Debunking myths about Kashmir
Brahma Chellaney/Asia Times
The Indian government’s recent decision to revoke Kashmir’s special semi-autonomous status has raised fears of yet another conflict with Pakistan over the disputed territory. But in order to understand the implications of the events unfolding in Kashmir – a heavily militarized geopolitical tinderbox situated at the crossroads of central Asia – it is essential to dispel the many myths and misunderstandings surrounding it.
The first myth relates to the name itself. While news reports focus on the “Kashmir region,” they often fail to note that Kashmir is only a small slice of the affected territory, called Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which also includes the sprawling areas of Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Moreover, calling J&K a “Muslim-majority” region fails to reflect just how ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse it is. Indeed, while Kashmir itself is majority Muslim, Jammu is majority Hindu, and the vast, sparsely populated Ladakh is traditionally Buddhist. Gilgit-Baltistan is also predominantly Muslim – Shiite, to be precise (though Pakistan’s government has for decades been encouraging Sunni Muslims to relocate there and gradually form a majority).
J&K residents who speak the Kashmiri language (Koshur) are concentrated mainly in the Indian-administered, densely populated, predominantly Sunni-Muslim Kashmir Valley, which has become a hotbed of Pakistan-backed jihadists fighting to establish an Islamic emirate. In early 1990, the jihadists launched a rapid and bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing, which drove virtually the entire native Hindu community out of the territory. Since then, the Islamists have been systematically replacing the Valley’s syncretic traditions with Wahhabi/Salafi culture.
Yet another common misunderstanding is that India and Pakistan are the only actors vying for control in J&K. In reality, the region is split among India (which holds 45%), Pakistan (which controls 35%) and China (which occupies 20%).
Only India claims the entire region, as well it should: The princely state of J&K lawfully merged with the country under the 1947 Indian Independence Act, which partitioned British India into independent India and Pakistan. (Thus the notion that in revoking Kashmir’s special status, India has in effect “annexed” the territory is just another myth.) The Pakistani- and Chinese-held portions of J&K are in essence the spoils of separate wars of aggressions waged by Pakistan and China against India in the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.
Yet Pakistan and China, both revanchist states, are not only committed to retaining control over the territories they already grabbed, they want to seize even more. Pakistan’s terrorism-driven asymmetric warfare is aimed at securing the Kashmir Valley. (The military conflicts Pakistan initiated against India in 1965 and 1999 failed to deliver territorial gains.) China, for its part, advances its claims to several Indian-administered areas of Ladakh through furtive, incremental, and increasingly frequent territorial incursions.
As the J&K issue has undermined both countries’ relations with India, it has cemented their long-standing strategic nexus with each other. In 1963, Pakistan ceded a segment of its own territory in the J&K region to China, which had earlier occupied Ladakh’s Switzerland-sized Aksai Chin Plateau.