Why Is Kashmir So Hotly Disputed?

The conflict began with a gift of goats.

India and Pakistan are planning new talks on the fate of Kashmir, the long-disputed province nestled in the Himalayas. Despite the prospect of peace, separatist violence in the region continues unabated. Why has a Kansas-sized province of 8 million caused so much acrimony between South Asia’s two nuclear powers?

The conflict’s roots date back to the zenith of the British raj. In 1846, the British East India company sold the region to a local ruler named Maharajah Gulab Singh for approximately 6 million rupees, plus an annual gift of “one horse, twelve shawl goats of approved breed (six male and six female), and three pairs of Cashmere shawls.” Though Singh was a Hindu, the majority of Kashmiris were Muslims; the first wave of conversions had taken place during the 1300s, when the oft-invaded region was ruled by a Tibetan king who subscribed to Sufi Islam. The region was considered a great prize due to both its strategic location and its tremendous beauty.

When the subcontinent was granted independence 101 years later, local princes were given the option of joining either Hindu India or Muslim Pakistan. The ruling Singh at the time, Maharaja Hari Singh, hemmed and hawed, refusing to announce his allegiance to either nation; many scholars believe that he wished for an independent nation of his own. In October of 1947, having grown impatient with Singh’s indecision, Pakistani militants—often referred to in contemporary accounts as “tribesmen”—crossed into Kashmir and launched a terror campaign. Powerless to stop the violence, Singh appealed to India to come to his aid. The newly minted nation agreed, but only on the condition that Singh accede to Indian control—an accession that Pakistan has never formally recognized. When Indian soldiers arrived, Pakistan countered by sending in regular troops to back the Kashmiri Muslims. A bloody war ensued and was eventually settled by a 1948 U.N. resolution giving India control of approximately two-thirds of Kashmir, and Pakistan the remainder; the territories were separated by a border known as the “Line of Control,” to be monitored by U.N. observers. The resolution also called on Pakistan to “secure the withdrawal” of its citizens and fighters, and for India to conduct a plebiscite that would let Kashmiris determine their political fate. Neither the withdrawal nor the plebiscite has yet taken place.

More bad blood was created in 1965, when a three-week war was fought after Pakistani troops crossed the Line of Control, and India responded by invading Lahore. (A U.N.-sponsored cease-fire restored the prewar status quo.) Then, in 1971, India’s army backed East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in its independence bid, capturing 90,000 Pakistani troops during the brief-yet-brutal conflict. Some semblance of hope was restored the following year when the enemies hammered out the Simla Agreement, which secured the Pakistani soldiers’ release and mandated that the two nations should settle all disputes bilaterally.

More recently, passions have been inflamed by Indian charges that Pakistan gives military and economic aid to “cross-border terrorists,” as well as Pakistani charges that Indian security forces regularly commit atrocities. The United States has an increasingly large stake in the outcome of the dispute, since it’s widely believed that al-Qaida militants are aiding Kashmir’s Muslim separatists.

Diplomatically, the two sides still seem worlds apart. India’s longtime stance has been that all future negotiations should conform to the bilateral spirit of the Simla Agreement, while Pakistan insists that Kashmiris alone decide their political future via the long-promised plebiscite. The results of such a popular vote, however, might end up pleasing neither country. India is loath to let go of a province, as it would open the way for other regions—such as the Sikh stronghold of Punjab—to push for secession, too. Pakistan, meanwhile, wants to annex Kashmir, rather than see it become independent. But many polls show that over half the state’s Muslims would prefer outright independence to joining Pakistan.

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Explainer thanks the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and Victoria Schofield’s Kashmir in Conflict.