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Earthquake in Kashmir, Land of Upheaval

Kashmir, near the epicenter of a devastating earthquake, is home to more than 10 million people, as many as a third of whom have been left homeless.
Melody Kokoszka, NPR; Source: USGS
Kashmir, near the epicenter of a devastating earthquake, is home to more than 10 million people, as many as a third of whom have been left homeless.

The massive earthquake that struck Pakistan, India and the disputed Kashmir region hit an area long mired in both political and geologic unrest.

The Himalayas, which stretch 1,500 miles from Northern Pakistan to Tibetan China, are among the world's youngest and most dynamic mountain ranges. Shifting tectonic plates that separate Eurasia from India push the subcontinent north at a rate of about 1.6 inches per year, uplifting the Himalayan Mountains and causing frequent earthquakes and landslides in the process. Saturday's earthquake had a preliminary magnitude of 7.6, similar to the one that devastated San Francisco in 1906.

The region's geologic instability hasn't stopped population growth in the Kashmir region where the most recent quake hit, which is now home to more than 10 million residents. Most who live closest to the earthquake's epicenter in Pakistan, near the town of Muzaffarabad, are Muslims. But the area is also home to minority Hindus, who have a centuries-old claim to Kashmir, a sublime mountain valley in the shadow of the Himalayas, which sits along what is now the disputed border region between Pakistan and India.

It was long controlled by the Dogra people, feudal Hindu kings from Northern India. The Dogra's rule was sanctioned by the British in 1846 when they proclaimed India a colony of their empire. The Dogra were given authority over Kashmir -- ruling from dual capitals in Srinagar and Jammu -- until the British withdrew in 1947, after India gained its independence and Pakistan was created as part of the Indian Independence Act. With that began a bloody fight over who should control Kashmir that continues to this day. Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir as its own, also battling nationalist factions that have long fought to make it an autonomous state.

Over the succeeding half-century, the fighting over Kashmir is estimated to have claimed at least 40,000 lives. That is roughly half of the number of people who died in the Oct. 8 earthquake, "and the death toll could be higher," Pakistani Major General Shaukat Sultan, a government spokesman, said.

Even now, four weeks after the earthquake, bodies are still being discovered in remote areas like the district of Chikar. The earthquake demolished every house in the region, leaving hundreds of families camping in tents along vertiginous mountainsides. "It's very cold here in the tent at night," said resident Mohammed Bashar, who complained that he needed corrugated tin to build his family a new house.

With millions like Bashar left homeless, local officials worry that many could die of exposure as the brutally cold Himalayan winter sets in. Aid workers also report increasing health problems among survivors -- diarrhea, respiratory diseases and infected wounds.

What impact the earthquake may have on the politics of the disputed region remains unclear. So far, the opposing sides have been reluctant to coordinate relief efforts, although "both Indian and Pakistani politicians are concerned about putting on a good show and getting up there and demonstrating they're active," said Stephen Cohen, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who specializes in the region. "But it may also have affected some of the Pakistani-based terrorist groups that have operated in India-administered Kashmir."

Cohen notes one troubling sign: the earthquake destroyed the "Peace Bridge," a 220-foot-long bridge over a river marking the line of control between India- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir. In April, bus service connecting the two sides was established for the first time in 60 years. But with the link broken again, at least physically, the prospects for peace in the region could once again be weakened, Cohen noted.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex Markels
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