The Kashmir crisis of 1990 was set off by the conjunction of long-standing subcontinental problems with the global events of 1989. Since the India–Pakistan war of 1971, Kashmir had receded into the background. Although that war was not fought over Kashmir, India ensured that the Shimla Agreement of 1972 placed the onus of resolving the dispute on the two neighbours and effectively ruled out any role for external actors. Over the following years, New Delhi also attempted to tighten its political grip on Kashmir by co-opting the stalwart leader Sheikh Abdullah. It did not work out like that. In power, the Sheikh proved a doughty defender of Kashmir’s autonomy and resisted New Delhi’s attempts to undermine it. After his death in September 1982, his son, Farooq Abdullah, took over as chief minister. Farooq lurched between confrontation and cooperation with New Delhi, resulting first in his dismissal from office and then an alliance with the ruling Congress party for the Kashmir elections of 1987.
Meanwhile, Pakistan was biding its time. As early as 1980, Zia had started to tie up with the Jamaat-i-Islami to recruit young Kashmiris from India for a covert war. The America-supported Afghan jihad provided the organizational model, the financial resources and the political cover for a future campaign in Kashmir. The dismissal of Farooq gave a fillip to these efforts by galvanizing the small Islamist groups in the Kashmir Valley. These outfits also took their ideological cue from the Islamist revolts in Iran and Afghanistan. The Islamic Students League, for instance, designed a flag depicting a globe, atop which was planted a Kalashnikov rifle with a flag on its bayonet carrying a verse from the Koran and beneath which was written: ‘Muslims of the world, unite’.
Ahead of the state elections in March 1987, a dozen Islamist parties that had hitherto lacked electoral clout banded together to form the Muslim United Front (MUF). The MUF’s campaign was avowedly pro-Pakistan and it appeared to strike a chord with young Kashmiri Muslims in the Valley. But the MUF did poorly in the polls. The coalition led by Farooq won a sweeping victory amidst allegations of widespread rigging. As political unrest began to bubble up in the Valley, the ISI reached out to the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF)—a nationalist outfit that had long sought to wage an armed struggle for Kashmir’s independence but had slipped into hibernation in exile. Although the JKLF lacked the Jamaat’s Islamist credentials, it was seen as more capable of recruiting youngsters for an insurgency against India. In early 1988, the first lot of Kashmiris from India trained under the ISI’s supervision.
By the summer of 1988, the JKLF had kicked off a campaign of bombing and terror in the Valley. The JKLF’s insurgency unfolded against the wider backdrop of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the onset of the Palestinian Intifada. Their most high- profile success was the kidnapping in December 1989 of the daughter of the Indian home minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. The appointment of Sayeed, a Kashmiri politician, to this senior cabinet position had been intended as an olive branch to his people. Instead, the kidnapping and subsequent release of his daughter touched off a massive wave of popular protest against India and accelerated the insurgency by drawing many more recruits. The ISI responded by massively scaling up its involvement in the insurgency.
In early 1990, New Delhi accused Pakistan of arming and training Kashmiri militants to wage a covert war against India. Islamabad shot back that it was merely providing diplomatic and moral support for ‘freedom fighters’ in Kashmir.
The Pakistan Army also undertook a large-scale military exercise close to the border with India. Very like India’s Exercise Brasstacks, Zarb-i-Momin was aimed at once at testing Pakistan’s conventional military capabilities and sending a deterrent message to India against flexing its muscles in response to the escalating insurgency in Kashmir. The Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, had been in power for just about a year and had limited say on strategic matters. After conferring with the army chief and the President of Pakistan, Bhutto sent a senior diplomat, Yaqub Khan, to convey a tough message to India. In his meetings with the Indian foreign minister and prime minister, Yaqub spoke bluntly of Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir and elliptically about ‘clouds roaring with thunder’ and ‘lightning in the skies’.
The Indians were unsure if this was a veiled nuclear threat, but they took it seriously. Prime Minister V.P. Singh made it clear that ‘India would have to review its peaceful nuclear policy if Pakistan employed its nuclear power for military purposes’. Indian intelligence suggested that Pakistan was planning a surprise attack in northern Punjab to sever the lines of communication on the Indian side and a declaration of independence by Kashmiri insurgents that would provide a pretext for the Pakistan Army to attack the Valley. In consequence, some Indian Army formations were mobilized. On 13 March 1990, Bhutto added fat to fire when she travelled to Pakistani Kashmir and vowed a ‘thousand-year war’ in support of the insurgents. While the statement may have been designed to shore up her domestic standing, it was taken gravely by the Indians. Prime Minister Singh responded in Parliament: ‘I warn them that those who talk about 1,000 years of war should examine whether they will last 1,000 hours of war.’ Warning the Pakistanis that ‘such a misadventure would not be without cost’, he exhorted Indians to be ‘psychologically prepared for war’.
The Bush administration was alarmed by this slide towards conflict in the subcontinent. Already in January 1990, a senior State Department official had been sent to India and Pakistan to confer on the situation in Kashmir. The ensuing military moves and political warnings led the CIA to worry about the prospect of war and the shadow of nuclear weapons. In early April, Islamabad complained to Washington that Indian forces had been moved into offensive positions. Although the American ambassadors in both countries confirmed that this was not true, the State Department publicly warned that ‘there is a growing risk of miscalculation which could lead events to spin dangerously out of control’. Since the CIA remained concerned about the potential for nuclear use in the event of war, the Bush administration decided in mid-May to send Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates to South Asia.
Arriving in Islamabad on 20 May, Gates met the Pakistani President and army chief—Bhutto was out of the country. Gates warned the Pakistanis that if a war broke out, it would not remain confined to Kashmir. The Americans had war-gamed every such scenario and were sure that Pakistan would end up losing the war. What is more, in the event of war, Islamabad could not expect any support or assistance from Washington. Gates urged Pakistan to refrain from supporting terrorism in Kashmir, tone down its rhetoric, and work towards confidence-building measures with India. The United States was willing to help such a process by technically verifying that both sides had pulled back their troops. In New Delhi, Gates relayed a similar message, telling the Indians to back off from the brink and adding that the Pakistanis would shut down the terrorist training camps. Although the Pakistanis had held out no such specific assurances, Gates took it that they would fall in line with the American warning. The Indians, however, insisted that until Pakistan turned off support for the insurgents, they could not initiate talks.
Nevertheless, in the wake of the Gates mission, both countries took unilateral steps to defuse the crisis. India withdrew its armoured formations to their peacetime locations and proposed several confidence-building measures. Pakistan too agreed to retract its forces and commence an expansive dialogue between the two sides’ foreign secretaries. Throughout the crisis, the Bush administration refrained from taking any position on Kashmir and maintained that it was for the two sides to discuss bilaterally. This appeared to fit snugly with India’s position on this thorny issue. Subsequently, however, American officials indicated to their Indian counterparts that they might be willing to facilitate a solution by acting as a conduit for an exchange of suggestions by the two countries. They also indicated that while they might not favour a plebiscite, Kashmir remained disputed territory and Pakistan’s claims could not altogether be ignored.
Excerpted with permission from “The Most Dangerous Place” by Srinath Raghavan, published by Penguin India.