India and Pakistan have failed for decades to resolve their territorial dispute over the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. It’s time to let the people of these contested lands determine their future, Christopher Snedden writes.
The long-running Kashmir dispute reflects serious differences in the way that India and Pakistan exist as nation states and view the world.
For India, the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (known as J&K) belongs to it because J&K’s ruler acceded to India on 26 October 1947. On this thinking, therefore, all of J&K – or ‘Kashmir’, as it is popularly called – is an integral part of India. Pakistan has no locus standi. This particularly applies to the unsettling events in the Kashmir Valley, which India sees as its internal affair only. India’s possession of the Muslim-majority J&K confirms India’s secularism (as do the inclusion of Sikh-majority Punjab and Christian-majority Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland). Nevertheless, while Muslims now comprise more than 14 per cent of India’s population (2011 Census), some Muslims, especially in J&K, worry that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s pursuit of Hindutva (Hindu-ness) nationalism is weakening India’s secularism. Many Kashmiri Muslims also dislike the current ‘unholy’ alliance between the local People’s Democratic Party and the (Hindu) BJP.
For Pakistanis, ‘Kashmir’ is both part of their nation’s name and its ‘jugular vein’. The k in the acrostic ‘Pakistan’ stands for ‘Kashmir’, and is one of the Muslim-majority areas that Muslims desired for their post-British homeland. Pakistanis expected that the J&K ruler would join Pakistan because his state had a 77 per cent majority Muslim population and because most of its geographic, cultural and economic links were to be with Pakistan. This included the ‘jugular vein’ of three major rivers that flow through J&K into Pakistan: the Chenab, Indus and Jhelum. Nevertheless, Maharaja Hari Singh chose to join India. Since then, Pakistan has not claimed J&K. Rather, its ‘principled’ stance has been that a United Nations-supervised plebiscite should be held for the people of J&K—or J&K-ites, as I call them—to determine whether J&K, in its entirety, will join Pakistan or India. The associated UN resolutions confirm Pakistan’s, and J&K-ites’, locus standi. These religious and political links give Pakistan an irredentist interest in the welfare of J&K Muslims.
Since the mid-1950s, both India and Pakistan have been prepared to negotiate and divide J&K between them. Invariably, discussions have failed because they could never agree how, and along what line, to divide this strategic piece of real estate, with the Kashmir Valley the major contested area.
In recent years, little dialogue has taken place; New Delhi is almost totally disinterested in Pakistan. Even so, during the current bout of unrest, some Indians have blamed Pakistan for fuelling—or even creating—this situation. Pakistan, which is only taking advantage of longstanding problems that New Delhi has mismanaged, particularly recently, has focused on what it sees as India’s excessive treatment of disgruntled Kashmiris. Consequently, a hardline Indian stance has re-emerged that insists Pakistan vacate two of J&K’s five regions that it is illegally occupying. New Delhi also has chosen to highlight alleged human rights abuses in Baluchistan.
In the Kashmir dispute, there are only four factors on which India and Pakistan coincidentally agree. The first is that J&K is ‘occupied’. For New Delhi, Pakistan occupies Azad (meaning free) Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, while China occupies Aksai Chin and the Shaksgam area, which was ceded by Pakistan in 1963. For Pakistan, India occupies Jammu, the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh. Significantly, some Valley Kashmiris, particularly the leaderless and inconsolable younger ones who only know the anti-India uprising and who are difficult to appease, now consider India an occupying power. New Delhi rejects this, seeing Kashmiris’ unrest as a law and order issue. This partly explains India’s heavy-handed, and largely ineffectual, response.
The second is unequivocal: neither J&K, nor any part of it, can become independent. Constitutionally, candidates for elections in Indian-controlled J&K territory must uphold ‘the sovereignty and integrity of India’ whereas candidates in Pakistan-administered areas must support J&K’s accession to Pakistan. This seeming anti-independence unity does not appease Valley Kashmiris’ aspirations. Many have long indicated—and currently are reconfirming—that they want freedom from both India and Pakistan. Complicating matters, however, are other J&K-ites who oppose this option and want strongly to join the nation with which they are currently involved.
The third is that, even though India-Pakistan relations predictably range from poor to abysmal, there is no compelling reason, or domestic or international pressure, to change this relationship. Currently, relations are at the abysmal end of the scale as both nations angst over, and agitate about, events in the Kashmir Valley. New Delhi is only prepared to talk with Islamabad when the latter stops its ‘support for cross-border terrorism’. Pakistan denies engaging in such activity. Both nations ignore the fact that Kashmiris are severely disenchanted partly because the Kashmir dispute remains unresolved after almost seventy years. They need to have a serious discussion about J&K itself.
The fourth factor is that neither New Delhi nor Islamabad wants, or feels the need, to consult in any meaningful or inclusive way with the people of J&K. In the current climate of uncertainty, New Delhi clearly needs to have serious discussions with all elements of Kashmiri opinion, including separatists. Otherwise, for both nations, the territorial dispute is restricted to being a bilateral issue (although Pakistan would love to have other parties involved).
Their stance ignores one practical way to resolve the Kashmir dispute: let J&K-ites themselves decide what status, or statuses, they want for their lands. J&K-ites are stakeholders to the Kashmir dispute if only because it is about their lands. They were also the ones who instigated the dispute over J&K’s international status in 1947, not Pukhtoon tribesmen from Pakistan, as India has long claimed and in which Pakistan, surprisingly, has acquiesced. J&K-ites are long-suffering, particularly Valley Kashmiris. With India and Pakistan unable or unwilling to talk with each other, perhaps only the people of J&K can resolve the Kashmir dispute.