The disputed valley

January 03, 2016


Picture-pretty Neelum Valley, Azad Kashmir. — Arif Mahmood / White Star
Picture-pretty Neelum Valley, Azad Kashmir. — Arif Mahmood / White Star

It is difficult to envisage what it would feel like to live in Kasur, Sialkot or Muzaffarabad if Ferozepur, Jammu or Uri were just like other towns a short ride away. And in the prevailing narrative that people on each side of the border are adversaries per se the option that they see themselves as potential neighbours is not available.

Once on a long drive back from Azad Kashmir to Lahore I talked to a tablighi who hailed from east of Chishtian in Punjab. Born just after Partition, he said his greatest wish was to once actually meet the people in the town on the other side of the border, a place he could see his whole life but never visit. He imagined the inhabitants of the town on the other side just like the neighbours in his hometown — long lost twins, separated at birth.

Going further north this separation becomes a lot messier than in Punjab. One could see the lights of villages in India-held Kashmir from AJK at night, especially when load shedding took place on the Pakistani side and a whole mountain would become dark, while across the border the electricity supply remained intact. It was also intriguing to look over Haji Pir pass to the Indian side — the landscape obviously cared little that a heavily guarded border ran straight through it and farmers on both sides would tend their pastures till just before the ominous Line of Control.

While for the region of Kashmir — in whatever way you define it spatially — the conflict on the ground has subsided to infrequent skirmishes, in the minds of many people it persists. Depending on who you ask, the answer to what constitutes Kashmir, what its people actually want, how the present state came into being and what the future of the region will look like differs greatly. Few attempt to tackle the question of why it is so complicated today and what the odds are for a reasonable solution without becoming politically charged and being overtly pro-India or pro-Pakistan.

Christopher Snedden’s new title, Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris, describes the region and its history going back to Mughal times

Christopher Snedden’s book on the recent history and politics of Azad Kashmir, The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir, is a scholarly work based on numerous archival sources otherwise not easily accessible. It draws a picture of how Azad Kashmir came into being and how it works in the current state apparatus of Pakistan, officially not even being part of it. He has now gone one step further and describes the region encompassing Kashmir in the widest possible sense, and its history dating back to Mughal times in his new title, Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris.

The book includes a detailed discussion of what the term Kashmir often encompasses and the geopolitical context of the area, followed by a chapter on the princely state from the mid-19th century until Partition, the dispute over the region just after Partition, and finally a depiction of modern Kashmir and how the dispute may be resolved today. As in his previous book Snedden uses a multitude of interesting sources and provides a very dense introduction into this complex topic, especially for readers who haven’t followed events in the region closely.

His description of how the British Empire used the local princes for their own interests and how internal struggles led to an already fragmented Kashmir before Partition is intriguing, as is his description of the immediate time after Partition, and how India and Pakistan played their blame game on the backs of the local population. “Soon after the Pukhtoons invasion of J&K [a topic Snedden describes in detail in his first book], New Dehli began to successfully employ a clever tactic to discredit local people opposing India in J&K. Indians began to use the term ‘raiders’ to incorrectly insinuate that all people fighting Indian forces in J&K were looters and plunderers from outside the state. This enabled New Dehli to seriously embarrass Pakistan, which, unable to defend itself from India’s accusations […] acquiesced surprisingly quickly in India’s ploy. This was possibly because India’s tactic also enabled both nations to sideline the people of J&K from all discussion about ‘their’ state’s status […].”

While at times it seems that the text is deviating a bit too much from the core topic — lengthy accounts of the Great Game that have been described in much more detail in other excellent works that find no mention in this literature unfortunately — his inclusion of the wider Kashmir on both sides of the border, from Gilgit-Baltistan on the Pakistani side to Ladakh on the Indian side, enables him to then discuss the challenges and opportunities that make the region distinct. “Apart from reflecting their disenchantment with domination by Kashmiris, the situation of Jammu Hindus and Ladakhi Buddhists reflects the subcontinental saying that also applies to J&K: ‘every community is a minority’. Hence, while Muslim Kashmiris may dominate Indian J&K, Muslims are a minority in India; while Hindus are a majority in India, they are a minority in Indian J&K; while Muslims are a majority in Pakistan, they are a minority in the subcontinent. And so on. The great challenge for every South Asian government is ‘… to win the trust of its minorities.’ This also applies to J&K.”

Snedden emphasises that the voices of the Kashmiris — and within Kashmir those of the local minorities — are often completely negated in the discussion of their valley and that many attempts to explain Kashmir along ethnic or religious lines fall far short of drawing the picture correctly. “[Nehru] was keen for J&K to join India in 1947. Conversely, his contemporary Iqbal was an early and strong proponent of Pakistan and of Kashmir becoming part of this nation for Muslims. While these two men knew each other and although they shared a Kashmiri heritage, Kashmiriness/Kashmiriyat did not guarantee that they could agree politically. Kashmiris’ beliefs and practices have never been monolithic.”

Throughout the book he also pays considerable attention to terminology and the seemingly small but essential differences between the multitudes of names available for the region and its inhabitants. “Kashmir”, “Jammu and Kashmir”, “Kashmir Valley” are the most obvious, being complicated by many inhabitants of what the region encompasses, who do not see themselves as “Kashmiris”.

It is then somewhat disappointing to find next to no direct accounts of any of these people in the book. And when they are mentioned their views are sidelined to assumptions not backed by actual statements or writing. Also the literature list is conspicuously lacking recent accounts from Kashmir or Kashmiris, not one book or article of Basharat Peer or Pankaj Mishra to just name the most famous, or newspaper articles from local columnists show up. If not actual interviews with the local population, which may well have gone far outside the scope of this book, such written accounts would have given more justification to calling the book, ‘Understanding ... Kashmiris’.

However, Snedden being a “politico-strategic analyst” likely defines a discussion of a people through a different frame than authors with a more narrative or anthropological approach would. And as such, as a politico-historical analysis of Kashmir the book is a rich source for old ideas on how to find a sustainable and reasonable solution for the area in the future. It is a valuable contribution to a topic that is so often written about but hardly ever properly addressed.

Jakob Steiner has a degree in Environmental Engineering and works in research and development projects in Europe and Asia.

Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris
By Christopher Snedden
Hurst Publishers, UK
ISBN 978-1849043427