Over the last few weeks, two semi-autonomous states have been locked in conflict with a larger nation of which they are, theoretically, a part. But I would bet you’ve only heard about one of those conflicts.
The two “states” — I use the term loosely, for simplicity -- are Hong Kong and Kashmir.
Their situation is similar in several ways.
Hong Kong was once an independent British colony, Britain’s affluent doorway to the Orient. It was turned over to China in 1997, under a guarantee that it would retain political independence.
Kashmir was also once an independent kingdom within the British Empire. It was the favourite place for British civil servants, military officers, and business executives to escape the heat and humidity of Indian summers. They could rent a houseboat on idyllic Dal Lake, go hiking in the Himalayas…
Kashmir was everyone’s Shangri-La.
When India gained independence in 1947, the king of Kashmir, Hari Singh, himself a Hindu, opted for India rather than Pakistan — even though over two-thirds of Kashmir’s population was Muslim.
In return, his former kingdom was granted more autonomy than any other Indian province. Just as Hong Kong was guaranteed a level of democracy that the rest of China does not enjoy.
But, China then unilaterally imposed new rules about extradition. And India rescinded Section 370 of its Constitution, unilaterally revoking Kashmir’s special status.
Despite those similarities, their situations are also strikingly different.
Hong Kong is a thriving hub of international business. Kashmir is a backwater, even by Indian standards.
Hong Kong has world-class communications. Kashmir has frequent power failures. Internet communication, iffy at any time, has been shut down completely by Indian forces. So have telephones.
And the post office — you can’t even send out a scenic postcard!
In Hong Kong, almost everyone speaks English, the result of 156 years of British rule. In Kashmir, only the educated class speaks English.
And Hong Kong is home to about 300,000 Canadians — many sent as children to Canadian high schools in the 1980s to provide an escape plan for their parents in case the handover to China went badly. According to Global Affairs Canada, Kashmir has just 12 Canadian residents.
Therefore it’s natural, even inevitable, that our media would concentrate on Hong Kong and ignore Kashmir.
But. I contend that Kashmir is actually the far more dangerous situation.
Both India and Pakistan claim the whole historic kingdom of Kashmir. Pakistan currently controls about a third of the area; India controls slightly more than half. China occupies the remainder, bordering on Tibet.
India and Pakistan have already fought three wars over Kashmir. Both maintain a strong military presence; Forbes describes Kashmir as “the most militarized state in the world.”
Over 70,000 Kashmiris have died in territorial conflicts.
The Indian-controlled zone has one soldier for every eight Kashmiris — dramatically different from Hong Kong, where the Chinese military has, so far, remained outside the region. I couldn’t get a figure on the Pakistani military presence, in its territory, but it will be comparable.
India and Pakistan don’t trust each other. Animosities still linger from the bloody partition of the Indian sub-continent into Hindu and Muslim states, in 1947, when about two million died in religious violence, and 15 million were displaced.
One of my former classmates still recalls riding a train where, at one stop gangs of Muslims rampaged through the carriages, killing anyone they believed to be Hindu. And at the next stop, gangs of Hindus did the same to Muslims.
Hatreds still run deep.
Kashmir has one more factor that makes it vastly more incendiary than Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s protests are about an abstract concept — democracy. The Kashmir divide centres on religion, which is anything but an abstract concept. It is deeply personal. Religious loyalties do not lend themselves to compromise.
Passions can be easily inflamed. Religion — as suicide bombers have demonstrated over and over — is worth dying for.
Pakistanis will riot — and have rioted — if they feel a Hindu nation is mistreating other Muslims. The government of Pakistan will feel forced to intervene. Which would provoke further repression by India.
And both nations have nuclear weapons.
Not that they’re likely to waste nuclear weapons on Kashmir itself — a region with nothing of value but beauty. But, if either side feels the conflict is going against them, they might be tempted to balance the scales with a nuclear strike on Mumbai or Delhi, Lahore or Karachi. By comparison with that potential outcome, the Hong Kong protests look innocuous.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org