Kashmir History and Background

How the Conflict Influences Policy in Afghanistan and the Middle East

A view of Chinar trees in a Mughal garden, as their leaves begin to change colour during autumn on November 13, 2011
A view of Chinar trees in a Mughal garden, as their leaves begin to change colour during autumn on November 13, 2011. Yawar Nazir/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Kashmir, officially referred to as Jammu and Kashmir, is an 86,000-square-mile region (about the size of Idaho) in northwest India and northeast Pakistan so breathtaking in physical beauty that Mugal ​(or Moghul) emperors in the 16th and 17th century considered it an earthly paradise. The region has been violently disputed by India and Pakistan since their 1947 partition, which created Pakistan as the Muslim counterpart to Hindu-majority India.

History of Kashmir

After centuries of Hindu and Buddhist rule, Muslim Moghul emperors took control of Kashmir in the 15th century, converted the population to Islam and incorporated it into the Moghul empire. Islamic Moghul rule should not be confused with modern forms of authoritarian Islamic regimes. The Moghul empire, characterized by the likes of Akbar the Great (1542-1605) embodied Enlightenment ideals of tolerance and pluralism a century before the rise of the European Enlightenment. (Moghuls left their mark on the subsequent Sufi-inspired form of Islam that dominated the subcontinent in India and Pakistan, before the rise of more jihadist-inspired Islamist mullahs.)

Afghan invaders followed the Moghuls in the 18th century, who were themselves driven out by Sikhs from Punjab. Britain invaded in the 19th century and sold the entire Kashmir Valley for half a million rupees (or three rupees per Kashmiri) to the brutal repressive ruler of Jammu, the Hindu Gulab Singh. It was under Singh that the Kashmir Valley became part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The 1947 India-Pakistan Partition and Kashmir

India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947. Kashmir was split as well, with two-thirds going to India and a third going to Pakistan, even though India's share was predominantly Muslim, like Pakistan. Muslims rebelled. India repressed them. War broke out. It wasn't settled until a 1949 cease-fire brokered by the United Nations and a resolution calling for a referendum, or plebiscite, allowing Kashmiris to decide their future for themselves. India has never implemented the resolution.

Instead, India has maintained what amounts to an occupying army in Kashmir, cultivating more resentment from the locals than fertile agricultural products. Modern India's founders—Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi—both had Kashmiri roots, which partially explains India's attachment to the region. To India, "Kashmir for the Kashmiris" means nothing. Indian leaders' standard line is that Kashmir is "an integral part" of India.

In 1965, India and Pakistan fought their second of three major wars since 1947 over Kashmir. The United States was largely to blame for setting the stage for war.

The cease-fire three weeks later was not substantial beyond a demand that both sides put down their arms and a pledge to send international observers to Kashmir. Pakistan renewed its call for a referendum by Kashmir's mostly Muslim population of 5 million to decide the region's future, in accordance with a 1949 UN resolution. India continued to resist conducting such a plebiscite.

The 1965 war, in sum, settled nothing and merely put off future conflicts. (Read more about the Second Kashmir War.)

The Kashmir-Taliban Connection

With the rise to power of Muhammad Zia ul Haq (the dictator was president of Pakistan from 1977 to 1988), Pakistan began its slump toward Islamism. Zia saw in Islamists a mean of consolidating and maintaining his power. By patronizing the cause of anti-Soviet Mujahideens in Afghanistan beginning in 1979, Zia curried and won Washington's favor--and tapped into massive quantities of cash and weaponry the United States channeled through Zia to feed the Afghan insurgency. Zia had insisted that he be the conduit of arms and weaponry. Washington conceded.

Zia diverted large amounts of cash and weaponry to two pet projects: Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, and developing an Islamist fighting force that would subcontract the fight against India in Kashmir. Zia largely succeeded at both. He financed and protected armed camps in Afghanistan that trained militants who'd be used in Kashmir. And he supported the rise of a hard-core Islamist corps in Pakistani Madrassas and in Pakistan's tribal areas that would exert Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The corps' name: The Taliban.

Thus, the political and militant ramifications of recent Kashmiri history are intimately connected with the rise of Islamism in northern and western Pakistan, and in Afghanistan.

Kashmir Today

According to a Congressional Research Service report, "Relations between Pakistan and India remain deadlocked on the issue of Kashmiri sovereignty, and a separatist rebellion has been underway in the region since 1989. Tensions were extremely high in the wake of the Kargil conflict of 1999 when an incursion by Pakistani soldiers led to a bloody six-week-long battle."

Tensions over Kashmir rose dangerously in fall 2001, forcing then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to de-escalate tensions in person. When a bomb exploded in the Indian Jammu and Kashmir state assembly and an armed band assaulted the Indian Parliament in New Delhi later that year, India mobilized 700,000 troops, threatened war, and provoked Pakistan into mobilizing its forces. American intervention compelled then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who had been particularly instrumental in further militarizing Kashmir, provoking the Kargil war there in 1999, and facilitating Islamist terrorism subsequently, in January 2002 vowed to end the presence of terrorist entities on Pakistani soil. He promised to ban and eliminate terrorist organizations, including Jemaah Islamiyah, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Musharraf's pledges, as always, proved empty. Violence in Kashmir continued. In May 2002, an attack on an Indian army base at Kaluchak killed 34, most of them women and children. The attack again brought Pakistan and India to the brink of war.

Like the Arab-Israeli conflict, the conflict over Kashmir remains unresolved. And like the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is the source, and perhaps the key, to peace in regions far greater than the territory in dispute.

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Tristam, Pierre. "Kashmir History and Background." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/kashmir-history-and-background-2353435. Tristam, Pierre. (2021, July 31). Kashmir History and Background. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/kashmir-history-and-background-2353435 Tristam, Pierre. "Kashmir History and Background." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/kashmir-history-and-background-2353435 (accessed March 29, 2023).