Kashmir: Religion and Nationhood (Notes from a Newsworthy Subcontinent)
by Charles A. Ryerson
June 1958: The battered bus coming
from Amritsar stops, and a porter grabs my heavy suitcase. I walk over to
a drab military post atop which flutters the Indian tricolor with the
Ashoka wheel in the center. Soldiers stand around with rifles carelessly
held. A bored and underworked officer scrutinizes my papers and languidly
nods his head. The porter places the suitcase on top of his toweled head,
and he and I walk through the khaki landscape and burning heat until we
reach an invisible point. He slides the suitcase from his head and gives
me a silent namaste with his clasped palms after I give him a few annas.
I add the suitcase to the bulging duffle bag I am already carrying and
stagger, in perfect silence, for about a hundred yards. Another porter
materializes before me, gives me a hand-to-forehead salaam, lifts
the suitcase to his turbaned head, and we plod onwards until, through the
dust, I view another military post flying the green flag with crescent
moon of Islamic Pakistan. Another underutilized constable looks at my
papers and grunts approval as he deciphers my Pakistani visa. My officious
porter leads me to another grumbling bus and, almost alone, I am driven to
the nearby city of Lahore in Pakistan. Thus ended my first 33 months in
As I read the news these early months in 2002, I often think of that stark, steamy day and that grim border crossing, and I reflect again on the tragedy of the Indian subcontinent’s 1947 partition. I again meditate sadly on how great powers try to solve problems through the dissection of bodies politic, not their own, and of the horrors that then ensue: Korea, Vietnam, Cyprus, Germany, the Balkans, Palestine, and others.
The evisceration of the Indian subcontinent is well known. The British, exhausted by World War II, voted out that embodiment of empire, Churchill, and elected the Labor Party. It tried for an honorable settlement in India, but public patience, in both Britain and on the subcontinent, had worn thin. By this time, religion had become the dominant issue, with moderate Mohammed Jinnah successfully demanding an Islamic state and the Indian Congress Party, under Nehru, calling for a secular (although mainly Hindu) nation. The British Lord Mountbatten, liberal friend of Nehru and impeccably blue-blooded, engineered the
agreement. Gandhi, to his eternal credit, disagreed and died a sadly disappointed prophet. The British lawyer, Viscount Cyril
Radcliffe, who actually drew the boundary lines, knew nothing of the subcontinent.
What followed was wholly predictable. Millions fled from each country to the other, depending on whether they were Muslim or Hindu (Sikhs opted for India). Well over a million people were slaughtered, with the trains from Lahore to Amritsar and back filled with bloody corpses.
There were other less-known features of partition. When the British fled there were 561 so-called “princely states,” some large, some small, ruled indirectly by Britain through local
rajas. One of the toughest Congress Party leaders, Vallabhbhai Patel, no friend of Nehru, brought most of these states into line, and those within India’s boundaries joined the new Indian nation.
But one state posed a problem: Kashmir. Predominantly Muslim, it is located strategically on the boundaries between China, India, and Pakistan, and its Hindu
maharaja, Hari Singh, was informed by the British that he must choose between India and Pakistan. He dithered, but a motley array of Pashtun tribesmen and Pakistani soldiers swept south. Hari Singh fled to the Hindu-dominated city of Jammu and agreed to join India. War broke out, and, after a year, the Line of Control (LOC), largely unchanged to this day, was established. India had almost two-thirds of the state, including the fertile and beautiful Kashmir Valley, and about two-thirds of the total population of 10 million.
The problem went to the United Nations, where Nehru’s idealism was argued for by the brilliant but abrasive Krishna Menon. The U.N., to Nehru’s genuine dismay, called for a plebiscite of the Kashmiris to decide to which of the new nations they would belong. By this time neither nation was willing to withdraw its troops from Kashmir, the U.S. was in the process of allying itself with Pakistan in the ill-fated SEATO pact, and many Kashmiris wanted a vote that would include the option of independence from both India and Pakistan. The plebiscite has never been held.
October 20, 1962: I am in my second
three-year stay in India. China and India are at war. A visibly ailing
Nehru desperately attempts to rally his poorly equipped and unprepared
army. The Chinese, after sweeping well into the northeastern frontier
areas, fall back but maintain control over areas they claim as their own.
Thus they keep Aksai Chin, a barren but large and strategic plateau in
September 1965: In the U.S.,
I learn that India and Pakistan are at war again over Kashmir.
India broadens the war by invading western Pakistan and gains
territory in massive tank battles. The U.N. calls for a
cease-fire, and in January 1966 the Soviet Union arranges the “Tashkent
Declaration,” an official end to the war. Indian troops
withdraw, and boundaries between the two warring nations remain
much as before. The Soviet Union, however, has gained increased
respect in India, and Indians remember that it was
American-supplied Sherman tanks that the Pakistanis were driving.
Meanwhile, Pakistanis wonder why the U.S. did not help them, and
are further embittered.
December 1971: In my Indian
“home” in the southern city of Madurai, I learn that East
Pakistan, Islamic but 1,000 miles away from West Pakistan, rebels
and declares its independence. The Pakistanis, foolishly, send in
much of their army, and Indian troops invade to “aid” the
rebellion. The Pakistanis are trapped, India gains a huge victory,
the new Bangladesh is born from East Pakistan, and Pakistan loses
more than half of its population in one stroke. In the midst of
this war, the U.S. Sixth Fleet sails blithely into the Bay of
Bengal, creating more anti-American sentiment in India.
After its forced dismemberment, Pakistan (current population: 145 million) shifted closer to the Middle East. During the 1970s, and especially under the iron grip of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who ruled through most of the 1980s, patronage was showered on Islamic groups and institutions, and Islamic law was adopted throughout the country. After Russian troops withdrew from their ill-conceived invasion of neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan supported the radical Taliban student revolution and the entry into Afghanistan of many militant Islamic groups, including Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. In 1999 a corrupt civilian ruler in Pakistan was overthrown by an army general, Perez Musharraf. Pakistan relieved the pressures of these militant groups on its own body politic by directing them to—and aiding them in—the Kashmiri struggle. The Kashmiris no longer controlled their own war, and attacks by militant groups became daily experiences.
In 1998, both India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests. The next year, the Indian government discovered, to its chagrin, that Pakistani troops and “irregulars” had crossed the Kashmir LOC to occupy the high ground at Kargil. It took eight weeks of hard fighting, plus international pressure, before the original LOC was reestablished.
On October 1, 2001, militants attacked the Kashmir Assembly (elected under Indian supervision) and killed several legislators and other Indian sympathizers. Then, on December 13, Islamic gunmen fired on India’s Parliament building in New Delhi. No lawmakers died, but several Indians did, along with all the attackers.
India, shocked by this incident, asked why, if Americans can wipe out areas where terrorists find shelter, they cannot do the same and go to war with Pakistan. Thousands of troops now face each other along the Indo-Pakistani border, including the LOC. As of this writing, Pakistan’s leader, General Perez Musharraf, has outlawed five “terrorist groups” and made other conciliatory moves. The crafty general, no friend to either democracy or militant Islam, remains, as of now, precariously in control.
While Kashmir cannot be separated from the partition of India and Pakistan, it symbolizes, in an especially poignant fashion, the issue of the identities of these two great nations. Pakistan was
established to provide a homeland for the many Muslims in the subcontinent. To have Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state on its very border, remain as a part of India calls into question the whole concept of a separate nation for Muslims.
India, founded on its concept of secularism—all religions should be treated as equal under a neutral central government—cannot surrender a Muslim-majority state without seeming to explicitly agree that a nation founded on a specific religion is valid. India remains the third-largest Islamic state in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan, though its present population of one billion is only 12 percent Islamic (124 million are Muslims).
The issue is even more complicated by the inconvenient fact that the present Indian government, an unwieldy and disparate coalition, is headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee, longtime opponent of Nehru’s secular Congress and member of a Hindu nationalist party, the B.J.P. His home minister, the powerful L.K. Advani, has ties to the most extreme militant Hindu movement, the
Thus, Kashmir is not only a metaphor for the concept of nationhood but also for the future of the idea of secularism—either in its Indian or Western meaning—in a world that seems to face growing religious “fundamentalisms,” be they Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jewish.
The Kashmir story is, of course, only a part of the post-September 11 world situation. Many perils lie ahead, but America should realize that every action it takes further ripples already troubled waters. The U.S. is powerful, but exists amidst other
civilizations and nations, all with their historic contexts and current struggles. As Christians, whether in India, Pakistan, the U.S., or elsewhere, ponder the future of civilizations and the nature of nations, we can at least find some hope in the words of poet W.H.
We know very well we are not unlucky but evil,
That the dream of a Perfect State or No State at all,
To which we fly for refuge, is part of our punishment.
Let us therefore be contrite but without anxiety,
for Powers and Times are not gods but mortal gifts from God;
Let us acknowledge our defeats but without despair,
For all societies and epochs are transient details,
Transmitting an everlasting opportunity
That the Kingdom of Heaven may come, not in our present
And not in our future,
but in the Fullness of Time.
Charles A. Ryerson is the Elmer K. and Ethel R. Timby Professor of the History of Religions Emeritus. He lives in Princeton.