A place of greater danger. What is wrong with India? Two new books attempt to explain the historical background to the conflicts blighting the world's largest democracy

Kashmir in conflict: India, Pakistan and the unfinished war

Victoria Schofield, <em>I.B.Tauris, 28

Victoria Schofield has expanded an earlier book, Kashmir in the Crossfire, into one of the best general introductions to what a well-briefed Bill Clinton has recently described as the "most dangerous place on earth". She considers both Indian and Pakistani claims to the valley of Kashmir with an honest and impartial eye; and her chronology of events is backed by considerable scholarship. Her one disadvantage is that of the remote observer, for whom newspaper reports, unreliable in themselves, substitute far too much for direct observation. In Schofield's book, the events in Kashmir come detached too often from the great, ever-altering complexities of the societies of India and Pakistan. The commonplace terms of international relations and diplomacy that she uses do not quite explain the relative significance of Kashmir for the two countries.

For Pakistan, Kashmir is an obsession: the presence of a Muslim-majority state within a constitutionally secular India is a repudiation of the sectarian theory on which the Islamic state of Pakistan was founded. Pakistan's political and bureaucratic elite has never ceased to create trouble in Kashmir: in both 1947 and 1965, it tried to incite local insurgencies, hoping to use them as a pretext to militarily annex the valley. These attempts failed because of the lack of support from Kashmiri Muslims who had been won over to India by being promised, at first, the right to self-determination, and then, greater autonomy within the Indian Union.

The failure of these two promises lies at the very basis of the rebellion that erupted in 1990 against Indian rule in Kashmir. There is a larger reason for this failure: the Indian political elite never radically altered the colonial idea of the state it inherited; its notions of absolute sovereignty could not accommodate federalism. This has created problems throughout India in the form of secessionist movements in the south, the north-eastern states, the Punjab, and in Kashmir.

In most cases, the problems have been resolved, even if temporarily, through a mix of military repression and political concessions. Kashmir was the only Muslim-majority state in India, and so got special attention from the Congress Party, especially from Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi, whose Brahmin ancestors came from the state. There were good strategic and ideological reasons for this: the state bordered two unfriendly powers, China and Pakistan; and as the lone Muslim majority state, it was the jewel in India's secular crown.

Schofield describes how, for much of the last 50 years since independence, Kashmir has been ruled on an ad hoc basis from New Delhi. Kashmiri leaders were propped up and then discarded when they started talking of autonomy. Elected governments were dismissed, and direct rule from the centre was frequently imposed.The corruption of local politicians was ignored in exchange for their continuing silence on the question of autonomy. The problems and people of the state remained unknown to most Indians. Nevertheless, it turned into the litmus test of India's integrity and secular identity - one reason why even parties opposed to the Congress government protested little against the denial of democracy to the people of Kashmir.

In Pakistan, the quasi-colonial state has faced its own secessionist pressures from its diverse constituents: Sindhis, Baluchis, and Muhajirs (migrants from India). Democracy has had relatively little chance there, which is why army rule is usually welcomed as a respite from the semi-feudal rule of elected politicians and the tyranny of the Islamist parties. After hosting America's proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been left holding the steep bill: the easy availability of heroin, guns and mercenaries; and the random growth of fanatical groups committed to jihad, some of which have infiltrated the army, not to mention a weak economy built around the export of cheap labour to the Gulf.

At a time of general chaos, Kashmir brings everyone together: Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, the Islamists, the army, and the intelligence agencies who work independently of the government, as well as the petrodollar-rich middle class. The fundamental hostility towards India finds particularly zealous takers among the generation that was wounded by the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971, when India supported a movement among Bengali Muslims for the secession of East Pakistan from its Punjabi-dominated part in the west. It was old army officers who started the training camps in Pakistan-held Kashmir, which India cites in its frequent references to "cross-border terrorism". (This support for the Kashmiri groups intensified after the sudden explosion of rage against Indian ad hocism in the Kashmir valley. The chief of one of the major guerilla outfits backed by Pakistan is a Kashmiri who lost a rigged election in 1987, and was then thrown into jail and beaten up when he protested.)

During the long years of misrule from Delhi, middle-class Indians were indifferent to local politics in Kashmir; the valley was a vacation spot, cherished for the same sentimental reasons Churchill wanted to hold on to India. The government had no difficulty in explaining its frequent about-turns in the valley; and Pakistan offered itself as an effective bogey. But in recent years, the middle class has radically expanded, while its politics have become conservative, and it is best represented by the Hindu nationalists it helped elect to power in New Delhi.

The rapid media expansion makes the new middle class aware as never before of the human costs of keeping India together. The clashes with Pakistan-backed guerrillas in Kargil last summer was the first war to be fought before television cameras, and the result was an upsurge in patriotic sentiment. The media played no mean role in this: as the Indian army announced one improbable victory after another, television reporters and newspaper journalists unexpectedly emerged as cheerleaders, and then when the guerillas withdrew after Clinton put pressure on Pakistan, became the prime celebrators of what the Indian government described as the defeat of Pakistan.

Scenes of violence in Kashmir, such as the recent massacre of 35 Sikhs, are repeated endlessly on the 24-hour television channels created by the liberalised economy. There is little reporting, however, of the more consistent violence inflicted by the Indian state upon Kashmiris: police firings on unarmed demonstrators alone have claimed hundreds of lives in the last decade. The one-sidedness must have disturbing consequences in a poor, semi-literate country where the middle class dangerously confuses national greatness with nuclear bombs and military strength, and where rivalries of class, caste, region, and religion have enfeebled democratic institutions.

At a time when Nehru's version of secularism has been undermined, and no coherent or viable idea of India has replaced it, regular exposure to extreme violence hardens Indian attitudes. The old Anglicised Nehruvian elite has disappeared, along with the intellectual and cultural life that encouraged ideas of tolerance, dialogue and restraint, and so brutality has come to be widely accepted as the solution to brutality. The pugnacity of the present government of Hindu nationalists, and the media, perfectly articulates the wishes of the new middle class that seeks its identity in an aggressive nationalism - just as much as the fractious political establishment in Pakistan strives to hold itself together by supporting anti-India insurgency in Kashmir. This explains the unseemly and anachronistic sight of educated Indians and Pakistanis dancing in the streets after their respective governments conducted nuclear tests last year.

At the village in Kashmir where 35 Sikhs were killed, I recently met a middle-level officer from the Border Security Force, one of the paramilitary organisations fighting the anti-India insurgency. He was convinced that the Muslims in Kashmir were all traitors. He himself had been rough with the Muslim separatists he had captured: it was third-degree torture and then execution for them. "I don't believe in this human rights nonsense," he told me. "Do you want us to fight Pakistan with one hand tied behind our backs?"

He was offering a popular Indian solution to the Kashmir problem, one which often matches government policy, both old and new, in Kashmir, where the military arms of the Indian state have been used to suppress local discontent with the political authorities in New Delhi. But every extreme act invites retribution: the Indian military and the guerillas are currently locked in a zero-sum game. At a town in north Kashmir, I met young Muslims whose shops and houses had been burnt by policemen in rage after separatists killed a local policeman. A week later, Muslim separatists launched a revenge attack on the local police station with grenades and rockets. Before I left Kashmir, the events were repeated all over again, with greater damage, this time to all sides.

Schofield is understandably pessimistic about the chances of resolving the Kashmir problem. It is hard not to agree with her. She believes that India and Pakistan are "further apart than ever in their ability to reach any agreement". Since Kashmir lies at the basis of the Pakistani identity, no Pakistani government, as Schofield correctly points out, can moderate its position on Kashmir without immediately losing popular support. War with India is always a threat; but the possibility of international isolation and economic collapse alone seems to deter the jihad-inspired elements within the army, whose dominance over Pakistani society has been made possible by keeping the Kashmir pot boiling for all 52 years of Pakistan's existence.

Schofield does not say this, but the initiative really lies with India, a bigger, stronger, much more self-confident country. But then, far too many Indians think that India can actually solve the Kashmir problem by having the United States and European Union ostracise Pakistan while its military takes on Pakistan-backed guerrillas, and creates such a climate of fear among the Kashmiris that local support for the separatist cause ceases to exist. In this view, human rights violations become almost an essential means to reasserting Indian authority over a restive population.

This is contrary to all the ideals - democracy and secularism - of the Indian state. But popular patriotism overrides all such contradictions. The self-confidence of newly affluent India, and the intimations of great-power status, partly confirmed by Clinton's visit to India, now takes the government even further away from its constitutional commitment to democracy and human rights, which alone would make peace in Kashmir even a possibility. At the same time, middle-class nationalism commits the country to what looks like another futile and endless cycle of violence.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of The Romantics: a novel (Picador)