Kashmir: the elusive peace

Ravinder Kaur
27 January 2009

One of the many significant outcomes of the Mumbai attacks has been the revival of the six decades long conflict over Kashmir. As the needle of suspicion points towards Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) - a Pakistan-based militant organisation active in Kashmir - the conflict over unsettled borders between India and Pakistan in Kashmir is once again being cited as the source of broader destabilization within the region.

A number of international observers have already suggested that any strategy to counter regional and global terror must include the resolution of the Kashmir conflict. In an influential article, the American scholar Barnett Rubin and the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid called for the redress of Pakistan's historical anxieties over unsettled borders in Kashmir towards a lasting peace not only between India and Pakistan, but also in Afghanistan (see Ahmed Rashid and Barnett Rubin, "From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan", Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008).

More vexingly, the resolution of the Kashmir crisis is increasingly being identified as an essential part of tackling terrorism in south Asia. The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, sparked outrage during his recent visit to the region by stressing the importance of "solving" Kashmir for the wider defeat of terrorists in the region. "I am arguing that the best antidote to the terrorist threat in the long term is co-operation," he wrote in the Guardian. "Although I understand the current difficulties, resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms, and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders."

No time for compromise Ravinder Kaur teaches at the University of Roskilde, Denmark. She is the editor of Religion, Violence and Political Mobilisation in South Asia (Sage, 2005) and author of Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi (Oxford University Press, 2007)

The Indian political establishment and commentariat were up in arms over such a suggestion, which was tantamount "to a visiting Indian dignitary telling Londoners after the July 7, 2005 bombings that more inclusive development of the ghettos would have helped dissipate the anger of alienated Muslim youth." (see Swapan Dasgupta, "Mourning the end of the Bush era?" Times of India, 18 January 2009) India remains adamant that the problem of Islamist terrorism within its own borders stems mostly from Pakistan and its murky, fractious security and intelligence apparatus. According to this view, Pakistan would continue to foment trouble in India, with or without a resolution in Kashmir.

The recent flap over Miliband's gaffe is illustrative of how difficult it will be to return all parties to the negotiating table in the current climate. During the tenure of former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, Islamabad and New Delhi moved cautiously down the path of political reconciliation over Kashmir, with a number of "confidence-building" measures agreed (such as the opening of bus routes across the Line of Control [LoC]). The Mumbai attacks, however, have once again poisoned relations between India and Pakistan. The Indian political establishment, in particular, is in no mood for compromise. While the likes of Miliband may optimistically urge a resolution of the Kashmir issue, the ongoing crisis remains intractable.

"Solving" Kashmir is made all the more difficult by the intransigence with which both India and Pakistan have stuck to their official positions on Kashmir since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Kashmir is officially described as a "disputed" territory by Pakistan while India speaks of it as an "integral" part of the nation. Similarly, India insists on Kashmir being a bilateral issue while Pakistan sees it as an international issue. Both India and Pakistan describe the parts of Kashmir under the sovereign rule of the other as "occupied" territory.

As the status quo power in the conflict, India hopes to make current borders permanent, thereby retaining its portion of Kashmir, while leaving "Azad" Kashmir (the portion controlled by Pakistan) to Islamabad. Pakistan refuses to accept this solution, ostensibly backing Kashmir's right to self-determination and independence.

The roots of the crisis

That India and Pakistan remain at logger-heads over Kashmir is not surprising, given the extent to which the dispute lies at the root of both nations. The princely state of Kashmir was a demographic puzzle - a Muslim majority population ruled by a Hindu monarch - in the making of India and Pakistan upon the logic of "two nations". According to the logic that demanded partition, Hindus and Muslims were two nations whose aspirations and potentialities could be realized only within separate state structures. Thus, the lines of partition drawn upon the map were intended to separate Hindu majority areas from Muslim majority ones. The nominally sovereign princely states, on the other hand, were given the option to either accede to India or Pakistan or retain their independence. The latter option was more theoretical since most of the more than four hundred princely states were actively encouraged to accede to either of the two states.

openDemocracy is pleased to offer readers special access to the History Today archive

Discover the history behind this story... >> Kashmir - The Unanswered Question Vernon Hewitt considers one of the bitterest legacies of partition that remains unsolved to this day.>> India & Pakistan: The Parting of the Ways Lucy Chester examines the processes by which the Indo-Pakistan border was drawn, dividing a single country into two.>> Jinnah and the Making of Pakistan Ian Talbot discusses the role of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in the creation of the Pakistan state.

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Kashmir's thorny position was compounded by its monarch's reluctance to accede to either of India or Pakistan as he entertained the second option of retaining independence. In October 1947, less than two months after the partition, his indecisiveness was punished by a crippling rebellion in the northern tribal areas supported by Pakistani forces. Unable to control the raging violence, he joined Kashmir to the Indian Union in order to gain military support. The ensuing first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir halted only when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in January 1948. The Line of actual Control (LoC) established by subsequent negotiations has since become the defacto border between the two countries.

Since 1947, tensions over Kashmir have produced three wars and a simmering, low intensity conflict between India and Pakistan. More importantly, Kashmir continues to stoke ever-hardening national rhetoric that feeds emotively into the domestic politics of both sides. At the heart of the dispute is a struggle over the very idea of each nation. The integration of Kashmir into India would legitimise its identity as a secular, multicultural and multilingual nation not defined by religion. At the same time, such a move would challenge the very premise of Pakistan as the homeland for south Asian Muslims. For the same reason, Islamabad finds it difficult to abandon its claim to Kashmir or its support for Kashmiri independence; India's inclusion of Muslim-majority Kashmir grates against the very rationale of the Pakistani state.

Pakistan officially invokes the various 1948 UN resolutions calling for a referendum in Kashmir that would reflect the will of the people. As conditions on the ground have changed drastically since then, India has long reneged upon the original offer made by its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Militarization and militancy in subsequent decades has also reshaped the demographics and political inclinations of Kashmir.

Edging up towards Afghanistan and central Asia in the west and China in the east, Kashmir is also geographically strategic for both countries, particularly for India. The encroachment of China through highway projects in the Himalayas and India's humiliating defeat in the 1962 Indo-China war - and the subsequent loss of a chunk of Kashmir known as Aksai Chin - has left New Delhi wary of China's growing strategic collusion with Pakistan.

Fractured as it was by cold war rivalry, the international community, or more concretely, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, historically played a minimal role. The United States and the United Kingdom were seen as partial towards Pakistan, whereas the Soviet Union often exercised its veto right to support India on crucial resolutions. At the end of cold war, China has found itself in a larger role in south Asia than before, with its support of Pakistan's nuclear programme and business development irking New Delhi. Nevertheless, India has largely succeeded in keeping Kashmir a bilateral and national dispute, out of the purview of the international community.

Into the 21st century

Two concurrent developments, which have significantly altered the political landscape of south Asia, make it more likely that Kashmir will remain a bilateral issue.

First, the dramatic growth in Indian economy has helped transform India from a "third world" nation to an aspiring global power, while further eroding confidence in Pakistan. India increasingly positions itself as a systemic player and stake-holder on the international stage. The recent Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver of restrictions on nuclear fuel supply to India's civilian nuclear facilities is evidence of the country's growing importance in western capitals.

While the world admires India's story of economic success and democratic stability, Pakistan limps from crisis to crisis. The contrast between the historical journeys of the two countries was particularly clear last year on the occasion of the celebrations of sixty years of independence. Most foreign observers were joyous in their celebration of democratic India as an emerging economic powerhouse. Pakistan - at the time still under the rule of Musharraf - was described as a crumbling, fractious state, embroiled in internal and external conflicts. 

Second, the post-9/11 discourse on terrorism makes local conflicts more difficult to address in their own terms, to the detriment of the Pakistani stance on Kashmir. The global "war on terror" - waged in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere - has taken many violent conflicts from the rubric of national or ethnic "struggles" into the darker realm of "terrorism". The issue of Kashmir has been displaced into a more abstract political continuum. The international commentaries following the Mumbai attacks were nearly unanimous in describing violence in India as part of a global jihadist phenomenon that required global solutions. While the attacks, on one hand, successfully brought international focus on Kashmir, they also served to highlight India's long standing assertion that it is a victim of Pakistan-sponsored, extremist terrorism.

Perhaps the most glaring obstacle in the way of a meaningful resolution is public opinion on both sides of the border. Unhitched from the real volitions of Kashmiris, Kashmir has a life of its own in popular sentiment in India and Pakistan. Kashmir remains a touchstone for politicians; suggestions of compromise by one party earn swift denunciations from another. Meanwhile, there is growing unrest in Kashmir, as evidenced by largely non-violent, mass demonstrations in autumn of 2008 that signalled the political awakening of a new generation of Kashmiris (see Muzamil Jaleel, "Kashmir's new generation", openDemocracy, 13 October 2008). The challenge lies in circumventing national rhetoric that has been useful in consolidating political constituencies for the past six decades. That makes the task of overcoming historical narratives all the harder, and their transcendence all the greater.  

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