No Asian conflict,” Stanley Wolpert’s new book begins, “has proved more deadly, costly, or intractable than that which continues to divide India and Pakistan over Kashmir.” Wolpert has been writing about the Indian subcontinent for half a century, which might explain his limited vision. One can easily think of several Asian conflicts, from Cambodia to Korea, with higher death counts and greater costs. But Wolpert, as a historian and an observer, has seen the two countries, which share a long border, engage in a number of wars since the British partition of 1947. And in the last two decades, with nuclear weapons in the possession of both states, their dispute over Kashmir does threaten to become the most dangerous conflict on earth. It is the fervent hope of this slim volume that a solution can be found before before a nuclear war commences.
It has become conventional wisdom to say that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won without Pakistani support for the American-led coalition’s efforts. But it is increasingly evident that consistent Pakistani cooperation—in essence, a realignment of Pakistan’s military posture away from India and to its west—is less likely to occur without a Kashmir settlement. Wolpert makes clear that any resolution will require a persistence that both countries have thus far shown only in exacerbating the conflict. A tragedy is supposed to be a collision of rights. The story of Kashmir is a collision of many years of wrongs; the results have been no less tragic.
Wolpert first visited India, he tells us, in 1948, arriving in Bombay while Gandhi’s ashes were being scattered. He was shocked to discover that the assassin was a Hindu fanatic who felt that the Mahatma had made too many concessions to the newly created Muslim state of Pakistan. Indeed, Wolpert begins with the British partition of the Indian states of Punjab and Bengal, and the decision to leave the two independent nations in haste. Within months, the first war between them had broken out, and it was over Kashmir. Hari Singh, who then ruled the princely state, dithered and by October of 1947, Pakistani tribal frontiersman, angered over the demands of Hindu landlords, launched a series of raids. Singh appealed for help, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru responded by sending troops. (In return Singh agreed to allow Kashmir, despite its majority Muslim population, to accede to India).
U.N. involvement eventually led to a ceasefire and to calls for a plebiscite in which the Kashmiri people would get to choose their fate. The ceasefire line, which in essence exists to this day, left India in control of approximately 60 percent of the state (the full name of which is Jammu and Kashmir). When Pakistan refused to withdraw troops after the ceasefire, the U.N. Resolutions calling for a plebiscite were ignored by India. (Although Pakistan’s actions kept the resolution from going into effect, it is arguable whether India would have held a plebiscite under any circumstance).
After a war between India and China—the latter controls about ten percent of Kashmir—India and Pakistan again engaged in combat in 1965. While not significant in terms of borders, the war did alter feelings in East Bengal, then Pakistan’s eastern “wing.” Wolpert does not make much of this, but Bengali resentment over West Pakistan’s focus on Kashmir would be one of the many sparks that led to a third war between India and Pakistan, this time in 1971. After West Pakistan ignored election results that benefited eastern-based politicians—and after a disgraceful lack of attention to a cyclone that ravished Bengal—a revolt in the east was put down with overwhelming force; hundreds of thousands of rapes and murders, and ethnically targeted attacks on Hindus, ensued. A huge number of refugees immediately fled to India.
After Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister and Nehru’s daughter, announced her preference for East Pakistan’s independence, and after India began training rebels, Pakistan launched a strike against India. The war was over very quickly: Pakistan was humiliated, and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The following year, a more formal Line of Control was established along the borders of the original ceasefire line but Kashmir, inevitably, remained in dispute.
Unfortunately, Gandhi’s strong line on Bangladesh proved to be the high-water mark of a reign that became authoritarian and brutal throughout the country and particularly in Kashmir (Wolpert is excellent on this). In 1987, blatantly rigged Kashmiri elections cemented Indian control. Kashmir, Wolpert writes, had by this point long looked “more like an occupied territory than part of a free country.” When a full-scale independence movement broke out several years later, it had the support of Pakistan. For the last two decades, to greater and lesser degrees, Afghan mujahedeen trained by Pakistan, and native Pakistani militants, have infiltrated Kashmir and caused significant mayhem and death. At the same time, the Indian army has declared de facto martial law and become increasingly violent, bringing shame to India’s democratic traditions.
It is impossible to imagine either country forfeiting Kashmiri territory without another full-scale war. That leaves two solutions, one being a vote in the state itself that would presumably result in independence. Despite his restrained optimism about the conflict, Wolpert believes that independence is “implausible” because of the hardened attitudes of each side. He does not spend as much time as he might have on another problem with Kashmiri independence—namely, the backlash that India’s Muslims would face were the country’s only Muslim-majority state allowed to break away. (Both India and Pakistan face other separatist movements, too). This leaves a formal division along the current Line of Control, and the restoration of free elections in Kashmir. However imperfect this solution—from the perspective of either fairness or justice, Kashmir deserves a vote for independence—it may be the lone remaining option.
Two major developments, however, are the preconditions for any solution. First, Pakistan’s corrupt civilian government must earn more domestic and international respect. It is difficult to see any Indian leader agreeing to a long-term peace amidst the current level of Pakistani instability. And second, Indian policies and attitudes are in need of major change. Yes, the Pakistani military and intelligence services have backed anti-Indian terrorists and rebels in Kashmir; but the present uprising is primarily the result of angry Kashmiris who are fed up with the Indian military’s heavy-handedness and torture. It is past time that India approach the problem not as one of Pakistani aggression, but rather as a challenge to its own democratic order, and its conception of itself as a country that respects human rights. It is understandable that India wants to maintain control of Kashmir—indeed, Indian liberals are right to recognize that there is some importance in India containing a Muslim-majority state—but the priority must be the human rights of Kashmiri citizens. There were glimmers of hope that the current Indian government’s response to instability last summer showed some awareness of this, but much work remains to be done.
Wolpert leaves the reader in little doubt that neither country has done themselves favors in Kashmir. And it is easy to see why both India and Pakistan feel threatened by each other, and by any stirrings of revolt in the land they have scarred. The obvious result has been that the voices of Kashmiris themselves have ceased to be heard. Until they are, the conflict is unlikely to exhibit any signs of ending.
Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book.