“Kashmir at the Crossroads: Inside a 21st Century Conflict” by Sumantra Bose

Kashmir at the Crossroads: Inside a 21st-Century Conflict, Sumantra Bose (Yale University Press, Pan Macmillan India, December 2021) Kashmir at the Crossroads: Inside a 21st-Century Conflict, Sumantra Bose (Yale University Press, Pan Macmillan India, December 2021)

Kashmir, or more accurately, Jammu & Kashmir (JK), is host to a long running conflict dating back to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Ever since the majority Muslim JK, ruled by a Hindu leader Hari Singh, acceded to India, instead of Pakistan or declaring Independence, a conflict has raged in over the regions future. Sumantra Bose’s new book, a definitive account of the Jammu & Kashmir (JK) conflict, provides a strong historical background alongside an up to date political analysis of the current situation. The book is organized around five sections, three sections focus on historical background: 1947-89, 1990-2004, 2005-2019 then two sections on the present-day, one on the actions of the ruling BJP government and one on the international dimensions of the crisis.

The overview starts with a history of the Princely State of JK that lasted from 1846 to 1947. Here Bose highlights the wretched living conditions that the majority Muslim population suffered which gave rise to the region’s first protests in the 1930s, culminating in the “Quit Kashmir” campaigns of 1946 which demanded the end of Hari Singh’s autocratic rule. The overview charts the eventual ascension by Hari Singh of JK to India amidst the bloodbath of partition. However, there is little on Kashmir’s early history, so anyone looking for a history of pre-Raj JK will have to look elsewhere.

In these initial three sections Bose outlines all the major governmental clauses, proclamations, constitutional orders and amendments. He charts the political lives of major Kashmiri politicians such as Sheikh Abdullah whose JK National Conference dominated Kashmiri politics for decades. There is a detailed analysis of the second Kashmir war of 1965, which followed India’s humiliating defeat in the 1962 Sino-India war and left Pakistan convinced of their military superiority. He details the “carnage of 1990-2004”, land reform, article 370 and the 1972 Shimla accord all of which had a major impact on the intensity and continuance of the conflict. There are also in-depth explanations of the relationship between the JK Liberation Front and Pakistan’s Military, the bloody Kargil war of 1998-9, the impact of India and Pakistan gaining nuclear weapons and the deadly Fidayeen campaigns of the early 2000s. Every major political event of the last seven decades is discussed and analyzed in detail.

Bose skillfully explains how while the initial cause of the conflict was partition, the modern-day drivers are the ongoing repression of Kashmiris by India and Pakistani governments. He argues it’s the ongoing attacks on freedom of expression, the forced  disappearances and continued militarization that keeps the 70-year-old conflict raging on.

 

While these first three sections are incredibly informative, it’s the final two sections which are the book’s main selling point. The second to last section “the Hindu Nationalist Offensive” is an eviscerating critique of the BJP’s policies in Kashmir. In August 2019, the BJP revoked the autonomous status that JK was given on accession to the Indian Union back in 1947 and the State’s “special status” was revoked. The same day the “JK Reorganization Bill” was promulgated and split JK into separate Union Territories, one for Jammu, one for Kashmir and one for Ladakh. No longer a state, these territories were left with a fraction of the power that they previously had. On the day the government had not only ordered the evacuation of all tourists from the region and sent thousands of armed police to replace them, but they had also cut off internet, mobile phone and television. A strict lockdown to prevent protests was implemented as people were left with no way of contacting friends, family or neighbors. Heavily-armed police patrolled the streets in a “home internment of a million people”. Kashmir remained without internet for months. This was not the only insulting policy change, in 2020 the government stopped returning bodies of local militants killed by Indian security forces to their families. Even if their families claim they were not militants, just civilians caught in the crossfire, the families are left to mourn an empty grave. Here Bose offers a timely explanation of the Hindu Nationalist ideology that motivated the BJP to undertake such drastic policy reform. He argues that depriving JK of its special status wasn’t a motivated by a desire for equity in the Indian Union, rather it was an attempt to subdue the autonomy of a majority Muslim state, which was incongrous with their belief in a Hindu nation.

The final chapter “the 21st Century Conflict”’ details the current geopolitical status of the crisis. There is a brief summary of China’s role in the conflict, which starts with an explanation of the Aksai Chin dispute and the bloody 2019 Galway encounter. Then there is an analysis of the US’s role, including Trump’s courting of Modi and some predictions are made for the Biden administration. Here Bose highlights the major drivers and factors that will shape the conflict over the next few years and makes insightful predictions that allow us to see how almost seven decades on, this conflict is just as important for the future of the region as ever.

 

This isn’t Bose’s first book on the region. His 2003 book Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace is frequently mentioned in the book. The inclusion of his previously published analysis, both from his book and from other articles written at the time, is a useful device for showing how the conflict has changed and how the faint hopes of potential cooperation between India and Pakistan which existed in 2003 now lie further away than ever.

While the book is occasionally interspersed with observations about daily life, food and culture of the region, drawn from the many years Bose spent working and researching in the area, this is very much a political history book. Those looking for a cultural or social history should look elsewhere. There is a staggering amount of detail, perhaps too much at times for just 291 pages and at times the book feels breathless. A longer word count would have allowed events of great consequence to be discussed in more detail and provide more time to dwell on their impact.

The book is an incredibly detailed, informed and comprehensive view of the challenges facing Kashmir in 2022. It’s hard not to be despondent given Bose’s rather pessimistic future predictions. In the final pages he states that “the conjunction of favorable circumstances necessary for a Kashmir peace process is unlikely”. However, if such a major crisis does explode then all is not lost as “such a conflagration might pave the way to finally laying the conflict to rest through diplomacy and statecraft.” Those wanting an overview of the historical background, introduction to the major players of the conflict and up to date political analysis of the Kashmir Crisis will be hard pressed to find a better place to start.


Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author, formerly based in Yangon and Kathmandu, focused on regional refugee and migratory issues.