A Kashmiri shawl merchant in my native city Kolkata proudly shows the best goods he has whenever I visit the shop. And after a while, I sometimes ask about his home in Kashmir. With tears in his eyes, he speaks about the beauty of the land and his nostalgia. Anyone born in India untilthe late 70’s of the past century, was told in childhood, Kashmir is a heaven on earth, for its amazing natural beauty and moderate-tempered equally hospitable people, citing what Mughal Emperor Jahangir wrote about it in 1620 in Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri (Memoirs of Jahangir), or four centuries later, what Jawaharlal Nehru said about Srinagar to be a “fairy-city of dreamlike beauty”. But, for the past several decades, thispiece of paradise is a bone of contentionbetween two South Asian nuclear powers. It is split into two, part belonging to India and part under the occupation of Pakistan. Constant threat of terrorists from the Pakistan occupied side and pressure of the Indian army from the other is what made this shawl trader fear and move out. For this reason he, a Muslim by faith, is fine in my city and goes back once or twice a year to order the merchandise.
Tensions reached its peak following a suicide attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy on 14 February, which killed 42 soldiers in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The suicide attack was performed by a 20-year old young Kashmiri man, whose video recorded statement, confirming that he is the one who committed the act, went viral. It was the deadliest in 30 years of Kashmir conflict and claimed by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), escalated into a massive standoff between the two South Asian neighbors. India demanded Pakistan take action on these militants, operating from its territory. Pakistan demanded clear evidence. On February 28, Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi told in an exclusive interview to the CNN that the founder of armed group Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar, is in Pakistan and is "very unwell". The very location of this terrorist leader, not very far away from Abottabad, the place where Osama Bin Laden was hiding is a clear indication of how Pakistan’s territory is used by terrorist networks.
Twelve long days in India was spent in mourning, and the media wanting a reply from the authorities, as well as demanding answers to questions about security lapses and how could such a massive terrorist act happen. After these 12 days India launched “non-military, pre-emptive” air strikes on the terrorist camps inside Pakistan’s territory, and one Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman was captured. Response by Pakistan followed and there was shelling across the border. War was knocking at door. Later,on March 1, Pakistan returned IAF pilot to India and called it “a gesture of peace”. Tensions, for the time being, came down. However, today, in the same way as during the past several decades, the violence-torn beautiful land and people of Kashmir, across the Line of control still seek an answer to question – will peace ever come? If it comes, how and at what cost for the lives of its people?
This very old problem of Kashmir, inherited since the emergence of the two independent states, India and Pakistan, from the remains of the colonial British India, has been the primary geopolitical marker of trouble and stability, of diplomacy and warfare, of arms race and peace talks for the post-colonial era of the sub-continent. New vignettes of this old problem have seen multiple armed conflicts, wars, numerous cross border terrorist attacks, insurgency, series of human rights violations and militarization. Peaceful and good neighborly coexistence of India and Pakistan, like US and Canada, France and Germany is a dream and the biggest post-colonial challenge of the century. And Kashmir is at the heart of the problem.
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Establishing peace in the region would require both India and Pakistan to reconcile the multiple — and sometimes conflicting — aspirations of the diverse peoples of this region. Only the Muslim population in Indian administered Kashmir might be interested in seceding from India, after decades of fear, and intimidation, resulting from the militarization of the valley. But this is not true for the Buddhists in Ladakh or the population of Jammu, and the Hindu Kashmiris (Pandits), who suffered in the hands of Muslim militants and had to flee from Kashmir valley to live in shelters in Jammu and other parts of India. Only when local aspirations are recognized, addressed and debated alongside India and Pakistan’s nationalist and strategic goals will a durable solution emerge to one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.
Experts are of the opinion, many historic chances were lost. Some say, the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah was in favor of Kashmir’s accession to India, it is pertinent to point out here that they did not want outright annexation but only through empowerment of the people of Kashmir. Considerable discussions were held and there are elaborate memories captured in available literature. Issue of such an ideal accession did not materialize due to the death of Nehru in 1964. Luck was again knocking at the door, when, in 1971, after the end of the Indo-Pakistan war and independence of Bangladesh, a plebiscite in Kashmir would have been in favor of India, say others. Time passed, while both India and Pakistan had to consider Kashmir in the cobweb of geopolitics of the cold war era, weapons proliferation and other issues.
Suffice it to say that the only state having special status as per the Indian Constitution is Jammu and Kashmir. To have accession based on popular consent, India created sufficient legal and constitutional framework for ensuring autonomy of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. But this special status and autonomy has contributed to the internal problems of social integration in the state today.
According to Section 370 of the Indian Constitution: No law enacted by the Parliament of India, except for those in the field of defense, communication and foreign policy, will be extendable in Jammu and Kashmir unless it is ratified by the state legislature of Jammu and Kashmir. Thus, constitutional protections for minorities available in mainland India were not applicable to minorities in Kashmir as per Article 370, so, as a result, the minority community of Kashmiri Hindus were eliminated from the economic organization of the State, its government and administration. An archaic and highly discriminatory rule known as the State Subject law, was instituted in 1890, by the then Maharajah, and later the spirit of the same law was reflected in Article 35A of the Indian Constitution. It empowered the Jammu and Kashmir state's legislature to define “permanent resident” of the state and provide special rights and privileges to those permanent residents, disallowing outsiders from owning land and property in the state. According to this law, women who marry men (including those who are Kashmiri Hindus) domiciled outside the state, automatically lose their right as a ‘State Subject’. Even if their children are born in the state, those children have no rights and are destined to live elsewhere in India. As a result, generation after generation of Kashmiri Hindus started losing rights to their ancestral homeland.
Rise of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and later after the withdrawal of the Soviets at the end of intervention by USSR, the militancy and arms started spreading to the neighboring areas. Thus, when militancy erupted in the Kashmir valley in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was already dominated by Muslims, and the first casualty was a tiny community of ethnic Kashmiris belonging to the Hindu faith, comprising roughly eight percent of the population. Known to swear their allegiance to the Indian state, this community became the first target of Islamist militants who engaged in targeted killings of the community's prominent members. Threats were issued to either convert to Islam or leave the valley—and most of them, numbering around 300,000—fled Kashmir to the safer havens of the nearby Hindu-dominated region of Jammu.
Decades later, with repatriation to Kashmir still only a dream, the community has created its own political party - the Jammu Kashmir National United Front (JKNUF). Militancy in Kashmir has also simultaneously produced an ethnically cleansed landscape, dotted with abandoned Pandit homes and lands, destroyed Hindu temples, and a large community of internally displaced people. Meanwhile, Kashmiri society slowly, but ominously, turned into a polarized one and now constitutes patchwork of culturally and religiously homogenous areas spread across the state, emptied of its earlier syncretism.
Life for Muslims has not been easy either. Militarization has added a bitter experience with Human Rights protection. Military’s relationship with the civilian population has been problematic. After every militant attack or some small insurgency, the Indian army searches the cities for probable terrorists and many persons are arrested and labelled as terrorists. This continuous tussle between Indian Army and local citizens, has increased stereotyping the average Muslim living in the valley to have suspected links with terrorists, followed by mistrust and culminating into hatred towards the Indian Army. Calls for secession from India are often heard. In this situation, a debate on abrogating of amending the Section 370 or Article 35A has always caused uproar among the ruling parties in Kashmir, which, if undertaken, will remove the exclusivity of the Muslims in the valley. Strangely, in case of joining Pakistan, the ruling elite of Kashmir do also realize that this exclusivity and privileged position will immediately disappear, and so their calls for independence are not translated beyond declarations.
Thus, the issue of any plebiscite or “asking what the people think” is easy to propose but difficult to implement. It might yield results, which will be destabilizing for both India and Pakistan as well as send signals for the Tibetan region of China. Pakistan’s earlier precept that religion be used as a division for partitioning British India and princely states was long overruled when Bangladesh became independent in 1971, comprising of a Muslim-majority population. Muslim religion in the Indian subcontinent is not a monolith and it is archaic today to use the historical argument. Today, India is home to more Muslims than the whole population of Pakistan. India has the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. In this context, invitation of the Indian Foreign Minister Mrs. Sushma Swaraj to the United Arab Emirates for a meeting of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is at the height of the current crisis is indeed symbolic, although the OIC issued a strong worded statement condemning both the terrorist act as well as the Indian air strikes.
Recent tensions after the 14 February terrorist attack once again revealed several simple truths that were clear for many years to the population of both India and Pakistan but not clear to leaders and politicians of both countries, who are always tempted to use the issue of Kashmir in their pre-election campaigns.
First, it showed that there can never be any military solution to the problem. The rationale for the standoff with huge military from both sides is largely preventive. However, any provocation or terrorist act is enough to kindle a major war and the consequences are unpredictable. Therefore preventing all terrorist acts is in the best interests of Pakistan.
Second, leadership is crucial for facing and mitigating crisis as well as delivering tangibles, which can act as tools of good neighborhood foreign policy. Leadership in India by Narendra Modi has been adequate in its immediate reaction to the crisis, but has faced challenges of managing the crisis further in the height of its election campaign and is also entangled into an arms deal scandal centering the delivery of Rafale planes from France. Coming into power of Imran Khan as the Prime Minister of Pakistan gave some hope. Pakistan did contribute to de-escalation by return of the captured Indian Air Force pilot. It also arrested the brother of the leader and several other members of the “Jaish-e-Mohammad” network that took responsibility for the terrorist act, as per the list of names and proof provided by India. In another move, a provincial minister of Pakistan was forced to resign after his anti-Hindu statements. Similar resignations did not happen in the case of Islamophobic statements of some India’s ruling BJP personnel. But, it will be unfair to say de-escalation was possible solely due to the political will of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who, earlier a cricket player and a charismatic personality enjoys high popularity among the Indian public, or Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister.
Here comes the third truth. The subcontinent is home to the largest democracy in the world. Information revolution has also changed the subcontinent, which applies to the political fabric of Pakistan, which is dominated by the military. Pressure from the civil society, eminent people, youth were crucial. Writer Fatima Bhutto, niece of ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and grand-daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto openly condemned any retaliation and requested Imran Khan to return the captured Indian pilot back. Anti-war statements, hundreds of flash-mobs, mass demonstrations were held both in India and Pakistan. Undoubtedly, the young generation’s yearning for peace in the subcontinent was a decisive factor. They are tired of the war mongering jargon of their politicians, huge defense budgets at the cost of social and economic development.
Fourth, usually aloof with their own lives, Indian and Pakistani diaspora around the world were also united against any war during this crisis. Anti-war blurbs, write-ups and campaigns flooded the social media. This was a stark contrast to many mainstream media in India, who were seen warmongering and were criticized for not adhering to the required ethics.
Five, side by side with this positive development, the problem of widely circulated fake news from social media added to some tension through postings of several false videos, pictures and messages. The video of an injured pilot from a recent Indian air show and images from a 2005 earthquake were taken out of context to attempt to mislead tens of millions on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. In India, Pratik Sinha, co-founder of a fact-checking website, Alt News, received requests to verify news from journalists and people on social media. In Pakistan, a purported video of a second captured Indian pilot was being widely circulated. Fact-checking website Boom noted the clip was from an air show in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, where two planes crashed on February 19. Here again active youth, constituting majority of the population and responsible behavior of fact checkers and social media users helped in reducing the tension.
Sixth, for the first time in India, there was a visible shift from the tradition of all-party consensus on issues of foreign policy and defense of the country. India’s opposition parties, even though they hailed the airstrikes by India, but called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to politicize and use the crisis for his on-going political campaign prior to the parliamentary elections in May 2019. This slight deviation from full consensus is based on reaction of politicians to some government policies and decisions. Most opposition parties voiced against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva policies (promoting everything related to Hinduism or Hindu supremacy) for the past years, because that has fanned Islamophobia across India, leading to dangerous polarization along religious lines. Having the second largest Muslim population in the world, this is equal to playing with fire. Omar Abdullah, head of the National Conference party in Kashmir did not approve Modi government’s ban on Jamaat-i-Islam days after the terrorist attack. Aggressive rhetoric has never helped in resolution of conflicts.
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In the seventh place, Indian Government’s silence in publicizing the details of the result of the airstrikes and the number of terrorists killed was also criticized, reminding us that India has a vibrant civic and political control over its military, while the same is not true for Pakistan, which was under military dictatorship. Therefore, time will show how long Imran Khan will be able to hold onto his peaceful intentions.
Meanwhile, casualties continued to rise from both sides. Indian and Pakistani soldiers targeted each other's posts and villages along their volatile frontier, killing at least five civilians and wounding several others. Two siblings and their mother were killed by Pakistani shelling into Indian-administered Kashmir, while a boy and man were killed by Indian shelling on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control. Pakistan stated about the death of two of its soldiers in Nakiyal near the Line of Control. This brings the toll to seven since the release of the Indian pilot on March 1. In addition, four members of India's security forces, two rebels and one civilian have been killed during gunfights in Kupwara district, India-administered Kashmir.
Keeping these lost lives in mind, enumerating more than 70000 for the past seven decades, the ideal situation would be for the leaders of India and Pakistan to carve a new conceptual framework for resolving the Kashmir imbroglio. However unrealistic it may sound, in order to permanently and justly settle the issue of Kashmir, abrogation or amendment of Article 370 could be followed by re-organization of the state into four distinct entities, Jammu, Ladakh, Panun Kashmir and Kashmir. The territory would also be converted into an economic zone attracting the best of Indian industrial talent, especially high technology. Kashmiri language, culture and traditions would be preserved within this territory, which would integrate with the rest of secular India at a much faster pace. Benefits of an open multicultural society would be the only effective means for India to regain the confidence of people it lost decades ago in the valley. At least, the shawl merchant I meet in Kolkata will be happy to return to his ancestral home.
By Mridula Ghosh, Board Chair, East European Development Institute