Kashmir: Time for a Bold Gambit

Written by  //  April 21, 2011  //  National Politics  //  5 Comments

[Ed. note: As a rule, articles on CriticalTwenties are brief, no longer than a thousand words. However, when the issue in question is Kashmir, and the opinion advanced is a roadmap towards a solution, based not on fanciful thinking but realpolitik, the editorial desire for brevity must give way to the understandable need for space to make a persuasive argument. Parag Sayta comprehensively assesses the issues involved and argues why the time to resolve the Kashmir dispute, once and for all, is now.]

With the thawing of Indo-Pak relations following the match that brought the subcontinent to a halt, all the discussion has been about an India-Pakistan bilateral cricket series. It would, however, be a tragedy for both countries if the odd sporting encounter, cultural meeting or prisoner exchange (important as they undoubtedly are) are treated as the sole barometer of improved relations, whereas mere platitudes are mouthed on the core issues: cross border terrorism and Kashmir.

I will argue that from an Indian perspective, the time has never been better to make a bold, comprehensive and all encompassing offer which would help resolve the Kashmir issue. In order to convince doubters, I will address five key issues: Why is status quo not viable? What would be the contours of a solution? Will this solution work? Why is it in India’s interest to take the initiative? Why is now the right time for a serious push?

The Status Quo

Pakistan’s traditional stance has been that since the state of Jammu and Kashmir has an overall majority Muslim population which is also contiguous to Pakistan, it should naturally become a part of Pakistan as the basis of Jinnah’s two nation theory was a Muslim homeland in parts of the subcontinent where the Muslims are a majority. It has therefore tried at various times to forcibly amalgamate Jammu and Kashmir: first through the tribal insurrection (composed mainly of Pashtuns armed by the Pakistan army) in 1948 when Jammu and Kashmir was still an independent kingdom, when it managed to capture roughly a third of the state, then in 1965 through a full scale war which arose because of the Kashmir dispute, followed by another war in Indian Kashmir in 1999 which came to be known as the “Kargil War”. From around 1990 it has also funded an Islamist insurgency composed of both Kashmiri and foreign fighters (especially veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war) which has made the Kashmir Valley into a veritable military fortress. Since the 1948 insurrection when it succeeded in controlling about a third of the state, its attempts to annex Kashmir through force have been thwarted. The Islamist insurgency has been especially painful and bloody for Kashmir itself. The largely peaceful movement in Kashmir where a range of voices were expressed: from autonomy within the Indian Union (through Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference) to independence or union with Pakistan, not to forget several people especially in the Jammu and Ladakh regions who preferred a closer union with India was replaced by the sounds of the gun. Even among some separatists, calls based on the secular, non-sectarian notion of azadi (freedom) were replaced by decidedly violent and Islamist notion of jihad (holy war). The violent retributions have not only been directed against the Indian armed forces and other instruments of state power, but also against the minority Hindu and Sikh populations in the vale of Kashmir, forcing them to flee to Jammu and other parts of India. There have also been Pakistan backed terrorist attacks that have targeted other parts of India. All of this has hardened attitudes in India, vindicating hardliners in India who maintain that any negotiations are futile and made it harder for any Indian regime to make compromises on the issue. Sixty years and four wars (including a two decade long proxy war) later, it has become apparent that Pakistan cannot force a military solution, especially because the last decade has seen the rise in the economic might and political clout of India and a concomitant decline in Pakistan. The proxy war, which initially looked like a partial success has proved costly for Pakistan as post 9/11 the chickens from its madrasa fuelled extremism have come home to roost.

On the other end of the spectrum, Indian nationalists base their assertions on the instrument of accession signed by Maharaja Hari Singh which makes the state of Jammu and Kashmir a part of India. This was followed by negotiations with Sheikh Abdullah, the popular and charismatic leader of the National Conference who negotiated a great degree of autonomy for the state within the Indian Union which has been granted to the state under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Besides the legal basis, Indian nationalists also claim that India is a secular country with the third largest Muslim population in the world. So Pakistan’s claim on Jammu and Kashmir simply on the basis of its religious composition is a non sequitur. The problem with this stance is that it simply ignores the ground realities that ought to be obvious to even the most one eyed patriots: there is a palpable sense of dissatisfaction with the Indian State in parts of Jammu and the Kashmir Valley. The status quo with its combination of carrots (through massive economic sops at great expense to the Indian taxpayer) and sticks (at the great cost of the lives of both soldiers and protestors) is simply untenable. Any comparisons with Punjab in the 1980s where a carrot and stick policy worked are incongruous because unlike Kashmir, the Sikh insurgency was a consequence of specific circumstances in the 1980s and the Sikhs had until then by and large been satisfied within India. Moreover, the involvement of an interested third party in the form of Pakistan makes Kashmir an even more complicated issue. It is simply too costly (not to mention morally repugnant) to have a perpetual police state within our borders. Besides the Islamist insurgency I discussed above, the bungling and follies of successive Indian governments and the human rights abuses committed by the Indian armed forces have further hardened attitudes and contributed in no small measure to the vitiation of the atmosphere. Besides, as much as our foreign affairs mandarins may try to obfuscate matters, it is undeniable that a major cause of the festering hatred against India and Islamic radicalism in Pakistan is India’s perceived intransigence on the Kashmir issue.

Status quo is not going to bring about a satisfactory solution. Pakistan cannot hope to forcibly acquire Kashmir, India cannot hope to solve its biggest security and foreign policy challenge which is a political problem by any number of economic sops or the use of force and most importantly, Kashmir itself cannot return to normalcy unless a political solution that is acceptable to all its stakeholders is agreed upon.

The Trodden Path

While both sides have been involved in intense, often bloody periods of acrimony, these have often been interspersed with attempts at dialogue. Ironically, these putative efforts have usually followed the most confrontational periods: thus the negotiations at the United Nations followed the 1948 insurrection; the Tashkent Agreement and the Simla Accord which called for a resolution of the Kashmir issue through bilateral means followed the 1965 and 1971 wars and declared a ceasefire along what came to be known as the line of control; the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998 were followed by the Lahore declaration and the Agra summit followed the 1999 Kargil war.

At various stages, Pakistan has argued for a plebiscite in the entire historical state of Jammu and Kashmir encompassing both Indian and Pakistan administered Kashmir. In the minds of advocates of this approach, this would presumably result in a numerical majority voting for union with Pakistan (as the state of Jammu and Kashmir has an overall Muslim majority) which would be binding on the all regions of the state (including the regions of Jammu and Ladakh which have non-Muslim majorities and which may plausibly vote against secession). This claim is based on UN Resolutions of August 13, 1948 and January 5, 1949 which call for a plebiscite which would give the people of the state the right to join either India or Pakistan. Pakistan’s claim is also based on the right of the people of Jammu and Kashmir to self determination. Besides the logistical problems associated with a plebiscite in an environment that has long been vitiated by violence, the change in circumstances in the Kashmir Valley and in Pakistan administered Kashmir—including the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits and Sikhs and internal migration into Pakistan administered Kashmir (it must be pointed out that a corresponding change has not taken place in Indian Jammu and Kashmir due to Article 370) have altered the dynamics of a referendum. More importantly, Pakistan’s position misses three key points: first, the wishes of the peoples of Jammu and Ladakh which have separate religious, ethnic and historic backgrounds cannot be ignored. Any forced integration of these parts with a country that is professedly an Islamic state would be well nigh unpalatable. Secondly, the proposed plebiscite does not offer the option of an independent Jammu and Kashmir. Most polls conducted in the Kashmir Valley as well as anecdotal accounts and the opinion of a significant proportion of the separatist leadership (especially the Yasin Malik led Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) suggest that an independent Jammu and Kashmir would be their preferred solution. A plebiscite may not be regarded as legitimate if this option is not provided and, by most accounts, Pakistan is unwilling to countenance the possibility of ceding control over Pakistan administered Kashmir. If the option of an independent Jammu and Kashmir is provided, there is the very real possibility of there being a three way split in votes, in roughly even proportions between India, Pakistan and an independent Jammu and Kashmir and an ensuing irresolvable deadlock. It also raises very real questions such as the viability of such a landlocked and historically and ethnically disparate region surrounded by India and Pakistan ever becoming a successful independent nation. Thirdly, a solution to the dispute has to be acceptable to the people of the rest of India and no government will agree to Pakistan’s demand for a blanket referendum as that would simply not be a deal that they can sell to the Indian public, especially after the blood, sweat and tears expended by India in fending off Pakistani aggression.

A section of the separatist leadership and even parts of the Pakistan establishment have, at various times, suggested what is known as the “Chenab formula”. Broadly speaking, this speaks of a division of the state along the Chenab river whereby the Kashmir Valley and the Muslim majority districts of Jammu, along with the entire Pakistan administered Kashmir being ceded to Pakistan. The Chenab formula is rejected outright by a large section of secular minded separatists for whom the struggle is based on national and not religious lines. It does not countenance the possibility of an independent Jammu and Kashmir which is what several separatists want. For Indians, it is also strongly reminiscent of the two nation theory in miniature, which most Indians completely reject. The process of forced migration along religious lines is for many Indians, too painful to contemplate. For similar reasons, any variants of the Chenab formula with, for instance, the whole of Jammu and Ladakh going to India and the Kashmir valley being ceded to Pakistan are also unlikely to be acceptable.

Those in the state who actually are in favour of an Indian union (most prominently Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party and the National Conference) suggest a “healing touch” policy through greater autonomy and complete demilitarization. While many in the Indian establishment prefer this option as it keeps Pakistan out of the picture, ground realities suggest that this solution would not be acceptable to the separatists led by the Hurriyat Conference. Without the acquiescence of the Hurriyat, lasting peace would be illusory. It is also difficult to envisage how demilitarization without separatist support would work: if the Syed Ali Shah Geelani inspired stone pelting protesters return to the streets, it would be impossible for anyone other than the army to control the situation.

For the sake of completeness, I would also like to mention one other proposal proffered by the Indian Right: abrogation of Article 370 which would pave the way for people from other parts of India settling in the state. The proponents of this solution point to the success of China through its “Han-ification” policy in Tibet and are inspired by the Zionist example in Israel. The consequences of this policy being adopted are too grim to bear: look no further than the furore following the decision in 2008 to transfer just 100 acres of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board. Besides the moral vacuousness of breaching the promise of autonomy made to Kashmiris, the only certain consequence of this policy is that the subcontinent would permanently remain in embers.

The Road Map

Given the seemingly intractable nature of the conflict and the unviability of the solutions described above, the best hope for peace is the precedent set in Northern Ireland where the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 between the British and Irish governments has led to more than a decade of peace in what once appeared to be an irresolvable conflict. Broadly, the solution is based on disarmament by various unionist and nationalist militias in the region, free movement of goods and people and a joint mechanism (with the British and Irish governments along with both unionists and nationalists of Northern Ireland) for governance and dispute resolution.

Remarkably, a variant of such a solution seemed to have been within our grasp. In surprisingly candid and frank revelations, both Gen. Pervez Musharraf and ex-Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri have said that in the course of negotiations between 2004 and 2007, a solution was almost agreed upon. The solution is based on four key pillars: demilitarisation, regionalisation, self government and a joint mechanism. Though not stated explicitly in public, the publicly available information on these discussions seems to imply that the solution would not involve any change in the existing territorial borders (i.e. the de facto line of control). The solution would require modification of existing mechanisms on each side of the line of control to accommodate the four pronged approach and not a total start from scratch, allowing for a semblance of continuity.

Astonishingly, large sections of the Pakistani establishment: the army, including its influential chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (who is also the ex-chief of the ISI and rated by several experts as the most powerful man in Pakistan), the intelligence agencies and politicians including incumbent President Asif Ali Zardari backed the deal. The Kashmiri leadership was also on board and apparently so was the Indian government. The only reason the deal could not go through at that stage was that there were elections in Indian states which delayed the process, followed by anti-Musharraf protests in Pakistan surrounding the sacking of its Chief Justice, which finally scuppered it. The Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 terminated any chance of resurrecting the deal until now.

Let us examine each of these pillars.

Demilitarisation would involve withdrawal of armed forces from both sides of Kashmir. A necessary precondition would obviously also involve a complete dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure within Pakistan. While not foolproof, it is our best hope for cessation of violence. If the Pakistani establishment, including its army and the ISI is behind the process and the deal is also backed by Kashmiri separatists, then for the first time, we can hope that genuine efforts are made to tackle radical groups as Pakistan would be a stakeholder in the process. There is already a realisation in Pakistan that it cannot hope to counter extremism within Pakistan and help the U.S. fight its war in Afghanistan while allowing groups inimical to India to operate as these groups are fungible. An honourable deal on Kashmir will allow it to act more wholeheartedly against these groups.

Regionalisation involves making the border dividing the two sides of Kashmir ‘irrelevant’ by allowing free movement of people and goods. Surely, this would be unobjectionable to either side. The concern of illegal entry of people or arms is a logistical one as making borders irrelevant does not mean doing away with them. So there will continue to be adequate security arrangements and border checkposts which would not hinder the movement of ordinary people or goods but will keep an eye out for unwanted elements.

Self government would involve an assembly for the entire state which would have the autonomy to make decisions in certain areas allocated to it. Innovative solutions could be proposed here so that the assembly would be in addition to the pre-existing Jammu and Kashmir Assembly each having powers to legislate on predefined areas. The joint mechanism refers to a body comprising of Indians, Pakistanis and all regions of the state which would have the power to decide certain issues. These issues would possibly include very specific subjects like security, water sharing and resolving any disputes that may arise under the deal. Critics would argue that this is an extra-constitutional solution, which goes against the stated Indian position that any change to which a simple retort would be that the Constitution is not immutable. Our core interests are a peaceful solution to the dispute without compromising on our territorial integrity, both of which are achieved.

A Peek into the Future

Significant challenges could emerge for a deal of this nature. On the Pakistan side, a likely scenario is one where a reactionary government or army general who is dissatisfied with the solution takes control and rescinds on the deal. Or the Pakistani government along with separatists ask for greater concessions. Our pre-condition to this deal should be that it is a final settlement to the dispute, with no further grounds for negotiation. In any event, we would always have our fallback option of status quo ante. If the deal falls through due to rescission on the Pakistani or separatist side, we can justifiably, with the moral right and world opinion on our side, get back to our original position. The mere possibility of Pakistanis and/or separatists reneging on the deal in the future should not therefore thwart us from entering a deal in the first place.

On the Indian side, the possibility of a revanchist government assuming power and scrapping the deal is more remote. Trends of the past six decades indicate remarkable perspicacity of the Indian electorate who have elected broadly centrist governments, especially on matters of foreign policy where there has been a continuum. Chances of a rupture are therefore highly unlikely. A more probable concern on the Indian side is if the slippery slope argument comes true. The fear is that the deal might embolden other separatist groups to raise the temperature and get more aggressive in their demands. In such a scenario the Indian establishment and public would develop cold feet and want to renege on the Kashmir deal. I believe that these fears are misplaced. The Indian Union is, in its seventh and most prosperous and peaceful decade, now widely accepted, even embraced by people all over India. The India of today is one of the fastest growing economies of the world which also provides a democratic outlet to meet regional aspirations through its federal structure. In places as disparate as Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Assam, the separatist scourge appears to have been removed. The one genuinely unresolved dispute is Nagaland (some may also add Manipur to this list). Here, the model is not Kashmir (which is unique because of the presence of an interested third party) but other North-Eastern states that have been won over through a combination of autonomy and the promise of a better economic future.

The Good Thing and the Right Thing

The revelations made by Musharraf and Kasuri are so extraordinary, it boggles the mind. What is even more astounding is that the media has failed to give this the coverage it deserves and that the civil society has failed to push the Indian government towards the solution by creating excitement and awareness among the Indian public.

Here is a golden opportunity to solve India’s single largest security and foreign policy challenge without any compromise on our core interests. In return, I believe that this is our best hope to bring the perpetrators of past terrorist atrocities on Indian soil to justice (this could be made a part of the deal during negotiations) and help address some of the long term causes of anti-Indian hatred and extremism in Pakistan. It would also help resolve the single biggest unresolved border dispute on our borders which has been so costly in terms of blood, money and our collective national energy.

Most importantly, I believe that offering a fair resolution to the Kashmir issue is the moral, fair and just thing to do. Given the legacy of our independence struggle and our lofty ideals, it is also the right thing to do.

Do it Now

The disparity between the relative power of the two nations has never been greater. India has delivered an economic growth rate of around 8 per cent over the past decade. By Indian standards, the past decade has also been one of the most stable ones with most parts of the country satisfied with their position in the Indian Union. At the same time, Pakistan has perhaps had the worst decade of its existence. The American war on terror has divided and weakened the country, it is facing the wrath of Islamists at home and suffered floods of biblical magnitude last year. I would argue that this would be the best time for us to strike a deal: our bargaining position is at its strongest, Pakistan is very keen to reach an honourable compromise that it can sell to its people and the separatist leadership appears to be on board, willing to adjust its earlier hardline stance. Put another way, circumstances have conspired to deliver a perfect equilibrium: the Indian government can take this deal to the people and say they brought peace with Pakistan without compromising on India’s security or territorial integrity; Pakistan can show that it managed to strike an honourable deal given its bargaining position and the Kashmiri people can have actual autonomy, virtual reunification and for the first time in decades, the prospect of peace.

The timing is also right because it is not too late within the term of this Lok Sabha to set the process rolling. Indian elections are not due till May 2014, still a good three years away. The government is reeling from corruption scandals and seems bereft of ideas. An honourable resolution of India’s most prickly dispute would be the ideal shot in the arm. The government also comfortably has numbers on its side. The only significant opposition is likely to come from sections of the Hindu Right, but surely, the Indian public is now mature enough to understand that this is not a sell-out of our national interest: if explained properly, it would be relatively easy to convince the Indian public that the deal has not compromised on our core interests and has given peace in the sub-continent a chance. It also must be remembered that the present peace process is a legacy of Atal Behari Vajpayee and we must therefore feel confident that at least a section of the BJP leadership can be brought around to back this deal. So achieving a national consensus on the issue does not seem impossible. In Pakistan, the key protagonists who were agreeable to the deal: Zardari, Kayani and Musharraf are still around albeit in different roles. Like the Hindu Right here, the Islamists might be the one group which opposes the deal, but by now, even the ISI now realizes that the Islamists are not amenable to reason and cannot be allowed to spoil the deal.

Crucially, the taciturn Dr. Manmohan Singh seems as keen as his predecessor to leave a strong legacy on Kashmir. His handling on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal highlighted that when he is really determined to get something done, he has the tenacity to carry it through. His statement on the 18 April gives us some cause for hope. On the legacy he wants to leave behind as Prime Minister, he said: “if I can succeed in normalizing relations between India and Pakistan as they should prevail between two normal states, I would consider my job well done.” Well said, Mr. Prime Minister. Now time for some action.

5 Comments on "Kashmir: Time for a Bold Gambit"

  1. Arghya April 22, 2011 at 8:23 am · Reply

    Very persuasively argued but isn’t your solution a little counter-intuitive? If India is headed in the right direction and Pakistan the wrong and the trend lasts, as it seems like it will for some time, do you not think the people of Kashmir who I believe must have the primary say in the decision will want to ‘settle’ the issue by joining hands with a functional India rather than a fraught Pakistan? I would have thought the recent downturn in Pakistan, tragic certainly, means that we can be a little more assertive in our Kashmir policy.
    If 1948 teaches us any lesson it’s that don’t quit when you’re winning; you may think it’s an act of magnanimity, instead it gives you 60 years of bloody conflict.

  2. Parag Sayta April 23, 2011 at 3:28 am · Reply

    You are right when you say that India is an upward trend and Pakistan is heading the other way. And India has both the manpower and the financial wherewithal to continue its policy of status quo.
    Where I disagree with you is when you use the word “winning.” I certainly do not see a situation where a good percentage of the Kashmiri population is so unhappy with status quo that we need to maintain a police state as winning. I am also a bit skeptical about these separatists changing their mind just because India is doing better economically than Pakistan is because this is a political problem. If, as you say, Kashmiris would want to join hands with a functional India than a fraught Pakistan, then logically you should be prepared for a plebiscite, for how else would we be able to determine their wishes? Are you prepared for that, given all the problems with a plebiscite I highlighted above?
    Finally, just to add, if this deal is agreed, then the territorial borders of India would not change. If agreeing to a joint mechanism and ceding some powers to a united Jammu and Kashmir assembly is the price we have to pay to buy peace with Pakistan and satisfy the separatists, then I believe its a price worth paying.

  3. sam May 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm · Reply

    It would be treasonous and outright illegal for the Indian Prime Minister to even seriously consider such a downright naive and dangerous proposal. If India ever de-militarizes the State and opens up “soft borders,” you might as well as kiss Kashmir – and perhaps the Indian Union as we know it today – goodbye with it. Once the jihadi hordes (and disguised Pakistani military personnel) have swept in en masse, there will be nothing that India could do to change the ground reality – just as India has been able to do squat about the illegal Pakistani occupation of POK for 60 years. Thus, it’s a pure fantasy and fallacy to believe – as does this author – that India can revert to status quo ante. Why do you think Musharraf et al. were peddling this idea? Because they know Kashmir would fall into their lap in a mere 5 to 10 years, and they would have accomplished what they failed to do on the battle-field over the last 60 years (not to mention the “war of thousand cuts”). Moreover, Musharraf is on record for saying that even if Kashmir is resolved, Pakistan’s conflicts with India will continue. What next – Junagadh, Hyderabad, control of water, Hindu-Muslim relations, ad infinitum? The painful Indian as well as American experience with Pakistan over the last 60 years makes it crystal to anybody but the most naive that Pakistan is a fanatically driven, treacherous state that can never be trusted. Pakistan is imploding (reaping the fruits of hatred that were sowed as its ideology from the pre-independence period to the present), and we must let it implode for global peace and security. However well intentioned, Indians ought not be be peddling dangerous and foolish concepts such as this one.

  4. Arjun June 3, 2011 at 1:27 am · Reply

    I also believe, like the poster of the first comment, that acts of Indian magnanimity have been done to death with no solution. We must be hard, we must be strong, and more importantly we must be firm, because we CAN. There is no need to cede anything to anyone, we must look for the best solution in India’s interest and India’s interest only. How do you think China would have dealt with the problem?
    No, I believe we have a economic, political and military clout now to force solutions and we must force them to suit us. The time for weakness and currying favor with the world like a subservient state is over.

  5. Arjun June 3, 2011 at 1:31 am · Reply

    I must add: I respect this blog and almost everything written in it- Not this article though and I think it is an incredibly naive post coming from an incredibly intelligent source. Please, no more of these ‘love all peace to all’ solutions. Most Indians by and large are sick of Pakistan and would hope they NEVER prosper…god forbid with help from us.

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