Kashmir: A Study in Fierce Geopolitics

The valley of Kashmir lies between the vast regions of Central and South Asia and its history has been shaped by the social and political trends of both these regions. During the late medieval era, it was swept by the Sufi influences of Central Asia which mingled with its indigenous Sanskritic culture and forged a unique brand of moderate, artistic and accommodating Islam. In modern times however, it is essentially the political spontaneity of these two regions that has had the greatest impact on this valley. Located in the middle of highly militaristic and nuclear armed nations — India, Pakistan and China, it has become a theatre of fierce geopolitical activity as each player tries to gain an upper hand in the region. Often dubbed as the Nuclear Flashpoint of Asia, the valley of Kashmir today deserves much greater attention of the global community than ever before.

After the withdrawal of the British from the Indian subcontinent in 1947, there was a scramble between the newly created India and Pakistan for the occupation of the then princely state of Kashmir. Despite being a Muslim majority state, the tallest leader of the valley, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, apprehensive about his own political future under the domineering Jinnah of Pakistan, threw in his lot with the Hindu majority India where Nehru promised him extraordinary federal powers through legal instruments like Article 370. Sheikh would however inherit a fragmented Kashmir with chunks of its western areas, i.e. Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, seized by Pakistan in a hasty raid of October 1947. Subsequently, the sparsely populated eastern expanse of Aksai Chin, an area contiguous with the Tibetan plateau, was occupied by China through the 1950s and 60s.

Over the years, the extraordinary federal powers promised by India eroded away but Sheikh continued to remain the undisputed leader and also the lynchpin of Kashmir’s relationship with India. His death in 1982 left his party National Conference rudderless and created a serious power vacuum in Kashmir. This was happening in the backdrop of a significant Islamic revivalist movement in the region. In 1979, under the immensely popular leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, the spectacular Iranian Revolution had toppled the pro-West monarch and led to the establishment of an Islamic Republic there. In Pakistan, the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq was taking vast measures for Islamization of the society and the body-politic. As a key American ally in the region, General Zia received enormous funding and weapons to organize the Mujahideen who were to be trained in Pakistan and sent into Afghanistan to fight the ‘atheist’ Soviet occupation there. A sentiment to reclaim Muslim territories under the occupation of non-Islamic forces was rife and was beginning to percolate into Kashmir. Rise of the Muslim United Front (a party that demanded the introduction of the Sharia law in its rallies) was a reflection of this growing Islamic sentiment in the politics of Kashmir. However, in the 1987 state elections, the MUF could manage to win only a few seats due to widespread poll rigging by the anxious National Conference regime. The disaffected members of this party along with their massive following immediately turned to separatism from India.

This was exactly the opening that Pakistan had been waiting for! By the late 1980s the war in Afghanistan was coming to an end and the euphoric Mujahideen were returning after having decisively defeated and expelled the mighty Soviets. Emboldened after a successful Jihad in Afghanistan, they were only glad to be redirected by Pakistan to now fight against the ‘infidel’ Indian occupation forces in Kashmir. In 1989, backed by surplus American funding and weapons, Pakistan launched the Kashmir insurgency in full earnest. A string of training camps were established in Azad Kashmir where the fresh militia would be trained and then infiltrated into India across a very difficult hilly terrain which had numerous tracks and passes that were impossible to guard.

After entering the towns and villages, the militia would try to loosen the administrative and police control of the Indian government by a series of abductions and assassinations of key officials and local politicians. This quickly discouraged the local Kashmiris from participating in the political process under the Indian setup. Many prominent workers of political parties announced their retirement from politics and their non-affiliation to any party through local newspapers. India reacted to this emergency by drastically increasing its armed presence in Kashmir. The army not only enhanced its guard on the borders but also encamped in towns and villages. Armed presence amidst civilian settlements, as was seen in conflict zones like Vietnam, led to inevitable human rights violations. This further fuelled the resentment of Kashmiris against the Indian government while the militants began to be hailed as heroes who were fighting for the just cause of liberating the valley from oppression. Public support to the militants, both indigenous and Pakistani, became the most critical aspect of the Kashmir insurgency and posed a formidable challenge to the Indian troops, creating a vicious cycle of encounters followed by violent protests and civilian killings.

Backed by Pakistan, the moral and ideological leadership to the cause of freedom was provided primarily by the separatist Hurriyat Conference headed by Syed Ali Shah Geelani — one of the disaffected members of the erstwhile MUF. The muscular might was supplied by heavily armed militant groups like Hizb-ul-Mujahideen known to be the henchmen of the Hurriyat. By the early 2000s, the Indian forces had somewhat been successful in clamping down on the armed militancy using more stringent border controls and establishing a large network of local informers. However, the pent up revolutionary energies would now surface through violent mass protests and the years 2008-2010 were known to be the summit of Geelani’s political career because of the sheer power he wielded over the agitating youth. The Hurriyat during these years would issue strike calendars for weeks ahead which were religiously honored by the general public with complete shutdowns and widespread street skirmishes against the troops. This being a purely mass agitation, involving no weapons or militant attacks, made India’s position extremely untenable before the global community that was becoming increasingly involved and concerned with the state-sponsored human rights violations in Kashmir.

In 2014, the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP came to power and with the ailing Geelani having virtually retired from public life, dealt a fatal blow to the Hurriyat by purging its key second-rung leadership and disrupting its Pakistani funding. In 2019, the Article 370 that promised exclusivity to Kashmiris in government jobs and land ownership was suddenly abrogated and the valley was pushed into many dark months of strict curfews during which all forms of communication were cut to prevent an uprising. This was aimed at changing the demography of Kashmir and was a step in the direction of gradually dissolving the Kashmir conflict, albeit over a distant time horizon.

However, the recent entry of China which has so far been a relatively dormant player in this dynamic, has added to the intricacy of Kashmir’s geopolitics. In 2013, China announced its ambitious infrastructure project called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that aimed to connect it with countries across Eurasia through its web of rail and road infrastructure. Having become a colossal manufacturing engine, the BRI would ensure that the inexpensive Chinese products reached every important market in the region and beyond, at lowest possible logistical costs. One of the most important and preliminary branches of the BRI called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through the Pakistan occupied Gilgit-Baltistan region of Kashmir and will connect China’s Xinjiang province to Gwadar port in Karachi. China’s recent forays into the Indian territory in the Aksai Chin seem to be an effort to push back the Indian presence and prevent the building of permanent military and aerial infrastructure by India or its western allies in the future, so as to avoid threats to its critical CPEC investment nearby. This project clearly has the potential to bring the timeless allies, China and Pakistan, much closer with overlapping interests to establish greater regional control in Kashmir. While Pakistan’s oft-repeated strategy of “bleeding India with a thousand cuts” by infusing disaffection in Kashmir continues, the Chinese factor adds to the complexity of the situation. This could completely isolate India as a stakeholder in this triangular arrangement and bring in a period of fresh geopolitical turmoil in Kashmir.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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