Contested Kashmir: A Brief History

Leoni Connah | Lancaster University

Introduction ​ Kashmir’s history can be discussed as far back as the 3rd Century BC. Kashmir has seen the rise and fall of numerous empires and dynasties such as the Sultan’s (1346-1580s), Mughal’s (1580s-1750s), Afghan’s (1747-1819), Sikh’s (1820-1846), Dogra’s (1846-1947) and the British. It has also witnessed and been an epicentre for the growth and emergence of the largest world religions, from Buddhism to Christianity. ​ Kashmir’s location makes it a geographically and strategically attractive, as it is situated between India, Pakistan, China and sits in close proximity to Russia. Kashmir, as it is known today, is divided into two union territories. The first is Jammu and Kashmir, which are situated in the West, and the second is Ladakh, which is situated in the East. Prior to it being divided into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir was its own state with Gilgit-Baltistan to the North, Aksai Chin to the East, and Azad Kashmir to the West. It has two capital cities – Srinagar, which is also known as the summer capital (May to October), and Jammu, which is known as the winter capital (November to April). Despite being surrounded by the Himalayas and being renowned for its natural beauty, Kashmir has a turbulent history that will now be discussed.

Pahari Women - Kashmir 1890

Partition ​ When India gained Independence from Britain in 1947, it was subsequently partitioned into two states; India and Pakistan. At the time, the princely state of Kashmir was ruled by Hindu Maharajah Hari Singh, despite its Muslim majority population. Hari Singh was left with the decision to either accede to India or Pakistan, or to remain independent. If Hari Singh were to consider the demographics of Kashmir, the choice to accede to Pakistan would have been the most logical. Despite Sheikh Muhammad Abdulla’s Quit Kashmir campaign, independence seemed to be the least attractive option at the time. Kashmir is a landlocked state, and this would have resulted in further fragmentation of India. Hari Singh was undecided and relatively unpersuaded by the advice of Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Mountbatten, and Jawaharlal Nehru until a rebellion began in the Poonch district.

Sir Hari Singh Bahadur, Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir
Dakotas in Poonch 1947​​

The outbreak of violence in Poonch in June 1947 pushed the Maharajah into India’s hands as he sought assistance to control the dissent. The Government of India offered military assistance to prevent an invasion from Pakistan’s rebels if, in return, Hari Singh would accede to India. Unable to cope with the pressure and in an attempt to resolve matters, the Instrument of Accession was signed. The understanding behind the instrument was that there would be a future plebiscite decided by the people of Kashmir. The United Nations Resolution 47 affirmed that the plebiscite would be impartial and democratic. Two years later in 1949, both India and Pakistan signed the Karachi Agreement that defined a ceasefire line. This was overseen by the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP). The Karachi Agreement re-affirmed the need for a plebiscite and for the status of Kashmir to be decided in accordance to the peoples wishes. However, the plebiscite has never taken place.

Karachi Agreement Map 1962


Aksai Chin is a small area surrounded by Ladakh, Tibet, and Xinjiang, yet it became the subject of a Sino-Indian war in 1962. China had an interest in Kashmir for four years prior to the war, as it was steadily seizing the Aksai Chin area. China wanted to extend the 1949 ceasefire line to what they referred to as the Line of Actual Control. Tensions were building between India and China due to outbursts of violence taking place between border forces. As a result, India decided to increase its troops capacity in the area, whereas China pursued an offensive strategy and launched an assault.

The war only lasted for one month, and by November 21st 1962, it was over. China had gone far enough as they had exhausted their military resources, and they declared a ceasefire. The unilateral ceasefire meant that China would withdraw to the position it held in 1959. The timing of the ceasefire prevented the intervention of the U.S., as they had sent in weaponry and supplies to India. From this moment on, India realised it needed to strengthen its military capacity and defence strategy for any future conflicts.

Aksai Chin

Operation Gibraltar ​ The second war for Kashmir officially began in September 1965 and is described by Navnita Chadha Behera as the “Now or Never” war. As India had been defeated by China just three years prior, Pakistan saw the rising hostilities as a window of opportunity. Pakistan suspected India to be militarily weak and infiltrated the ceasefire line on August 5th 1965 by sending guerrilla troops to foment a rebellion as part of Operation Gibraltar. The purpose of this operation was to prevent the integration of Kashmir into India proper and encourage a rebellion in the Valley. Reports suggest thousands of troops were sent by Pakistan and, what started out as skirmishes between border forces, turned into conflict between regular armies. India reacted by instigating a conflict in the Bhimber-Chhamb area of Azad Kashmir.

By September 23rd 1965, the second official war for Kashmir came to an end after 17 days of fighting. The conflict came to a standstill before it became necessary for external intervention. On January 10th 1966, an agreement was finally reached in Tashkent. The Tashkent agreement was overseen by the former Soviet Union. Both India and Pakistan agreed that they would return to their pre-conflict locations. Although this seemed like a success, Ashok Behuria emphasises that even by 1966, India and Pakistan “appeared to be no nearer agreement than they had been in 1949”. Victoria Schofield summarises the problematic nature of this conflict and the legacy of mistrust, writing, “India was certainly not going to give up through diplomacy what Pakistan had failed to secure in war”.

Ayub Khan signing the Tashkent Agreement 1966

Bangladesh Liberation War ​ For a long time, the Bengali population had demanded regional autonomy and sought to get away from Pakistan’s grip and escape the Bangladesh Genocide that was taking place. This resulted in a huge influx of Bengali’s into the Indian mainland as they fled from former East Pakistan. This influx sparked the third Indo-Pak conflict that took place in 1971 and lasted a total of 13 days until Pakistan were defeated. This was different to previous conflicts because this time India sparked the dispute, whereas before Pakistan had targeted India. Bengali nationalists needed India’s military might if it was to succeed in its aims of having an independent state. India was willing to support the cause because this meant that they would not need to fight Pakistan on two fronts (East and West Pakistan) in future disputes. Also, it was arguably cheaper to fight a war than to deal with a refugee crisis. To summarise, India exploited a window of opportunity and succeeded.

On July 2nd 1972, the Simla Agreement was signed between India and Pakistan. Both states were in agreement that the Kashmir situation was a bilateral problem that should be resolved peacefully and not through the use of force. The terms laid out in the Simla Agreement meant the replacement of the 1949 ceasefire line with the Line of Control as an international de facto border. This line could not be altered unless both India and Pakistan agreed on it. Further, the agreement was to become a model for the future relations between the two neighbours that would be built on cooperative foundations. One might wonder what the Bangladesh Liberation War has to do with Kashmir, and this conflict is primarily concerned with future strategy.

War Memorial - Bangladesh
Poster of Freedom Fighter in Bangladesh Liberation War 1971
Siachen Glacier

Siachen Glacier ​ In the Spring of 1984, India orchestrated a coup de main. This allowed them to seize control over the Siachen Glacier that neighbours the Chinese controlled Trans-Karakoram Tract. India wanted to extend the border so that the glacier would fall under their control, whereas Pakistan believed if the ceasefire line was to be altered, the glacier would fall under their control. The dispute over the Siachen Glacier was unique because it was fought in the most extreme conditions. Soldiers fought at the highest altitude in the world and, although they were fighting each other, they also had to battle against the elements in sub-zero conditions.

Numerous talks were held for a period of 2 years after the coup, but an agreement is yet to be made over the Siachen Glacier over 30 years later. One of the peace attempts was the Harare Summit, but instead of India and Pakistan cooperating to reach an understanding over Kashmir, relations soured even more. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) also intervened to host a forum between the two neighbours, but they remained unconvinced. The lack of success of such negotiations was exposed when India conducted Operation Brasstacks in November 1986. During the operation, India rallied its army along the border, thus encouraging Pakistan to do the same. Fears arose that this would spark another war between India and Pakistan, but the two states eventually withdrew.

Nuclear Apocalypse ​ From 1987 to the late 1990s, insurgency gripped Kashmir and militancy reached its peak. This was a destabilising factor for South Asian security, and it amplified Indo-Pak tensions. The rise in violence in the form of terror attacks and human rights abuses particularly exacerbated matters when it came to the nuclear arms race that began in 1998.

In March 1998, India announced that they would be running the Pokhran-II explosions, essentially testing nuclear weaponry. Following suit, Pakistan tested their nuclear bombs as part of the Chagai-I tests. India was the sixth country in the world to test a nuclear weapon in public, and Pakistan became the 7th. Relations between the two states remained relatively neutral and peaceful until May 1999. Pakistan infiltrated the Line of Control by sending army soldiers across the territory, disguised as militants. India reacted by sending in the air force and ground troops to meet Pakistan’s forces and to drive them back to their pre-existing positions. The fighting that ensued lasted for 11 weeks and over 1,000 people were killed. The U.S. got involved and, as a result of mounting international pressure, Pakistan withdrew. Although the Kargil episode was not necessarily a direct conflict over Kashmir, it was the closest India and Pakistan came to nuclear war.

Indo-Pakistan Border - Wagha Gate

Conclusion ​ This article has considered some of the main reasons why Indo-Pak hostilities continue and Kashmir remains contested. The main conflicts highlighted reveal the long-standing tensions between India and Pakistan. From the turbulent time of Partition, to the recent decision to re-define domicile law, the conflict over Kashmir continues. Unless India and Pakistan can find a way to settle the Kashmir issue, the frictions that caused these conflicts will most likely remain points of contention in the future. The deep resentment and mistrust that the two nuclear powers have for each other act as barriers that prevent them from reaching an agreement. Perhaps, if they can consider the interests of Kashmiri’s and their right to self-determination above their own socio-economic interests, resolution might be achieved.

Free Kashmir Graffiti


Further Reading

  • Behera, N.C. (2006) Demystifying Kashmir. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press.

  • Behuria, A. (2012) “India-Pakistan Relations and the Kashmir Issue (1947-2009)”, in Dutt, S. and Bansal, A. (2012) South Asian Security: 21st Century Discourses. London: Routledge.

  • Bhattacharyya, R. (2018) “Living with Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) as Everyday Life”, in GeoJournal, 83 (1). pp. 31-48.

  • Bose, S. (2003) Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

  • Evans, A. (1999) “Kashmir: The Past Ten Years”, in Asian Affairs, 30 (1). pp. 21-34.

  • Ganguly, S. (2002) Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions Since 1947. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Lamb, A. (1966) Crisis in Kashmir, 1947 – 1966. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

  • Mohan, A. (1992) "The Historical Roots of the Kashmir Conflict", in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 15 (4). pp. 283-308.

  • Mukherjee, K. (2016) “Indo-Pak Relations and the Kashmir Problem: From 1947 to the Present Day”, in Journal of Borderlands Studies, 31 (4). pp. 497-520.

  • Schofield, V. (2010) Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War. London: I.B. Tauris Co Ltd, UK.

  • Zutshi, C. (2018) Kashmir: History, Politics and Representation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leoni Connah is a PhD candidate in International Relations. Her current research explores the changing nature of the conflict in Kashmir in recent years and the impact this has had for regional South Asian security, as well as human security. She has recent publications in The Conversation, Modern Diplomacy, South Asia Research, the New Zealand International Review and others. Her research profile can be found here.