Kashmir has the unfortunate distinction of having been important to too many fantasies and a way station on too many journeys. Known for the legendary beauty of its inaccessible terrain and home to important religious sites for Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, Kashmir has attracted the attention of adventurers, imperialists, and evangelists for over a thousand years. It has played a role in the ambitions of the Huns and the Tartars, Hindu, Buddhist, and Moghul emperors, the Pathans from the west, Sikh rulers from the south, Russian Tsars from the north, the Chinese from the east, and the British from far away. For centuries adventurers heading eastward have fixed their imagination on Kashmir the moment they moved beyond the magnetic fields of Jerusalem and Egypt and across the Tigress River. More than most places, its history is marked by a regularity of tyranny and violence—no doubt the legacy of successive invasions and a corresponding inconstancy of rulers. But in this long history it is the violence of the last sixty years that has earned Kashmir a special significance; it has emerged on the global stage as the nexus of forces in a distinctly twentieth-century tragedy.

The recent history of Kashmir is a story of decolonization and the triumph of nationalism; of how, even before its triumph, nationalism bred sub-nationalisms; of how both nationalism and sub-nationalism, even when they professed a commitment to liberal constitutionalism, relied on an implicit naturalistic community, for which religion became a convenient, albeit awkward, stand-in; and of how the British found in this stand-in a similarly convenient exit strategy while retrenching an unwieldy empire. In India, as in Ireland, Palestine, and Cyprus, the British became the willing supporters of a partition that was hastily scissored along the hem of religion and ethnicity. The partition would, in the end, compromise the very modernity on which the new nations were built. In its misguided view of the basis of the unity of a state, partition lies at the root of India and Pakistan’s failure to live up to their founding principles.

Kashmir’s is also the story of how, almost to the day, decolonization and nationalism coincided with the global Cold War. For newly independent countries like India and Pakistan the project of nation-building—from cementing a viable national identity to settling national boundaries—became intermeshed from the outset with the machinations of distant international powers in a game in which they were proxies, tragically induced to militarization. Thus, much of the idealism that had attended the struggle for independence of postcolonial nations found itself vitiated by an atmosphere of international suspicion, strategic considerations, and pandering to superpowers whose ultimate concern was each other and not the local exigencies of any particular region. And, the consistent and principled support the superpowers had given for decolonization was obscured by a global strategic and ideological calculus. The coincidence of the Cold War and decolonization meant that the superpowers repeatedly misread the distinct imperatives of diverse nationalisms through the lens of their anxieties about each other.

Finally, the story of Kashmir is the centerpiece of the relationship between India and Pakistan. Since their simultaneous coming into being in 1947, the two nations have fought two major wars in Kashmir, armed themselves with destructive and expensive weaponry, and more recently added to their arsenals the symbolic and imitative imprimatur of a vapid prowess—nuclear weapons. The conflict originally was over land, the presumed allegiance of the people, a nervous and indecisive Maharaja who claimed both, and the two new countries’ fragile sense of their own nationhood entangled with the history and ethnic and religious particularities of Kashmir. Like many other foundational narratives, the passage of time has buried many of the original grievances under a variety of new developments; they now live on only as rhetorical, though tenacious, pretenses.

Perhaps even more tragically, by the persistence of their real and imagined hostilities both countries have primed and conditioned their militaries, governments, and people to accept war and its attendant Manichean mindset as a constitutive feature of everyday life and politics. Successive governments have used the mantra of a nation under threat to distort norms of governance, violate civil and human rights, entrench and justify a culture of military extravagance, and cast aspersions on the loyalty of dissenting opinions and groups.

Whatever the dispute in Kashmir may have been to the relationship between India and Pakistan in 1947, today Kashmir is much more an effect rather than the cause of their fraught and tense interactions. The familiar claim made in both countries, though especially in Pakistan, that only the resolution of the dispute in Kashmir can normalize their relationship, obscures with an intransigent past the possibilities for reconfiguring the present. A symmetrical argument is frequently made in India: to show “weakness” on Kashmir is to subject the prized achievements of independence—democracy, secularism and national unity—to the contagion of social and political chaos. For both sides, the stand-off precludes a kind of flexibility that might allow each to take steps towards the full promise of independence.

What is clear today, however, is that so long as the dispute in Kashmir is allowed to be the fulcrum for the bilateral relationship between these two countries, it will always confine India and Pakistan to the narrow and tired ambit of ritualized recriminations and exaggerated claims of threats to national identity and existence. In the subcontinent as elsewhere the hyperbole of protest is often the surest sign of an uneasy comfort with the status quo. 


To understand the current standoff over Kashmir, one must retrace the story of India and Pakistan’s emergence as nations. For sixty-odd years before 1947 the struggle against British rule in the subcontinent had been largely organized around the banner of Indian independence. Its successful culmination, however, brought forth twins: independence and the partition of the country. The former had had a gestation period of decades; the latter had been publicly adumbrated only in the early 1940s and concretely imagined and effected in the three months preceding the actual transfer of power. Even without partition the first challenge of an independent India would have been to complete the unfinished task of stitching together six hundred-odd princely kingdoms. These were the assortment of Maharajas, Nawabs and other princelings that gave an exotic hue to the British Empire. The British had governed this vast and diverse array of “native states” through an admixture of force, awe, and fine distinctions. Some were wholly and directly under British rule, others were nominally independent puppets kept in check with coercion and flattery, and still others were allowed a measure of real power in the administrations of their states. With most of these “native states” the British had formal treaties that specified the terms and nature of their power and that directly established a feudatory link with the Crown of England.

“India” didn’t exist in this imperial relationship with the native rulers. With independence it would have to be introduced, its hitherto civilizational associations forged into national ones supervened by democratic institutions. For the nationalists, whose main organ was the Indian National Congress, this meant preventing the lapse of British “paramountcy” from resulting in native princes exercising sovereignty in their states. The problem was not a merely legal or technical one; it involved nothing less than the prospective political and social identity of India. It was underwritten by the questions that haunt all postcolonial societies: What would their relationship be to their past? Which part of their past would they mold? And which would they attempt to excise through constitutional fiat?

In the journal Foreign Affairs, commenting in 1938 on an early constitutional proposal (the 1935 Government of India Act), the future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote:

The worst part of the Constitution is the proposed federal structure, for it makes the Indian States permanent and, in addition, gives them some power to interfere in the affairs of the rest of India. The whole conception of a union of imperialism, feudalism, and democracy is incapable of realization and can only mean the entrenchment of all the reactionary elements. . . .

Every constitutional proposal for an independent India from the Nehru Report in 1928 onward was crucially preoccupied with this issue of the status of the native states.

Although the Congress Party imagined a kind of Jeffersonian democracy that would sustain diversity and national unity though a commitment to certain broadly liberal principles, the British attitude had often been equivocal. By the early twentieth century they had institutionalized the religious differences of Indian society by accepting the principle of communal representation, thus allowing for separate electorates based on religious grounds. Following the Government of India Act of 1935, which represented one of the important efforts at transferring limited power to Indians, provincial elections were held in 1937 based on the notion of a communal representation.

The Muslim League, which had become the main organ of Muslim political identity, fared poorly in the elections of 1937. Despite pockets of concentration in some areas, Muslims were geographically dispersed throughout India. This fact diluted their electoral potential. Moreover, the Congress Party was the principal organization around which both anti-imperial sentiments and nationalist hopes coalesced, and as such they had significant standing even among the Muslims. In a move that must in retrospect be seen as a watershed mistake, the victorious Congress refused to share power with the League (for example, it could have offered the League some positions in the cabinet) and include it as a coalition partner. Sir Penderel Moon, former British civil servant in India, rightly commented that “The Congress passionately desired to preserve the unity of India; they consistently acted to make its partition certain.”1

The provincial elections in 1937 instantly exposed the potential limitations of a system of individual rights and elected representatives in the protection of religions minorities. They explicitly led the League to champion what came to be known as the “two nations theory.” The basic thought was that there were two nations in India: one Muslim, of which the League was the rightful representative; the other, Hindu, of which the Congress was representative. Conceptually and, as it turned out, chronologically, it was a short distance from this thought to the idea that India had to be partitioned for its main religious minority to feel secure. In March 1940 the Muslim League formally announced the demand for an “Independent State.”

The League had clearly understood that even a system of rights and elected representatives might well result in the semipermanent exclusion of Muslim interests and opinions. And its subsequent actions give expression to the general phenomenon that, in its initial stages at least, individual freedom often makes us conscious of the groups to which we belong and, paradoxically, in which we find our individuality secured. Something of this is at play in the history of Hindu and Muslim relations in modern India. The political consolidation of group identities, especially religious identities, roughly tracks the granting of individual rights.

In the demand for an independent state, Muhammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League wagered that Pakistan’s future nationhood could in fact be built on a narrow religious foundation and, once secured, could somehow be opened up to the heterogeneous populations it would have to incorporate. After all, in no viable plan would the future Pakistan not have its own religious, ethnic, and regional fissures to mend. Jinnah saw no tension inplacing a secular democratic state on the foundation of a Muslim nation. As he said in 1947:

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan . . . and you will find in the course of time that Hindus shall cease to be Hindus and Muslims shall cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.2

The passage of time has clearly not vindicated what was expected of it. All too often over the course of its history Pakistan has found that to hold on to its religious nationhood as well as its diversity requires the emollient of authoritarianism.

The Muslim League had called for “direct action” on 16 August to achieve the goal of Pakistan. It was the day on which, Jinnah later recalled, “we bid good-bye to constitutional methods.” The violence that ensued in Calcutta on that day left an estimated five thousand dead, fifteen thousand injured, and well over one hundred thousand homeless. Soon after, murderous riots erupted in East Bengal before the arrival of Gandhi somewhat quelled the situation. The two-nation theory seemed to be vindicated in the mayhem of everyday life.

By the spring of 1947 partition seemed inevitable. The Labour government in Britain, still reeling from the effects of world war, was in a hurry to streamline its responsibilities. Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, sent to India to transfer power and consider alternatives to partition, was also in a hurry. Instead of negotiating for the ten months that his brief permitted, he announced the date for the transfer of power and for partition a mere two months after his arrival on the scene. Relations between Hindus and Muslims were in the grip of escalating mob violence. Few if any constitutional and peaceful methods appeared to have a hold on the situation. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had been given the job of determining the precise boundaries of the two nations, had indicated that the provinces of Bengal and Punjab would be divided. On 3 June 1947 Mountbatten announced the decision to partition. Power would be transferred to the two dominions of India and Pakistan on the 14th and 15th of August.

After the decision to transfer power had been settled, British Prime Minister Clement Atlee’s Labour government, with an eye to the future stability of the Commonwealth and a sense of the direction of modern reality, was inclined toward the nationalist view put forward by the Congress Party that India had to be unified and the power of the native princes limited. The Conservative Party argued in opposition for the native rulers’ right to assert their independence and if desired retain their link with the British Crown. Meanwhile, Lord Mountbatten, along with leading members of the Congress Party, was busy lobbying the princes to accept the emerging two-nation dispensation. By the end of July the Instruments of Accession had been finalized between the princes and the government of India; each prince was given the formal choice of joining the Dominion of India or that of Pakistan, or remaining independent.

With the cartography of partition in place it was hoped that those princely states located within the areas designated for each of the two countries would choose to join the corresponding country. There were compelling realities for the princes to do so. Many of the states were too small or awkwardly located to survive as independent countries. None of them were sufficiently distinct from their adjacent neighbors to claim a national identity. None had clear linguistic boundaries. The British Empire had integrated the economy to such a degree that separation would be either impossible or highly expensive in the short term. Finally, apart from the real patriotism of some princes, there was the fact of popular opinion: people had been molded by the nationalist struggle and most had a clear preference to be citizens of modern nation-states rather than subjects of princely overlords.

In spite of enormous complexities and occasional grievances the integration of the native states mapped into the emerging reality of partitioned India in all but three cases (Kashmir would be one of them). The smallest of the dissenting states was Junagadh in western India, a state with a Muslim ruler and an overwhelmingly Hindu population. After initially equivocating, the ruler finally expressed on 15 August 1947 a preference to join Pakistan. By November, following threats from India and clear discontent from the populace, he reversed his decision and the government of India took over the administration of the state. A referendum at the end of February 1948 ratified this change with an almost unanimous majority.

Pakistan of course strongly protested the reversal and would claim an analogy with what was to happen in Kashmir. However, Pakistan’s grievance was superficial and defiant of important geographical realities in this case: Junagadh was relatively small; it was all but completely surrounded by India; and there was no question that the people wished to be part of India. None of this could be presumed in the case of Kashmir.

The second state that resisted accession was Hyderabad, in central India. The complicating factors were more acute than in Junagadh. Close to ninety percent of the population was Hindu and, as in Junagadh, the ruler (theNizam) was Muslim. But as the largest state in India it had a substantial economy. During the later stages of British rule it had exercised considerable administrative independence. Now, in August 1947, the Nizam expressed a desire for Hyderabad to be an independent country, acceding to neither India nor Pakistan. The story of Hyderabad’s ultimate incorporation into India is a complex one. It includes the Nizam’s sense of his own and his state’s grandeur, the rising threat of Muslim vigilantes in the state, the pro-Indian sentiments of the Hindu populace, the Indian state’s commitment to national unity and its unwillingness to have its geographical unity broken. With an increasingly precarious situation on the ground and a simmering awareness of the improbability of Hyderabad’s future as a state, the government of India took police action in September 1948. In a matter of a few days the opposition to the government collapsed and Hyderabad joined the Union of India.

The resolutions of the incipient subnational tensions in both Junagadh and Hyderabad have been vindicated by the largely peaceful story that followed their incorporation into India. This would not be the case in Kashmir after its Maharaja elected to be independent in August 1947.

For some years before partition the League had encouraged the native rulers to assert their independence in the hope that this would unsettle the integration of India. Once India’s unity was in the main secure, Kashmir became crucial for Pakistan and the Muslim League. In addition to Kashmir’s Muslim majority, Pakistan correctly claimed that its border with Kashmir was longer than its border with India, that most of the important roads from Kashmir led to Pakistan, and that most of Kashmir’s trade was carried out through Pakistan and not India. Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan, stated as much to the Constituent Assembly:

Geographically, economically, culturally and religiously, Kashmir is a part of Pakistan. The overwhelming Muslim character of its population, its strategic position in relation to Pakistan, the flow of its rivers, the direction of its roads, the channels of its trade, the continual intimate association which binds it to the people of Pakistan from time immemorial, link Kashmir indissolubly with Pakistan.3

For the Indian leaders who had resisted the two-nation theory none of this carried the compulsion of geographical or political logic. India itself was large. Moreover, it was not merely diverse; it was deeply diverse. Communal attachments to some of the major languages, regions, and ethnic groups were fertile ground for alternative nationalisms. Similarly, caste identities, though they could not have sustained an alternative nationalist vision because of their dispersed existence, could nevertheless by their tenacious hold on people have significantly eviscerated national unity and the ideal of a republican political culture. To keep this deep diversity from permanently weakening national unity, the leaders believed India had to be a democratic secular republic. But this was a project, a hope, an ideal, one that had been widely disseminated through the course of the nationalist struggle; not a given.

In the late autumn of 1947 well-armed Pathan tribesmen invaded the valley of Kashmir. The Maharaja of Kashmir found the weakness of his claim to independence suddenly exposed by his inability to defend the state. The Indian government believed the invaders were backed by Pakistan. Pakistan claimed they were independent tribesmen spontaneously acting out of grievance at the way their kinfolk and Muslims in general were being treated in India. With the imminent prospect of his capital, Srinagar, being overwhelmed by the invaders, and the offer of Indian military support contingent on his acceding to India, the desperate Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession on 26 October 1947. While the Indian government demanded that he first accede to India, it was, in the words of prime minister Nehru,

prepared, when peace and law and order have been established, to have a referendum held under international auspices like the United Nations. We want it to be a fair and just reference to the people, and we shall accept their verdict. I can imagine no fairer and juster (sic) offer.4

This offer has remained unfulfilled in the subsequent fifty-five years. The fact that no referendum has been held is the single biggest moral and political infirmity in the Indian claim to Kashmir. The Indians have defended this infirmity by resorting to the political and constitutional technicality that the integration of the native states was governed by the Instrument of Accession and was not dependent on popular ratification. But with growing evidence to suggest that the central government in India might not have support in a popular vote the claim is simply technical.

On 27 October 1947, one day after Kashmir’s accession to India, Indian troops arrived in the valley just in time to save the airport. The invading tribesmen were rebuffed and turned back. During the course of the next year there was more conflict with the tribals and a referral made by India to the United Nations on 1 January 1948. By 1 January 1949, when a U.N.–supervised cease-fire came into effect, roughly a third of Kashmir was under Pakistan’s control. On that day a cease-fire line called the Line of Control (LoC) was established.

Despite minor changes following subsequent wars, that line has been the de facto boundary between the two countries since 1949. It has served alternatively as a flashpoint for tensions and a quiet demarcation between two countries, much like any other international boundary. As the former, it reminds us that the legacy of partition has not been the natural and coherent separation of two countries, or the “lesser of two evils,” but rather a botched amputation with horrifying and persisting phantom pains. As the latter, the line redirects attention from two irreconcilable theories of national identity—the Congress Party’s Jeffersonian conception and the League’s two-nation theory—to India and Pakistan’s profound commonalities of culture and history, and most importantly, their geographical contiguity and the abiding basis for functional cooperation. Either way, the LoC’s role has everything to do with motives and contexts beyond Kashmir itself. 


In Kashmir, partition and the two-nation theory on which it was based found its first test. If one judges theories by the way they guide the reality to which they pertain, one must conclude that the two-nation theory has been a miserable failure. The examples of Ireland, Palestine, and Cyprus suggest a similar conclusion. It is true that the separation, the subsequent union, and then re-separation of Norway from Sweden, the demarcation of Belgium from Holland, and the independence of Finland from Sweden, are all more positive examples. But in those cases religion and ethnicity were not the sole grounds for separation.

The effects of the partition of India and Pakistan were made more grave by the post–World War II context. Perhaps nothing hindered a possible resolution more than the fact that partition of the Indian subcontinent coincided with the Cold War. The most fateful decisions in both histories occur between February and September 1947, thus linking them from their very inception and transforming the agendas of the new nations.

The events that led to what must be the most rapid deterioration of relations between allies in the Second World War are well known. On 21 February 1947 the British government, following Yalta, the problems in Eastern Europe and Germany, and developments in Iran and Turkey, finally appealed to the U.S. State Department to take over the burden of fighting communist insurgents in Greece and Turkey. That was one day after the Atlee government had announced its decision to transfer power to “responsible hands” in India. On 12 March of that year President Truman proclaimed the doctrine that bears his name, committing the United States to the assistance of free institutions and governments against minority violence. A year earlier Churchill had delivered his Iron Curtain speech in Fulton. The combined effect of the two speeches was a commitment to containing communism and to bolster noncommunist regimes everywhere.

On 3 June 1947, two days before Secretary of State Marshall gave his Marshall Plan speech at Harvard, the Atlee government announced to the House of Commons that power would be transferred in India earlier than planned, not to one but rather to two Dominions—India and Pakistan. In September 1947 the Soviet theoretician Zhadnov answered the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan with the announcement of the formation of Cominform. The world, he claimed, was indeed facing a Manichean struggle between “imperialist and capitalist forces” on the one hand and the fraternity of “socialistic democratic and anti-imperialist” countries on the other. By early 1948 it was clear that in China the KMT would soon be defeated by the PLA, and the prospect of communist China turning toward the Soviet Union became real.

In 1954 Pakistan, along with Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, become a Western ally through the Baghdad Pact (later the Central Treaty Organization, CENTO) of which Britain and the United States were associate members. These mutual security arrangements between the U.S. and Pakistan eventually led the Soviet Union to endorse India’s claim on Kashmir. From 1947 to 1953 the USSR had been scrupulously neutral in the UN Security Council debates on Kashmir and largely indifferent to Indian nationalist aspirations. Only in 1957 did it exercise its first veto in favor of the Indian position. The United States, which until 1946 had consistently expressed support for India’s nationalist aspirations, now began to focus on Nehru’s Fabian socialism and assumed it signaled India’s voluntary accession into the Soviet camp.

The entanglement of the Cold War with the history of Indo-Pak relations is a story of mutual misperceptions. The United States did not anticipate that its security alliance with Pakistan would nudge India toward similar expectations from the USSR. Similarly, Pakistan did anticipate that such an alliance would make India more intransigent on the issue of a plebiscite in Kashmir. India in turn was naïvely surprised by the U.S. security arrangements with Pakistan. It assumed that the Americans would not arm a country against the largest functioning democracy in the world.

The misperceptions continued into the 1960s. Despite its alleged anticommunist commitments, Pakistan in 1962 had no special difficulty in forging a rapprochement with China. This led to the ceding to China of some territory within the inherited boundaries of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Along with India’s 1962 war with China, the deal precipitated the first major escalation of military expenditure in the subcontinent as whole. Not only did Pakistan not find its liaison with China awkward, the Americans were strangely undisturbed by it. Indeed, the United States was largely indifferent when at the height of the Vietnam War (1964–68) both China and the Soviet Union supplied military assistance to Pakistan. In 1965, however, Pakistan was unpleasantly surprised that despite its standing as a U.S. “ally” it was denied military support at the time of Indo-Pak conflict. Indeed, both India and Pakistan were taken aback to discover that both superpowers were working together in the Security Council to bring about a cease-fire.

Despite their own animosities the superpowers seldom were wholly partisan in their support of their alleged “clients.” They were not fully hypnotized by their own rhetoric of strict bipolarity. India and Pakistan took the rhetoric much more seriously. They did not countenance their own relative unimportance in America’s bipolar view of the world and did not understand that despite arms transfers and professions of loyalty both the Soviet Union and the United States were prepared to see a regional détente in South Asia. In 1965 and again following the Bangladesh conflict of 1971 both superpowers were supportive of the improved bilateral atmosphere that briefly characterized Indo-Pak relations in the late seventies and early eighties.

The coincidence of the Cold War with decolonization distorted the domestic agendas of new nations, making military prowess an increasingly important priority. Domestic institutional structures were pushed to accommodate a strong and unitary central government (and often of strong and authoritarian men and women); federalism became the minor key of democratic experimentation in new nations. The Cold War displaced onto the plain of ceremonial rhetoric what should have been the obvious regional orientation of these countries—a search for functional cooperation among geographically embraced neighbors. Instead, their primary impulse was to be players on a global field in which their significance and their interests were subject to the vagaries of a battle they could not control.

The consequences of the coincidence of the Cold War and decolonization throughout the world have been almost entirely detrimental, especially for poorer countries like India and Pakistan. Perhaps most importantly it resulted in ideas of national independence and sovereignty being tightly associated with power and the other preoccupations of the realist lexicon, such as national security, prestige, and influence. Sidelined was the Gandhian tradition that had understood independence and sovereignty in terms of autonomy and self-discipline, national security in terms of pacific restraints and the satisfaction of reasonable needs, and influence in terms of patience, moral example, and persuasion. Gandhi’s anti-imperialist vision had never rested on a defiant nationalism; as such, it at least held out the possibility of an alternative to its adversary in the moment of its triumph. It offered in thought, and in the largely nonviolent practice of India’s struggle for independence that Gandhi had guided, a vision of politics that rejected the stark distinction between friend and foe and the centralized state as the monitor of intra- and interstate violence. The coincidence of the Cold War and decolonization also added credence to the militarization of an emerging national consciousness and thus served as a precondition for the ultimate nuclearization of the subcontinent. It was an inducement to the weak to imitate those more powerful, under conditions in which such behavior could only result in the pathetic spectacle of false equality. This itself had a supremely ironic consequence: it in turn led the superpowers to repeatedly misread those who were resolutely trying to imitate them.

It is certainly possible that even a nationalism not burdened by this coincidence might have played itself out in these ways, but the temporal parallax with the Cold War significantly accelerated this trajectory and amplified its dimensions. Nor have the effects of this coincidence ceased following the end of the Cold War, not least because it created a mind-set whose impulses endure even in the absence of the original cause and context. For the foreseeable future in the West the reckoning of the Cold War will be told in terms of the eschatology of moral and political rectitude, strategic sagacity, and military and economic triumph. The selective amnesia that does not need to recall the distortions of domestic social priorities in the West itself, on account of nearly five decades of its triumphal self-enfeeblement, are perhaps part of the spoils of victory. But in countries like India and Pakistan the story of those years must be acknowledged as one of missed opportunities, of a betrayal of enlightened domestic and international principles and a protracted postponement on the promissory note that nationalism had issued to the British Empire and, more importantly, to the common mass of people.

These failures, like the leverage that Third World countries sought through their involvement in the Cold War, are evidence of how modern nationalism needs an outside foil to push against, of how the daunting task of nation-building requires an external object by which to direct its progress and justify its failure, and ultimately of how difficult it is to give credence to one’s own sovereignty and independence without leaning on the misplaced pride and vanity of reactive impulses.

*  *  *

For nations, as for individuals, claims about identity, though they typically take the form of assertions of historical fact, are at least as much indicators of the hopes they have for the future. The answer to the question of one’s identity—i.e., to the question “who are you?”—does not so much elicit a description of a matured and fully congealed self but rather involves placing a bet, as it were, on what one plans to become, and thus on the contexts and ways by which one expects to live and grow. Similarly, for nations claims about identity are deeply enmeshed with their prospective political and constitutional commitments and with the norms by which they hope to govern themselves. For nations (as for individuals) identities are never settled because they are constantly intertwined with the commitments that are being made as to how to deal with the future.

In challenging the “two-nations theory” and the priority it gave to religion as the grounds for national unity, the Congress Party and more generally the Indian state were not merely offering an alternative view regarding the historical grounds of Indian unity; much more importantly they were wagering on India’s ability to sustain a particular political future. It was a future in which a commitment to federal and liberal democratic institutions and norms would bind deep diversity. The framers of the constitution and the Indian political elite were in effect contending that a federal democracy, with structures for political representation at the national and state level along with certain basic constitutionally mandated rights, would supply the requisite social glue to counteract the subnational tendencies. They were wagering that given the democratic right to choose their own representatives and have a say in their political future individuals, religious minorities, and ethnic and linguistic groups would all want to be part of such a national association, in part precisely because it assured them the right to represent themselves and have a stake in it.

This was a daring and optimistic bet on what in the context was a largely new form of governance, coming to life and being tested under conditions that were hardly propitious. It was a wager in favor of democracy’s ability to both sustain diversity and supply integuments for national unity without having to be underwritten by sectarian or other forms of commonality.

Nowhere was this wager more freighted than in Kashmir, and nowhere has the Indian state’s commitment to internal democracy been shown to lack confidence in its own purported convictions. Perhaps the offer to hold a plebiscite should never been made, because it should have been clear that it would not be honored; governments after all are loath to facilitate or even risk the amputation of a territorial limb. And in any case, once the Maharaja of Kashmir had signed the Instrument of Accession the Indian case was at least legally consistent. The results of a plebiscite in Kashmir in the best of circumstances would have held the risk of embarrassment for India, and since 1989 they would have assured it. Under modern conditions democratic consent is no doubt the best way of garnering the opinions and support of those within an established boundary, but it is far from clear that it has the same efficacy in establishing those boundaries in the first place.

But even beyond the matter of the plebiscite the Indian state’s disregard and nervousness with respect to internal democracy in Kashmir has been woeful. Ever since its contested inclusion into India, on the grounds that such an inclusion could be sustained by democratic means, successive central governments from New Delhi have vitiated the possibility of democratic norms taking hold in Kashmir. Unlike most other parts of India, where elections for the state legislature began as early as 1952, none were held in Kashmir until 1962. Similarly, the first parliamentary elections in Kashmir were held in 1967, again a decade and a half after the rest of the country. It is commonly accepted that it was only in 1977 that Kashmir had its first fair and free elections for the state legislature, i.e., only after Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party lost power in the center. Prior to 1977 and since 1983 successive Indian governments routinely banned dissenting political parties; they often made transparently unscrupulous electoral alliances; they imprisoned popular leaders, including on various occasions the late Sheikh Abdullah—the most respected proponent of Kashmir’s identity and interests since the 1930s; they played the religion card to create dissension among rival communities; they rigged elections; they deployed constitutional caveats to dismiss duly elected governments and officials; and they demonized dissenters as being antinational.

Ironically, though not at all surprisingly, this litany of irregular practices has succeeded in creating a ground-level reality that appears to justify the two-nations theory. Today religion, ethnicity, separatists’ feelings, and violence have a much firmer hold on the politics of Kashmir than they did before. But the evidence strongly suggests that the cause for this state of affairs is not the failure of India’s democracy to bind diversity but the limiting and abuse of democratic options.

In imagining possible solutions to the problem in Kashmir it is crucial to recall the period from 1976 to 1979, when Indo-Pak relations were normalized almost entirely through bilateral diplomatic initiatives (1976), when surface and aviation links were reestablished, bilateral trade increased, military budgets decreased, and important negotiations regarding the Salal Dam were concluded. In effect it was a period when Kashmir was not the fulcrum on which Indo-Pak relations turned but rather one among many issues through which this complex bilateral relationship was conducted. In part for that very reason both sides respected the Line of Control during this period as if it were a legitimate international boundary. This was also a time when global and regional imperatives were substantially uncoupled, making room for bilateral initiatives and diplomacy. The superpowers, including China, were of course vigilant about the developments in the subcontinent and none would have countenanced either India or Pakistan slipping wholly into the orbit of a rival power. This did not happen. As it was, all three major powers welcomed the bilateral agreements that were reached between India and Pakistan in this period. There were no demands by the major powers for group or ideological fidelity. In this quiet sea change the superpowers along with India and Pakistan seemed to recognize that the problem in Kashmir could only be solved by reverting to the crucible of domestic politics and bilateral diplomacy.

This was also the period during which the Indian government had the confidence to allow democratic institutions within Kashmir to function without invidious interference from New Delhi. From 1977 to1983 there was a basic regularity of elections, respect for constitutional political freedoms, recognition that the religious and ethnic plurality of the region did not have to be politically manipulated for “reasons of state,” and an atmosphere in which dissenting opinions could be aired within the framework of everyday politics. It is precisely during these years that ethnic and separatist politics along with the politics of everyday violence receded and lost much of its hold. There was a marked reduction in the number of terrorist incidents and cross-border episodes. In brief, it was a period in which democratic institutions created political options.

Precipitated by 1987 state elections, commonly acknowledged as rigged, the escalation of violence and insurgency in Kashmir today dates from 1989. By the late eighties the atmosphere in the state was replete with the abuse of democratic norms and frustrated of economic hopes. In 1989 significant numbers of Muslim youth in Kashmir began to seek arms for the first time from Pakistan. They were given succor by the Pakistani intelligence establishment and by Jehadi veterans exhilarated by their victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan. The “liberation” of Kashmir became the new target for the Jehadis. During this period there was an increased stridency in separatists’ demands and an internationalization of the internal politics of Kashmir. For example, in the most recent Indo-Pak war in the summer of 1999 and in various recent “terrorist” incidents the combatants and perpetrators have often turned out to be Jehadis from Afghanistan, East Africa, and West Africa. It is estimated that since 1989 there have been over thirty thousand casualties in the conflict in Kashmir.5

Kashmir over the last sixty-odd years has been the ground on which many abstract visions of life and politics have sought to prove themselves. In their failure to achieve their purported goals and vanquish their rivals, the protagonists of these visions have further sought to cover their failures on the same ground; in the process Kashmir has been doubly scarred. For the Muslim League and later for successive governments in Pakistan, Kashmir was and is the excuse for a failed state undergirded by a flawed conception of religious unity and sectarian nationalism. The state in Pakistan has been unable to deliver on the basic economic and political expectations of its citizenry. Over the course of its history it has attempted to obscure that failure in many ways. Inflaming the problem in Kashmir has been the most sustained of these distractions.

For India, Kashmir is the mirror in which the awkward tensions of its own identity and political will become evident. India has neither been true to the promise of plebiscite nor consistent in the practice of internal democracy in Kashmir. Starting with Nehru, successive Indian governments assumed that a unified India, with Kashmir included, had its ultimate ratification in the democratic will of the people; national unity and democracy were presumed to pull in the same direction. But when faced with the prospect of a reality in which there was no such easy correspondence and in which the conditions for national unity and democracy were mutually strained the Indian state has been prepared to sacrifice the latter to secure the former.

Since 1989 separatist sentiments have been widespread in Kashmir. The sense of alienation from the central government in India is profound. Like most political sentiments these are in part the product of local and contextual provocations in which the Pakistani intelligence apparatus, “foreign” Jehadis, and India’s own disregard for local democratic norms have all played their parts. Whatever the causes, origins, and even the folly of these sentiments, it would now be foolish and wrong to deny them. It would be foolish because subnationalist movements, like nationalist ones, tend to be inspired by their enemies and even by their own failures; beyond a certain point the instruments that are deployed to police national unity are likely to provoke the opposite. It would be wrong because the expressed sentiments of a people must (again, beyond a certain point) be taken as their real and considered sentiments. Otherwise we are back in that world of false consciousness and imperial paternalism. Critics of separatist expression in Kashmir argue that such sentiment, if realized, could only lead to detrimental outcomes—a politically and economically unviable country or a situation in which the remaining Muslims in India would become a suspect minority. These may in fact come to pass. But despite the good intentions of critics of subnationalisms, any state that long denies those sentiments will likely be unstable and illegitimate.

In Kashmir as elsewhere in the region hope resides in emphasizing the importance of process over outcomes. For the Bush administration this precept minimally translates into self-consciousness and restraint as it embraces a military dictatorship in Pakistan as its newfound friend and satrap in the global war on terrorism. For General Musharaff in Pakistan it means that his recent standing in Bush’s vision of the world is not a credible substitute for institutionalizing and accepting the verdict of democratic norms. As the most recent elections in Pakistan have made clear, much to the embarrassment of the General, public opinion in his country is more than just uncomfortable with Pakistan’s being made a foot soldier in the United States’ most recent bellicose obsession.

For India, emphasizing process over outcomes means being prepared to live with the consequences inherent in the two constitutive conceptions of its identity, one democratic and the other historical. One such consequence is that India must be prepared to give up its historical claim to Kashmir so as to more fully live up to the claim of being democratic. Perhaps things will not come to that pass. The most recent state elections in Kashmir last October brought to power a party that accepts Kashmir’s standing as a part of India. Perhaps it is still possible to knit Kashmir into the fabric of India by democratic means. But should that turn out not to be the case, India should resolve the tension inherent in its birth by recommitting itself to its democratic identity.


1. Penderel Moon, Divide and Quit (University of California Press, 1961), 34.

2. M. A. Jinnah, Speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, 11 August 1947, quoted in Ian Talbot, Inventing the Nation: India and Pakistan(London: Arnold, 2000), 196.

3. Speech by Liaquat Ali Khan, Constituent Assembly (L), 19 January 1950. See Kashmir and Inter-Dominion Relations: Statement by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan (Publications Department, Government of Pakistan), 17.

4. Jawaharlal Nehru, Jammu and Kashmir: White Paper (New Delhi: Ministry of External Affairs Publications, 1948), 60.

5. Sten Widmalm, Kashmir in Comparative Perspective: Democracy and Violent Separatism in India (London: Curzon, 2002), 131.