India’s policy in Occupied Kashmir is going south. Where is ours heading?
On Wednesday, August 5, Pakistan went full throttle. Prime Minister Imran Khan flew to Azad Kashmir and addressed the assembly; President Arif Alvi drove to the parliament and addressed the Senate; Murad Saeed wheeled over to Islamabad’s Kashmir highway to re-plaque it as Srinagar Highway; and assorted governors, chief ministers and grandees traipsed down to their respective functions to say what they were expected to say.
The government also mapped the new reality on a new map and said it had done what could not be done in the last seven decades. So yes, there was this too.
But beyond all these symbolic and quasi-symbolic moves, where does our Kashmir policy stand? This is a question that has been whispered the last few days as the official momentum towards August 5 slowly built up. The answer is, well, complicated.
There exists in Islamabad a foreign policy and national security establishment. It may be led by the establishment we call the establishment, but it includes a colourful spectrum of other players. Together, all these players — acting in concert as the foreign policy establishment — make policy, shape policy, influence policy and finally implement policy. Led by the PM office (formally), the key institutions are the military and the Foreign Office. They are joined by external influencers, like politicians who are vocal on these issues in parliament or other public platforms, retired and senior civil and military officials (who opine through writings, TV commentary or informal advice), journalists and media commentators focusing on national security issues, authors and think-tankers (not a large pool here), and religious parties and outfits that have enjoyed a megaphone on national security issues (less so now). A homogenous lot this isn’t, but on Kashmir, it is. Or has been — traditionally.
In fact, it would be accurate to say that we have a genuine consensus on Kashmir and it has manifested itself in the policies of all governments. For instance, if we see the last three speeches of prime ministers at the United Nations General Assembly, the basic thrust of the policy is the same. If at all there existed a debate on Kashmir, it revolved around the utility (or lack thereof) of proxies. The one time that this monolithic policy veered off the traditional course was when General Pervez Musharraf initiated his four-point formula for the resolution of the dispute. Once he left, so did that policy.
Our traditional policy on Kashmir felt like a comfort zone: everyone knew what our position was and how to express it. On the ground, there wasn’t much of a policy after the Jaishes and Lashkars were put to pasture in the last few years. The Pakistani state had evolved to an extent that it realised the diminishing returns of this policy and quietly — yet deliberately — altered it.
On August 5, 2019 Indian Prime Minister Narendar Modi threw a spanner in the works and upended all traditional thinking on Kashmir everywhere. Pakistan had to respond. So, how did it do so?
The foreign policy establishment is divided on this. The official version of course is that we have done this, that and the other — including renaming a highway. The unofficial version is punctuated with some grumbling. It is a subtle sort, because Kashmir cannot be grumbled upon publicly. There is a fringe opinion at both ends of the spectrum with outlandish and impractical solutions but mainstream thought finds solace in mere shades of policy difference. These shades have become more vivid since Modi stripped Occupied Kashmir of its special status under Article 370. This vividness has exposed three different strands of ambiguity within our foreign policy establishment.
Modi has changed the dynamics of the conflict by his brazen re-annexation of Occupied Kashmir. Do we respond by staying firm on our traditional position and not move the goalpost, or do we also take a strategic pivot and respond with a policy that is adjusted to the post-August 5, 2019 reality? The new map issued by the government is a nod to the new normal but it clearly doesn’t go far enough in its impact.
Should the thrust of our policy be “Kashmir banay ga Pakistan” (Kashmir will become part of Pakistan) or should it strictly conform to the right to self-determination of the people of Kashmir? In the last few days, we have heard conflicting statements from government ministers and spokespeople though the prime minister said clearly that the resolution of the dispute must be found through the UN resolutions.
Are we OK with symbolic gestures like a one-minute silence or do we need to take concrete steps that can be measured against quantifiable outcomes and objectives? Are there such options available that will be deemed acceptable and legitimate to the international community? If so, why have they not been undertaken?
These three strands of ambiguity have created subtle fissures of opinion within the foreign policy establishment where previously almost none existed on Kashmir. The present government has opted for symbolic steps so far. Perhaps there is prudence in such a policy, especially since there is greater coordination with China on the Kashmir issue (and as a result possibly a longer-term approach). Inside the Red Zone, however, there are influential voices that prefer a more proactive approach that can enable a greater non-military pushback from the people in Occupied Kashmir.
The situation on the ground helps push this approach, they say. In the occupied territory, the situation has worsened in every sense since last August. The repression, custodial killings, brutalisation of women and children, financial crisis, rising unemployment, internet blackout, whichever way one looks at it, the alienation of the population has never been greater. India has truly lost the people of Kashmir. Do we have policy options to address this situation?
Marches and highway re-namings and minutes of silences topped with traditional speeches is all fine, but perhaps insufficient to be dressed up as strategic policy. The challenge for the foreign policy establishment is clear — and it is not situated inside the comfort zone.
Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2020