Kashmir at the Crossroads: Inside a 21st-Century Conflict by Sumantra Bose - review by Owen Bennett-Jones

Owen Bennett-Jones

Fear & Loathing in the Himalayas

Kashmir at the Crossroads: Inside a 21st-Century Conflict


Yale University Press 336pp £18.99

In the summer of 2020, soldiers from China and India engaged in unarmed combat in an icy Himalayan river. Some of the men used rocks to crush their opponents’ heads and, according to one version, the Chinese pushed Indian captives off a cliff. At least twenty Indian soldiers and four Chinese were killed.

For a couple of reasons, this highly newsworthy clash between two nuclear powers received scant coverage in the international media. First, it happened in one of the most remote places on earth: the desolate, windswept plains of Ladakh on the eastern edge of the disputed territory of Kashmir. But perhaps just as importantly, the history of the tensions between India and China in Kashmir is so fiendishly complicated that not many people understood what the fighting was about or what it portended.

With admirable clarity, Sumantra Bose’s Kashmir at the Crossroads helps to explain the tensions and the motives of the various parties involved in the intractable Kashmir conflict, including Chinese cartographers, Indian Hindu nationalists, Pakistani intelligence officers, violent jihadists and the group that barely gets a look in, the Kashmiris themselves. Landlocked and surrounded by three antagonistic nuclear powers with claims on their land, the Kashmiris are always the last ones to have a say over their own future.

Much of the book canters through the established history of the conflict. The problems began in 1846, when the British sold part of what is now Kashmir, including Muslim-majority areas, to a Hindu, Gulab Singh. After India’s partition in 1947, Gulab Singh’s descendant opted to unite Kashmir with India rather than Pakistan. Outraged Pakistani tribesmen went to fight for their Muslim brethren but found their way blocked by Indian soldiers. The ceasefire line established at that time, now called the Line of Control (LoC), remains largely intact today, with India holding about two thirds of Kashmir and Pakistan one third. In the decades since, the protests of Kashmiri Muslims – both the majority who want independence and the minority who want to join Pakistan – have been crushed in heavy-handed ways by the Indian army. The tussle in Ladakh is about land claimed by both China and India. The China–India relationship has been further complicated by Pakistan giving land to China that Pakistan had claimed but which remains under Indian control.

The situation has never been as morally clear cut as many of the participants like to argue. The Muslim majority portray themselves, with considerable justification, as victims, but tend to overlook the suffering of Kashmir’s Hindus and other minorities, many of whom have been forced from their homes into displacement camps. Bose refers – again with some justification – to the traditionally tolerant attitudes of Kashmiris of all faiths, but the strains of the last seventy years have proved so great that at times the ability of Kashmiris to live together in harmony has broken down.

Not one to hide his light under a bushel, Bose says that he has come up with a solution to the Kashmir conflict. He draws inspiration in part from the Northern Ireland peace process. He proposes, for example, an early acknowledgement that the various parties to the conflict all have legitimate political aspirations, just as has happened in both parts of Ireland. As with the Irish border, Bose suggests that the LoC be transformed from one of the most heavily militarised places on earth into a more porous line, across which families and goods might move. While neither India nor Pakistan would be asked to give up sovereignty over the territory they currently control, there would be an inter-ministerial council bringing together the Pakistani and Indian governments, so as to encourage cross-LoC links in areas such as the environment and tourism. This would be coupled with a greater emphasis on self-rule in the different parts of Kashmir, organised in such a way as to reflect and respect the various political traditions.

While many of Bose’s ideas make good sense, he acknowledges that the situation on the ground is moving further away from, rather than closer to, a solution. The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, is determined to transform India into a Hindu nationalist state in which there is no room for restive provinces. In 2019, Modi changed India’s constitution, removing the special status that had been granted to Kashmir in recognition of the dispute there. In the late 1940s, Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister at the time, promised a plebiscite in Kashmir to determine if its people wanted to join Pakistan or India. Successive Indian governments have failed to implement that pledge and proposed instead that the LoC become the international border, a proposal Pakistan has always rejected. Modi has now come up with a new, much more hardline Indian position, suggesting that he wants to reclaim the parts of Kashmir now controlled by Pakistan, an aim that can only be achieved through war.

Modi’s removal of Kashmir’s special constitutional status was accompanied by the launch of a policy that may, in the end, be more consequential still. He is now trying to settle Kashmir with outsiders who, just by their presence, will weaken the resistance struggle. But before land can be sold it has to be cleared. One of the stories in Bose’s book illustrates just how brutal that campaign has been. In the autumn of 2020, the Indian government set its sights on the Muslim Gujjar community, made up of poor famers and livestock herders who share a distinct language and who for generations have lived largely unnoticed in highland areas. Families were served with eviction notices saying that they were occupying government land illegally. Gujjar community leaders cited various laws they believed gave them protection but the government was unmoved and in midwinter deployed police and forestry officials to knock down homes and cut down the apple orchards on which families depended, rendering many Gujjars destitute.

As he reached the end of his life, Amanullah Khan, who founded the first anti-Indian resistance movement in Kashmir, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, said that he would die sure in the knowledge that the Kashmiris would never abandon the struggle to rid themselves of Indian rule. He believed that in certain conflicts, such as those in Chechnya, Israel and Palestine, Ireland and Kashmir, the divisions were so deep and suffused with the blood of so many martyrs that the grievances would never dissipate. Bose has a more nuanced view, believing compromise might be possible. But having advanced that case, he concludes by saying that the Kashmir conflict cannot be solved as long as Modi is in power. And when you consider the anger and despair that must have been felt by farmers who had to watch their apple trees being cut down, it is hard to disagree with him.

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