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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 18:16 GMT
Kashmir's forgotten plebiscite
Srinagar street scene
The views of the people have never been tested

When the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India in 1947, the then Governor-General Lord Mountbatten suggested that in view of India and Pakistan's competing claims for the state, the accession should be confirmed by a "referendum, plebiscite, election".

But determining the wishes of the people has been far harder to achieve than was ever expected.

Indian solder on lookout
Kashmir is now divided between opposing armies
Fighting between Pakistani and Indian forces in 1949 left two-thirds of the state under the control of India, comprising Ladakh, Jammu and the Valley of Kashmir.

One-third remained under the control of Pakistan, comprising "Azad" (free) Kashmir and the Northern Areas.

In three resolutions, the UN Security Council and the United Nations Commission in India and Pakistan recommended that as already agreed by Indian and Pakistani leaders, a plebiscite should be held to determine the future allegiance of the entire state.

As a prerequisite they required Pakistani nationals and tribesmen, who had come to fight in Kashmir, be withdrawn.

Plebiscite abandoned

But in the 1950s, the Indian Government distanced itself from its commitment to hold a plebiscite.

This was firstly because Pakistani forces had not been withdrawn and secondly because elections affirming the state's status as part of India had been held.

After the outbreak of insurgency in the Valley of Kashmir in the late 1980s, militants and political activists claimed that they had never been able to exercise their right of self-determination and the issue of the plebiscite was again raised.

Independence option

But there was a split between those demanding a plebiscite in order to determine allegiance to either India or Pakistan and those who stated that a third option should be added: Independence.

Ladakhis do not want to join Pakistan
Pakistan has consistently called for the issue to be resolved by means of a plebiscite and has blamed India for reneging on its pledge.

But although it supports the Kashmiris "right of self-determination," Pakistan has never accepted the third option as a possible outcome.

It is also now evident that holding a plebiscite that assumes Kashmir becomes a united state might not produce an equitable result, given its cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Diverse views

The Muslim majority of the inhabitants of the state of Jammu and Kashmir live in the valley, but their demands are not universally shared by the minorities living in different areas of the state.

The Buddhist population of Ladakh has never supported the movement either for independence or accession to Pakistan, nor has the majority Hindu population of the Jammu region.

Burning Indian flag
Activists want the right to self-determination
The inhabitants of the Northern Areas would, however, be most likely to support officially becoming part of Pakistan, as would "Azad" Kashmir.

The contentious issue remains the status of the Kashmir Valley, whose inhabitants are divided between demanding independence or allegiance to Pakistan, with a proportion opting to remain within India.

Because of the lack of unanimity among the inhabitants, it has been suggested that if ever the issue were to be resolved by a plebiscite or referendum, a fairer solution might be to hold the plebiscite on a regional basis.

Those supporting the independence of the entire state reject this suggestion because it would inevitably formalise the division of the state which they want to see re-united as one independent political entity.

To date, the Government of India has refused to reconsider the possibility of holding a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir.

Without, however, holding a plebiscite or referendum it is impossible to determine exactly what proportion of the people support which option.

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See also:

07 Jan 02 | South Asia
07 Jan 02 | South Asia
04 Jan 02 | Americas
16 Jan 02 | South Asia
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