Why has the Kashmir dispute been so intractable?

Line of Control, de facto border between India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir

Before the sun had risen on the morning of September 18 2016, eighteen Indian soldiers and army personnel were killed by insurgent militants at an Indian army base near the Line of Control (LOC) in Indian-administered Kashmir, the de facto – although not internationally recognised – border between Indian-controlled Kashmir and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. This ambush attack  was deemed the deadliest on India’s military in over a decade.

The attack on the camp near the town of Uri was purportedly carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan terrorist cabal. According to Indian source, this group was alleged to have ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

India perceived the Pakistan state had supported the ambush attacks on the army base and on September 29, the Indian military claimed it launched retaliatory “surgical strikes” against Pakistani targets within the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir territory, although Pakistan sources claim they never occurred.

This rapid escalation of cross-fire, retaliatory attacks and increasingly bellicose rhetoric has pushed the Kashmir issue back to the fore on the international stage. Any hopes held by that international community that the two nuclear powers would have normalised relations after almost half a century of antagonism, violent belligerence and deep suspicions, were resolutely quashed. years. In terms of its duration and intractability, it can be considered analogous to the Israeli-Arab conflict  (Khan, 2011). N

Now, there is renewed concerns for the potential of nuclear attack or widespread ethnic violence that could destabilise the entire region.


Symbolic Land

The Kashmir dispute is more than disagreement over the ownership of a tract of land. It is the battlefield for a clash of nations’ ideologies and a perennial struggle for regional power; one which has been fomenting since the creation of its two main adversaries as sovereign states in 1947.

The Line of Control (LOC) between Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Indian-administered Kashmir Photo Credit: http://www.kotcb.com


One persistent obstacle on the road to resolution has been that all parties involved view the conflict through the skewed prism of history (Garguly, 1997). Both India and Pakistan have sewn Kashmir into the symbolic narrative of their respective national identities. Their zero-sum nationalist claims offer no option for compromise or concession.

The ‘k’ in Pakistan stands for Kashmir and some analysts have argued that Pakistan places the Kashmir question fundamentally in the psyche of the nation since its partition from Indian in 1940s (Jalal, 1999). For India, the issue of Kashmir has tended to not be as visceral. For Pakistan, it still is the ‘problem of Kashmir’ (considered a ‘disputed territory’ and an ‘unfinished agenda’ lingering after Partition). For India, it is the ‘problem in Kashmir’; they perceive the accession of Indian-controlled Kashmir to India as final and now the issue concerns addressing cross-border terrorism, and mitigating the grievances of Kashmiri people (Garguly & Bajpai, 1994).


The Origins of the Kashmir Conflict

When the British rescinded control over its Indian colony, it conferred full power to the newly created states of India and Pakistan on August 15, 1947.

British India was divided into 500 disctricts/fiefdoms. At the time of Partition, each maharajah – fiefdom leader – was given the option of acceding to either India or Pakistan. The decision was based upon whether the populations in each fiefdom were Muslim or not. Muslim dominated fiefdoms would become part of Pakistan, while Hindu-dominant people would join India.

Hari Singh, the maharajah of princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, found himself in a unique position as a Hindu ruler governing a majority Muslim population. Both India and Pakistan tried to persuade Hari Singh to accede to them respectively. Despite the fact that independence was not an option, Singh vacillated and refused to choose, with hopes of attaining his own sovereign state (Sreedharan, 2009).

Hari Singh, last ruling Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in India Photo Credit: http://www.thefridaytimes.com

Both India and Pakistan coveted Kashmir to solidify their own national philosophies at Independence. For India, this Muslim-majority region would advertise the Indian secular success story as a truly pluralistic society (Mattoo, 2003). It would be the jewel in their crown of democratic diversity and religious co-existence (Bose, 2003). More prosaically, Prime Minister Nehru came from Kashmir and the Pandit Brahmins were seen as a stronghold of electoral support for Nehru’s Congress Party (Misra, 2001).

For Pakistan, Kashmir is the final clause in the yet unfinished 1947 Partition Agreement and would signal full realisation of their ‘Two Nation’ theory, which gave Pakistan’s founding fathers the prerogative to develop a separate state from India in the first place. This theory postulated that Muslims cannot live with Hindus in one sovereign state without conflict and therefore need their own sovereign nation-state to ensure their safety (Hogan, 2001). Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir would conclude Jinnah’s utopia, based upon the assumption that majority Muslim areas would fall under their rule after Partition; Kashmir’s geographical contiguity was closer to Pakistan territory than India, and 77% of its population were Muslim (Bose 2003). For many in Pakistan, it was right that Kashmir was under Pakistan rule.

Following a (some argue government-supported, but others argue was not) Pakistani insurgency of tribesmen into Kashmir to occupy the area (see Wirsing, 1996), Singh acceded to India in exchange for protection from the unwelcomed insurgents.

The legality of the maharaja’s claimed accession to India was never accepted by Pakistan (Garguly, 2001). At most, they viewed Singh’s ‘accession for protection’ as a conditional and temporary gambit.

India delivered on its promise to ‘protect’ their newly acquired territory and sent soldiers to Kashmir in late 1948 to dispel the insurgents. This influx of troops precipitated the first war between the two countries and signalled the beginning of the volatility and conflict that has plagued the entire region since.


Plebiscite for the Kashmiri people?

A ceasefire was reached and formally declared at a minute to midnight on the night of New Years Day, 1949. India claimed control of most of the valley, as well as Jammu and Ladakh, while Pakistan claimed control of areas now known as Gilgit-Balistan and Asad-Kashmir

One condition of the ceasefire was based upon the 1948 UN Security Council resolution that a plebiscite would be held. The Kashmiri population were to be asked to which country they themselves would like to accede. The final decision, it was argued, would be contingent to the will of the Kashmiri people. Jawaharal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister, accepted the UN resolution and promised to hold a referendum to end the conflict. However, he later reneged: India never held this promised referendum and never allowed the Kashmiris to decide on the final status of Kashmir since its “temporary accession”. As a result, Kashmir continues to be “disputed territory” (Aktar, 2011).

Following Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, this gave Indian Controlled Kashmir a special status, making it impossible for the Indian Parliament to make laws for this state without the consent of the Kashmir itself. They also inoculated against an influx of Hindus in the area to change the demographics having any impact on its political character (Tilin, 2006). This clause was intended as a temporary provision, as the fate of the state had become an internationalised dispute, following India’s appeal to the UN to end Pakistani cross border terrorism. Article 370 is said to protect ‘Kashmiriat’ or Kashmiri identity from dilution, destruction or nefarious manipulation (Madan, 1993).


The Forgotten Kashmiri Voice

Often forgotten in the conflict are the Kashmiris themselves (Bose, 1999, Jalal, 1990). In 2009, Robert W. Bradnock conducted extensive opinion polls to gauge and analyse the position of the Kashmiri people concerning this contentious issue.

Under the UN resolutions of 1948 concerning the fate of Kasmir, the options in the plebscite were to be restricted to two choices: the Kashmir people could either vote to join India or Pakistan (Das, 1950). The option of Kashmir’s independence was not posed.

Bradnock’s 2009 poll demonstrated that preferences were polarised n Kashmir. 21% of the population indicated that they would vote for the whole of Kashmir to join India, and 15% specified they would vote for it to join Pakistan. Furthermore, only 1% of the population in Pakistan controlled Kashmir stated they would vote to join India. 2% of the population in India Controlled Kashmir say they would vote to join Pakistan.

According to the poll, the option of independence has been promoted on both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir over the two decades since the 1990s. However, although 43% of the total population said the since they would vote for independence, in only five out of eighteen districts was there a majority preference for the independence of Kashmir in its entirety.

These results support the already widespread view that the originally proposed plebiscite options are likely to offer no satisfactory solution to the conflict. Any solution will be contingent on the Indian and Pakistani governments’ commitment to achieving an enduring and peaceful resolution.


Two nuclear nations at war

The world was watching the two states with apprehension when violence broke out between the two countries in 1999 during the Kargil conflict, as it later came to be known. As both countries had only recently demonstrated their nuclear capabilities (with India first testing a nuclear device in 1974 and Pakistan in 1998), the addition of nuclear dimension to this violent flair up in the conflict fundamentally changed international dynamics and attracted widespread calls to settle the dispute once and for all.

India monopolised on anti-terrorism international sentiment following September 11, when pressure was put on US to view Pakistan-supported terrorism and rogue jihad factions as a potential target within the War on Terror, under the Bush administration (Bose, 2003; Sreedharan, 2009) India, with its desire to become a legitimate player on the international stage – joining organisations such as BRICS and the New Development Bank (NDB) to highlight its economic and political clout – had to demonstrate its ability to settle disputes in its ‘own back garden’ and arrive at disputes through diplomacy, rather than petulantly engaging in retaliatory warfare (Kumar, 2002)

The current position of India contends to convert the line of control in Kashmir as the international border and keep everything as it is. It was the basis of the Simla Conference in 1972,which took place after the defeat of Pakistan in its war against India in 1971 over Eastern Pakistan secession to create Bangladesh. Signed by Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Simla Agreement asserted that all Indo-Pakistan disagreements would be resolved bilaterally (Snedden, 2005). In pursuit of a resolution and the accompanying stability, India has shown preparedness to forgo the Pakistan occupied part of Kashmir. Initially, Pakistan supported the Kashmiri Separatist movements but has since reneged this support and is more sympathetic to the struggle of Islamic organisations that advocate for the Muslim nature of the Kashmir region (Shibli, 2009).

In October 2004, Pakistani Prime Minister Musharraf suggested a three-phased solution along ethnic and geographic lines, signifying that Pakistan was ready to move away from a solution based on religious-communal lines (Akhtar, 2011) India had regarded division on religious lines as a threat to its secular character and anathema to its core ideology. In December 2005, Musharraf floated a four-point formula that envisaged soft borders, demilitarisation, self-governance and a joint mechanism for supervision of Kashmir (Akhtar, 2011). This would ideally lead to normalising relations, encouraging trade and initiating economic ties across the border (Mohan, 2006).

The issue of China’s rule over Kashmir and its involvement in the negotiations process has received little consideration as China has demonstrated no indication that it will cede control of their portion of Kashmir to India in similar fashion to its claim to Arunachal Pradesh (Ganguly, Blank & Devotta, 2003; Bajpai, 2010).


Water war?

Beyond these ideological clashes, the issue of water is gaining ground as a pressing issue, especially for Pakistan, which resides downstream from India on the Jehlum, Chanab and Sindh rivers. Since 2007, India has constructing many dams and hydroprojects on these water sources that flow through Kashmir, and which were allocated to Pakistan under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. Any discussion between the two sides will feature water high on the agenda in the future.

If India were to renege on the Indus Water Treaty, a catastrophic humanitarian crisis could hit Pakistan; a country already suffering from drought conditions and water scarcity issues, according to a 2015 IMF report. A recent article by Foreign Policy outlines the sheer magnitude of Pakistan’s dependence on the Indus river, constituting the sole source of water for irrigation and human consumption for large swathes of the country residing in the basin. If Pakistan’s access to water from the Indus Basin was to be hindered or altogether blocked, the results could result in widespread famine, agricultural failure and economic hardship for the poorest in the country. It is a highly cognisant fear in the minds of many Pakistanis that India could manipulate their control of the riverways as a weapon of warfare. International collaboration is highly necessary to ensure that this does not transpire.


In conclusion, the zero-sum mindset concerning Kashmir is the main obstacle in the conflict. Both Pakistan India view the complete acquisition of the entire region, whether through military or diplomatic channels, as the only satisfactory outcome. But, this absolutist reasoning is not realistic. Combined with the polarisation of opinion regarding the wishes of the Kashmiri people themselves, this all contributes to the political impasse we see today.

The main party facing the brunt of the suffering and violence is the Kashmiri people. As a Guardian article published November 8 outlined the repressiev tatics used by the Indian government in the tumultuous region:

“Since July, when the killing of a young militant leader sparked a furious civilian uprising across the Kashmir valley, the Indian state has responded with singular ruthlessness, killing more than 90 people. Most shocking of all has been the breaking up of demonstrations with “non-lethal” pellet ammunition, which has blinded hundreds of Kashmiri civilians.

In four months, 17,000 adults and children have been injured, nearly five thousand have been arrested, and an entire population spent the summer under the longest curfew in the history of curfews in Kashmir

Only a complete reconceptualisation of the issue will successfully solve the conflict. The threat of nuclear annihilation, the urgent water issue and the widespread crackdown on government trained jihadis from Pakistan will all be important factors in a revised agenda. Any new approach to the conflict must replace the relatively antiquated maximalist territory claims that have only led to rigid and intractable deadlock over ownership of the region.

However, as we have seen in the past few months, the political will appears absent on both sides of the border and actions are motivated by desire for retribution. The protection of national pride supersede sober actions and mutual benefit co-operation. And the mistakes of history appear inevitably like they will repeat themselves.



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