LOUIS JOXE, THE French statesman who signed the peace agreement ending Algeria’s bloody war of independence, later reflected that it was the magnificence of the country’s landscape that intoxicated France. “It went to our heads,” he said. Kashmir has a similar effect. Juxtaposed with the torrid flatness of the vast north Indian plain, its cool green highlands exert a magical pull. “We are twisted and coated in this beastly beauty,” laments Aijaz Hussain, a grizzled journalist in Srinagar. “In a way it holds us hostage.”
History has not been kind to Kashmir. In 1846, after the British had defeated the Sikh empire that then ruled the Indian north, a vast chunk of it was sold to the Dogra family for 7.5m rupees. So was born the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. One of the many odd satrapies under the British Raj, its rulers were Hindu but their subjects mostly Muslim, particularly in the Vale of Kashmir. This was the jewel in the turban: a rich, well-watered upland plateau the size of a large English county whose people spoke their own language, Koshur.
At partition a century later, both new countries staked a claim to the state. Its maharaja dithered, toying with independence. Pakistan pre-empted him by sending armed “volunteers” to foment an uprising, for surely his Muslim subjects longed to join their new motherland. In lowland Jammu some Muslim-majority areas joined Pakistan, and tens of thousands of Muslims fled there. But the Vale did not rise up, even when the maharaja signed away his inheritance, inviting India to oust the invaders.
The brief war that followed left Pakistan with a slice of Jammu and a sliver of Kashmir, along with Gilgit-Baltistan, a vast tract of spectacular mountains. India kept the mostly Hindu rest of Jammu, the Vale itself and the desert-like fastness of Ladakh. The UN suggested they both pull back their troops and hold a plebiscite. When Pakistan balked at withdrawing, India used this as an excuse to avoid a vote. And so things have stood, uncomfortably and with intermittent violence, until now.
While India and Pakistan spar, it is the Kashmiris who suffer. Some more than others: Jammu and Ladakh are loyally Indian, and in truth the Kashmiris of Pakistan have few links left with their cousins across the border. The trouble lies with the 7m inhabitants of the Vale, who have chafed at India’s mix of democratic carrot and military stick. “They treat us like a servant in a Brahmin kitchen, who has to be scolded twice a day to be kept in line,” says Mr Hussain.
Yet Pakistan is no better. Repeating their folly and expecting a different outcome, the generals have kept sending waves of armed “volunteers”. India, forced to maintain a huge garrison on permanent alert, hunts the intruders as terrorists, trampling on ordinary Kashmiris as it does so.
Public opinion on both sides remains in a state of agitation. Pakistanis see the Vale as a stolen inheritance, and pity the poor Kashmiris who, in fact, enjoy greater freedoms than they do. India—particularly now under the Hindu-nationalist BJP—resents its beautiful “crown” being inhabited by traitors and ingrates, as it sees them. Since the mid-1980s political turmoil has killed at least 44,000 in the Vale, and sadly forced the flight of its ancient 150,000-strong Hindu minority. The violence peaked in the early 2000s, and eventually fell to a tenth of that level, but in a renewed bout since last year more than 400 people have died. “Whether by intent or de facto, there has repeatedly been collusion between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, mainly to deny a voice to the Kashmiris themselves,” says Siddiq Wahid, a Kashmiri historian. As for the Vale, the few credible polls suggest its people want neither India nor Pakistan but simply freedom, whatever that may mean.