When British explorer William Moorcroft visited the Kashmir Valley in the 1820s, he described a people living in abject conditions, exorbitantly taxed and subjected to every kind of extortion and oppression. They were ruled by Ranjit Singh, whose forces had conquered the Valley in 1819, and he had shut the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar to prevent Muslims from gathering to plot against him. The land was considered his property and the people were forced to hand over most of their produce to his government, leaving them to face poverty, hunger and disease. “The Sikhs seem to look upon the Kashmirians as little better than cattle,” Moorcroft wrote. “The murder of a native by a Sikh is punished by a fine to the government, of from sixteen to twenty rupees, of which four rupees are paid to the family of the deceased if a Hindu, and two rupees if he was a Mohammedan.”
At a time when the Kashmir Valley is facing a new wave of protests by young Kashmiris demanding “azaadi”—an expression that can mean many different things in the Kashmiri context—Moorcroft’s comments offer a fascinating glimpse into where people lacked liberty in the past. This history includes religious, economic and political oppression. Over the years, all three elements have played a part in feeding Kashmiri grievances against their rulers. They continue to resonate in today’s youth protests, from Muslim suspicions about the rise of the Hindu right in India, to manipulation of some protesters by Islamists, to anger over the lack of economic development and jobs, to political demands for a full say in the region’s constitutional status. Yet in the polarised environment that pits Pakistan against India and some Kashmiris against others, there is little space for a sophisticated understanding of Kashmir’s history that might acknowledge the interplay of all three factors. This is all the more so since Pakistan and India have tried to own the history of the conflict in Muslim-majority Kashmir, projecting into it an extension of their own national identities. Pakistan views it through the prism of religion; India, at least traditionally, has seen it through the lens of its own secularism. The two countries’ differences over Kashmir have become what Josef Korbel, chairman of the UN Commission on India and Pakistan until 1949, described as “the uncompromising and perhaps uncompromisable struggle of two ways of life”.
One possibility would be for those who want to build constituencies for peace to start by trying to reconcile their understandings of the history of Kashmir
In a conflict that has dragged on for 70 years, it would be naïve to expect a resolution any time soon. Both Pakistan and India are essentially status quo powers for whom a dilution of their position on Kashmir would be seen by those in charge as weakening the state. Even when India and Pakistan have engaged in talks in the past, little attempt has been made to build public support for a compromise. Public rhetoric springs back to decades-old maximalist positions when talks break down. Going back to Moorcroft then, one possibility would be for those who want to build constituencies for peace to start by trying to reconcile their understandings of the history of Kashmir. In doing so, it would help to weigh the roles of political, economic and religious grievances. Rather than focus on the Kashmir Valley alone, it would also be better to situate it in the context of the whole of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir—divided since 1947-8 between Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan on the Pakistan side of the Line of Control (LoC) and Ladakh, the Kashmir Valley and Jammu on the Indian side—than risk running aground on post-Partition polemics; the focus could be the period up to 1947.
A point of departure in such an exercise would be to acknowledge that Kashmir, even by the standards of previous centuries, historically suffered exceptionally oppressive rule. This shaped it politically and made it particularly hard to articulate grievances. Even today, young protesters in the Kashmir Valley demand “azaadi” without any real agreement about what that means beyond a vague resentment against Indian rule. Calls for independence are never fleshed out to say whether this would be for the Kashmir Valley alone, or for the whole of the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, nor do they explain how a newly independent country between Pakistan, India and China could survive in a hostile region.
A second step would be to recognise that Kashmir’s lack of freedom was not always defined by religion. Potted histories of Kashmir tend to start in 1846 when Hindu Dogra rulers from neighbouring Jammu acquired the Valley from the British after the latter’s defeat of the Sikh empire. That fits neatly into a misleading version of history that segues too easily from autocratic rule by Hindu maharajas in the period of 1846-1947 to the post-1947 period under Indian rule. In fact, the watershed moment in the Kashmir Valley’s loss of independence came with the occupation of the Kashmir Valley by Muslim Moghul rulers in 1586. It then fell under Afghan and Sikh rule, both equally oppressive as far as ordinary people were concerned, before passing into the hands of Dogra ruler Gulab Singh in 1846.
A third challenge is to situate the Kashmir Valley within the broader context of the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). By the time Gulab Singh acquired the Kashmir Valley, adding it to his home base in Jammu, his forces had already conquered Baltistan and Ladakh. He would go on to expand his kingdom to include Gilgit and other mountainous regions, while his younger brother controlled the neighbouring state of Poonch. Between them, India and Pakistan have all but erased the existence of the former princely state of J&K in the popular imagination. Pakistan focuses on the Kashmir Valley. India publicly claims all of the former J&K, including Gilgit-Baltistan, while occasionally suggesting quietly that it could accept a permanent division of the princely state down the Line of Control. Yet the dispute that was triggered after Partition in 1947 was about the state in its entirety. Some historians have contended that J&K was an artificial state carved out by the ambitious Gulab Singh to contain diverse regions whose people spoke different languages, had different ethnic origins and followed different religions. But this contention is debateable. Long before Gulab Singh, trade and cultural links between Kashmir and the other mountain states in the western Himalaya, including Ladakh, Gilgit and Baltistan, had informally connected the region for centuries. That gave it far more cohesion than is commonly assumed nowadays. Gulab Singh was, moreover, no different from other rulers, fashioning Westphalian “nation-states” out of diverse populations in the 19th century. Belgium, for example, traces its history as an independent state to 1830, while the process of consolidating the different states that make up modern Italy was completed only in the second half of the 19th century.
The importance of considering J&K in its entirety rather than focusing only on the Kashmir Valley is of far more than academic interest. For a start, any attempt to separate the Kashmir Valley and treat it in isolation would have knock-on effects on other parts of the former J&K, threatening further unrest and fresh Balkanisation. Secondly, any settlement between India and Pakistan will require an understanding about the whole of the former J&K. Between 2004 and 2007, envoys from then President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh drafted a plan for a settlement for all of the former princely state, covering Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir on the Pakistan side and Ladakh, Jammu and the Kashmir Valley on the Indian side. Diplomats and retired officials in Pakistan and India give somewhat different interpretations of what was contained in the draft agreement, which has never been published. But in essence it said that India and Pakistan would give maximum autonomy to the people of all of the former princely state while retaining authority over foreign policy, defence and communications on their sides of the Line of Control. There would be no exchange of territory, but both countries promised to work together to make borders irrelevant by encouraging trade, travel and tourism across the LoC. A “joint mechanism” involving the people of J&K along with Indians and Pakistanis would be set up to coordinate areas of mutual interest. Whether India and Pakistan might have tripped at the last hurdle in defining the final terms of the agreement was never tested; the plan did not survive Musharraf’s departure from office and the Mumbai attacks of 2008. It was, however, the most promising peace plan to date and suggests that any future progress will depend on imaginatively reuniting the different parts of J&K on paper, even if in practice they may never be fully put back together.
Pakistan and India have tried to own the history of the conflict in Muslim-majority Kashmir, projecting into it an extension of their own national identities
So far, then, to return to the areas of historical contention, we have covered political oppression by outside rulers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, a tendency at times to overstate the role of religion, and confusion about the very nature of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. A fourth challenge, not too dissimilar from one that threads through global debates about Islamist acts of terrorism, is to steer a line between asserting that Kashmir’s tortured past has nothing to do with religion and saying that it has everything to do with religion. Throughout Kashmir’s history, opposition to autocratic rule was at least partly informed by religion—as highlighted by Moorcroft’s comment about Jamia Masjid in Srinagar being closed during his visit to stem Muslim opposition to Sikh rule. Under Dogra rule, religious grievances surfaced dramatically in 1931 when thousands protested in Srinagar over rumours that the Holy Quran had been desecrated by state officials in Jammu. Twenty-two people were killed when police opened fire on demonstrators on July 13, 1931, in what is still known as “Martyrs Day”.
Religious, economic and political oppression have over the years fed Kashmiri grievances against their rulers. They continue to resonate in today’s youth protests
Finally, to complete the trio of politics, religion and economics, the last of these is both the most neglected in debates on Kashmir’s history and arguably the most important to ordinary people for whom a basic livelihood is their most pressing need. Economic factors played a far bigger role in shaping events in 1947 than is commonly remembered. The official versions of what led to the former J&K being torn apart between India and Pakistan in 1947 have been rehearsed ad nauseam. Delhi says Pakistan started the conflict by sending tribesmen to invade the Kashmir Valley, compelling the maharaja to cede the entirety of J&K to India. Pakistan claims India ignored the wishes of the people by sending troops to occupy the Valley and other parts of J&K, establishing control that it has maintained to this day. Beyond those official narratives, however, other currents and counter-currents were at work. Significantly, within the former princely state of J&K, people in different regions had different views about what they wanted. In areas such as Poonch and Mirpur, bordering what is now Pakistani Punjab, people had close cultural, political and economic links with Punjab that dated back centuries. It was therefore natural for them to favour Pakistan. In contrast, the Kashmir Valley’s political landscape was dominated by Sheikh Abdullah, who had risen to prominence leading opposition to the maharaja. Though Muslim, he was suspicious of the communalism behind the movement for the creation of Pakistan and preferred the secular socialism of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He also believed that progressives would have little hope in Pakistan, which far more than India, was dominated by feudal interests. How much support Abdullah enjoyed in the Kashmir Valley at the time was never tested and remains contested. What is worth noting, however, is how he won support—by channelling economic grievances of Kashmiris and promising them socialism, equality and land reforms.
Between 2004 and 2007, envoys from then President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh drafted a plan for a settlement for all of the former princely state, covering Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir on the Pakistan side and Ladakh, Jammu and the Kashmir Valley on the Indian side
To sum up, George Orwell put it best when he wrote that, “who controls the past controls the future”. The present is too difficult to untangle for now. But the past has more patience. Those who are keen to work towards an end to the conflict could do worse than explore it. It might take them a decade to make progress but that is a short period of time compared to the 70 years of conflict between India and Pakistan or even the years of the Afghan war. The alternative is to cheer from the sidelines as Kashmiri youngsters battle Indian security forces, facing death and injury to demand an “azaadi” that has never been historically defined.
Myra MacDonald is a journalist and author specialising in South Asian politics and security. She was a correspondent for Reuters for nearly thirty years. She is the author of Defeat is an Orphan: How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War (2016) and Heights of Madness: One Woman’s Journey in Pursuit of a Secret War (2008). @myraemacdonald