IN HIS travel writing classic An Area of Darkness (1964) the British/Indian writer VS Naipaul visits Kashmir and depicts with wry humour the organised chaos of the annual “Amarnath yatra”, the Hindu pilgrimage to a shrine of ice in the shape of a large bell in a cave high up in the Kashmir Himalayas.
This year more than 10,000 Hindus per day are making the trip and the situation in the Indian state of “Jammu and Kashmir” has deteriorated to the point where 40,000 Indian troops are needed just to protect these travellers.
The journey is extreme and every year more than 100 people die from road accidents or exposure on the final trek by foot or pony. This year a bus, which had two punctures and lagged behind the security detail, was shot up by Islamic militants.
The dispute over who controls Kashmir goes back to before independence from Britain and the partition into India and Pakistan in 1947.
Maharaja Hari Singh, the ruler of the state at the time, preferred Kashmir to become independent and neutral between Pakistan and India, however, an Islamic uprising in West Kashmir induced the Maharaja to turn to India for protection and Kashmir was split between India and Pakistan.
There are now 19 million people living in the territory once governed by Hari Singh. The Kashmir valley itself is split by the “line of control” into Azad Kashmir (4.3 million) in Pakistan and Kashmir (6.9 million) on the Indian side.
Technically both areas qualify as millispheres but, combined as one, the millisphere of the Kashmir (11.2 million) would recognise a common sphere of interest — the people on both sides of the Kashmir valley are closely related and are over 97 per cent Muslim.
Jammu (5.3 million) — leaning toward Hindu and down on the Punjab plain — qualifies as a separate millisphere. Something like 300,000 Hindus have fled Kashmir in recent years and there are now 600,000 Indian army troops stationed in Jammu/Kashmir and they are not above using rape as a weapon and rigging state elections to control the Muslim majority. Ninety thousand Kashmir Muslims have been killed by Indian troops since 1990.
Most residents of Kashmir want independence (the figure is 95 per cent in the capital, Srinagar). During the 1965 India-Pakistan war, when 30,000 Pakistani infiltrators crossed the line of control, Kashmir didn’t revolt, instead turning in the intruders.
The current insurgency started around 1990 after the Taleban had defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and radicalised Sunni militants crossed into Kashmir looking for a new jihad.
Mosques are politico-religious organisations and some fell under the spell of puritanical Salafist Islam; these mosques have forced the closure of cinemas, bars and discotheques — and caused a dramatic drop in tourists visiting Kashmir.
Financed by donors in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, Wahhabi mosques started appearing in Kashmir but their adherents, attracted to a mosque with modern furniture and who are taught to believe that a non-conformist is eligible for murder, are only a small percentage of Muslims.
While Kashmir is fighting for independence, the Wahhabis are fighting for a global Islamic caliphate. The Pakistan supported Islamic LeT has been responsible for attacks in Kashmir and on the Indian Parliament in Delhi (2001) and in Mumbai (2003 and 2008).
The historic princedom of Jammu and Kashmir included at its margins Ladak to the east and Gilget-Baltistan to the west. Populated by Tibetans, Ladak rightly belongs in the millisphere of Tibet. Gilget-Baltistan, once part of the historic silk route following the Indus from China to the Arabian Sea, now forms part of China’s “One belt — One road” transport network.
During the 1962 Sino-India war, the Chinese gained control of Kashmir’s Akai-Chin, also on the Tibetan Plateau — with hundreds of soldiers dying from the extreme cold. Last week’s offer by China to mediate in the Kashmir dispute was met with a diplomatic cold shoulder from India.
Kashmir may aspire to be independent and unified but political and religious forces are colluding to keep it separated.
When Fred Frederikse is not building, he is a self-directed student of geography and traveller.