Kashmir – A jagged possession through the ages

Kashmir – A jagged possession through the ages

Kashmir is not only the northernmost geographic region of the Indian subcontinent but also a place of unmatched beauty, fresh air and a geopolitical flashpoint for three nuclear-armed countries each bent on occupying it whole.

Background

Historically the region has been a place of importance firstly for the Hindus, then later Buddhist and finally the Muslim’s who comprise of the majority of the Kashmiri population today.

In 1339, Shah Mir became the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir ruling it through his dynasty until the Mughal Empire conquered the region in 1586. Later on the Afghan Durrani Empire wrested it from the Mughal’s and ruled until 1820. That year the Sikhs under the leadership of Ranjit Singh annexed Kashmir ruling it for a short period independently until their defeat to the British in 1846 during the first Anglo-Sikh War. The Sikhs under Gulab Singh, the Raja of Jammu purchased most of the region from the British through the Treaty of Amritsar. His descendants ruled the region under the tutelage of the British Crown until the partition of India in 1947, where the formerly princely state of the British Indian Empire became a disputed territory now administered by India, Pakistan and China.

It was not until 200 years ago that the situation for the Muslim majority people of the Kashmir valley took a turn for the worst. According to a Kashmiri Hindu journalist “The poverty of the Muslim masses is appalling. … Most are landless labourers, working as serfs for absentee [Hindu] landlords … Almost the whole brunt of official corruption is borne by the Muslim masses.” Under the Hindu rule, Muslims faced hefty taxation, discrimination in the legal system and were forced into labour without any wages. Conditions in the princely state caused a significant migration of people from the Kashmir Valley to Punjab of British India. For almost a century until the census, a small Hindu elite had ruled over a vast and impoverished Muslim peasantry. Driven into docility by chronic indebtedness to landlords and moneylenders, having no education besides, nor awareness of rights, the Muslim peasants had no political representation until the 1930s.

In the run up to the partition of the subcontinent two main parties emerged in the princely state ruled by Hari Singh, a Hindu ruler much out of touch with the Muslim majority people of the region.

The National Conference, a secular party and the Muslim Conference had very different ideas about what should become the future of Kashmir. The National Conference tilted in favour of joining India, whilst the latter was interested to join Pakistan.

The states Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist minorities were also in favour of joining Kashmir with the union of India. However, the sentiments of the state’s Muslim population were divided. Scholar Christopher Snedden states that the Muslims of Western Jammu, and also the Muslims of the Frontier Districts Province, strongly wanted Jammu and Kashmir to join Pakistan.

The ethnic Kashmiri Muslims of the Kashmir Valley, on the other hand, were ambivalent about Pakistan due to their secular nature.

The fact that Kashmiris were not particularly enamoured with the idea of Pakistan reflected the failure of the idea of Pan-Islamic identity in satisfying the political urges of Kashmiris. At the same time there was also a lack of interest in merging with Indian nationalism.

Kashmir was neither as large nor as old an independent state as Hyderabad; it had been created rather off-handedly by the British after the first defeat of the Sikhs in 1846, as a reward to a former official who had sided with the British.

The Himalayan kingdom was connected to India through a district of the Punjab, but its population was 77 per cent Muslim and it shared a boundary with Pakistan. Hence, it was anticipated that the maharaja would accede to Pakistan when the British paramountcy ended on 14–15 August.

When he hesitated to do this, Pakistan launched a guerrilla onslaught meant to frighten its ruler into submission. Instead the Maharaja appealed to Mountbatten for assistance, and the governor-general agreed on the condition that the ruler accede to India.

Indian soldiers entered Kashmir and drove the Pakistani-sponsored irregulars from all but a small section of the state. The United Nations was then invited to mediate the quarrel. The UN mission insisted that the opinion of Kashmiris must be ascertained, while India insisted that no referendum could occur until all of the state had been cleared of irregulars.

In the last days of 1948, a ceasefire was agreed under UN auspices. However, since the referendum demanded by the UN was never conducted, relations between India and Pakistan soured, and eventually led to two more wars over Kashmir in 1965 and 1999.

Today about 95% of the people in the Kashmir Valley, 30% in Jammu and 46% in Ladakh are Muslims. The figure is 100% in Pakistani-administered Azad Kashmir and 99% in Gilgit-Baltistan region. Except for Jammu, the Hindus are minorities in all other regions of Kashmir.

Bangladeshi perspective

Given that Kashmir came in to existence just 200 years ago as a quickly assembled British creation to benefit one of their loyal aids it begs to question why this place occupies a cornerstone in Indo-Pak relations.

The egos of the two countries are possibly far larger than the territory of Kashmir itself.

Most Bangladeshis are in favour of Kashmiris deciding their own future through a United Nations organised plebiscite. The region’s population in their entirety should be allowed to decide to join either India or Pakistan with a third option for independence.

Bangladesh is the only country in the Indian subcontinent where the ethnic Bengali population managed to establish an independent homeland for themselves. It is a model for development today however Bangladesh’s location and access to the Bay of Bengal was in fact an advantageous factor that secured independence for her whereas landlocked countries such as Nepal and Bhutan today suffer the misfortune of being trapped by India and China.

Some people may question the viability of Kashmir to succeed without any direct access to the sea. In any case the rights of the Kashmiris to access a sea route through both India and Pakistan should be secured under a UN agreement if Kashmiris were to choose a path of independence like that of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is not officially in favour of any conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. It strongly believes most of the quarrels between the two nuclear-armed arch enemies could be resolved if the two countries agreed to Kashmir’s plebiscite. The trouble is things don’t always go to plan and the British themselves discovered that most of Kashmir went to India’s control even though the British expected and possibly wanted Kashmir to become a part of Pakistan given its majority Muslim population and the deep fear of a Soviet invasion from the North.

A section of Bangladeshis have also pointed out that Kashmiris never supported the independence movement of Bangladesh. It would not be wise for Bangladesh to involve itself in to the Kashmir dispute. The government of Bangladesh fully understands the sentiments of the Bangladeshi people. It has to balance the consideration of the Muslim majority Kashmiri brethren’s rights as well as the general mood of the people in Bangladesh, which is why Bangladesh remains mum about the dispute.

Kashmiris are welcome in Bangladesh with many studying at Bangladesh’s famed medical universities. They have been welcome in to the country with open arms by the people of Bangladesh due to their common Islamic ties with Bangladesh. With all things considered people of Bangladesh expect India and Pakistan to play a more realistic role in resolving the Kashmir dispute without delay. The infamy of Hari Singh and the British should not be carried unto another century in the arms of India and Pakistan.

The people of Kashmir wholeheartedly deserve better for a region that epitomises the beauty of Kohinoor. If the British could have packed up Kashmir, like they did with the Kohinoor they would have done so in 1947.

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