Princely state full of paupers' graves

India, Pakistan and the Kashmir Dispute
August 25, 1995

Two conflicts intersect in the Kashmir dispute, which has claimed thousands of lives since 1989 and was earlier the cause of two wars. India and Pakistan each claim that at independence in 1947 the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, a congeries of ethnic groups brought together largely by the accidents of history, should have acceded to it.

Depending on the time and the audience, a mixture of legal and moral arguments have been deployed by spokesmen and apologists on both sides. It is in these terms that the rest of the world has come to know of the Kashmir conflict, and frankly to become bored with it. There has always, however, been another set of issues at stake, and these have become more prominent since the current phase of the dispute began in the late 1980s. They relate to the nature of statehood in South Asia, and in the world more generally as it emerges from the cold war era. At one level, the debate is about the conditions under which linguistic or other culturally defined groups can demand autonomy or independence, at another about the special qualities of Kashmiri culture and how they can be maintained.

Robert Wirsing's book is a substantial, policy-oriented contribution to the recent literature. He had access in the early 1990s to senior political and military leaders in both India and Pakistan, and he makes effective use of these opportunities. He first reviews fairly briefly the genesis of the crisis. For the non-specialist he indicates clearly and fairly why the dispute over the actions of the boundary commission in the weeks before independence on August 15 1947 were important, as also the argument over the exact sequence of the events shortly afterwards from October 1947 to January 1949, when a ceasefire line was established under United Nations auspices. He also guides the reader through the complexities of the status of the Northern Areas and the Siachen glacier.

From the early 1950s the Kashmir dispute became linked to the global cold war, and also to Sino-Indian relations, but Wirsing rightly insists that it was always primarily a regional issue. He also argues that the internal crisis which erupted in the Indian-controlled part of the state in the late 1980s was mainly an internal affair, although Pakistani agencies also played a significant role.

The second half of the book is specifically policy oriented. Wirsing is sceptical about the possibilities of India by itself achieving a solution through the "internal" route of elections. He is in fact doubtful about the chances of any kind of solution under present circumstances. The best that can be hoped for, he says, is a breaking of the deadlock, so that the risk of military conflict can be lessened. This can be achieved by patient diplomatic action in which both sides concentrate on mutually beneficial reductions in tension along the line of control, although it would do little directly to meet Kashmiri aspirations. Indirectly, however, such a reduction might well, given favourable political conditions in Delhi, lead to some amelioration of the immediate situation. The rest of the world, the United States in particular, has only a limited role to play in the Kashmir dispute, says Wirsing. In particular, he cautions against intemperate denunciation of one or both the countries immediately concerned as likely to be counterproductive.

David Taylor is senior lecturer in politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

India, Pakistan and the Kashmir Dispute: On the Regional Conflict and its Resolution

Author - Robert G. Wirsing
ISBN - 0 333 63818 2
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £29.50
Pages - 337

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