Kashmir region, Indian subcontinent, Asia

Kashmir, region of the northwestern Indian subcontinent. It is bounded by the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang to the northeast and the Tibet Autonomous Region to the east (both parts of China), by the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab to the south, by Pakistan to the west, and by Afghanistan to the northwest. The region, with a total area of some 85,800 square miles (222,200 square km), has been the subject of dispute between India and Pakistan since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

The northern and western portions are administered by Pakistan and comprise three areas: Azad Kashmir, Gilgit, and Baltistan, the last two being part of a single administrative unit called Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly Northern Areas). Administered by India are the southern and southeastern portions, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The Indian- and Pakistani-administered portions are divided by a “line of control” agreed to in 1972, although neither country recognizes it as an international boundary. In addition, China became active in the eastern area of Kashmir in the 1950s and has controlled the northeastern part of Ladakh (the easternmost portion of the region) since 1962.

Land and people

The Kashmir region is predominantly mountainous, with deep, narrow valleys and high, barren plateaus. The relatively low-lying Jammu and Punch (Poonch) plains in the southwest are separated by the thickly forested Himalayan foothills and the Pir Panjal Range of the Lesser Himalayas from the larger, more fertile, and more heavily populated Vale of Kashmir to the north. The vale, situated at an elevation of about 5,300 feet (1,600 metres), constitutes the basin of the upper Jhelum River and contains the city of Srinagar. Jammu and the vale lie in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, while the Punch lowlands are largely in Azad Kashmir.

Rising northeast of the vale is the western part of the Great Himalayas, the peaks of which reach elevations of 20,000 feet (6,100 metres) or higher. Farther to the northeast is the high, mountainous plateau region of Ladakh, which is cut by the rugged valley of the northwestward-flowing Indus River. Extending roughly northwestward from the Himalayas are the lofty peaks of the Karakoram Range, including K2 (Mount Godwin Austen), which at 28,251 feet (8,611 metres) is the second highest peak in the world, after Mount Everest.

The region is located along the northernmost extremity of the Indian-Australian tectonic plate. The subduction of that plate beneath the Eurasian Plate—the process that for roughly 50 million years has been creating the Himalayas—has produced heavy seismic activity in Kashmir. One especially powerful earthquake in 2005 devastated Muzaffarabad, which is the administrative centre of Azad Kashmir, and adjacent areas including parts of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state (now Jammu and Kashmir union territory) and Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

The climate of the region ranges from subtropical in the southwestern lowlands to alpine throughout the high mountain areas. Precipitation is variable; it is heavier in areas that can be reached by the monsoonal winds west and south of the great ranges and sparse to the north and east where continental conditions prevail.

The people in the Jammu area are Muslim in the west and Hindu in the east and speak Hindi, Punjabi, and Dogri. The inhabitants of the Vale of Kashmir and the Pakistani areas are mostly Muslim and speak Urdu and Kashmiri. The sparsely inhabited Ladakh region and beyond is home to Tibetan peoples who practice Buddhism and speak Balti and Ladakhi.


The region to 1947

According to legend, an ascetic named Kashyapa reclaimed the land now comprising Kashmir from a vast lake. That land came to be known as Kashyapamar and, later, Kashmir. Buddhism was introduced by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, and from the 9th to the 12th century CE the region appears to have achieved considerable prominence as a centre of Hindu culture. A succession of Hindu dynasties ruled Kashmir until 1346, when it came under Muslim rule. The Muslim period lasted nearly five centuries, ending when Kashmir was annexed to the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab in 1819 and then to the Dogra kingdom of Jammu in 1846.

Thus, the Kashmir region in its contemporary form dates from 1846, when, by the treaties of Lahore and Amritsar at the conclusion of the First Sikh War, Raja Gulab Singh, the Dogra ruler of Jammu, was created maharaja (ruling prince) of an extensive but somewhat ill-defined Himalayan kingdom “to the eastward of the River Indus and westward of the River Ravi.” The creation of this princely state helped the British safeguard their northern flank in their advance to the Indus and beyond during the latter part of the 19th century. The state thus formed part of a complex political buffer zone interposed by the British between their Indian empire and the empires of Russia and China to the north. For Gulab Singh, confirmation of title to these mountain territories marked the culmination of almost a quarter century of campaigning and diplomatic negotiation among the petty hill kingdoms along the northern borderlands of the Sikh empire of the Punjab.

Some attempts were made in the 19th century to define the boundaries of the territory, but precise definition was in many cases defeated by the nature of the country and by the existence of huge tracts lacking permanent human settlement. In the far north, for example, the maharaja’s authority certainly extended to the Karakoram Range, but beyond that lay a debatable zone on the borders of the Turkistan and Xinjiang regions of Central Asia, and the boundary was never demarcated. There were similar doubts about the alignment of the frontier where this northern zone skirted the region known as Aksai Chin, to the east, and joined the better-known and more precisely delineated boundary with Tibet, which had served for centuries as the eastern border of the Ladakh region. The pattern of boundaries in the northwest became clearer in the last decade of the 19th century, when Britain, in negotiations with Afghanistan and Russia, delimited boundaries in the Pamirs region. At that time Gilgit, always understood to be part of Kashmir, was for strategic reasons constituted as a special agency in 1889 under a British agent.

The Kashmir problem

As long as the territory’s existence was guaranteed by the United Kingdom, the weaknesses in its structure and along its peripheries were not of great consequence, but they became apparent after the British withdrawal from South Asia in 1947. By the terms agreed to by India and Pakistan for the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the rulers of princely states were given the right to opt for either Pakistan or India or—with certain reservations—to remain independent. Hari Singh, the maharaja of Kashmir, initially believed that by delaying his decision he could maintain the independence of Kashmir, but, caught up in a train of events that included a revolution among his Muslim subjects along the western borders of the state and the intervention of Pashtun tribesmen, he signed an Instrument of Accession to the Indian union in October 1947. This was the signal for intervention both by Pakistan, which considered the state to be a natural extension of Pakistan, and by India, which intended to confirm the act of accession. Localized warfare continued during 1948 and ended, through the intercession of the United Nations, in a cease-fire that took effect in January 1949. In July of that year, India and Pakistan defined a cease-fire line—the line of control—that divided the administration of the territory. Regarded at the time as a temporary expedient, the partition along that line still exists.

Attempts at resolution and legitimization

Although there was a clear Muslim majority in Kashmir before the 1947 partition, and its economic, cultural, and geographic contiguity with the Muslim-majority area of the Punjab could be convincingly demonstrated, the political developments during and after the partition resulted in a division of the region. Pakistan was left with territory that, although basically Muslim in character, was thinly populated, relatively inaccessible, and economically underdeveloped. The largest Muslim group, situated in the Vale of Kashmir and estimated to number more than half the population of the entire region, lay in Indian-administered territory, with its former outlets via the Jhelum valley route blocked.

Many proposals were subsequently made to end the dispute over Kashmir, but tensions mounted between the two countries following the Chinese incursion into Ladakh in 1962, and warfare broke out between India and Pakistan in 1965. A cease-fire was established in September, followed by an agreement signed by the two sides at Tashkent (Uzbekistan) in early January 1966, in which they resolved to try to end the dispute by peaceful means. Fighting again flared up between the two in 1971 as part of the India-Pakistan war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. An accord signed in the Indian city of Shimla in 1972 expressed the hope that henceforth the countries in the region would be able to live in peace with each other. It was widely believed that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then prime minister of Pakistan, might have tacitly accepted the line of control as the de facto border, although he later denied this. After Bhutto was arrested in 1977 and executed in 1979, the Kashmir issue once again became the leading cause of conflict between India and Pakistan.

A number of movements have variously sought a merger of Kashmir with Pakistan or independence for the region from both India and Pakistan. To contend with these movements and confront Pakistani forces along the cease-fire line, the Indian union government has maintained a strong military presence there, especially since the end of the 1980s. Until 2019 the military presence was also intended to support the administrative integrity of Jammu and Kashmir state from movements seeking Indian union territory status for Buddhist Ladakh.

Insurgency and counterinsurgency

Disillusioned with lack of progress through the democratic process, militant organizations began to pop up in the region in the late 1980s. Their purpose was to resist control from the Indian union government. By the early 1990s the militancy had evolved into an insurgency, and India engaged in a crackdown campaign. The rigour of the fighting died down in the mid-1990s, though occasional violence continued to take place.

The Kargil area of western Ladakh has often been the site of border conflicts, including a serious incident in 1999. In May of that year Pakistan intensified artillery shelling of the Kargil sector. Meanwhile, the Indian army discovered that militants had infiltrated the Indian zone from the Pakistan side and had established positions within and west of the Kargil area. Intense fighting ensued between the infiltrators and the Indian army and lasted more than two months. The Indian army managed to reclaim most of the area on the India side of the line of control that had been occupied by the infiltrators. Hostilities finally ended when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan gave his assurance that the infiltrators would retreat.

However, shelling across the line of control continued intermittently into the early 21st century, until a cease-fire agreement was reached in 2004. Tensions in the region subsequently diminished, and India and Pakistan sought more cordial relations in general and greater regional cooperation. Limited passenger bus service began in 2005 between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad on either side of the frontier, and, after the devastating earthquake in the region later that year, India and Pakistan allowed survivors and trucks carrying relief supplies to cross at several points along the line of control. In addition, in 2008 both countries opened cross-border trade links through the Kashmir region for the first time since the 1947 partition; trucks carrying locally produced goods and manufactures began operating between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad and between Rawalkot, Pakistan, and Punch, India.

Despite these advances, tensions have continued to erupt periodically in the region. Prolonged violent protests flared up over control of a piece of land used by Hindu pilgrims visiting the Amarnath cave shrine east of Srinagar in 2008 and again in 2010 after Indian soldiers killed three Pakistani villagers who they claimed were militants trying to infiltrate across the line of control. A subsequent investigation revealed that the soldiers had in fact lured the men to the area and murdered them in cold blood.

Another cycle of unrest began after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept elections across India in 2014. The party had won an outright majority in the national legislature and began pushing policies nationwide to promote hindutva (“Hindu-ness”). The BJP, which strongly favoured the union of Kashmir with India, had become the second largest party in the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly and formed a unity government with the slightly larger People’s Democratic Party (PDP), whose platform centred on the implementation of self-rule in Kashmir. As the hindutva and pro-India policies of the BJP stoked the anxieties of the region’s predominantly Muslim population, Kashmir saw an uptick in unrest. The growing tensions erupted into rioting in July 2016 after the commander of an Islamic militant group was killed in an operation by Indian security forces. India’s union government, dominated by the BJP, began asserting increased control over the state as a matter of national security and launched a crackdown on militants. In late 2018 the union government dissolved the government of Jammu and Kashmir and began direct rule of the state after the BJP left the state’s unity coalition and caused its collapse.

Kashmir experienced its greatest friction in decades in February 2019. On February 14 a suicide bomber associated with a militant separatist group killed 40 members of India’s Central Reserve Police Force, the deadliest attack on Indian security forces in three decades. With a tough election cycle approaching, India’s BJP-led government faced pressure from its supporters to take forceful action. Days later India sent fighter jets across Kashmir’s line of control for the first time in five decades and later claimed to have conducted air strikes against the militant group’s largest training camp. Pakistan denied the claim, saying that the jets had struck an empty field. The next day, Pakistan shot down two Indian jets in its airspace and captured a pilot. Yet, despite the aggravation, many analysts believed that both India and Pakistan intended to avoid escalation. In the aftermath, Pakistan implemented a crackdown on militants in its country, issuing arrests, closing a large number of religious schools, and promising to update its existing laws. A few months later the BJP won a landslide victory in India’s elections, expanding its representation in the parliament’s lower chamber.

As the BJP continued along its forceful push in Jammu and Kashmir, the union government in August built up its military presence in the state and within days undertook action to formalize its direct control there. Exploiting a constitutional provision that allowed the union government to integrate Jammu and Kashmir upon the approval of a no-longer-extant elected body, it suspended Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and applied India’s constitution fully to the territory. It also passed legislation to downgrade the state in October to a union territory—thereby allowing the union government full control over its governance—and to split off the Ladakh region into a separate union territory of its own.

Chinese interests

China had never accepted the British-negotiated boundary agreements in northeastern Kashmir. This remained the case following the communist takeover in China in 1949, although the new government did ask India—without success—to open negotiations regarding the border. After Chinese authority was established in Tibet and reasserted in Xinjiang, Chinese forces penetrated into the northeastern parts of Ladakh. This was done mainly because it allowed them to build a military road through the Aksai Chin plateau area (completed in 1956–57) to provide better communication between Xinjiang and western Tibet; it also gave the Chinese control of passes in the region between India and Tibet. India’s belated discovery of this road led to border clashes between the two countries that culminated in the Sino-Indian war of October 1962. China has occupied the northeastern part of Ladakh since the conflict. India refused to negotiate with China on the alignment of the Ladakhi boundary in this area, and the incident contributed significantly to a diplomatic rift between the two countries that began to heal only in the late 1980s. In the following decades, China worked to improve its relations with India, but there has been no resolution to the disputed Ladakh frontier.


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