Why Britain should worry about Kashmir

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Kashmir is one of those decades-long conflicts which rarely makes it into the mainstream UK media;  until recently. In June this year 20 Indian soldiers died in fighting with Chinese soldiers, on the border between Indian-administered and Chinese-administered Kashmir.

So what is the nature of the conflict and why has it become much more dangerous this year ?

Central to the recent upsurge in violence, lies China-India relations. To understand, we must start with ‘British India’.

After Indian independence following WW2, Kashmir was divided into Pakistan administered and Indian administered territory, with two smaller areas controlled by China. Both the Pakistani and Indian administered sides are majority Muslim, except (Buddhist) Ladakh, on the Chinese border.

India and Pakistan have more than once gone to war over territory, and so have India and China.

When Indian administered Kashmir was established, the spectre of future Kashmiri independence was raised, and significant autonomy provided for in Article 370 of the Indian Constitutions, later also by Article 35A.

Among these provisions were restricted involvement of the Indian state (foreign policy, defence etc). Land ownership and receipt of public services like education and health were restricted to Kashmiris. Article 370, leading potentially to independence, was a factor in the measure of acceptance by Kashmiris of Indian administration early on.

However, in the late 1980s an insurgency by Muslim Kashmiris against Indian administration started, with various forms of support, overt and covert, from Pakistan. This rise in violence against Indian rule was largely a result of gradual erosion of autonomy and democracy;  and fading prospects of independence.

Over the decades Kashmir became a nationalist issue in Pakistan, but even more so in India, where political declarations that ‘all of Kashmir was India’ were prompted by the Hindu nationalist RSS party.

However, a ceasefire in 2003 brought new optimism, and the Indian government set up a series of Working Groups to examine steps to resolve the Kashmir conflict.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks ended peace efforts, and further fuelled Indian nationalism.

In the 2014 election BJP leaders declared their intent to revoke Articles 370 and 35A, and bring Kashmir under central control from Delhi. After the Indian elections in April 2019, the BJP were in a stronger position. Thus, in the Summer of 2019 India revoked Articles 370 and 35A, downgraded Kashmir to a union territory, split off Ladakh, and bypassed the local Kashmiri politicians. This led to an increase in insurgency activity and a spiral of reduced human rights and conflict.

This has worried China for one key reason;  the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. This is the Chinese economy looking overland towards Europe, Middle East and South Asia, together with massive infrastructure investment. This is leader Xi Jinping’s megaproject;  to keep growth going, to access oil in Western China, and as insurance against a maritime blockade.

Key parts of Belt and Road Initiative run through Pakistani Kashmir down to the Chinese-run Gwadar port and military installation, in Pakistan. A major conflict in Kashmir would involve China and scupper much of BRI; and likely end the political career of Xi Jinping. The ‘China-Pakistan Corridor’, as known, is already fragile due to poor Pakistani governance. China-Pakistan relations could fracture, too.

China and India have become rivals. Trade between them is surprisingly small. China protested at the revocation of Article 370, and border fighting has tested Indian defences.

The US (and now UK) have demonised China this year, in part due to US elections, and sided with nationalist-run India over Kashmir. The scene is set for a major conflict where mistakes could lead to a devastating war. The UK will be blamed, at least in part.

Instead the UK should accept its responsibilities and promote a return to a 3-way ceasefire and peace-building measures, rather than taking sides in pursuit of trade deals, whilst giving up on China to please the US.





* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • richard underhill. 26th Aug '20 - 2:48pm

    Paul Reynolds | Wed 26th August 2020 – 1:29 pm
    Yes, we must start with ‘British India’, but this is also a tale of two Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill, who lost the 1945 general election while not thinking deeply enough about social issues in the UK, and also while not realising the cultural effects of military actions by (non-white) Japanese invading what is now India from what we called Burma.
    Labour’s Clement Attlee recognised that independence could not be prevented. He should take some of the blame for the way that partition was implemented, ignoring the wishes of ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, who wanted to try to prevent the massive blood-letting which happened (estimated at 1-2 million violent deaths).
    A continuous Pakistan across the north was not possible. East Pakistan became Bangladesh with support from India. An ethnic minority group who wanted to be part of (West) Pakistan) remained in Bangladesh.
    Any new policy on China nowadays needs to consider Hong Kong and the promises that the current British Government has made to HongKongers who hold British travel documents. The naivety of Mrs Thatcher’s government is just another historical fact, riddled with compromises that she must have disliked, advised by “experts” wanting a political surrender to hard – line communists in Beijing.
    Liberal Democrats released Chris Patten from his duties as an MP in Bath and, consequentially the new Conservative PM John Major found it convenient to replace the Governor of Hong Kong, (who could be portrayed as an imperialist of the shrinking British Empire) with the democratic Patten (now a peer, no longer responsible for the Poll Tax and willing to try to reform Hong Kong).
    The article above says nothing about nuclear weapons held by China, Pakistan and India, which need consideration if China tries to invade Taiwan.

  • Dear Mr Reynolds

    With regards, your first two lines were incorrect that the British parted Kashmir along with TH whole of India. That not true. Kashmir was its own state that was attacked by Pakistani forces under the pretence of locals, as they did further in Kargil 1999 war with India only to find out that it was the soldiers of PAK army ie NLA. Northern Light Infantry. Alas untrustworthy Pakistan.

  • Paul Reynolds 26th Aug '20 - 7:47pm

    Having already received a couple of emails, if I may pre-empt some comments. The British are often blamed for the conflict, since there was insufficient focus on establishing a lasting legacy of peace in the region for the long term, after WW2. The British post-war exit involved the establishment of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), Sri Lanka and Burma (Myanmar). Arrangements for Kashmir and borders were left unresolved. At the time the UK was more concerned about Soviet expansion than China, and the roots of conflict between India and China, and India and Pakistan, were created then. The British are blamed for neglect in its legacy rather than the ‘creation’ of a divided Kashmir as ‘the Princely State’. Independence is consistently shown to be favoured by Kashmiris regardless of who administers it now.

  • richard underhill. 26th Aug '20 - 8:01pm

    A colleague of mine from Mauritius had relatives in Mumbai who were killed in a terrorist attack which was blamed on Pakistani security. I cannot, of course, say whether this blaming was deserved, but it was generally ignored in our office.

  • richard underhill. 26th Aug '20 - 8:27pm

    Former colleagues who considered asylum claims from Kashmir had great difficulty, whereas asylum claims from India can simply be considered on the ground that internal flight is possible.
    India is a large country with/ several international airports. There is no need under the 1951 Convention, to return to any particular place within a country, although applicants often try to make a case on this basis, which would need to be made under a human rights article, other than Article 3 (right to life) which is automatic for asylum claims.

  • Excellent article encapsulating the Kashmir situation. Only a sectarian mind could conclude that the BJP’s recent actions are anything but unreasonable. Is our UK govt’s silence on India’s inflammatory nationalist actions upon indian administered Kashmir to strip it of its autonomous status not just because of the UK’s enfeebled global reach post-brexit, but also reflecting that 2 of the 3 most senior posts in govt below the PM may have a sectarian take on this matter not otherwise part of the UK’s interests?

    @S Sharma- your correction misses out the significant context that under partition, it had been assumed that Kashmir, a significantly muslim Raj state, would form part of the new Pakistan- until one man- the Sikh Raja of Kashmir, which the British had left with some rule under the raj, decided that Kashmir was not to join Pakistan but stay within a secular India.
    Cue the bloody war between Pakistan and India and partition of Kashmir during and after partition of India & Pakistan.
    Partition seems to me an unfortunate inevitability, stemming from Muslim (the leadership being pretty secular) fears of precisely the kind of Hindu nationalist majoritarian govt that India has today, and was therefore effectively a consequence of the British Raj unifying 2 historically separate cultures of North India and South India, the former being of roughly equal muslim and hindu populations, the latter being significantly Hindu. And British rule also highlighted religious affiliation in its administration of the Raj – the old colonial divide and rule technique!

  • Humphrey Hawksley 27th Aug '20 - 8:40am

    Thanks, Paul, and a good time to raise the issue. The Kashmir shutdown of arresting politicians, pouring in troops, cutting of Internet and so on is an extreme measure, even by authoritarian standards, which has met with a relatively muted response from Pakistan, China and the Western democracies. This suggests that, precisely for the BRI reasons you mention, a long-term deal is being forged between the three that may have its root in the 2018 Xi-Modi meeting in Wuhan. There have and will be glitches, but if China wishes to fulfil its aim of becoming the presiding influence in the Indo-Pacific, it needs to find an accommodation with India. The upshot in the shifting balance of global power, is that Kashmir is now a China play and Britain would be wisest to stay back and keep its mouth shut. An historical equaivlaent could be France’s irrelevance in America’s Vietnam War.

  • “The US (and now UK) have demonised China this year, in part due to US elections, and sided with nationalist-run India over Kashmir.”

    I have to take issue with this sentence. China’s expansionist actions, which recently led to the killing of Indian border guards in the Himalayas, are not acceptable. We have rightly condemned their actions, as we should with their actions in the South China Seas, in Hong Kong etc. That’s before we talk about the re-education camps. Yes, we can take issue with India’s nationalist government (and I would) but let’s not pretend that China’s actions are OK; they’re not.

  • Sue Sutherland 27th Aug '20 - 4:16pm

    Like you Joe Bourke, I have memories from my youth about Kashmir but mine are from when I was less than two! My grandmother had lived in Kashmir because my grandfather had been an RQSM in the army there. She would listen to the radio with great concern about what was happening and mention was made of someone called Hari Singh, a name I remembered because my father was called Harry. She felt a strong link to Kashmir partly perhaps because she had a baby there who died and was buried in Srinagar I think.
    I’m pretty certain she would have wanted the Kashmiris to choose their own destiny which would most likely to have been independence at the time. Perhaps an independence guaranteed by the UN and agreed to by all 3 warring countries might bring that beautiful country a good future?

  • Paul Reynolds 29th Aug '20 - 5:43am

    On the ‘demonisation’ of China … The Xi Jinping regime in China has ended the colliegiate decision-making of the Hi Jin Tao era, and pursued a unified military-economic strategy, in governance at home and in international actions. It is very dependent now on BRI, economically and reputationally. A result is the Uyghur oppression in Xinjiang, the Hong Kong crisis, the assertive stance in the South China Sea, and an increase in tensions with Taiwan. However, there is still the Trump election campaign which uses China as bete noir to criticise Biden. This makes it more, not less, difficult to address these issues and deal more effectively with China. ‘Know your adversary’ is important if progress is the aim, and demonisation can remove a valuable sense of perspective.

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