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History Workshop Journal 58 (2004) 335-340
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Kashmir's Conflicting Identities
The University of Kashmir, on the outskirts of Srinagar, boasts a bewitchingly beautiful location. It's sandwiched between the city's two main lakes, and looks out towards the milky-white cupola of the Hazratbal shrine, and beyond to the Himalayan foothills which have both protected the Kashmir valley over the ages and made its location at the intersection of south Asia, central Asia and Tibet such a keenly-sought prize. When I asked one of the leading historians at the University—he didn't want his name published—when Kashmir was last ruled by Kashmiris, he replied succinctly and decisively: '1586'. Since then the Kashmir valley has been under the control, successively, of Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs, Dogras, and, since 1947, of the Indian government in Delhi. Kashmir's story is not quite that simple. The Mughals lavished enormous affection and resources on Kashmir. The Dogra princes, although outsiders, made Srinagar a capital of at least equal stature to their native city of Jammu. And for most of the post-Raj era, the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has had a Kashmiri Muslim as Chief Minister, at the head of an elected government. Yet there is a broader truth. Kashmiris bear an acute sense of grievance that for centuries they feel they have had little agency over their own fate. That sentiment goes a long way towards explaining why Kashmir's separatist insurgency has proved so tenacious.
The bitter dispute between India and Pakistan over control of Kashmir dates back to the 1947 independence settlement. Both had a claim to Kashmir. To telescope a complex issue into a single sentence, Kashmir's Maharaja, a Hindu ruling a largely Muslim populace, signed up with India, as he was entitled to, so ignoring Pakistan's argument based on religion, cultural affinity, geography and commerce. He made no attempt to consult his subjects. Within weeks of the British pull-out, there was heavy fighting in Kashmir. Within months, there was open war between India and Pakistan. A ceasefire was agreed, and with it a de facto partition of the former princely state. But no final resolution has ever been achieved. The issue sprang back into prominence at the end of the 1980s, with the beginning of an anti-India insurgency which was local in inception, but was quickly championed and co-opted by Pakistan. The row has frustrated all attempts at friendship between the two countries, fuelled a nuclear arms race, buttressed the role of army and intelligence [End Page 335] service in Pakistan's public life and impeded India's ambitions to emerge as a key Asian power. It has also, just by the way, brought misery to the five-million people of the Kashmir valley.
There's an enormous literature about Kashmir, much of it deeply partisan, densely written and ill researched. The corpus of informed and tolerably unbiased historical writing about Kashmir is slender.1 That makes the volumes reviewed here all the more welcome. Together, they appear to augur a new, and enormously more promising, chapter in Kashmir studies. Almost a coming of age. None of these books would have been written but for the fifteen years of violence in the Kashmir valley, commencing in 1989, which has accounted for, by the most conservative of estimates, at least 35,000 lives. All, in different degrees, rise above the clamour of nationalist rhetoric to seek a more nuanced...