Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Election Results Enhance Stability in Both New Delhi and Islamabad

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Election Results Enhance Stability in Both New Delhi and Islamabad

Article excerpt

Election Results Enhance Stability In Both New Delhi and Islamabad

India is an ancient land with late 20th century problems. Its organization as a secular democracy is challenged by religion-based political parties; its aspirations for a liberated free-trade economy are slowed by realities on the ground; and its image of peace and harmony is tarnished by increasing evidence of human rights violations. Not everything, however, is going downhill. India is a vast country that can often project many faces simultaneously.

Back to Basics in Kashmir

Hazratbal is the most sacred Muslim shrine in the Indian-held part of Kashmir. It holds what is said to be a hair from the beard of the Prophet Muhammad. The Indian government charges that the mosque also has become a sanctuary and ammunition depot for Muslim fighters seeking the liberation of Kashmir from Indian hands. As such, Indian forces claim, it has been at the center of a major upheaval in which more than 2,000 people have been killed and thousands more have been injured over the past three years in the Kashmir Valley.

India and Pakistan have fought two serious wars over the 46-year-old Kashmir dispute, which originated with the division of most of the South Asian subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, largely on the basis of Hindu or Muslim majorities. The then princely states were given the option of joining either of the two major countries, or remaining independent. Three states presented an anomaly. Hyderabad and Junagarh had Muslim rulers but their populations were mostly Hindu. Bids for independence by both rulers were annulled by India through military actions. Kashmir, on the other hand, had a predominantly Muslim population and a Hindu ruler. His accession was accepted by India. Unlike the other two states, however, Kashmir bordered both India and Pakistan. As a result, both countries now occupy separate portions of Kashmir, separated only by a United Nations-placed dividing line. The issue was supposed to be settled by a U.N.-supervised popular plebiscite among the people of Kashmir.

During extensive disturbances this fall, Indian troops encircled the Hazratbal shrine on Oct. 15 and demanded that its occupants surrender. The siege continued for four weeks and 100 people were killed before an agreement was reached to allow safe passage to the men, women and children inside if they handed over their arms to the encircling troops.

The siege, which the mass-circulation New Delhi weekly India Today called "Operation Blunder," came at a delicate time in Indian political life. Prime Minister J.V. Narasimha Rao's government was facing perhaps the most crucial electoral test of his administration in the Hindubased Bharatiya Janata Party strongholds in north India. Rao's secular Congress party was narrowly clinging to power at the national level in New Delhi.

If the army were ordered to storm the Hazratbal mosque in Kashmir, as was done in the case of the Sikh Golden Temple in Punjab some years earlier, it could result in hundreds of deaths and an international furor that would be exploited by the BJP to its electoral advantage. If New Delhi were to give in to the Kashmiris inside the shrine, however, the domestic political backlash might be even more favorable to the BJP.

In compromising, the Indian prime minister put a bold face on a difficult decision. "Kashmir will soon be restored to its earlier status of paradise on earth," he declared. Kashmiri freedom seekers, however, interpreted the Hazratbal outcome as their victory, and the Narasimha Rao government braced itself for a Hindu backlash.

New Delhi meanwhile reacted negatively to a statement in President Bill Clinton's speech to the United Nations that "bloody ethnic, religious and civil wars rage from Angola to Kashmir." Indians also took exception to an Oct. 26 statement by Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel that the U.S. did not consider the Maharaja of Kashmir's accession to India in 1948 to be final. …

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