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15 Aug, 2019 12:33

Colonial time bomb: How specter of British Empire still haunts Kashmir

Colonial time bomb: How specter of British Empire still haunts Kashmir

The dispute over the region of Kashmir has once again set India and Pakistan headlong on the path to conflict. Arguably the longest conflict of modern times between nuclear powers reflects the bitter legacy of British rule.

The dispute over Kashmir has been a searing wound for decades. It is one of the longest conflicts of modern times, which possibly predates even the Israeli-Palestinian one. After joining India more than half a century ago, the majority-Muslim region has been consistently contested by Pakistan and witnessed constant secession attempts accompanied by riots, terrorist attacks, and three wars.

While both countries bear responsibility for the decades-long dispute, there is another party whose guilt should not go unnoticed.

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Mistake or logical aftermath?

More than half a century ago, in 1947, the British Empire resolved to leave the Indian subcontinent, ending nearly a century of British governance in the region. The rapid British withdrawal left the two new countries – India and Pakistan – roughly divided into states, but one of them – Kashmir – soon laid the groundwork for a fierce dispute that would eventually spiral into the first Indo-Pakistani war.

From independence to the present moment, Kashmir has remained a major stumbling block in relations between the rival neighbors.

The partition of the British colony on the Hindustan subcontinent into two independent states has been a tragedy for hundreds of thousands of people. The massive migration accompanying the liberation from the colonial rule was marred by deadly surges of violence, which cost the lives of about a million people. Yet, in the turmoil of this hasty and erratic transition of power, the leader of Kashmir, the second largest princely state of British India, Maharaja Hari Singh, was ostensibly concerned, first and foremost, with preserving his own power.

The British withdrawal forced hundreds of local governors to decide whether they would accede to India or Pakistan, but Maharaja Hari Singh took no such decision at all, opting instead to remain unaligned – and independent – in the belief that neutrality would help him retain his throne.

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Yet Singh, a Hindu ruling over a state with a 77-percent Muslim majority, soon witnessed a violent guerilla war raging through his lands, with Muslim forces supported by neighboring Pakistan. It was only after Kashmir erupted into outright war that Singh approached India and agreed to sign the Instrument of Accession, effectively abdicating his power over the region.

But it wasn’t enough to stem the violence. The first Indo-Pakistani war broke out soon after Kashmir’s accession, in which the troops of the two states clashed on and over the disputed lands. The conflict ended with the establishment of a “line of control” – a de-facto border between India and Pakistan that exists to this day, but which neither side accepts as final. A UN-sponsored referendum that would have decided the fate of the former princely state was postponed indefinitely, as neither New Delhi nor Islamabad could agree on interpreting the procedure for –and the extent of– demilitarization.


Though the role of Hari Singh in the Kashmiri dispute should not be underestimated, the roots of this conflict go far beyond one man’s attempt to hold onto power. The seeds of the future crisis were sown a full century before it actually broke out.

Recipe for disaster

In 1846, 100 years before India and Pakistan came into existence and laid claim to Kashmir, the British crown defeated the Sikh Empire which ruled Kashmir at the time. As part of a largely punitive Lahore peace treaty, the colonialists demanded their conquered foes to pay an indemnity of 15 million rupees – a sum the Sikhs were simply unable to afford.

Eventually, the sides agreed that the Sikhs would cede some of their territories to the British, including Kashmir, yet the colonialists had no plans of directly ruling over the vast swaths of land they were unable to control. Instead, they sold the newly acquired lands, with all the people living there, to the ruler of the neighboring state of Jammu – Maharaja Gulab Singh – Hari’s great grandfather.

Gulab, who gained control over Kashmir in exchange for 7.5 million rupees, initially distinguished himself in service to the Sikh Empire, during which he did not hesitate to fight his own kin on its behalf. Later, however, he developed rather cordial relations with the British and eventually refused to support his former Sikh sovereigns in the Anglo-Sikh war.

Yet, the gift that Gulab received from the British Empire in exchange for his support was tainted. Recognized as the ruler of the state of Kashmir under British supremacy, he was put in charge of a territory of incredible ethnic and religious diversity, artificially cobbled together.

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Like many colonial possessions created by outside powers with little regard for the local sectarian landscape, Kashmir has become a ticking time bomb ready to explode. The princely state was comprised by a mosaic of diverse territories: in the east, Ladakh was inhabited by Tibetan Buddhists, in the south the former state of Jammu had a mixed population of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, while the heavily populated central Kashmir valley was inhabited largely by Muslims, with a small but influential Hindu minority.

“The Kashmir dispute is without a shade of doubt the leftover from the decolonization process,” Amalendu Misra, a senior lecturer at the Lancaster University told RT.

The British did not colonize the region of Kashmir fully and hence it became an issue in the post-independence period. The quasi-independent state of Kashmir during British Raj made it an uneasy partner in the division of the subcontinent and the aftermath.

Over the years that passed since decolonization, the two neighbors have fought two more wars over the contested territory while China also bit off a chunk of the disputed land as a result of its war with India in 1962, while London mostly kept aloof from the developments on the Hindustan subcontinent.

Now, half a century later, there is seemingly no way to resolve the decades-old dispute. Every change in the shaky status quo that does not sit well with either side runs the risk of opening old wounds and putting the two neighbors on the brink of war. The most recent decision by New Delhi to revoke the broad autonomy Kashmir enjoyed since acceding to India immediately provoked a dangerous escalation of tensions in the region. 

The British Empire is long gone and London has largely nothing to do with the Kashmiri conflict that has since become the sole domain of New Delhi and Islamabad. Yet, the issue that still haunts relations between the two nuclear powers potentially capable of annihilating their part of the world appears to be largely the troubled legacy of British colonialism.

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