Kashmir: is this a re-run of 1989?

August 12, 2008

Protesters shout pro-freedom slogans in Srinagar/Fayaz KabliAfter months of relative peace which turned Kashmir into a near-forgotten conflict, the region has exploded  again with some of the biggest protests since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989.  What started as a dispute over land allocated to Hindu pilgrims visiting a shrine in Kashmir has snowballed into a full-scale anti-India protest, uniting Kashmiri separatists and reviving calls for independence.

The dispute has also pitted Muslims in Kashmir against Hindus in Jammu – the two regions which along with Ladakh make up the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir – in what is the biggest communal crisis faced by the central government in Delhi since it took office in 2004.

At stake is the risk of the “Balkanisation” of Jammu and Kashmir comparable to the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In this, worst case, scenario, the state would break up into its three different regions with Jammu and Ladakh favouring India and Kashmir either battling for independence or tilting towards Pakistan.  (The state is the part of the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir which remained in Indian hands at partition in 1947 with the other side controlled by Pakistan.)

Little wonder then that analysts in India are describing it as a major crisis, with an editorial in the Hindustan Times calling it the greatest test for the central government since it took office.

And although some Indian analysts have accused Pakistan of stoking tensions in Kashmir, the protests look to be, at least in large measure, spontaneous.

Kashmir protesters/Fayaz KabliSo is this a re-run of 1989? At the time separatist sentiments – which had been simmering before 1947 when the kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu maharajah from Jammu – erupted into full-scale protests which were primarily Kashmiri nationalist rather than religious.  According to the Kashmiri version of history, India then tried to crush the revolt with a clumsy heavy-handedness that only inflamed Kashmiri anger further.

The revolt turned increasingly lethal and vicious — in part due to Pakistan’s involvement in supporting the separatists and to the Islamist influence of the mujahideen who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. After Pakistan and India tested nuclear bombs in 1998, Kashmir was dubbed the most dangerous place on earth, bringing the two countries to the brink of war in 2001/2002.

So if today’s protests turn out to be a re-run of 1989, the outlook is grim — both for the people of Jammu and Kashmir and for the peace process between India and Pakistan. Is there still time to find a solution before Kashmir spins off into another 20 years of violence? Or have the troubles already passed the point of no return?

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