Territorial Disputes: Kashmir

By: Lauren Webb

Pakistan and India fought their first war the same year they achieved independence from British rule. Ever since, relations have been sensitive in the best of times and resulted in war in the worst of times. The first war evolved from the disputed territory of Kashmir, which remains the longest-running unresolved border dispute under the United Nations’ supervision. As two of the world’s nuclear powers and neighbors near one of the world’s most unstable and war-torn regions, India and Pakistan’s relations have geopolitical implications for the rest of the world—even those across the Atlantic.

Image from BBC news

The disputed territory is divided into areas of Indian and Pakistani administration by the Line of Control. Pakistan’s smaller and less populous territory of roughly 6.3 million people[i] includes the autonomous territories of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad (“Free”) Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian side consists of the states of Jammu and Kashmir (roughly 10.1 million people)[ii] and Ladakh. India also continues to claim the Chinese-administered region, Aksai Chin, which Pakistan ceded to China.


Like an unfortunate number of disputed territories, the Kashmir dispute has its origins in India and Pakistan’s transition from an imperial power’s colony to independent states. From the 1850’s until 1947, Britain administered British India—a region which by the end of World War II included what is now Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Burma. During India’s independence movement, a movement developed for a separate Muslim state, to protect against any potential oppression by a Hindu-dominated government. Early movements called for a separate Muslim state within India, but by 1945, the Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali-Jinnah, demanded a separate state. The last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, agreed to Partition.

When the Partition was negotiated in 1946, some 40% of the subcontinent consisted of 565 princely states, administered by Indian rulers with allegiance to the British Empire. These states were given the option of joining either Pakistan or India. Interestingly enough, this made what is now Bangladesh an eastern portion of Pakistan—separated by 1,000 to 1,200 miles of India—until they seceded in 1971. Hari Singh, the Hindu leader of the Muslim-majority princely state of Kashmir, sought independence. After Muslim riots began in his state, however, Prime Minister Nehru agreed to send troops under the condition that Singh acceded to India. Pakistan sent troops in reaction to what they considered coercion by India, starting the First War of Kashmir. This war ended in January 1, 1949 with an UN-mediated cease-fire, but no final agreement as to the division of Kashmir. Despite another war over Kashmir in 1965, the Simla Agreement formalized the 1949 cease-fire line as the Line of Control. The Line of Control remains in place today.

However, this has not stopped conflict between India and Pakistan, nor conflict over the Line of Control. Although the 1971 war was about Bangladesh, not Kashmir, clashes reignited on the Siachen Glacier in 1999, shortly after India’s second and Pakistan’s first nuclear test launches. Even as the rate of conflict along the Line of Control has decreased, both countries have maintained a military presence in the otherwise uninhabited Siachen. In April 2012, over 100 Pakistani soldiers were buried when an avalanche hit a Pakistani military camp.

Kashmir has been fraught with alleged human rights abuses and insurgencies. Human Rights Watch has criticized the Indian government for Armed Forces Special Powers Act and called for an official inquiry into nearly 3,000 bodies found in unmarked graves in Jammu and Kashmir.[iii] Human Rights Watch has also released reports criticizing the Pakistani government in Azad Kashmir for repression of the press and “routine torture.”[iv] The U.S. State Department lists Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat ul-Mujahideen, and Jaish-e-Mohammad as three terrorist groups active in Kashmir.[v] Instability and human rights abuses in Kashmir breeds support for these groups and makes effective government response more difficult.

The future: An irrelevant border?

In 2007, there was a glimmer of hope in improving the Kashmir situation. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then-President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf, who had been in peace talks since 2004, emphasized the idea of “soft borders.” The de jure territorial division would not be altered, but movement and trade between the border would be “softened progressively until, for the Kashmiris, it disappears altogether.” [vi] This peace process, however, was derailed by the tragedy of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and was only renewed in 2011.

The official Indian policy is to consider the Line of Control the official border. The official Pakistani policy refuses accept the Line of Control as an international border. Neither is likely to budge from this position. The majority of Kashmiris would like independence from both countries. But this solution is a “non-starter”—neither Pakistan nor India would agree to this, due to strategic, existential, and economic interests in the region. But gradually making the border more fluid would certainly benefit those living near the Line of Control, separated families, the business community, and, over time, relations between Pakistan and India.

However, both countries must be careful to include Kashmiris in the process. They have been the biggest losers in this dispute, having lost their ability to enjoy the peace and prosperity previously afforded to them and gained nothing—not even the ability to choose a side. Most Kashmiris call for independence, but working with them to improve the situation could help reduce protests, which resulted in 110 civilian deaths in Jammu and Kashmir in just five months of 2010. [vii] Inevitably, China, with its claims in the region, will also need to play a role in negotiations.

Despite the challenges, the time seems ripe for renewed progress on the Kashmir dispute. President Asif Ali Zardari’s April visit to New Delhi indicated warming relations. In July, Indian Foreign Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna praised what he called Pakistan’s “new mindset” towards relations with India. [viii] Both nations are working to increase trade and eased visa restrictions in September of this year. Previously, Pakistani businessmen could only visit specific cities in India and were required to check-in at police stations every night.[ix] Pakistan’s internal politics are even promising, as the role of the military in Pakistani foreign relations seems to be decreasing.[x]

Although the problems of the Pakistan-Indian relationship have expanded from Kashmir over the past 65 years, it remains critical psychological component in their government’s perspectives. South Asian specialist Stephen P. Cohen may have put it best when he said, “It’s the sense that each country is the other country’s main enemy that has persisted over the years, and Kashmir is both the cause and the result of this attitude.”[xi] Ultimately, some resolution of Kashmir is vital to sustainable progress in their relationship. Both governments should use this opportunity to make significant progress in softening the borders for the good of the people and the region’s security, before another event has the opportunity to derail peace talks again.


[i] “Kashmir Profile,” BBC, November 3, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/?print=true.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Human Rights Watch, “India: Investigate Unmarked Graves in Jammu and Kashmir,” Human Rights Watch (New Delhi, August 24, 2011), http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/08/24/india-investigate-unmarked-graves-jammu-and-kashmir.

[iv] Human Rights Watch, “Pakistan: ‘Free Kashmir’ Far From”, September 22, 2006, http://www.hrw.org/news/2006/09/20/pakistan-free-kashmir-far-free.

[v] Jamal Afridi, Kashmir Militant Extremists, Backgrounder (Council on Foreign Relations, July 9, 2009), http://www.cfr.org/kashmir/kashmir-militant-extremists/p9135.

[vi] Daniel Markey et al., “Solving the Kashmir Conundrum,” interview by Jayshree Bajoria, October 15, 2010, http://www.cfr.org/publication/by_type/expert_roundups.html.

[vii] Daniel Markey et al., “How the Kashmir Dispute Affects Security in South Asia,” interview by Jayshree Bajoria, July 14, 2009, http://www.cfr.org/terrorism/kashmir-dispute-affects-security-south-asia/p19805.

[viii] “Q&A: Kashmir Dispute,” BBC, August 7, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news.

[ix] Aisha Chowdhry, “Pakistan and India Agree to Ease Visa Restrictions,” Reuters (Islamabad, September 8, 2012), http://www.reuters.com/places/pakistan.

[x] Michael Georgy and John Chalmers, “Pakistan Military’s Grip on Foreign Policy Easing,” Reuters (Islamabad, April 26, 2012) Includes excerpts from an interview with Pakistan’s first female Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar.

[xi] Stephen P. Cohen, P.R. Chari, and Hasan-Askari Rizvi, “The Kashmir Dispute: Making Borders Irrelevant” (The Brookings Institute: Washington, D.C., June 4, 2008).

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