. Three generations of Kashmiris have only seen broken promises and brutal oppression. Over 100,000 have died in their struggle for self-determination. This is the most persistent failure of the United Nations,” he states.

This is not the only time in recent weeks that Pakistan has raised the Kashmir issue. On October 22, 2015, when Sharif meets President Barack Obama at the White House, the K word makes a conspicuous entry into their joint statement: “The leaders emphasised the importance of a sustained and resilient dialogue process between the two neighbors aimed at resolving all outstanding territorial and other disputes, including Kashmir, through peaceful means and working together to address mutual concerns of India and Pakistan regarding terrorism.”

India’s reaction has been predictably dismissive to this renewed vigour in Pakistan’s pursuit of Kashmir. “India has always desired resolution of all issues with Pakistan bilaterally through dialogue and peaceful means,” is how a spokesman of India’s Ministry of External Affairs reacts to the joint statement issued after the Sharif-Obama meeting. The curt rejection of suggestions that outsiders may have a role in the resolution of the Kashmir issue is quite obvious in the spokesman’s rejoinder.

Illustrations by Ayesha Haroon
Illustrations by Ayesha Haroon

Islamabad and New Delhi are certainly saying nothing new as far as their respective stances on Kashmir are concerned. Yet it is quite clear that the conflict in and about this long-disputed region is back on centre stage — and not entirely because of Pakistan’s efforts. Kashmiris have launched a non-violent agitation movement since 2010 amid arrests, custodial deaths and relentless military oppression. They have, indeed, paid a very heavy price for many decades to get their story across to the world.

For the most part, Kashmir has been known to people through state representations. This is true for Kashmir’s history and perhaps equally so for the policies of the two states towards it. Both Islamabad and New Delhi ceaselessly try to expunge from public imagination anything that questions, albeit remotely, their official narratives on Kashmir even when the two narratives sometimes are as divergent from truth as they are from each other. Some of their most glaring contradictions and lies came to the surface for the first time when India’s Ministry of External Affairs recently declassified its archived documents, covering 50 years of the country’s foreign relations starting with 1947.

Kashmir’s story, as presented here on, is mainly reconstructed through those declassified documents. Where the documents are not available, especially for the post-1997 era, the narrative is continued by citing other primary sources. What follows is a historical account of the tragedy of Kashmir. A tragedy that stems from a ceaseless contestation for a pursuit based on two arbitrary – and conflicting – claims put forth by Pakistan and India.

Delhi, August 1947

It was supposed to be a new world that Lord Mountbatten traversed in those last months of 1947 as British India’s last viceroy. The Indian subcontinent, so long the jewel in Great Britain’s imperial crown, had been born anew and transformed into two sovereign states. And yet, as he made his way from Delhi to Karachi, it must have occurred to Mountbatten how little things had actually changed. Decades of nationalist struggle, two world wars, a formal transfer of power and millions of deaths later, he still had to mediate between the leaders of the new subcontinent. They were still grappling with – and fighting over – a number of unanswered questions. Perched on the very top of those questions was the one of Kashmir.

The British Raj in the Indian subcontinent had always been a highly complicated affair. To run an imperial enterprise spread over half a continent, the British authorities had to create and maintain several types of territorial arrangements, much like the Mughals before it. The British had to weave an intricate web of local collaborations that included a buffer zone between India and Afghanistan, hundreds of princely states of various sizes, that had a certain degree of legal and administrative autonomy from the Raj within their borders, and many directly administered provinces and territories. The decolonisation process spelled the unravelling of this web.

Based on map number 3828, revision 21, United Nations, September 2015. Department of Field Support Geospatial Information Section. | Illustration by Zehra Nawab
Based on map number 3828, revision 21, United Nations, September 2015. Department of Field Support Geospatial Information Section. | Illustration by Zehra Nawab

The two new states – India and Pakistan – that emerged from the decolonisation process could not operate under the same legal, political and administrative paradigm which the British had. The geographical unity of the two states could only be maintained if they came up with new political and legal arrangements to integrate swathes of territory, both big and small, that once belonged to the princely states. In order to deal with this challenge, the two states embarked on projects to absorb such territories into their respective borders as quickly as possible. There was no universally acknowledged single instrument to achieve this. Both states used a similar repertoire of techniques — negotiating accession treaties, making deals with local elites and, in certain cases, sending in troops to snuff out opposition.

The Kashmir crisis was born out of the discontents of the twin processes of decolonisation and territorial integration by India and Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir was a princely state which the East India Company had annexed in 1846 and then transferred to Gulab Singh of the Dogra dynasty for a payment of 7,500,000 rupees. As the British exit from the subcontinent became apparent, the then ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh, wished to remain independent. This was obviously not going to be acceptable to either India or Pakistan. Four major rivers originate from the Himalayas located in Kashmir and it also shares a border with China — the two factors that make it a strategically crucial region. In other words it is a prized territory. Both states, therefore, formed strategies to lay claim to it.

Delhi, September 27, 1947

India’s deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel received an urgent letter from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru regarding the situation in Kashmir. Nehru was convinced that Pakistan was preparing to infiltrate the region and foster an insurgency. He also knew Maharaja Hari Singh’s forces could not do much to stop infiltration without help from India. More importantly, Nehru realised, Hari Singh’s regime could not be sustained if its own people went against it.

Sheikh Abdullah headed the largest political party in Kashmir – the National Conference – but he was a staunch opponent of the Dogra dynasty. He had initiated a “Quit Kashmir” movement before the British left India in 1947 and, hence, was imprisoned in May 1946. Nehru wanted him freed. He noted in his letter that Sheikh Abdullah was eager not to join Pakistan. His opposition to Hari Singh, therefore, was not tantamount to support for accession to Pakistan. If the Indian government could work out a rapprochement between Hari Singh and Sheikh Abdullah, Nehru suggested to Patel, Kashmir’s accession to India would become easier.

The final phase of the partition of India: Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan with Viceroy Mountbatten and Congress leaders during a meeting on June 2, 1947 | White Star Photo Archives
The final phase of the partition of India: Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan with Viceroy Mountbatten and Congress leaders during a meeting on June 2, 1947 | White Star Photo Archives
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi sign the Simla Agreement | White Star Photo Archives
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi sign the Simla Agreement | White Star Photo Archives

“It seems to me urgently necessary, therefore, that the accession to the Indian Union should take place early. It is equally clear to me that this can only take place with some measure of success after there is peace between the Maharaja and the National Conference and they co-operate together to meet the situation,” Nehru wrote. “…Abdullah is very anxious to keep out of Pakistan and relies upon us a great deal for advice.” But, at the same time, he “cannot carry his people with him unless he has something definite to place before them. What this can be in the circumstances I cannot define precisely at the present moment. But the main thing is that the Maharaja should try to gain the goodwill and cooperation of Abdullah,” Nehru added. “It would be a tragedy if the National Conference remains passive owing to frustration and lack of opportunity.”

Nehru’s predictions about a likely infiltration into Kashmir were proven true. By October 1947, tribal militias from Murree, Hazara and parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) raided the valley through the Poonch area and began a widespread campaign to destabilise the Maharaja’s regime. The Maharaja looked to India for help which he got only after promising to sign an instrument of accession in favour of New Delhi.

Writing to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, Nehru argued that the Indian intervention in Kashmir was a response to an urgent appeal from the government of Jammu and Kashmir for help against tribal invaders who, he claimed, were aided and abetted by the Pakistani government.

Pakistan denied any involvement. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan insisted the actions by the tribesmen were an almost instinctive response to the atrocities being committed against Muslims in Kashmir. In his correspondence with Nehru, he argued that the tribesmen were helped by local Kashmiri Muslims who sought liberation. Liaquat Ali Khan also pointed out that the government in Kashmir had manipulated the situation in order to accede to India against the wishes of its own people. For Governor General Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the accession was nothing short of a coup d’etat.

Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan (left) and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at a Kashmir conference | White Star Photo Archives
Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan (left) and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at a Kashmir conference | White Star Photo Archives

A different story hid behind these public statements. On November 1, 1947, Mountbatten and his chief of staff, Lord Ismay, travelled to Lahore and met separately with both Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan. When he recorded the daily proceedings in his notebook, Mountbatten could not help but say the tribesmen had been acting on the express and direct command of the Pakistani leadership. Implicitly, Jinnah accepted as much to Mountbatten. “When I asked him how the tribesmen were to be called off, he said that all he had to do was to give them an order to come out and to warn them that if they did not comply, he would send large forces along their lines of communication. In fact, if I was prepared to fly to Srinagar with him, he would guarantee that the business would be settled within 24 hours. I expressed mild astonishment at the degree of control that he appeared to exercise over the raiders,” Mountbatten wrote.

Pakistani strategy was to create enough pressure on the Maharaja to abdicate, to then claim that the region should become a part of Pakistan because most people living in Jammu and Kashmir are Muslims. The Pakistani government knew only an indigenous revolt could preclude India from holding on to Kashmir. But therein lay Pakistan’s greatest challenge: The Muslim League had virtually no presence in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan had no guarantee that the people of Kashmir would overwhelmingly vote to be part of Pakistan.

Pakistani leadership was aware of the problem which is why both Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan consistently rejected a plebiscite in Kashmir as long as Indian troops were there. “If the India Government [is] allowed to act…unfettered as [it pleases] by virtue of having already occupied Kashmir and landed their troops there, then, this El Dorado of plebiscite will prove a mirage,” read an official Pakistan statement. During negotiations with Mountbatten, Jinnah strongly objected to having a plebiscite even under the auspices of the UN, maintaining that the presence of Indian troops as well as Sheikh Abdullah’s tilt towards India would deter the average Muslim in Kashmir from voting for Pakistan. In a letter to Attlee, Liaquat Ali Khan described Sheikh Abdullah as a “quisling” and a “paid agent of the Congress for the last two decades”.

In a December 1947 meeting with his Indian counterpart, Liaquat Ali Khan also questioned the efficacy of a voting process in Kashmir while it was under an India-sponsored administration. “…[T]he people of Kashmir were bound to vote, in the plebiscite, in favour of whatever administration was then in power. The Kashmiris were an illiterate and oppressed people, and they would be bound to favor the authority in possession. If an Englishman went as administrator, they would vote to join the United Kingdom,” he said.

That not only the Maharaja but also the National Conference favoured India was the advantage Nehru wanted. In his correspondence with Indian politicians, he pointed out that any activity by Pakistan would look illegal and unacceptable after Kashmir had acceded to India. He was right. After the Maharaja acceded to India on October 26, 1947, New Delhi was successful in portraying to the rest of the world that Pakistan-supported militant activity was an act of belligerence. This would remain the thrust of India’s case against Pakistan for the times to come.

Indian policemen detain JKLF activists during a protest against the Indian army in Srinagar | Dar Yasin, AP
Indian policemen detain JKLF activists during a protest against the Indian army in Srinagar | Dar Yasin, AP

The accession also formed the basis for a justification of India’s military presence in Kashmir. The Indian government argued it was well within its right to send troops to drive away outsiders from what it considered Indian territory. When Pakistan contended that it would only attempt to ensure the withdrawal of tribal militias if that coincided with a simultaneous withdrawal of Indian forces from Kashmir, the Indians simply refused, arguing that the presence of the two forces could not be treated the same way.

By the end of 1947, India decided to apprise the world of what it called Pakistani intrusion in Kashmir. In a meeting with Mountbatten in December that year, Nehru suggested India should raise the issue at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), “charging Pakistan with aggression and asking UNO [United Nations Organization] to call upon Pakistan to refrain from doing so”. If the Security Council failed to make Pakistan stop its “aggression”, he warned, “we would have to take action ourselves in such a manner as we thought fit to stop this aggression at the base.”

When Mountbatten suggested that the “UNO [should] supervise and carry out a plebiscite as we had previously declared” once “law and order has been restored”, Nehru replied with a definitive no. When India had made a unilateral offer for a plebiscite after partition, he argued, Pakistan rejected it and instead chose to support chaos in the valley. It was that chaos that made the plebiscite unfeasible, he declared.

Pakistan’s early policy in Kashmir obviously failed to result in any legitimacy for Pakistan’s claim. Within its borders, however, the Pakistani state was incredibly successful in cementing Kashmir as an invaluable, indispensable and eternal part of the Pakistani national imagination. Primarily, this was a function of fervent propaganda campaigns carried out by newspapers such as Dawn, Jang, Nawa-i-Waqt and Zamindar as well as through radio broadcasts and publishing special pamphlets, books and plays. Several films produced in this era also carried an explicit message that Kashmir belonged to Pakistan and it was incumbent on the Pakistani state and society to take necessary measures to realise its integration within Pakistan.

Both Islamabad and New Delhi ceaselessly try to expunge from public imagination anything that questions, albeit remotely, their official narratives on Kashmir even when the two narratives sometimes are as divergent from truth as they are from each other.

The overarching theme pervading this propaganda was the two-nation theory that Muslims were different from the Hindus and, therefore, the two cannot live together. Within a few short years after independence, the Pakistani media had convinced the citizenry that pursuing Kashmir through any means was not only legitimate, it was also noble.

The argument was simple: Kashmir was a Muslim majority area and hence could not be ruled by Hindus. By promoting such a narrative, the Pakistani state ensured that the Kashmir question was enmeshed with the question of Pakistani identity and that both questions were framed in religious terms.

This narrative, however, translated into little bargaining power during negotiations with India. Unsurprisingly, when Liaquat Ali Khan exchanged letters with Indian and British leaders, he seldom made a reference to Islam or jihad. His arguments, instead, rested entirely on the Kashmiris’ right to self-determine their political future. Pakistan posited that India had forcibly and undemocratically annexed Kashmir without taking the will of the people into account.

In the age of decolonisation, self-determination was considered a universal right and carried far more weight than the two-nation theory. Highlighting its absence as the core reason for the problem in Kashmir, indeed, forced India on the defensive. On several occasions, Nehru had to give assurances that a plebiscite would eventually take place and that the mandate of the Kashmiri people will be respected.

This apologetic Indian reaction convinced the Pakistani ruling elite that if it needed to force India to a negotiating table, it needed help — from powerful friends.

New York, November 1952

Sir Gladwyn Jebb, the British representative to the UN, handed a draft resolution on Kashmir to his Indian counterpart Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit who hurriedly wrote to Nehru, telling him that Britain and the United States were prepared to take the matter to the UNGA if India did not move within the next 30 days. A debate in the General Assembly and a possible resolution against India could be a national embarrassment, she said.

Nehru was aghast. “Have the English learnt nothing at all during the last few years? I am not thinking so much of their draft resolution, although that is bad enough, but rather of the way they think they can bully us. If there is one thing that all the powers in the world cannot do, it is to bully us,” he wrote in his feverish reply to Pandit.

Nehru’s frustration with Britain and the US had been growing for the past couple of years. He believed British and American patronage was the chief reason why Pakistan was being abrasive towards India. The Pakistani establishment, indeed, was seeking political and military support from the two countries in return for strategic loyalty. Quickly though, the Pakistani elite realised that its efforts would have to be directed mostly towards the US as Britain had little economic and political clout left in the post-World War II era. While the sun was setting on the British Empire, the American pursuit of hegemony in the postcolonial world had just begun.

This period was also the beginning of the Cold War, the ideological conflict between the US and the Soviet Union that would last for the rest of the 20th century and engulf the entire world. Policymakers in the White House and the State Department were deeply anxious to enlarge the American sphere of influence to ensure that newly formed states did not gravitate towards the Soviet camp.

The American reaction to the first phase of the Kashmir crisis was to impose an arms embargo on both Pakistan and India. But this policy had to change with the beginning of the 1950s. As the realities of the Cold War took centre stage, American policymakers aggressively pursued the policy of “containment” against the “communist virus” and they found in Pakistan a willing partner in their pursuit of this policy in the subcontinent.

Kashmiri protestors throw stones at Indian security personnel in Srinagar | Dar Yasin, AP
Kashmiri protestors throw stones at Indian security personnel in Srinagar | Dar Yasin, AP

In 1950, Liaquat Ali Khan publicly admitted that Pakistan would “seize the opportunity eagerly” should the US decide to give it as much importance as it gave to Turkey. Keen on developing a stronghold in the Middle East, the Americans were planning a multilateral security arrangement among Iran, Iraq and Turkey, their allies in the region. Given its geographical proximity to the Middle East, Pakistan could be included in this collective.

While Britain had reservations about including Pakistan in a Middle East collective and warned the Americans about the possible negative effects it might have on the relations between Washington and New Delhi, policymakers in the US remained determined to make Pakistan a client state. For its part, Pakistan received strong warnings from Moscow and Beijing against such an arrangement but the Pakistani establishment was adamant on securing military aid from the US.

When American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles visited Pakistan in the summer of 1953, he was deeply heartened to see Pakistan’s enthusiasm to ally with his country. In December that year, American Vice President Richard Nixon visited the subcontinent and concluded that America needed to sacrifice a potential relationship with India for one with Pakistan. In 1954, Pakistan became part of the South East Asian Treaty Organization (Seato) that also included Australia, France, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, the UK and the US; in early 1955, it joined the Baghdad Pact along with Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Britain and the US.

While the rebel in him might have been defiant, the politician in Nehru understood that these alliances had changed the power dynamics in South Asia. Equally importantly, the situation in Kashmir was changing and support for Pakistan was emerging among the Kashmiris. In 1953, Nehru acknowledged that a pro-Pakistan lobby was present in Kashmir valley alongside a pro-India one.

A number of political actors, including Sheikh Abdullah – who, by then, had become the prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir – also started imagining a possibly independent Kashmir. He went to the extent of stating that his government was not bound by the accession treaty signed by the Maharaja. Many in India’s ruling Congress party, who considered him a friend, were shocked by the statement. New Delhi could simply not afford a popular challenge to the accession treaty. Sheikh Abdullah was, therefore, sentenced to 11 years in prison under what became the infamous “Kashmir conspiracy case”.

Women grieve the killing of an alleged Kashmiri militant | Dar Yasin, AP
Women grieve the killing of an alleged Kashmiri militant | Dar Yasin, AP

All these developments forced Indian leaders to seek a lasting, internationally-recognised agreement over Kashmir. In May 1955, Nehru met with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra and his interior minister Iskander Mirza in Delhi. Senior Indian minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was also present during the talks which lasted for three consecutive days.

Despite tumultuous relations between the two states, the air in the negotiation room was gracious, even hopeful. Nehru frankly admitted that the American military aid had changed security circumstances in the subcontinent since “it brought the prospect of world war to our door”. Bogra, however, assured his Indian counterpart that Pakistan desired nothing but friendliness with its neighbour to the east. At one point, he even said: “India [is] a big country, the big sister of Pakistan…India should, therefore, be generous and magnanimous”.

While the two states were putting up a rare show of mutual understanding, the voice of the Kashmiris was conspicuously missing from their discussions. The real question being discussed was a partition of Kashmir. Before the Delhi meeting, Pakistan’s Governor General Malik Ghulam Muhammad had informally proposed that a large tract of land north of the Chenab River should be transferred to Pakistan and that Kashmir, as a whole, should come under some sort of a joint supervision by the two states.

For Nehru, these proposals were “completely impractical”. The Indian side could never give up territory because the Indian constitution stipulated that the government in Delhi could not alter the boundaries of the state of Jammu and Kashmir without the consent of the state’s own legislature.

While Bogra agreed that the Governor General’s proposals were unfeasible, he emphasised that he could not return to Pakistan empty-handed. “Something had to be done to make [the people of Pakistan] feel that they had gained something,” is what Bogra told Nehru who said India could transfer only the Poonch district to Pakistan. Bogra and Mirza sombrely announced that “if they accepted the Indian proposal, they would be blown sky-high in Pakistan”.

JKLF Chairman Yasin Malik, centre, attends a memorial service to mark the anniversary of an alleged massacre in Srinagar | Mukhtar Khan, AP
JKLF Chairman Yasin Malik, centre, attends a memorial service to mark the anniversary of an alleged massacre in Srinagar | Mukhtar Khan, AP

Their concerns were not exaggerated. Many political and religious leaders in Pakistan were mobilising people for an Islamic war in Kashmir. On August 14, 1953, Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman, then governor of East Pakistan, exhorted the Pakistanis to “keep their swords shining and horses ready”. Feroz Khan Noon, the then chief minister of Punjab, said in a public meeting in Lahore, two days later, that the Indian government had gone “back on [the] international understanding between the two countries” by sending troops into “a predominantly Muslim country — Kashmir”.

Such provocations, mirrored relentlessly by the Pakistani press and radio, could only lead to an atmosphere full of deep acrimony where conflict was celebrated and peace was mocked as a manifestation of weakness. In 1954, a pamphlet entitled Fatwa was published in Pakistan which contained virulently anti-India contents with reference to Kashmir. The Indian High Commission in Pakistan requested the Pakistani government to withdraw the pamphlet. The request was turned down.

Also read: Enforced disappearances: The plight of Kashmir’s ‘half widows’

In these politically charged circumstances, Bogra and Mirza could not make any concessions without risking the fall of their government. The same militaristic narrative that the Pakistani state was actively promoting, thus, circumscribed its negotiating power.

When the two sides returned to the negotiating table the next day, Bogra produced a map of Jammu and Kashmir. It was divided into two parts: the Hindu areas which amounted to a few districts around Jammu were coloured yellow while the rest of the map was coloured green to indicate the Muslim majority areas. The Pakistani delegates suggested a “large area of the Jammu province including Poonch, Riyasi, Udhampur” could go to India along with the “possible transfer of Skardu to India”.

Azad, at that point, stated that India could at best agree to concede some parts of Mirpur district alongside Poonch to Pakistan. For Nehru, the acceptance of Pakistani proposals was as good as an Indian “defeat and the dictation of terms” by Pakistan which, he said, no Indian government could accept. Mirza responded by stating that all he could do was report back to his government in Karachi. And on that inconclusive note, the negotiations ended.

Although the talks achieved nothing, they clearly depicted that Kashmir had turned into a territorial dispute. The ultimate object on the negotiating table was a map — a cartographic representation of space bereft of people and their history, identities, voices and relationships. The Kashmiri ‘self’ – which Pakistan ostensibly wanted to guard under the banner of Islam and which India wanted to protect under its constitution – was actually considered wholly fluid and expendable, something that could be cut up by the two states wantonly. The important question was not whether to cut Kashmir or not — it was how to go about cutting it. And so it has remained since then.

The pursuit of Kashmir

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