Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir

India Table of Contents

Conflicts in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir are each the result of centralized power operating in a predominantly heterogeneous society. Although tensions in the two states have important historical roots, they have been fueled by controversy over the policies of India's central government. Opposition is built upon the feeling that political power in New Delhi is inaccessible and unresponsive to local needs. Furthermore, in each case, the Congress (I) leadership has attempted to intervene in the conflicts to advance its partisan interests only to have its intervention backfire and aggravate regional tensions.

The confrontation in Punjab began in 1973 when the Akali Dal issued the Anandpur Sahib Resolution calling for the establishment of a "Sikh Autonomous Region" with its own constitution. It also called for the transfer of Chandigarh, a union territory, to Punjab as the state's capital--promised by the central government in 1970--and demanded that the central government establish a more favorable allocation of river waters used for irrigation. A particular concern was the shared distribution of water from the Beas and Sutlej rivers with neighboring Haryana (see Rivers, ch. 2). The Akali Dal further demanded changes involving greater symbolic recognition of Sikhism. These demands included the recognition of Amritsar, the site of the Sikhs' Golden Temple, as a holy city; exemption from antihijacking regulations to enable Sikhs flying on Indian airlines to wear their kirpan (ceremonial saber); and the passage of the All-India Gurdwara Act to place the management of all gurdwaras in the country under a single administration (see Early History and Tenets, ch. 3).

Akali Dal members were engaged in a heated competition with the Congress (I) over control of the Punjab assembly. It was in this context that the Congress (I) found it advantageous to encourage Sikh fundamentalism. Giani Zail Singh, who was the Congress (I) chief minister in Punjab from 1972 to 1977 and minister of home affairs in the central government from 1980 to 1982, developed links with the fiery Sikh militant Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. By encouraging Bhindranwale, the Congress (I) hoped to reap advantage from sowing division in the already fractious Akali Dal. However, what may have been good for the interests of the Congress (I) turned out to be bad for the country. By the spring of 1984, Bhindranwale and his followers had taken over the Akal Takht (Throne of the Eternal God) shrine facing the Golden Temple and transformed it into a headquarters and armory for Sikh militants. Indira Gandhi sent in the army, which, during a bloody three-day siege, almost destroyed the Akal Takht, did some damage to the Golden Temple, and killed Bhindranwale and hundreds of his followers (see Insurgent Movements and External Subversion, ch. 10). The army's action generated widespread resentment among India's Sikhs. The subsequent assassination of Indira Gandhi by Sikh members of her bodyguard on October 31, 1984, unleashed a wave of riots throughout India in which more than 2,700 Sikhs were killed.

Rajiv Gandhi attempted to put an end to the crisis by signing an agreement with Akali Dal moderate Harchand Singh Longowal in August 1985. The Gandhi-Longowal Accord acquiesced to many Akali Dal demands and called for elections to put an end to central government control over the state government through President's Rule, which had been in effect since October 1983. Although the accord was criticized by Sikh activists as being a sellout, it apparently had widespread support, as evidenced by the public's defiance of the militants' call for a boycott of the ensuing elections and the mandate given to Akali Dal moderates to form a new government. Public support for the Akali Dal government, however, was soon undermined by Rajiv Gandhi's failure to fulfill his commitments, such as the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, as enunciated in the Gandhi-Longowal Accord. With the failure to implement the accord, the popularity of the Akali Dal state government led by Surjit Singh Barnala declined, and its internal divisions grew. As a result, its efforts to combat the militants' increasing violence became ineffective. In May 1987, the Punjab assembly was dissolved and replaced with President's Rule.

The violence of Sikh militants spread throughout Punjab during the 1980s. In many cases, activist groups became undisciplined or were taken over by criminals. Armed robbery, extortion, and murder became a way of life. Police actions also became more repressive. The residents of Punjab were caught in a vise of indiscriminate militant and police violence. After an unprecedented five years of President's Rule, the central government gambled by holding elections for Parliament and the state legislative assembly in February 1992. Most Akali Dal groups and militants called for a boycott of the poll, and the election turnout was a record low of 20 percent. Not surprisingly, the Congress (I) emerged victorious, winning twelve of thirteen seats in Parliament and control over the state government. After the elections, the police and paramilitary forces under the leadership of K.P.S. Gill scored a series of successes in infiltrating activist groups and capturing or killing their members. Popular participation in the conventional political process increased; voter turnout for municipal elections in September 1992 and gram panchayats in January 1993 exceeded 70 percent. Although violence diminished during 1993 and 1994, the sources of many of the tensions remained, and resentments among the Sikhs continue to simmer in the mid-1990s.

Ethnic and regional tensions also raged out of control in the strategically sensitive Jammu and Kashmir. The conflict assumes considerable symbolic as well as strategic importance because, as India's only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir validates India's national identity as a religiously and culturally diverse society held together by a common history and cultural heritage. The roots of the Kashmir conflict extend at least as far back as 1947 when Maharaja Hari Singh, the princely state's Hindu ruler, decided to cede his domain with its predominantly Muslim population to the Indian Union at a time when Kashmir was under attack by a Muslim paramilitary force supported by Pakistan. Tensions persisted through the mid-1980s. The National Conference, led by Sheikh Abdullah until his death in 1983, first supported the accession to India and its provisions under Article 370 of the constitution for special autonomy, but later made demands for greater autonomy as popular resentment against India's central government began to spread. The status of Kashmir was the cause of two wars between India and Pakistan, in 1947 and 1965, and was an issue in the third war, in 1971 (see The Experience of Wars, ch. 10).

The Kashmir crisis of the 1990s is reflective of trends occurring throughout the Indian polity: the increasing intervention of the central government in local affairs, the resort to coercion to resolve social conflict and maintain social order, and the increasing political assertiveness of the Indian public. The National Conference government, which had been elected in 1983 under the leadership of Farooq Abdullah, son of Sheikh Abdullah, was brought down in 1984 after leaders of the Congress (I) supported Ghulam Mohammad Shah's split of the National Conference and formation of a separate government. The Congress (I) switched its support back to Farooq in 1986, and the National Conference under Farooq's leadership participated in the 1987 state elections in alliance with the Congress (I). The alliance served to discredit Farooq and the National Conference in the eyes of many Kashmiris, and the coalition faced stiff competition from an alliance of Muslim activists under the banner of the Muslim United Front. The National Conference-Congress (I) coalition won the election, but only after creating a popular perception of widespread election rigging. Farooq's government proved to be inept and corrupt, further alienating the Kashmiri public. The activists, feeling that they had been electorally defrauded, incited an increasing number of demonstrations, strikes, bombings, and assassinations.

The problem reached a climax in December 1989 when militants took as hostage the daughter of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the minister of home affairs of the newly formed National Front government. When the militants exchanged their hostage for the release of five jailed militant leaders, a jubilant public showed its support for the militants with massive demonstrations in Srinagar, the capital. It became obvious to all that Farooq's government had lost control over the state, and President's Rule was declared. Insurgency broke out as fighting spread between the Kashmiri militants and paramilitary forces. Reports by human rights groups left little doubt that each side had perpetrated gross atrocities and that victims included large numbers of innocent civilians. The issue was further complicated by charges that the insurgents had received sanctuary and support from Pakistan and from movements like the Ekta Yatra (Unity Pilgrimage--a BJP political pilgrimage from the southern tip of India to Srinagar from December 1991 to January 1992).

The conflict raged through 1994 as the government sent in paramilitary and army troops in an effort to break the back of the resistance and convince the Kashmiri public of the futility of the struggle. By then the militants had fragmented into more than 100 groups. The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which demands independence from both India and Pakistan, had the widest support, but a number of heavily armed groups, the most prominent being the Hezb-ul Mujahideen, which favored union with Pakistan, also had support. Events offered a glimmer of hope that the crisis might be resolved through negotiation. Earlier, in November 1993, the government had successfully negotiated the settlement of a crisis at the Hazratbal--a Srinagar mosque, which is one of the holiest Muslim shrines in India because it is believed to house a hair of the Prophet Muhammad. The government negotiated the settlement with the All-Party Hurriyat Conference by agreeing to the departure of the occupying militant forces. In April 1994, the leaders of the conference further raised hopes by coming to New Delhi to discuss ways of resolving the conflict with the leaders of non-Muslim communities in Kashmir. The government responded by releasing more moderate activist leaders from prison and beginning preparations for elections. But with tension growing and the destruction in May 1995 by fire of a Sufi mausoleum and mosque in the town of Charar Sharif--each side blamed the other for the conflagration--the central government postponed plans for elections. This event posed new impediments to resolving the conflict.

More about the Government and Politics of India.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress