TOPICS > Politics

Conflict in Kashmir

August 19, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SIMON MARKS: It is beyond any doubt one of the most beautiful places on earth. But the bucolic mountains of Kashmir are also home to one of the world’s most dangerous conflicts. For 54 years now, India and Pakistan have squared off over this terrain. They fought two wars here already, and their troops remain eyeball to eyeball.

With shelling taking place on almost a daily basis, the world fears that their next battle could go nuclear. To understand why, you only have to sample the rhetoric from both sides. L.K. Advani is India’s deputy prime minister with enormous influence over government policy.

L.K. ADVANI, Deputy Prime Minister, India: Till now we find it difficult to believe that Pakistan has abandoned terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

SIMON MARKS: Sikander Hyat Khan is Prime Minister of so-called “Free Kashmir,” on the Pakistani side of the border.

SIKANDER HYAT KHAN, Prime Minister of “Free Kashmir:” It is not the responsibility of Pakistan. Pakistan is not responsible. But you see that in 1947 – I am sorry, but I am repeating 1947…

SIMON MARKS: You hear a lot about 1947 when you visit Kashmir. That was the year the British pulled out of India, leaving only their influence and their sport, cricket, behind in this corner of their empire. They divided the country into mostly Hindu India and mostly Muslim Pakistan. Though the state of Jammu and Kashmir has a mostly Muslim population, the local ruler, a Maharaja named Hari Sing, decided to ally the state with India.

In October 1947, the Pakistanis seized one-third of Kashmiri territory and two years later the first line of control was established separating the two armies. And in that soil, the roots of today’s conflict grew. Kashmir today has two capitals and Muzaffarabad is on the Pakistani side. A gritty town, its people are firm in their view that as the sign on this house reads, we are Kashmir, and Kashmir is ours.

This city of mosques where marijuana grows wild by the road side, lies less than ten miles from the line of control, the boundary that separates Pakistani and Indian forces. The villages outside Muzaffarabad are even closer. Najibullah and Zebi came to live in the village of Gohori, from a place they refer to as Kashmir, by which they mean the Indian side of the border.

NAJIBULLAH: (speaking through interpreter) I’ve been living on this spot of land for the last 20 years. I was living in Kashmir and I left my home because of the Indian army. I walked the whole way here. We came here in search of food and shelter and here we feel some relief.

ZEBI: (speaking through interpreter) We feel freer here. But every now and then we hear the sound of shelling and guns.

SIMON MARKS: Their neighbor, Neemulah Khan, also came here from India. He maintains that the Indian army is targeting Muslim civilians throughout Kashmir, repressing their religion, and that his people are engaged in self defense.

NEEMULAH KHAN, Villager: (speaking through interpreter) There is shelling just a few miles away. The Pakistani and Indian armies regularly exchange fire, and people are dying. The Indians are targeting the civilian population. We are ready for war, because our religion says that anyone who brutalizes you, you should fight them.

SIMON MARKS: His son, Kasim, goes even further.

KASIM KHAN: (speaking through interpreter) There is carnage in Kashmir, just like in Palestine, only the world doesn’t care. The world powers call us terrorists, but we’re not terrorists. We are freedom fighters.

SIMON MARKS: That issue of whether Kashmiri militants battling India are terrorists or freedom fighters, goes to the very heart of the problem here. And your viewpoint depends largely on where you live. The line of control that separates Indian and Pakistani forces is just eight miles away from here.

On this side of the line, the local population fervently believes that India bears responsibility for the crisis in Kashmir. But on the other side of the line, the side protected by Indian troops, the local population there is just as fervent in its view that Pakistan is to blame for a series of cross border incursions that brought Kashmir to the brink of nuclear confrontation.

To spend a day with the Indian army in Kashmir is to spend a day being told of Pakistan’s complicity in terrorism. India has more than 700,000 troops deployed in Kashmir. The Pakistanis have around 300,000. The battlefield extends from a glacier in the North to this valley in the South. And to sustain their military operations here costs both sides enormous amounts of money. So tense is the military situation here that as we flew close to the line of control, our pilots consulted detailed maps to make sure they didn’t accidentally stray into Pakistani-held territory.

The Indians took us on patrol to the town of Gori. It’s less than four miles from the line of control, and the people here who live on the lip of an Indian army base were supportive of India and its efforts.

MAN ON STREET: (speaking through interpreter) From the very beginning we were with India, and we want to stay with India.

MAN ON STREET: (speaking through interpreter) We don’t have any problems with the Indian army. When the shelling takes place from across the border it’s coming from the Pakistani side. We understand the difficulties the Indian army faces.

SIMON MARKS: The army took us to a house even closer to the line of control, that commanders say was shelled by the Pakistanis a month ago. They say the Pakistani army resorts to shelling in a bid to create a diversion so that it can smuggle Islamic militant across the line of control and into India.

LT. COL. V.G. PATANKAR: Quite often when they want to push an infiltrating group across, they would resort to shelling, quite heavy small arms fire like machine gunfire or even rocket fire, to keep us pinned down and to get us hunkered down inside our fox holes. And that’s the time they push them across.

SIMON MARKS: The Indians maintain that more than 3,000 Kashmiri militants have already made it across the line of control, and into Indian territory since 1989. And to prove it, they took us to a museum containing weapons they say they recovered in military operations against the infiltrators. They accuse the militants of launching a series of terrorist attacks against civilians in Indian-controlled Kashmir, attacks that India insists Pakistan not only supports, but even plans.

LT. COL. V.G. PATANKAR: There is total complicity, right from organizing their camps to training them to equipping them with weapons made in Pakistan or brought over from Afghanistan, to even indicating targets that they must go and get and a whole host of propaganda.

SIMON MARKS: On the Pakistani side of the border, those claims are rejected out of hand. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf under pressure from the United States and its European allies maintains that he has ended all support for Kashmiri militants, and has absolutely no involvement in any terrorist acts. Hamid Gul is a former head of Pakistan’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence agency, the ISI..

HAMID GUL, Former Head, Inter Services Intelligence Agency, Pakistan: You see Pakistan stop infiltration. I know for sure Pakistan did that, not because India demanded it from Pakistan, but because America was breathing down her neck. And Pakistan had no choice. George Bush said he has to do it. At least one thing is clear: That Pakistan has lost moral control over the Mujahadeen of Kashmir, the freedom fighters of Kashmir.

SIMON MARKS: Outside observers, including the U.S., say that while incidents of militant infiltration have lessened over the past six months, incursions are still taking place, and the Bush administration is pressing the government of Pakistan to do more to stop the cross-border traffic. In the Indian capital Delhi, government officials now insist Islamabad must go even further.

L.K. ADVANI: The focus need not be exclusively on infiltration. What is necessary is that the infrastructure of terrorism, all of the ingredients of terrorism, also have to be wound up — after all, it’s a question of earnestness — how sincere Pakistan is in stopping cross border terrorism.

SIMON MARKS: From the government buildings abandoned by the British in 1947, today’s administration in Delhi has a plan for Kashmir. It wants to hold state elections this fall in Indian-held Kashmir that it insists will allow Kashmiris to express their views on their territory’s future.

But a coalition of opposition parties is threatening to boycott the poll, saying that it’s too narrowly focused, and doesn’t countenance the possibility that Kashmiris might actually want independence. Many Muslims we interviewed in the Srinagar, the capital of Indian held Kashmir agreed.

ALI MOHAMMED, Kashmiri Muslim: There are three alternatives: either to go to Pakistan, either to join India, or to be free. There are three choices. My choice is that we should be free. Yes, we want freedom.

TARIQ RATA, Kashmiri Muslim: The elections are totally wrong and defaulted. I want independence. I don’t want to go with Pakistan or either with India. I want to be totally independent. Neither with India, nor with Pakistan.

SIMON MARKS: And even some Hindus in Kashmir are not convinced that the elections will do anything to ease tensions in the region. None of the people we spoke to anticipated any solution to the crisis any time soon.

SAT BHUSHAN, Kashmiri Hindu: I think this is a very difficult question, but it is with India, and the most practical part is that it will remain with India. It is not an easy thing that India will forego it.. It’s not an easy thing. What I feel is the status quo will remain.

SIMON MARKS: And that is certainly the way the Indian government seems to feel.

L.K. ADVANI: We have no objection in letting the people of Jammu and Kashmir decide their future and therefore we are keen that in September or October, there should be a completely free and fair election in Jammu and Kashmir state. We are preparing for that. And I believe that most of the incidents of violence that are taking place in Jammu and Kashmir these days are intended to disrupt those elections.

SIMON MARKS: You do not sound like a man who envisions Jammu and Kashmir ever being anything other than Indian.

L.K. ADVANI: That’s right. That’s right, because Jammu and Kashmir is India. Anyone who knows that it is still Jammu and Kashmir would know that it is India; the mere fact that it has a Muslim majority doesn’t change the situation.

SIMON MARKS: On the Pakistani side of the border where the election will not be held, officials insist that it does change the situation. The Pakistan sponsored prime minister of so-called “Free Kashmir” accuses India of failing to honor United Nations resolutions that call for a referendum to be held on the future of Kashmir throughout all of Kashmir.

SIKANDER HYAT KHAN: They are holding the fraud elections. I am sure that the majority of people, they are of this view. What I am saying that the people should be given a chance to determine their future. There should be an end of it. After all, what is the scene now? In Kashmir, we have got a beautiful area, but there is no airfield; there is no gold mines, there is nothing, and we are poor people. And we should be given a chance to live honorably in this area.

SIMON MARKS: Neither side of the border has known an untroubled existence for half a century. And in the Indian village of Utrasi, four miles from the line of control, there’s an awareness that this is a region that could find itself the focus of a nuclear war.

PARVIN GELLANI, Villager: (speaking through interpreter) If a war begins, it will be a nuclear war, and everybody here knows that nothing will be left behind. We know that if a nuclear war starts, there won’t be anything left.

SIMON MARKS: Both India and Pakistan have dampened down the nuclear rhetoric over the past couple of months, maintaining that all the talk of Kashmir becoming a nuclear battleground was mere posturing. And while outside observers are still concerned about the possibility of a nuclear conflict being sparked accidentally, the leaders on both sides of the divide are today more focused on diplomacy than before.

L.K. ADVANI: Whatever the differences between us, whatever the disputes between us, whether it’s about Jammu and Kashmir or about anything else, we will talk about them. We will talk and talk and talk. Peace shall not be held hostage to the resolution of those differences.

SIKANDER HYAT KHAN: When there are misunderstandings India and Pakistan should sit together, have a dialogue, associate with the Kashmiris. And I believe that the solutions will come out of this dialogue.

SIMON MARKS: But few Kashmiris seem confident that a bilateral settlement is in the wind. On Dal Lake, just outside Srinagar, the boatmen who could once count on a steady stream of western visitors to sustain their livelihoods, today compete for the very few vacationers who risk journeying here.

But this time of year, the lake is bedecked with lily pads and lotus flowers. In the Buddhist faith, it’s the flower of peace– a concept that the politicians who oversee this magnificent terrain still have not achieved.