POLITICS: HOW INTRACTABLE AN ISSUE IS KASHMIR?

Updated 01 Jan 2018

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A man in a balaclava jumps over burning debris during a protest in September 2016 in Srinagar against the killings in Indian-administered Kashmir | Danish Ismail / Reuters
A man in a balaclava jumps over burning debris during a protest in September 2016 in Srinagar against the killings in Indian-administered Kashmir | Danish Ismail / Reuters

More than any other modern country, India has been beset by separatism. Though data sets on secessionism suggest that, historically, Burma and Indonesia have come close to matching India, they lag for a simple reason: India is an incredibly large and diverse state. More importantly, unlike, say, the United States — another big and diverse democracy — India’s ethno-national groups are geographically concentrated. This means that a country or autonomous region of their own would be a nonsensical cartographic proposition for African Americans, for example, but an entirely reasonable one for Assamese, Nagas, Kashmiris, or Punjabi Sikhs.

Of course, not all of India’s separatist movements are created equal. The Indian centre has had a reasonable amount of success in retarding, if not entirely stamping out, secessionism in places such as Punjab or the Northeast, at least relative to their heydays. Once the site of an insurgency consuming thousands of lives annually, Punjab today sees no vestiges of such a movement; references to a Sikh state are much more likely to emanate from diaspora communities in Canada than locals in Chandigarh. In Assam, admittedly only one of several states in the Northeast, where the intensity of such claims ebb and flow, the full-blown rebellion led by United Liberation Front of Assam in the 1990s is a shell of its former self after persistent military action and internal splits.

But India-held Jammu and Kashmir is unique: both in the persistence of cries for self-determination, and in the centre’s policies addressing those demands, the Valley differs considerably from Punjab or the Northeast. Unlike in other parts of the country, where deals and accords are a central element of New Delhi’s strategy, Kashmiris are rarely the recipient of negotiated concessions. To the contrary, they consistently see the roughest and toughest version of the Indian state.

A scholar looks at Kashmiri separatism in the context of other separatist movements around the globe

Partly, this is a consequence of India-held Kashmir’s (IHK) place in the Indo-Pak rivalry. The collective thinking goes that any inch given to Kashmiris will be taken as a mile by Pakistan. Remarking upon the centrality of geopolitics to the Kashmir issue, Indira Gandhi pointedly noted in 1973 that “If there is friendship, well, all the borders can be soft, not just Kashmir!”

Cover of Ahsan I. Butt’s book
Cover of Ahsan I. Butt’s book

While Pakistani support has affected the trajectory of several nationalist movements in India — the Punjab insurgency, K.P.S Gill exaggeratingly told me in 2015, “would have been treated on par with aggravated dacoities” without Pakistani interference — its involvement in other regions pales in comparison to its policies in IHK. Aside from geopolitics, India is also loathe to make concessions to IHK due to the collective suspicion and racism directed towards Kashmiri Muslims, forever considered a fifth column by both security forces as well as political figures across India.

Under these circumstances, it is easy to see why Pakistani support is so attractive for Kashmiri Muslims. After all, there are significant cultural and linguistic linkages across the Line of Control. Pakistan is one of the few countries to take a substantive interest in the lives and status of Kashmiris. Most importantly, Pakistan has put its hard power behind shaking IHK from India’s grasp — both in full-blown wars, such as those in 1965 or 1999, as well as in supporting internal rebellion, as in the early 1990s. Facing a powerful and recalcitrant Indian state, armed with few global friends, it is intuitive why some yearning for autonomy or statehood in IHK value Pakistani backing. Who else will back the Kashmiris’ struggle if not Pakistan?

Kashmiris watch a protest from their home in 2016 | Danish Ismail / Reuters
Kashmiris watch a protest from their home in 2016 | Danish Ismail / Reuters

Unfortunately, this cross-border support has hurt more than helped the IHK’s cause. Domestically, being tied to Pakistan means that Kashmiri aspirations are easier to dismiss for right-wing and even centrist governments in India. A close partnership with India’s heated (and hated) enemy ensures indiscriminate and disproportionate reactions to Kashmiri demands, such as with pellet guns in 2016 or the arson, torture, and massacres of the early 1990s.

Furthermore, Pakistani support has not succeeded in helping Kashmiris upturn the territorial status quo; the map has not changed in seven decades, with the small exception of Pakistan handing over a slice of its territory to China. Indeed, Pakistan’s meddling makes it easier for global players to ignore and dismiss demands for Kashmiri self-determination as mere window- dressing for territorial revisionism.

That said, even the most perfectly calibrated support from Pakistan would be unlikely to realise Kashmiri dreams. It is certainly possible that in the early 1990s, with a strategy emphasising Kashmiri independence rather than accession, placed within the global context of freedom movements and new states springing up in contemporary Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Pakistan may have succeeded where it failed before: loosening India’s grip on the Valley. However, aside from that important exception, Kashmiris have never really come close to seriously challenging India’s sovereignty over the territory, with or without Pakistani help.

India-held Jammu and Kashmir is unique: both in the persistence of cries for self-determination, and in the centre’s policies addressing those demands, the Valley differs considerably from Punjab or the Northeast.

There is little shame in this. Since World War II, hundreds of nationalist movements around the word have mobilised for greater autonomy or independence, but very few win the ultimate goal of a new state. Of those that do manage to win a country of their own, most have to pay a drastically high price, either by fighting for a very long time, such as separatists from Sudan and Ethiopia, who took decades to win the states of South Sudan and Eritrea respectively, or in extremely intense, brutal conflicts, such as those birthing Bangladesh or Bosnia. Very few groups manage to win a state peacefully, as the Slovenians or Macedonians did. Fewer still do so with the threat of violence completely taken off the table, as was the case in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Divorce.

Indian security along the LoC in India-held Jammu & Kashmir | Reuters
Indian security along the LoC in India-held Jammu & Kashmir | Reuters

Indeed, most independence struggles, whether employing peaceful or violent tactics, are likely to end in frustration. In the Middle East, the Palestinians and Kurds have fruitlessly demanded a state for decades. In Europe, sporadic claims from Catalans are denied by a stubborn Spain. In Africa, Nigeria has held on to the Biafra region despite decades of war. And in South Asia, of the manifold separatist groups to have fought their governments for a country of their own, only the Bengalis were successful. Conversely, the Pakistani Baloch, Indian Punjabis, or Sri Lankan Tamils, to name just three, have failed.

So where do the main players go from here? The outlook, unfortunately, appears bleak, at least in the immediate term. What makes the IHK issue particularly vexing is its status as simultaneously an interstate dispute, between India and Pakistan, and an intrastate one, between New Delhi and Srinagar.

Kashmiri villagers shout slogans during a funeral of civilians, in Beerwah, north of Srinagar, August 2016 | Danish Ismail/Reuters
Kashmiri villagers shout slogans during a funeral of civilians, in Beerwah, north of Srinagar, August 2016 | Danish Ismail/Reuters

Conflicts “nested” in such a way, to use one scholar’s phrase, are notoriously difficult to solve. Which conflict should receive attention with regard to peacemaking and peace-building strategies? If there is a trade-off between ameliorating one conflict and exacerbating another, which should be prioritised? Can tripartite negotiations between Kashmiri separatists, Islamabad and New Delhi — a prospect the Indian state has shunned for decades — offer a way out, or will such a method only ensure chaos and crosstalk?

Regardless of what should come first, what is clear from recent developments is that neither conflict looks primed for the soft touch of diplomacy. Internally, the state has been wracked by Kashmiri mobilisation, with India’s methods of quelling disturbances — whether with pellet guns, shutting off internet access, or tying locals to jeeps and parading them as human shields — only fuelling the fire. In theory, the appointment of Dineshwar Sharma as interlocutor by Indian government for IHK, could chart a course to a meaningful dialogue, but expectations across the spectrum seem to be low. If interlocutors led by the late, genteel Dileep Padgaonkar under the United Progressive Alliance government did not amount to anything significant, it is hard to see a former intelligence official representing a Hindu nationalist government faring much better.

A Kashmiri demonstrator throws back a tear gas shell fired by Indian police during a protest in Srinagar, in Indian Kashmir, on February 5, 2016. The demonstrators said they were demanding an end to Indian rule in Kashmir | Danish Ismail /Reuters
A Kashmiri demonstrator throws back a tear gas shell fired by Indian police during a protest in Srinagar, in Indian Kashmir, on February 5, 2016. The demonstrators said they were demanding an end to Indian rule in Kashmir | Danish Ismail /Reuters

Meanwhile, on the international front, there is no prospective thaw in the offing between India and Pakistan that may enable progress on prior discussions, such as the Musharraf-Manmohan four-point plan. The optimism injected into the relationship by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore in December 2015 has dissipated, replaced by a rancour more familiar to observers of South Asia. And at the centre of it all remain the tired and troubled people of Kashmir, who, as is the case with most stateless national groups, are caught in the machinations of global and regional powers.

Ahsan I. Butt is an Assistant Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His doctoral dissertation was recently published as Secession and Security: Explaining State Strategy Against Separatists

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 31st, 2017