*“The Problem of Kashmir” and the Inner Demons of India & Pakistan

(For the preceding part of this essay, see the previous blog, “Nationalism in South Asia:  India, Pakistan, and the Containment of Terrorism”)

Within the present geopolitical framework, a “solution” to the Kashmir problem appears to me to be all but inconceivable.  Still, unless one is to accept the notion that the two countries must be prepared to live in a state of perpetual low-intensity warfare, descending into open and increasingly lethal conflict every decade or two, it behooves us to reflect on whether the “problem” that persists in relations between Pakistan and India has been correctly identified.  Many commentators who have lived in, or traveled to, both Pakistan and north India have identified the cultural ethos and modes of lifestyle that they share in common, and the indisputable fact is that both India and Pakistan are largely afflicted by the same problems.  Both countries have a singularly dismal record in meeting the minimum and legitimate needs of their citizens, whether that be access to decent schooling, electricity, safe drinking water, healthcare, or anything that comes close to resembling a social safety net.  The most polluted cities in the world are in South Asia; women in both countries lead imperiled lives in various respects; and both countries suffer from massive unemployment and under-employment.  One could go in this vein ad infinitum, and the narrative remains unpleasant to the extreme.

Zia-ul Haq

Muhammad Zia-ul Haq ruled as President of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988. He declared martial law in 1977; he died in a plane crash. The Islamicization of Pakistan did not, contrary to common belief, commence with him; but the pace of Islamicization doubtless greatly increased under him. He is shown her with army staff officers; photo: White Star archives.

However, much also divides the two countries, and with the passage of time the rifts have grown deeper.  It has been said that Pakistan is an army with a state, which is not merely a reference to the fact that there have been long stints when Pakistan was governed by army officials.  The army has entered into the very sinews and pores of Pakistani society.  Some who are uncomfortable with the outsized role of the Pakistani army in the affairs of the country have nevertheless argued that without the stability furnished by the army, Pakistan would have disintegrated long ago.  India is thought to offer a sharp contrast in this respect, and it can certainly be said that in India a concerted attempt was made to keep the army out of civil society, though, as nationalism becomes a potent and even unmanageable force in Indian life, encroachments on this critical feature of democracy are becoming more common.  But such conversations are grist to the mill of the traditional political scientist and, in my judgment, do not engage with still more fundamental questions about what ails the country today.  What is most germane to an understanding of how Pakistan has evolved, more particularly over the course of the last four decades, is the country’s steady drift towards the most extreme and intolerant versions of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia and the close links that the political and military elites of both countries have forged.  Muslim ideologues in Pakistan have for decades sought to persuade ordinary Pakistanis that the proximity of Hinduism to Islam contaminated South Asian Muslims, and that the deliverance of Pakistan’s Muslims now lies in an inextricable bond with Saudi Arabia, the purported home of the most authentic form of Islam. Pakistan, according to this worldview, must unhinge itself from its roots in Indic civilization and repudiate its Indo-Islamic past.  The insidious influence of the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia can now be experienced in nearly every domain of life in Pakistan, from the growing intolerance for Sufi-inspired music to the infusion of enormous sums of money to introduce Saudi style mosques and “purify” Pakistani Muslims.  This remains by far the gravest problem in Pakistan.


Amjad Sabri, a famous Pakistani Qawaali singer, was assassinated in June 2016 in broad daylight in Karachi.

India, meanwhile, has veered towards militant forms of Hindu nationalism.  The sources of the explosive growth of Hindu militancy are many, and many commentators, myself included, have written about these at length.  Not least of them is the anxiety of Hindus who imagine that they are besieged by Muslims and who contrast the worldwide Muslim ummah to the fact that historically Hindustan remains the singular home of Hindus.  The last few years in particular furnish insurmountable evidence of the disturbing rise of anti-Muslim violence.  The intolerance towards all those who cannot be accommodated under the rubric of “Hindu” has increased visibly.  Hindu militants brought down a 16th century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, in the wake of which portions of the country were engulfed in communal violence.  Ten years later, a pogrom directed at the Muslims in Gujarat left well over 1,000 of them dead and displaced another 100,000.  Since the ascendancy of Narendra Modi—who was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 and under whose watch the perpetrators of the violence acted with utter impunity—to the office of the Prime Minister of India in 2014, civil liberties have eroded, dissenting intellectuals have become sitting ducks for assassins who murder at will, and Muslims have been, in the jargon of the day, ‘lynched’.  The fact that roving mobs have attacked many others, among them African students and Dalits or lower-caste Hindus, should offer clues that while Indian Muslims may be soft and convenient targets for Hindu militants, the real problem goes beyond the question of the place of the Muslim in contemporary India.


Narendra Dabholkar, an Indian secular intellectual who was a staunch advocate of rationalism, was assassinated by two gunmen in Pune on 20 August 2013.

Some scholars have spoken about the collapse of the consensus around secularism during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Prime Minister from 1947 until his death in 1964; others, myself included, would also like to consider the evisceration of the Indian ethos of hospitality.  Nationalism may be a scourge worldwide, but among Hindus it is also animated by what is deemed an awakening after centuries of oppression and slumber. Just as Islamic preachers in Pakistan exhort Muslims to rid themselves of the creeping and often unrecognized effects of Hinduism in their practice and understanding of Islam, so Hindu nationalism rests on a platform of resurgent Hindu pride, the construction of a glorious past that is said to have been contaminated by foreigners (the Muslim preeminent among them), and the notion of a Hindu Rashtra (nation) where everyone else, particularly Muslims, is dependent on the goodwill of Hindus.  What is transparent in all this is that, howsoever much India is tempted to blame Pakistan, it has plenty of work to do to confront its own inner demons.


The Babri Masjid, a sixteenth century mosque in the North Indian city of Ayodhya, was destroyed by Hindu militants on 6 December 1992.

As I have already averred, no resolution to what is commonly described as “the problem of Kashmir” appears even remotely possible within the present socio-cultural and geopolitical framework.  If military action by either country carries the risk of blowing up into a full-scale war, and is nearly unthinkable owing to the unprecedented fact that the two neighbors are nuclear-armed powers, diplomatic negotiations are also unlikely to alter the status quo.  Indeed, for the foreseeable future, low-intensity gun battles, exchanges of fire, and skirmishes along the Line of Control will almost certainly continue, punctuated only by very occasional and ceremonial declarations by one or both countries to introduce “confidence-building measures”, improve trade relations, and encourage limited border crossings.  I suspect, however, that the dispute over Kashmir can only be “resolved” if, in the first instance, both countries are attentive to the problems that are present within their own borders.  Kashmir, it must also be said, is a region unlike any other in India: though the dispute has been cast in the popular imagination as instigated by animosity between Hindus and Muslims, one third of Kashmir is overwhelmingly Buddhist. Even in the Kashmir Valley, which is predominantly Muslim, the long and complicated history of religious sensibilities renders obtuse a history that is shaped merely around a modern notion of “religion” and a demography based on the idea of religious communities as, in the language of the scholar Sudipta Kaviraj, “bounded” rather than “fuzzy”.  I would go so far as to say that the day when South Asian Muslims—in Pakistan and Bangladesh as much as India—began to recognize the Hindu element within them, and, likewise, Hindus acknowledge the Islamic element within them, both countries will be well on the way to resolving the problem of Kashmir and acknowledging that Kashmiris alone have the right to move towards the full autonomy that they deserve.


The two parts of this essay were published as one single essay in a substantially shorter form, “Nationalism in South Asia and ‘The Problem of Kashmir'”, in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (4 April 2019).

18 thoughts on “*“The Problem of Kashmir” and the Inner Demons of India & Pakistan

  1. Professor Lal,

    As an Indian Muslim, I certainly agree with you that Hindus and Muslims must understand that after centuries of inhabiting the same civilization, their cultures are inextricably linked. However, I would also argue that class consciousness, which you touch upon, should be the fundamental uniting point for both communities. The lower classes in both countries have been deeply oppressed by the capitalist, imperialist, and caste/class structures in their societies which have built both nations on the backs of the urban and rural laboring class. The lower classes in both nations are deprived of basic necessities like medical care, education, food, and water, and I believe that unless the lower classes realize that divisions of nation and religion are merely a mirage to keep them blinded against their true enemy of capitalism, nothing will change. I believe that a transnational leftist movement which aligns the interests of the Indian and Pakistani working class is the best way of solving this Kashmir conflict. We must stress that any consciousness of division other than class consciousness is entirely illusory.


    • Hi Ahmed,
      I agree, and mentioned as much in my essay, that Pakistan and India have both been extremely negligent in taking care of their own citizens, especially those at the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder. And I would like to believe that working-class solidarity can trump these problems. However, such solidarity has proven to be elusive nearly everywhere, much as feminists have found out that the solidarity of women across countries (or even a country) can scarcely be taken for granted. These are old problems and I suspect that we will need much more than working-class solidarity to bring peace to the region or to resolve “the problem of Kashmir”. It is also worth noting that the English working-class seldom displayed any solidarity with, or affinity for, the Indian working-class during the period of colonialism.


  2. The rising Hindutva ideology and Sunni identitarianism in Pakistan are both similar because they wish to distort history. While, as this article states, Pakistanis wish to excise their Indic identity from public memory, Hindu nationalists wish to excuse Islamic history. While Hindutva ideology paints the Medieval period as a period of Hindu oppression at the hands of Muslims, it fails to acknowledge the intolerance and religious conflict in ancient, pre-Islamic India, as discussed by the historian DN Jha. While it is certainly true that Muslim rulers did, in many cases, persecute their non Muslim subjects, ancient India was also far from a tolerant and pluralistic society as discussed in the article below. This illustrates that if a new pluralistic, post-national society is to be envisioned, the past can only be a limited inspiration. We must also be careful, however, to not play into colonial historiography which paints India as a land of perpetual religious conflict.



    • Hi Partha, I agree with the general drift of your remarks. However, while I am highly critical of both Hindutva and Sunni majoritarianism, I cannot say that I agree entirely with Prof D N Jha, some of whose work I also teach. Not all conflict in pre-colonial India was ‘religious’, and we have to in any case draw a distinction between ‘religious conflict’ and ‘communal conflict’. What happened under the British was the assumption of ‘communal’ identities, which was much less the case in pre-colonial India.


  3. Professor,

    Though I know a few of the India-Pakistan conflict, I have had the pleasure to expand my knowledge through your class. With that being said, I had taken a class on the history of Jerusalem in which we touch upon Pakistan, Muslim-Hindu and Muslim-Jew relationships. It seems as though these nationalists, particularly their religious affiliations, come much into conflict with acceptance. Can it perhaps be simply the ideology of wanting one religion, one nationalism, and ideology, to rule? I think much of Western Civilization oppression influenced their way of thinking with respect to who is accepted and who should not. Tolerance of Islamic, Hindu, and even Jewish violence and manslaughter is demonstrated from what I have gathered in the readings. In the end, one’s religion seems a bit unimportant; however, when we think about the government retrospect, that it when religion does not seem so little. It is extreme to come to think that we are unable to withstand one another’s viewpoints, but in India, we see why nationalism and ideologies create much conflict. Pakistan does not speak the same language as India, and I think that is also very important because, without the understanding of language, we are unable to speak and thus, unable to understand and find common ground.


  4. Why do you think it is that Indian secularists have not discussed the issue of Uighur Muslim internment in China that you discuss. They do not seem to be as animated about it as they do about anti Muslim sentiment in India or in the West? Is it merely because China is ruled by a nominally communist party and it would go against their ideological sympathies to critique it?


    • There was certainly a time when the Indian left would not at all discuss the oppression in Communist countries. The Indian left, and the left in Europe, was for example oblivious for a long time to the enormous atrocities being committed by Stalin. Similarly, the Indian left generally refused to believe accounts, as they slowly came in, of the genocidal policies being pursued by Mao in China. So, on the whole, I would agree with your sentiment that the left in India has been slow to mount a critique of China’s interment of Uighur Muslims. But I would add that, on the whole, public commentators in India are quite insular: Indian newspapers have very little coverage of what happens around the world. The Indian left has also largely adopted the view that there is enough to do in India, though why that should obscure real attentiveness to what is happening elsewhere is far from clear.


  5. Hi Professor,

    I agree with your statement that India and Pakistan must first solve their internal problems before a solution on Kashmir can be agreed upon. Putting aside the communal aspect to this dispute, what are your thoughts on the potential influence on this matter from other great powers? China has had a history of supporting Pakistan, while the US, and sometimes Russia, has aligned with India. Concerning these three states, do you believe that they will have substantial influence in determining Kashmir’s future?


    • Just to set the record straight, it would be inaccurate to say that the “US . . . has aligned with India”. That is the case over the last two decades, but was certainly not the case through the 1960s and 1970s. To come to your question, it is inconceivable that the US, China, and Russia would have nothing to say about a resolution to the Kashmir conflict, though the Simla Agreement of 1972 binds Pakistan and India to a bilateral agreement.


  6. Professor,

    I have seen much discussion of Palestinian-Kashmiri solidarity movements but I am not sure the two situations are at all similar because, as you state, Kashmir is not an entirely Muslim area. However, neither is Palestine. What do you make of this comparison?

    Additionally, while I greatly appreciate that you have placed your lectures online, is there somewhere we can access a syllabus or a list of the readings used in the courses as well?




    • It is long and too complicated an issue to get into the question of Kashmir and whether it is analagous to the situation in Palestine. But it is important at least to register the fact that al-Qaeda and its advocates who called for jihad against infidels have mentioned Kashmir and Palestine as among the places that have to be liberated and that are presently dar al-harb, or territories that are presently not under Islam rule and where war may legitimately be conducted.
      The syllabi for all the courses are available at my pedagogic website, southasia.ucla.edu; go to the link called “Vinay’s Research” and you’ll see them there. It is not possible to provide the readings, but some are available on the internet.


      • Dear Professor Lal,

        Not to pester, but unfortunately on the site only some of the links are active and the ones that are say that only logged in UCLA users can access it. I understand, though, if you are unable to change that.

        Thank you,



  7. Om Namah Shivaya!
    Om Namo Narayanaya!
    Swaamiye Sharanam Ayappa!

    The Tamil people do not care about the Kashmir issue. This Kashmir problem is the result of the trauma of Partition which was a solely North Indian issue. It is only the North Indians who feel enmity with Pakistan and Muslims and this is why there is absolutely no communalism in Tamil Nadu or Kerala. We live in peace with people of all religions because for us the Tamilian Muslim is closer than the Bihari Hindu. We do not bear the scars of resentment from Partition that is still plaguing North Indians. Whole India can learn about communal harmony from the South India and forget about Kashmir problem.


    • Yes, it is the case that Kashmir is largely a “North Indian” issue. India is not one place, and I also agree that there is much to learn from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, though these states have their own problems.


  8. Hardly an intelligent comment but one can expect from someone who disguises himself/herself as “ashfh” and whose English amounts to “u r”. Please advance an argument, if you have, or just admit that you are among those who have now found an existence as trolls.


  9. The idea of Hindus recognizing the Muslim within them and Muslims recognizing the Hindu within them is very interesting and necessary, particularly at a time when a cultural project is in full force in both countries to “Hinduize” India and “Islamicize” Pakistan. It is quite a shame, for example, that the status of Urdu in India is declining rapidly even though many of the historic centers of Urdu literature and poetry are not in Pakistan but in India, in places like Delhi, Lucknow, and Hyderabad. As far as I know the name “Urdu” itself comes from the phrase zaban-e-urdu which means effectively, “the language of Delhi”. Similarly, Pakistan attempted to artificially impose Urdu on a population that had its own languages: Punjabi, Sindhi, Bengali, and so on, and in fact paid a heavy price for that. Similarly in South a India, Islam is sometimes viewed as a “northern” religion when the fact is that Islam arrived in the Dravidian South through trade before it arrived in the North. It is important for the public to embrace India’s syncretic culture and reject modern attempts to put everyone in a box.


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