There a conflict in South Asia, which has outlasted most post-World War II disputes. This long-festering dispute is the one in Kashmir, and it is the primary cause of hostility between India and Pakistan and a source for endless misery for the people of Kashmir.
As far as the Kashmiri is concerned, the Delhi and Islamabad governments share one key characteristic: both perceive Kashmir’s realities and interests as subservient to their own. This affinity between the Pakistani and Indian positions is ironic in view of the fundamental contrast between the two in relation to Kashmir. India is, in the language of political science, a “status quo power”. That is, it actually holds the area it covets, and its policies are intended to preserve the existing territorial situation. Pakistan’s position, on the other hand, is that of a “revolutionary power” one which seeks to change that status quo.
The reality is that New Delhi’s moral isolation from the Kashmiri people is total and irreversible. It might be reversible if India were to envisage a qualitatively different relationship with Kashmir, but so far New Delhi has evinced no inclination in this direction. But can India’s loss translate into Pakistan’s gain?
The answer is it cannot. Policy makers in Islamabad like to believe otherwise, and this is not unusual. Although Pakistani decision makers know the problem to be fundamentally political, since 1948 they have approached it in military terms. While officially invoking the Kashmiri right to self-determination, Pakistan’s governments and politicians have pursued policies which have all but disregarded the history, culture, and aspirations of the Kashmiri people.
The first step towards a solution to the Kashmir tangle is to comprehend the ambitions and fears of the three parties—India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris. India’s ambition is territorial; its aim, to exercise sovereignty over the Valley, Jammu and Ladakh. Its strategic concerns vis-a-vis China reinforce the territorial imperative. Delhi feels it cannot let pro-China Pakistan take over its strategic underbelly.
There are other reinforcements: India is politically polarised, and this polarisation will undoubtedly escalate if a centrist government accepts a formula to partition Kashmir. Also, India is a multi-religious state with a Muslim population as large as Pakistan’s. Delhi cannot afford another partition along religious lines without risking massacres and riots led by the strident Hindu nationalists.
Pakistan’s ambition is also territorial. It is reinforced by a deeply-held sense of injustice. After all, Mountbatten and his judicial minions did conspire to give India access to Jammu and Kashmir. Strategically, India’s military presence in Kashmir stretches Pakistan’s dangerously large defence parameters, and cuts it off from the source of its lifeline of rivers. To acquiesce in India’s illegal occupation is to submit to the bullying of a big neighbour. Furthermore, Kashmiri protests and rebellions against India will not allow Pakistan to forego its advocacy of the Kashmiri right to self-determination.
As for the Kashmiri-speaking majority, the driving force among them is a well-founded sense of victimhood, a feeling historically rooted but greatly nourished by Delhi’s brutal repression, the excesses of its security forces, and the collapse of Kashmir’s economy. Their aspirations, however, are largely for freedom. This quest is not defined in terms of the “two-nation” theory. The Valley is a classic environment for nurturing nationalism, home of Kashmiriyat. India cannot suppress it. Pakistan cannot absorb it. It must be accommodated.
All three sides are in a blind alley, back to back. India and Pakistan have the capacity, and apparently the inclination, to stay this course indefinitely. The Kashmiris, being the weakest and most vulnerable party, face a Hobson’s choice: either give in to India and settle for what symbolic concession they can get from the tormenting giant, or continue with resistance, however sporadically. History is replete with examples of oppressed peoples who have done just that, and their sacrifices have always been awesome. The shame and moral burden was always on the oppressors.
If one views as important the distinction between governing a society and coercing a multitude, India has ceased to govern Kashinir. Its options then are three-fold; one, keep its coercive presence in Kashmir and hope that some day Kashmiris will tire and throw in the towel. Two, negotiate with Kashmiri leaders on terms the latter could live with. Three negotiate seriously with Pakistan and Kashmiri insurgents who are grouped in the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC). There is also a fourth option, another India-Pakistan war, which is unrealistic as far as settling the question of Kashmir is concerned.
Neither India nor Pakistan have tried the option of negotiated settlement. It requires the two adversaries to abandon their fixed positions, put in place half a century ago, and acknowledge three fundamental realities. The first is that Kashmir’s future is a matter of dispute among Pakistan, India and the Kashmir people. Its settlement must involve and satisfy all three parties. Second, no matter, how forcefully it is promoted, unilateral solutions will not work because Kashmir is too large, populous, and strategic a place. Third, that in this instance the benefits of a historic compromise are much greater than the profits or pride of territorial acquisition. Peace, however gradual must be based on a common commitment to principles. One basic principle is that the ultimate arbiters of the Kashmir dispute are the people of Kashmir. It has to be acknowledged, too, that the notion of sovereignty has changed in the last half century, and is about to transform some more whereby divided sovereignties are not synonymous with divided frontiers.
If these principles are understood, diplomacy may be aimed at reaching an agreement to be implemented in three stages: autonomy, open borders, and “unification with divided sovereignty” over historic Kashmir. Under an arrangement whereby Jammu and Ladakh exercise a great measure of autonomy, India may claim sovereignty over them. Similarly, Azad Kashmir may be assured fuller autonomy and freedom from the federal government in Islamabad while Pakistan continues to remain the sovereign power. Upon the Valley—the historical and geographical heart of Kashmir and home of Kashmiriyat— may be invested the attributes of sovereignty.
This last needs to be accomplished in a manner that readies the Valley to serve three related purposes: as the repository and beacon of Kashmiriyat, as the insurer and facilitator of Kashmir’s unity, and as a bridge between India and Pakistan. To diminish the risk of civil strife and demographic instability, and also to allow time for this new arrangement to become workable, the Valley could be guided through a period of transition under a United Nations trusteeship.
It is a difficult challenge but the time is ripe. To become prosperous and normal peoples, we must make peace where there is hostility, build bridges where there are chasms, heal where there are wounds, feed where there is hunger, prosper where there is poverty. Kashmir is the finest place to start, and not merely because it is the core of the India-Pakistan conflict. Our histories, cultures and religions have converged in Kashmir. Our rivers begin there, mountains meet there, and our dreams rest there.