Finding keys to the Kashmir gridlock

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Resolving stubborn conflicts like Kashmir requires flexibility, bargaining and compromise. The major difficulty in this situation is asymmetry between the contending powers
The Kashmir dispute has consumed too much of the energies of India and Pakistan over the past sixty years. They have fought four rounds of war and have supported proxy elements to damage each other’s internal peace and stability. Their failure to settle the issue amicably within the framework of the partition of British India in the early years of independence turned them into bitter enemies.
That was not the vision of the founders of the two countries when they decided to create two independent states. Contrary to contemporary perceptions, the founding fathers thought India and Pakistan would be friendly and support each other in nation building. Both sides’ conflicting claims over Kashmir and subsequent resort to force pushed them in the opposite directions, deepening their antagonism and their strategic culture of confrontation.
Pakistan was truly anguished by the Indian annexation of Kashmir, as it took advantage of legal ambiguities and played the game of hard realpolitik, disregarding the wishes of the people and the interests of Pakistan. Pakistan’s position on Kashmir had legal and moral merit, but it had no resources to force a stronger, bigger and more influential India to change its position.
But the strategic lesson of the Kashmir debacle was not lost on Pakistan, which was that it had to balance Indian power through whatever resources it could acquire, from anywhere in the world. It has done pretty well in presenting an effective strategic counterpoise to a larger India, but at enormous economic and political cost, including distortion of civil-military relations and the ascendancy of the military as a political actor.
The Kashmir issue has had a long-term negative impact on the structure of hostility between India and Pakistan. No two nations with so much in common in culture and history, and having lived together as interspersed communities for thousands of years, have been distanced from each other for so long as India and Pakistan have been. If we look at the complete mutual isolation maintained by the countries’ restrictive visa regimes, their perceptions of enmity, and the discourse of hostility popular in the communalist and conservative sections of their societies, an ‘iron curtain’ along the Indo-Pakistan border seems not proverbial but real.
It is not easy to shake off the heavy baggage of history and the burden of our collective wrongs, but it has to be done in the interest of progress, peace and human dignity.
It is heartening to see the positive trends that have emerged in the Kashmir peace process and in India-Pakistan relations in the past few years. In a suffocating climate of mutual hostility, even a few ambiguous hints and signs that the future may be different from the past, cross many of us as a fresh breeze.
Three sets of initiatives are quite visible and signal that the protagonists are now thinking out of the box. The first is the composite dialogue with a basket of issues on the table, the Kashmir dispute being one of them. The second is the revival of back-channel negotiations, which allow the interlocutors to think creatively, unhindered by the bureaucracy. The third is the frequency of interaction among the Kashmir leaders from both sides of the border. These are, however, only helpful tools in thinking about an acceptable solution of the Kashmir problem.
Though still undefined and a bit nebulous, there appears to be an emerging consensus among the strategic thinkers of India and Pakistan on three points. First, maintaining the status quo along the Line of Control and turning it into an international boundary will not be acceptable to Pakistan and the Kashmiris. Second, war and militancy belong to the past. They have caused too much pain to the people of Kashmir and have proved to be counter-productive in resoling the Kashmir issue, provoking a great deal of hostility between India and Pakistan. Third, India will have to lift its siege of the valley and put an effective end to its military brutality and violation of human rights.
Resolving stubborn conflicts like Kashmir requires flexibility, bargaining and compromise. The major difficulty in this situation is asymmetry between the contending powers and the conventional calculus of weak and strong. This was precisely what gave rise to the asymmetrical warfare waged by the Kashmiri insurgents and our support to them. Such conflicts don’t produce clear winners, so all the parties end up losers, some suffering more than others. The Kashmiris, with more than seventy thousands killed, have been devastated. The Indian loss is equally great in terms of the political alienation of the Kashmiris. It has lost considerable legitimacy and can control the valley only at gunpoint.
Fearing further erosion of its authority, New Delhi has started regular consultations with Kashmiri leaders and has blessed them in their overtures to Pakistan and Kashmiri groups in Azad Kashmir. But it is not clear if India is prepared to contemplate any ‘bold and unpopular’ decisions to settle the Kashmir issue.
Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf has considerably changed its official position on the solution of the Kashmir dispute. Whether he succeeds in getting a reciprocal response from India on his controversial Kashmir initiatives or not, he has demonstrated a remarkably compromising attitude. Civilian leaders would find it hard to match it because Kashmir is a fundamental political and security issue that provokes emotional responses. His four-point Kashmir formula—demilitarisation, self-governance of the valley, open borders, and joint control of the disputed region—is truly innovative.
But without a proportionate Indian response to these proposals, the initiative may die leaving the wrong impression that Pakistan is desperate for any solution.
The real question is not how good or plausible a proposed solution is, but the political intent and the willingness to engage with the other party meaningfully and with a sense of history. If we look at the score of proposals on the Kashmir solution that made the headlines and then faded quickly in the mists of history, they all had merit. But the real difficulty with them all was a pie-in-the-sky quality. Only those proposals that have a clear and consensual vision of the three major parties—Kashmir, India, and Pakistan — are capable of bearing any fruit. I am afraid such a vision is either not there or has yet to be revealed.
The present regional and international environment has presented India and Pakistan with a fresh opportunity to rethink their strategic disentanglement from the Kashmir problem. But they can do so by being bold and being prepared to anger and deal with vocal and conservative constituencies. Their objectives in Kashmir will need to be winnowed and focused, and mutual expectations made clear, if they want to write a new chapter in the history of subcontinent.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.