The five hijackers that commandeered an Indian Airlines jet on Friday are reportedly demanding the release of Kashmiri rebels imprisoned by India. Most newspaper stories suggest that the 50-year feud between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is the cause of the hijacking, but few explain the dispute. What's the gist of the conflict?
The controversy began in 1947, when Great Britain withdrew from the Indian subcontinent, creating two states--India (predominantly Hindu) and Pakistan (predominantly Muslim)--out of the subcontinent's hundreds of territories. The Hindu ruler of Kashmir, a territory about twice the size of Virginia, agreed to a union with India. Pakistan objected and went to war with India claiming that Kashmir's majority Muslim population would prefer to join it.
The United Nations brokered a peace agreement in 1949, dividing Kashmir along a cease-fire line that has roughly held until today. India controls two-thirds of the land and more than three quarters of the population. Both the Pakistan-held Azad ("Free") Kashmir and the Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir became semi-autonomous regions within the controlling nations. The cease-fire agreement called for a plebiscite to decide the governance. It has never been held, and the U.S. does not recognize either country's claim to Kashmir.
The cease-fire has been marked by periodic fighting--including China's 1962 invasion of a portion of Kashmir that it still claims. In the early 1990s, various Muslim insurgents in Indian-controlled Kashmir escalated the conflict by demanding independence for Kashmir or union with Pakistan. They backed their demands with kidnappings and bombings throughout Jammu and Kashmir. India responded by sending more armed forces to the region. The rebels expanded, too, receiving political support from the Pakistan and Afghanistan governments, and manpower and money from Muslim groups in those nations. This summer, hostilities approached all-out war between India and Pakistan, as the nations' armies traded shots over the cease-fire line.
Maulana Masood Azhar, the Pakistani-born Muslim cleric whose freedom the hijackers are demanding, was an early leader of the Kashmiri independence movement. He was arrested by India in 1994 for fomenting revolution. The Harkat ul-Mujahedeen, which Azhar headed, is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and is one of the most violent and extreme rebel groups. In 1995, it kidnapped--and likely killed--five Western tourists in a failed effort to win Azhar's freedom.