Ian Ellis: Urgent dialogue is needed to resolve Kashmir crisis

Indias Governor-General, Lord Mountbatten, accepted Kashmirs accession to India but said its accession should ultimately be settled by the peopleIndias Governor-General, Lord Mountbatten, accepted Kashmirs accession to India but said its accession should ultimately be settled by the people
Indias Governor-General, Lord Mountbatten, accepted Kashmirs accession to India but said its accession should ultimately be settled by the people
Kashmir lies in the Himalayas between the frontiers of India, Pakistan and China, each of which is a nuclear power and controls its own section of the territory.

While the population of the Indian controlled sector is a mixture of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, but majority Muslim, the population of the Pakistani sector is perhaps as much as 99 per cent Muslim.

There have long been tensions, with serious violence breaking out at times, and since 1989 there has been an ongoing uprising in Indian controlled Kashmir, technically known as Jammu and Kashmir, against Indian authority.

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Kashmir initially became an independent state when British rule on the Indian subcontinent ended in 1947, alongside the creation of the two separate nations, India and Pakistan, respectively approximately 15 per cent and 95 per cent Muslim.

Canon Ian M Ellis, who is a former editor of The Church of Ireland GazetteCanon Ian M Ellis, who is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette
Canon Ian M Ellis, who is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

However, the independence of Kashmir ended very shortly afterwards when the Hindu ruler of the overall Muslim-majority region acceded to India following aggression from Pakistani tribal militants.

Help in the face of the aggression was granted from India by its then governor-general, Mountbatten, on the condition of accession, according to academic Burton Stein in his ‘History of India’.

However, Mountbatten’s letter of acceptance of Kashmir’s accession to India made it clear that “as soon as law and order have been restored in Kashmir and her soil cleared of the invader the question of the state’s accession should be settled by a reference to the people”.

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Stein records that the UN insisted that the opinion of Kashmiris regarding the future of the territory had to be ascertained, “while India insisted that no referendum could occur until all of the state had been cleared of irregulars”.

It was not to be so simple.

The resulting Indo-Pakistan war of 1947-48 in turn led to the UN brokering a ceasefire and the creation of a separating 460-mile Line of Control between Kashmir’s Indian and Pakistani controlled parts.

Successive violent conflicts broke out again in the region in 1965, 1971 and 1999. Unrest has continued and in the Muslim-majority area of Indian controlled Kashmir there is an active separatist movement.

Pakistan objects to Indian electric double fencing and other security measures along the Line of Control, including landmines in the space between the fences.

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An EU Parliament briefing paper has indicated that a 2018 UN human rights report on Kashmir called for the establishing of “a commission of inquiry into the multiple violations committed on both sides of the LoC [Line of Control]”.

February this year saw a serious escalation of the ongoing dispute, with a suicide bomber killing at least thirty-seven Indian troops in Kashmir.

CNN’s New Delhi bureau chief, Nikhil Kumar, reported that after the February attack India claimed that Pakistan had supported terror groups behind it, but he also indicated that Pakistan denied this.

Last month, however, Mr Kumar reported that India had deployed tens of thousands of troops to Indian controlled Kashmir, placed local political leaders under house arrest and removed Indian controlled Kashmir’s special status under the Indian constitution’s Article 370 which accorded it considerable autonomy, including the right to make its own laws.

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The area reportedly went into “lockdown” with communications disrupted.

The Supreme Court of India is considering the legality of the country’s action in removing Kashmir’s special status under the Indian constitution.

A disturbing Reuters September 6 report indicated that Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, had said that his country would “make the fullest possible response to India’s actions in disputed Kashmir and [that] the global community would be responsible for any ‘catastrophic’ aftermath”.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby visited India during the first half of this month and took the opportunity not only to issue an apology for the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians by British forces at Amritsar in 1919, even prostrating himself in sorrow at the memorial site, but also to stress the importance of the Indian constitution’s Article 25 which guarantees religious freedom.

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However, Bishop Probal Kanto Dutta of the Church of North India, with which the Church of Ireland is in communion, was earlier quoted by Reuters as saying that the landslide win last May of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party party (BJP) suggested that voters had chosen the “polarisation of faith”.

Muslims in India have widely reported grounds to fear for their future in an environment that appears increasingly hostile to them, and to be concerned for their protection under the country’s constitution.

The New Delhi-based Economic Times reported earlier this year that India had taken “strong exception” to the finding in a US State Department report on religious freedom that although India’s constitution guaranteed the right to religious freedom, “this history of religious freedom has come under attack in recent years with the growth of exclusionary extremist narratives”.

These are testing times both within India and in Indo-Pakistan relations. It is to be hoped that India’s Article 25 will be protected and that, in line with a recent call by the European Parliament, India and Pakistan will resolve the current crisis over Kashmir through a process of urgent, direct dialogue.

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It is expected that Indian and Pakistani prime ministers Narendra Modi and Imran Khan will address the UN General Assembly today (Friday, September 27) in New York.

Given the serious tensions between the two nuclear armed nations over Kashmir, their speeches are much anticipated.

• Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette.