India’s northernmost and sixth-largest state, Jammu and Kashmir (usually shortened to J&K), is one of its most mountainous and staggeringly beautiful. It also encapsulates the cultural and religious diversity of the Subcontinent by falling into three distinct regions. The southwestern end of its thick bracket-shaped expanse is the Hindu-majority area around the winter capital of Jammu. Directly to the north across the first range of the Himalayas is the almost exclusively Muslim Kashmir, as infamous for its ongoing political woes as it is renowned for its enchanting beauty. Finally, to the northeast, hugging the disputed borders with both Pakistan and China, the remote and rugged region of Ladakh, which occupies nearly seventy percent of the state according to its de facto borders, is populated mostly by adherents of Tibetan Buddhism.
Jammu is the state’s largest city and the traditional stepping-stone into the region, worthy of a stopover in its own right for its imposing fort and admirable collection of temples. Most foreigners, however, head immediately for the summer capital of Srinagar, lynchpin of the famed Kashmir Valley, which also offers the green hills and meadows of Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Unless you fly direct to the enchanting capital of Ladakh, Leh, the decision of when to visit Ladakh is largely made for you: the passes into the region are only open between late June and late October, when the sun is at its strongest and the weather, at least during the day, pleasantly warm. From November onwards, temperatures drop fast, often plummeting to minus 40oC between December and February, when the only way in and out of Zanskar is along the frozen surface of the river. Leh is surrounded by numerous villages dominated by venerable monasteries such as Tikse and Hemis or, further west, Lamayuru. The latter provides a good stopover en route to Kargil, halfway along the Srinagar–Leh road and the jumping-off point for the isolated Zanskar Valley. Other sparsely populated but exquisite areas worth the bumpy detours involved in reaching them from Leh include the icy lakes of Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri, as well as the almost surreal Nubra Valley, with its sand dunes and wandering camels.
The region that comprises the current state of J&K has been a cultural, religious and political crossroads for millennia. There is archeological evidence that the area around Jammu, whose name appears in the Mahabharata, was part of the Harappan civilization, based in the Indus Valley, one of the oldest in the world. Remains of other powerful kingdoms, such as those of the Mauryas and Guptas, have also been found near the city, although the foundation of Jammu itself is credited to the Raja Jambu Lochan in the late fourteenth century. It later fell under the control of the Sikhs but after their defeat by the British in 1846, became part of the Hindu Dogra dynasty in the mid-nineteenth century. The majority of its people still identify themselves as Dogras and speak the Dogri dialect.
Kashmir, meanwhile, had become an important centre of Buddhism and, subsequently, Hinduism during the first half of the first millennium AD and these faiths co-existed side by side regardless of the region’s rulers for the best part of a thousand years. In 1349, Shah Mir became the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir and it continued to be controlled by followers of Islam from Mughals to Afghans until it was taken over by the Sikhs and followed the same historical path as Jammu from the 1840s until Independence. Its problems since 1948 (see The Kashmir conflict) have still not been resolved but under the guidance of its youngest ever chief minister, Omar Abdullah, (elected in January 2009), there is increased confidence of positive developments among Kashmiris.
The first inhabitants of Ladakh are thought to have been a mixture of nomadic herdsmen from the Tibetan plateau and a small contingent of early Buddhist refugees from northern India called the Mons, joined in the fourth or fifth century by the Indo-Aryan Dards, who introduced irrigation and settled agriculture. The first independent kingdom in the region was established in the ninth century by the maverick nobleman Nyima Gon, at around the same time as Buddhism was first disseminated by the wandering sage-apostles such as Padmasambhava (alias Guru Rinpoche). This was followed by the Second Spreading, among whose key proselytizers was the “Great Translator” Rinchen Zangpo.
Around the fourteenth century, Ladakh passed through a dark age before being reunified by Tashi Namgyal (ruled 1555–70), who established a new capital and palace at Leh. This power eventually succumbed to the mightier Mughals, when Aurangzeb demanded more tribute, ordered the construction of a mosque in Leh and forced the Ladakhi king to convert to Islam. Trade links with Tibet resumed in the eighteenth century, but Ladakh never regained its former status. Plagued by feuds and assassinations, the kingdom teetered into terminal decline, and was an easy target for the Dogra general Zorawar Singh, who annexed it for the maharaja of Kashmir in 1834.
Ladakh became a part of J&K in independent India in 1948, following the first of the three Indo-Pak wars fought in the region. Tensions over the disputed line of control still flare up sporadically (see The Kashmir conflict). When you consider the proximity of China, another old foe who annexed a large chunk of Ladakh in 1962, it’s easy to see why this is India’s most sensitive border zone. There is also a degree of internal friction. Long dissatisfied with the state government based in Srinagar, the Ladakhis finally saw the establishment of their region as the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) in September 1995, localizing – in theory – government control. A group of Ladakhi Buddhist and Muslim parties formed the unified Ladakh Union Territory Front in 2002 to push for separation from J&K and gain Union Territory recognition from Delhi. Despite local success in state elections, the Congress-led state government has repeatedly blocked moves to set up Union Territory status.Read More
The Kashmir conflict
The Kashmir conflict
The Himalayan state of Kashmir is the main reason why India and Pakistan have remained bitter enemies for most of the sixty-plus years since Independence. The region’s troubles date from Partition, when the ruling Hindu maharaja Hari Singh opted to join India rather than Pakistan (see India under Nehru (1947–64)), and the geopolitical tug-of-war over the state has soured relations between the two countries ever since, at least until the last few years.
The conflict in Kashmir has taken two forms: firstly, a military confrontation between the Pakistani and Indian armies along the de facto border – on three occasions leading to fully fledged war (in 1947, 1965 and 1999); and, secondly, a violent insurgency-cum-civil war since 1989, during which both Kashmiri and foreign Muslim fighters have launched various attacks against Indian military and civilian targets inside Kashmir itself, leading to equally bloody reprisals by Indian security forces – a conflict which has now cost an estimated seventy thousand lives.
The roots of the problem
Following the cessation of hostilities in 1948, a UN resolution demanded a plebiscite should take place whereby the Kashmiri people would decide their own future. This India has resolutely refused to hold. The Ceasefire Line, or so-called Line of Control, became the effective border between India and Pakistan; the third of Kashmir held by Pakistan is referred to by those who support independence from India as Azad (Free) Kashmir. India lost a further slice of Kashmiri territory to the Chinese during the 1962 conflict (see India under Nehru (1947–64)) before a resumption of hostilities with Pakistan during the Second Indo-Pakistan War of 1965. Again, Kashmir was the focus of attention, though at the end of the war both sides returned to their original positions. The Simla Agreement of 1972 committed both sides to renounce force in their dealings with one another, and to respect the Line of Control and the de facto border between their two states.
Insurgency and civil war
Simmering Kashmiri discontent with Indian rule and Delhi’s political interference in the region, which had been due to gain virtual autonomy in return for joining India, began to transform into armed resistance around 1989 – the arrival of Mujahideen in the Kashmir Valley after the end of the war with Russia in Afghanistan is often blamed for the sudden surge of militancy. The key incident, however, was the unprovoked massacre, in 1990, of around one hundred unarmed protesters, by Indian security forces on Gawakadal Bridge in the capital, Srinagar. By the following year, violence and human-rights abuses had become endemic, both in the Kashmir Valley itself and further south around Jammu. Curfews became routine, and thousands of suspected militants were detained without trial amid innumerable accusations of torture, the systematic rape of Kashmiri women by Indian troops, disappearances of countless boys and men, and summary executions. The conflict continued to ebb and flow throughout the 1990s, with regular atrocities on both sides, while the region’s once-thriving tourist industry was dealt a fatal blow when the extremist Al-Faran Muslim group kidnapped five tourists trekking near Pahalgam in 1995; one was beheaded, and the others were never found. At the end of the decade, the crisis brought India and Pakistan to the verge of yet another all-out war. With both countries now fully fledged nuclear states, Kashmir has become one of the world’s most dangerous geopolitical flashpoints.
In May 1999, at least eight hundred Pakistani-backed Mujahideen crept across the Line of Control overlooking the Srinagar–Leh road near Kargil and began to occupy Indian territory. India moved thousands of troops and heavy artillery into the area, and swiftly followed up with an aerial bombardment. In the event the conflict was contained, and by July 1999 the Indian army had retaken all the ground previously lost to the militants. All-out war was only narrowly averted again in early 2003 after intense diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on both sides by US emissary Colin Powell. Within Kashmir, long-established organizations like the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the All Party Hurriyat Conference, which had traditionally adopted a secular and nationalist stance, were being increasingly eclipsed by militantly Islamic and pro-Pakistani groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.
The road to peace?
The first signs of genuine rapprochement came in May 2003, when Indian prime minister Vajpayee made a declaration of peace, announcing that hundreds of Pakistanis detained in Indian prisons since the Kargil war would be released. Pakistani prime minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali responded by announcing that Pakistan would ease trade restrictions and improve travel and sporting links. In 2004 and 2005 the Indian and Pakistani governments also held their first-ever talks with Kashmiri separatists from the Hurriyat Conference, establishing a peaceful “Road Map” for progress in the region. A further round of Indo-Pak talks following the appointment of Manmohan Singh as India’s new prime minister resulted in further small but encouraging signs of progress, symbolized by the inauguration, in April 2005, of a fortnightly bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Further détente was signalled in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir in October 2005, which killed around 73,000 people in Pakistan and a further 1400 in Indian Kashmir, when the Line of Control was opened to speed up relief operations.
Various long-term solutions to the whole Kashmir issue are currently being mooted. These have ranged from India suggesting that the Line of Control (LoC) might be converted into a permanent border to Pakistan possibly even being prepared to give up all claims to Kashmir if India allowed it some form of self-government. Kashmir’s future looks brighter now than it has for decades, although there is the perpetual risk that a single violent incident could trigger a new phase of conflict. Indeed, the shooting of a few Indian and Pakistani soldiers on each side of the border in January 2013 had raised tensions again at the time of writing.