Kashmir peace is long climb, shadows Obama trip to India

There has been much in the news about Kashmir. Most of what you hear regarding Kashmir is violence, separatists and the tensions between India and Pakistan. It is a complex situation with a history of twists and turns and battles.

Kashmir is the last major question to be resolved stemming from India’s British colonial past, the freedom struggle and the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. It has been the cause of war between India and Pakistan. It’s also an issue that can be settled by only the two countries: India and Pakistan.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told reporters from Pakistan who asked the United States to “ease” or “facilitate” the issue that the U.S. cannot intervene if one of the parties (India) does not want it.

As President Barack Obama prepares to visit India in November, reports in the Indian press say the Kashmir issue is “unlikely to figure during talks” between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Obama in New Delhi. The “U.S. considers this an ‘internal’ matter of India,” Indian sources have said.

To understand why India considers this an “internal” matter and something to be settled directly with Pakistan and not a third party facilitator lies in the history of Kashmir and the Indian subcontinent.

When British colonialists faced the first war of India’s independence in 1857, they started dividing the subcontinent. First of they separated Burma (now known as Myanmar), followed by Nepal, and then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Then, in 1905, the British tried to divide Bengal from the rest of “British India” but the Bengalese put up a massive struggle, sacrificing thousands of lives. They won the much sought after unity, until the 1947 partition, which divided Bengal again. Along with the division of Punjab, the partition was made on a religious basis with Muslim-majority districts being part of the newly-created Muslim state of Pakistan. Punjab and Bengal were at the time of independence known as “British ruled” states.

But, there were still 650 princely states at the time of freedom where the rulers — not the people — were given the right to accede to India or Pakistan. (Some argue that had it been the “people’s choice” Pakistani provinces like Balochistan, Frontier provinces and possibly Sindh would have opted out of Pakistan.)

Kashmir in 1947 was a princely state with Muslims, Hindus, and other religions, ruled by Hindu Kings as part of the larger Muslim-ruled Mughal Empire. At the time of independence Kashmir was ruled by the last of the maharajas, Hari Singh.

About the same time, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah — the leader of Kashmir’s largest political party and a close friend to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (who was also from Kashmir) — became the first chief minister of Kashmir. This occurred after Singh wrote a letter of accession to India addressed to the British governor Lord Mountbatten.

War erupted (one of the four wars between India and Pakistan) fueled by partition and Cold War machinations. Military troops from Pakistan and India were sent to Kashmir. A year or so later, the United Nations voted for a referendum calling for a vote by the Kashmiri people on whether to accede to Pakistan and India.

Nehru out of his unflinching faith in secularism and its roots among the Kashmiri people was confident of winning the plebiscite and wanted one to go forward, however India’s federal cabinet never endorsed it. (Years later, Pakistan eventually said they would not insist on a plebiscite.)

After the war in the 1970s, in which East Pakistan won its independence and became Bangladesh, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Bhutto and India’s Indira Gandhi signed a pact known as the Simla agreement. Both agreed to respect a line of control and not to allow a third party intervention on Kashmir issue, neither the United Nations, nor any nation.

Now, part of Kashmir is with India, and other parts Pakistan, and still a third part is under Chinese control.

The Indian Constitution grants a special status to Jammu and Kashmir, which is the current name of the Indian state, and even an autonomous status is under negotiation between the state legislature and the central government.

Since Kashmir’s first Chief Minister Sheikh Abdullah, elections have taken place for Jammu and Kashmir government. The current chief minister is Sheikh Abdullah’s grandson, Omar Abdullah, who is, like his grandfather, progressive in political outlook.

Kashmiris of India elected young Abdullah in their most recent general elections ending Dec. 24, 2008. Kashmiri separatist sections called for a boycott. But few seemed to have listened, as there was a massive turn out of voters, with long queues at the 8,000 polling booths.

Kashmir has a relatively higher standard of living than most of India (and Pakistan). Indian Kashmiri women are educated in modern schools and colleges instead of in narrow, strict religious-based schools or no schooling at all. According to a recent survey only six percent of Kashmiris are below India’s poverty level. English is spoken at a high rate. Students from neighboring Punjab and Himachal states go to Kashmir for college. Mobile phones and computers are in common use.

Reports say the economic and literacy status of Kashmiris under Pakistani rule are lower.

The recent violence in Indian Kashmir began when police shot a Muslim boy after a group threw rocks at them. In the ensuing protests, more than 60 people were killed. Kashmir and Jammu government came under swift criticism for the way it handled the situation, and eventually made restitution to the victims’ families and freed jailed teenagers.

Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Sitaram Yechury had led some members of an all-party delegation to meet separatist leaders as well as displaced Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus), besides holding talks with other sections of the people there.

At the same time, there are Pakistan-supported criminal gangs and individuals that have focused for years on attacking India and Jammu and Kashmir through violent means. The ideology that sustains such attacks is religious extremism, which is in contradiction to the long history of Indian and Kashmiri secularism.

India’s Delhi government recently appointed a three-person team of interlocutors to discuss with all parties in Kashmir (from separatists to ruling Kashmiri parties) a solution “in line with the aspirations of the Kashmiri people.”

Kashmir’s chief minister and members of parliament from the region warn of the danger of “independence” seekers. Reflecting the regional worries of violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, CM Abdullah said, “You will be engulfed by Al Qaeda movement” if Jammu and Kashmir secede from the Indian Union.

MP Farooq Abdullah also warned that separatists and their supporters do not know the dire security and democratic consequences of forming a separate state. The Taliban from Pakistan and Afghanistan will be ruling Kashmir if independence is obtained, he said.


Teresa Albano contributed to this article.




R.K. Sharma
R.K. Sharma

Rama Kant Sharma was born into a Communist family from Punjab, India in 1933. As a young boy, he became active in politics in 1944 as a student freedom fighter against British colonial rule. Sharma joined the Communist Party of India in 1949 and worked for it as a student until 1954. Sharma was a biology teacher and trade union organiser of an 18,000 strong teachers association in Delhi from 1954 until 1963.

Sharma went to Ethiopia in 1963, with his wife, also a teacher, where the two of them taught in that country.

Later he graduated in medicine from Calcutta University, and returned to Delhi to serve working families as a medical practitioner,while working as a voluntary medical doctor to the Communist Party of India's office until 1996. Sharma has run for office (parliament) as a Communist candidate.

Sharma was a founder and organizer of the Indian affiliate of International Physicians For Prevention of Nuclear War. After all four children, all of whom are medical doctors, immigrated to the United States, Sharma and his wife also immigrated to the United States.

Sharma is currently active in U.S. progressive politics and a member of Physicians For Social Responsibility.