Kashmir, a beautiful land on the snowy roof of the Himalayas, may yet be the cause of the world’s first nuclear war.
Twice, India and Pakistan have come to blows over Kashmir. Both countries are believed to possess nuclear weapons, and neither has promised not to use them.
The Kashmir issue - unresolved since Britain partitioned its old Indian empire in 1947 - continues to envenom relations between the two neighbors.
As Tavleen Singh, an Indian author and journalist, writes, “What happens in Kashmir will determine whether the Indian subcontinent lives in peace or destroys itself over a beautiful but tiny piece of land.”
On available evidence, India and Pakistan both are bent on pushing each other to the edge over Kashmir. The people who inhabit this Himalayan land consistently have been betrayed and abused by both sides.
The Kashmiris have a reputation for being peaceful by nature; this was one of the few border regions during partition where Hindus and Muslims did not slaughter each other.
The kidnapping and killing of Western tourists, if nothing else, shows the Kashmiris’ desperation. Spokane psychologist Donald Hutchings is among four Westerners held by Kashmiri separatists who have threatened to kill the hostages unless the Indian government frees 15 jailed militants. A fifth hostage was beheaded a week ago.
Any British visitor to Srinagar, an ancient city of lakes and canals surrounded by mountains shining with ice, is invariably accosted by Kashmiris who angrily demand that John Major, the British Prime Minister, somehow sort out their troubles.
Though sealed off by the Himalayas, Kashmir for centuries has been a major stop on caravan routes crisscrossing between Central Asia, Tibet and the gleaming Moghul cities of northern India.
Its people are a varied ethnic mix: Hindus reside in the southern foothills, while Muslims inhabit the great valley of Kashmir and the Hindu Kush mountains near Afghanistan.
In the eastern Himalayas, near Tibet, live the Ladakhi Buddhists. At the time of partition, the Muslims outnumbered the Hindus by three to one inside the kingdom.
Kashmir’s last maharajah, a selfish and petulant man named Hari Singh, at first refused to join either nation. When Pakistan tried to conquer his kingdom, the maharajah had no choice but to turn to India.
The premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, agreed on the condition that Hari Singh cede his territory to India in October 1947. At that time, many Kashmiri Muslims, who preferred the idea of secular India over Islamic Pakistan, picked up guns and joined the Indian army in repelling the invaders.
Pakistan still occupies a western chunk of Kashmir, and the U.N. monitors a line-of-control between the two armies, which often fire shots at each other.
On the Indian side, autonomy was promised by New Delhi but never satisfactorily given to the Kashmiris. Prominent Kashmiri leaders were often arrested, state elections rigged, and the Kashmiris rioted sporadically.
Resentment simmering against the Indians finally spilled over into open revolt when Indian security forces on Jan. 20, 1990, fired on a peaceful demonstration, killing over 100 Kashmiris trapped on a bridge.
Dozens of Muslim militant groups sprang up; some wanted independence, while others wanted to join Pakistan.
The pro-Pakistani groups flourished, not because Kashmiris really wanted annexation, but because Islamic groups in Pakistan set up militant training camps and gave the Kashmiris some of the huge weapons surplus left over from the Afghan war against the Soviets.
Had India tried to reason with the Kashmiris rather than crush them, the secessionist rebellion might well be over today.
However, Indian security forces committed the worst acts of barbarism. So far, more than 20,000 Kashmirs have died since that 1990 shooting on the bridge that started it all.
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