The unresolved issue of Kashmir has remained one of the major stumbling blocks in the process of normalization of relationships between India and Pakistan. The status quo has resulted in three armed confrontations between the two countries and almost continuous saber rattling. It prevents any reasonable bilateral discussion to take place. The newly installed government in Pakistan seeks to open talks yet again with India, and the first round of which were recently held in Islamabad in May 2008.
This divisive and contentious issue is a remnant of the skewed and poorly planned Partition of the two countries that was enacted by the departing British in 1947.
At the time of the Partition of India, the Dograh Rajah of the Princely State Kashmir, Hari Singh, dithered between decisions to cede to Pakistan or stay in the Union of India. He was pressured by the Indian National Congress to cede to India and by the Muslim League and his predominantly Muslim population, to cede to Pakistan. Unrest was fomenting within Kashmir, the Rajah already being unpopular due to his harsh and unfair taxation measures and his oppressive style of governance. In 1947 there were widespread communal riots and his final decision to join the Union of India, resulted in the simmering resentments to erupt into a full-blown civil rebellion, where Pakistani tribals found it as a reason to intervene. Even this “accession” to Indian is a hotly debated issue: Pakistan does not recognize this act. The hasty and haphazard act of partitioning the two countries, undertaken by the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, created the existential ambiguity that complicates the issue today.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars on the issue of Kashmir. The first taking place very soon after Partition when a third of Kashmir was wrested from under Indian control by invading tribals from Pakistan’s North West Province. This area today is claimed by Pakistan as Azad Kashmir, and the remaining, bulk of the state resides as a province within the Indian Union as “Occupied Jammu and Kashmir” and Ladakh. The status of which remains an unsettled issue pending before the UN.
At the time of the first armed confrontation between India and Pakistan, the case was taken to the United Nations, with India assuring the world body that their decision would be binding. As early as 21 April, 1948, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 47 that: “the final disposition of the State of Jammu and Kashmir will be made in accordance with the will of the people expressed through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite conducted under the auspices of the United Nations.” The United States was both its cosponsor and coauthor.
India and Pakistan, both failed to fulfill that undertaking and since then resolution, or even measures to seek a lasting solution to this thorny issue, have eluded the two neighbors.
India’s denial of self-determination has created deep rooted anger and frustration towards the Indian Government. There are strong feelings of marginalization and erosion of Kashmiri “national” identity. The economic neglect and the presence of large and ominous military presence compound the bitterness and anger. India has an estimated 700,000-men strong army presence to maintain its control over Kashmir. Education has been expanded in the state but the accompanying economic opportunities are largely absent, creating a segment of fairly well educated young people, who have little economic mobility. Frustration and unfulfilled aspirations of economic improvement has resulted in much of the youth-based rebellion. The response to the insurgency by the Indian Government has been through harsh military measures and brute force coupled with political machinations and maneuvering that has unfortunately not borne the fruit of lasting peace as expected.
Conflict resolution is never effective through applying force or military aggression, it only further deepens the rift existing and polarizes the opposing parties.
Today there is a strong realization in both countries that there is an urgent need to forge greater regional alliances and find ways of mutual cooperation.
This is particularly imperative as both countries today enjoy the dubious honor of being nuclear powers. Being armed with nuclear armaments has given the situation an dangerous slant, as both countries also maintain large standing armies, the largest in the world. The full ramifications are not clear to politicians on both sides. How much closer to peace has becoming a nuclear power, brought the two countries, is highly debatable.
It is believed in various circles that having resolved many of their issues, especially that of Kashmir, India and Pakistan can find common ground to become a formidable economic and political force in the region’s geo-politics. It can act as a major stabilizing force in South East Asia and be an effective counter check to the growth and spread of militancy, much of which stems from economic disparity, deprivation of fundamental rights, weak and ineffective democratic systems.
The reality on the ground remains that unless a lasting and just solution is found to the Kashmir issue to the satisfaction of the Kashmiri people, no meaningful normalization of India-Pakistan relations can occur. It is not a question of one party gaining from the loss of the other; any solution must be rooted in the aspirations of the Kashmiri people. It has to be a participatory exercise, the main obstacle to normalization being the readiness of both parties to resort to the military option or to simply maintaining the status quo. It is evident that nothing can be achieved without tripartite participation.
Successive Pakistani governments have sought a solution without sincerely taking into account the historical, cultural and economic aspirations of the Kashmiri people. There has been much lip-service to the right of self-determination. A Kashmir policy has been pursued which has created an isolation of the Kashmiri people and an ever widening gulf has appeared. There is a feeling of disconnection with the rest of Pakistan, and understandably so, as the aspirations and visions of the Kashmiri people efforts towards self-determination are not necessarily in harmony with the political vision prevalent in Pakistan. So far the Pakistani stance has been one of rhetoric supporting the idea of self-determination and plebiscite, the Indian one has been one of denial and resorting to a military backlash, both have failed to make any gains.
The new leadership in Islamabad hopes to rekindle dialogue to seek some resolution to this unresolved issue. It is the right step with the right intentions. It is more than clear that at least for Pakistan, one of the main stumbling blocks in achieving significant economic progress is the large allocation it is forced to make towards strengthening its military. These are resources that should be diverted towards infra-structure building, education, health, development of its industrial base and strengthening democratic institutions.
What is a cause of concern is the newly unfolding political drama being played out in Islamabad. There is an air of uncertainty as tensions mount amongst the coalition partners and between them and the Presidency. The renewed peace-seeking efforts must not be derailed and relegated to the back-burner otherwise this opportunity too will be lost. A viable and mutually satisfactory solution has to be found if the region is going to move towards stability and have lasting peace.
The real aspirations of the Kashmiri people must be taken into account and their leadership has to be very much part of the solution. This is no easy task as Kashmir is itself made up of Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist populations. These populations seek self-determination, independence and sovereignty over their future, at their own terms as spelled out in UN Resolutions. India and Pakistan have to take this desire into account and approach any peace settlement accordingly.
The following questions arise: How committed to real and meaningful peace is the leadership on both sides? Are they ready to be bold enough to allow the Kashmir people hold a fair and impartial plebiscite? In the scenario that the people of Kashmir actually desire and seek independence and decide to chart their own future, are India and Pakistani leadership willing to accept and abide by this decision? Lastly, is there the political maturity there today to take this leap of faith?
In the words of the eminent Pakistani thinker and political analyst, late Dr. Eqbal Ahmed…”Kashmir”, he states….” would then serve as the starting point of normalizing relations between India and Pakistan. And if India and Pakistan normalize relations, with free trade, free exchange of professionals and reduction in our arms spending, in ten years we will start looking like East Asia. We are competing with each other with so little money. Four hundred million people in India out of a population of 950 million are living below the poverty line. In India this means people who do not have a 2000-calorie intake in one day. These are people whose children are being born with defects. This condition has to be removed.”(Excerpt from ” Eqbal Ahmed; Confronting Empire”; Interviews with David Barsimian. South End Press 2000).
If we are to strive towards securing a future for coming generations, a future free from inequities and that holds the promise of social and economic betterment and fosters hope, we must address the issue of a lasting peace. If we fail to grasp the opportunity to secure future peace, we are doomed to reside in limbo that can be worse than adversity.