A patina of fiction guides India's policy in Kashmir

By continuously advancing myths about geography and re-writing history, India portrays Kashmiri demands for justice as a grave threat to India's integrity as a nation-state.

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Since January 2009, the weekly news magazine The Economist has been banned or censored in India 31 times, more than any other country. The main reason for censorship is the publication of a map of Kashmir that does not comply with the Indian version. As a result, Indian authorities stamp "Illegal" across it. The twist is that the "illegal" map is in fact an accurate depiction of Jammu and Kashmir, with due appreciation of Pakistani and Chinese-controlled territories.

A cursory look at the map of India shows Kashmir sitting atop a vast land mass. Despite being the site of decades of misery and violence, Kashmir enjoys pride of place. Secular Indian politicians and Hindu fundamentalists alike describe it as the taj, or crown, of India. Amid that triumphalism, the sufferings of Kashmiris are drowned out. When Kashmiris rebel, and the brutal state response results in innocent blood spilt, the world takes momentary notice. On such occasions, India almost always blames Kashmiri dissent on Pakistan, Islam or terrorism. For some time now, the militant group Lashkar-i-Taiba has provided a convenient straw man. Indian authorities have blamed it for orchestrating stone throwing by Kashmiri youths who are actually protesting murders by the Indian forces.

The Indian version of the map named "Jammu and Kashmir" is a cartographic illusion, a state cobbled together out of disparate cultural, ethnic and linguistic groups. The British sold it to a local Hindu chieftain who had aided them against the Sikhs. Gulab Singh, the "buyer" of the kingdom, had little regard for its inhabitants, a majority of whom were Muslims. In 1947, the borders were redrawn according to the fantasy of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister and Kashmiri by descent. India and Pakistan took over, and an intractable dispute was born that has cursed the region ever since.

Long before, China had refused to accept the border arrangements between the British Empire, Afghanistan and Russia in the northern area of Kashmir. This position was maintained after the communist takeover in 1949 and led to the Sino-Indian war in 1962. This ended with the Chinese taking control of a large north-eastern portion known as Aksai Chin. At present, Kashmir is divided between India, Pakistan and China - India controls the majority of the territory in the central and southern areas totalling 141,338 square kilometres. Pakistan's northwest portion, known as Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, covers 85,846 square kilometres. The area under Chinese control consists of 37,555 square kilometres of mainly deserted territory, but with precious water resources thanks to its proximity to the Karakoram mountain range.

India's "legal" map, found everywhere from government stationery to administrative reports and postal stamps to surveys, is based on an elaborate hoax, in which the whole of Kashmir belongs to India. The map is taught in schools, often with a fundamentalist religious zeal, creating generations of ignorant, and often militant, Indians who are unwilling to entertain any view other than the official line. This has frozen India's political process.

As a Kashmiri born under Indian occupation, I was taught the same "Indian geography". It was much later that I realised this geographical delusion represents an elaborate denial of history - the unfulfilled Indian promises of holding a plebiscite to allow Kashmiris to determine their own future. The relic of the colonial map has stolen the democratic rights of Kashmiris. Whenever Kashmiris seek self-determination, India ruthlessly clamps down on them. By continuously advancing myths about geography and re-writing history, India portrays Kashmiri demands for justice as a grave threat, not only to India's integrity as a nation-state, but also against the Bharat Mata, the Hindu concept of India as a sacred religious space.

Another long-running theme is references to "Pakistan-occupied Kashmir". In early 1994, at the height of the Kashmiri resistance, the Indian parliament unanimously passed a special resolution reiterating that the whole of Jammu and Kashmir belonged to India. The resolution also demanded: "Pakistan must vacate the areas of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, which they have occupied through aggression."

Just last week, the Pakistani government, under pressure after recent deaths during Kashmir protests, called on India to "review the practice of describing Jammu and Kashmir as its integral part". The Indian reaction was unequivocal. SM Krishna, the external affairs minister, responded that Pakistan is in "illegal occupation of some parts of Jammu and Kashmir... It is desirable that they vacate that [the Pakistani part] and then start advising India as to how to go about doing things in Kashmir."

India often talks about "Pakistani-occupied Kashmir" but never mentions Aksai Chin, the area under Chinese control since 1962. There was no mention of China in the 1994 special resolution. In fact, such demands are never made to the Chinese. Kashmiris see this as a duplicitous position that avoids facing China but seeks confrontation with Pakistan, which has significantly less military power. This self-delusional fiction about Kashmir's origins and the heavy military presence mean that there is no end in sight for the Kashmir conflict. The ongoing Kashmiri protests have so far claimed more than 100 civilian lives, with thousands injured, mostly by the guns of the Indian armed forces.

In a region that includes three nuclear powers and nearly half the world's population, where both Hindu and Muslim extremism is on the rise, such obduracy threatens calamity. To exorcise the ghosts of the region, India must undo its own fable that has compromised its conscience and morality. An honest lesson in geography could be just the start.

Murtaza Shibli is the editor of recently published book on the London bombings 7/7: Muslim Perspectives and the secretary general of the World Kashmir Diaspora Alliance.