Accepting the reality of Kashmir

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 June, 2009, 12:00am

One of the most important, painful, politically controversial, but essential, tasks for the new Indian government of Manmohan Singh is to get relations with its neighbour and rival Pakistan onto a smoother footing for the sake of both countries, as well as for the peace and stability of the region and the world.

Now is an excellent time for more realistic relations between India and Pakistan, given that Dr Singh's government in New Delhi has just won a fresh and clear mandate, and the government in Islamabad has belatedly realised that Pakistan has no future - quite literally - in pandering to extremists masquerading as the True Believers of Islam.

But Kashmir stands in the way. The landlocked mountainous region has already been a bloody battlefield three times as the two countries staked their bitter claims to the region. Even today, Kashmir is the main excuse for India and Pakistan to waste billions of dollars on arms and dangerous nuclear games. It has seen both countries sucked into great conflicts and is a source of continuing tension, with 50,000 people killed over the past few decades in a land that still inspires terrorists.

It would be a brave leader who would dare to extend a hand of peace in Kashmir, and an even braver one who would shake it. Today, still too many vested interests in both countries justify their existence by continuing tension, division, military spending, and death and disruption in Kashmir.

Events of the past week have underlined the continuing tension, with daily riots in Indian Kashmir over claims that Indian soldiers had abducted, raped and killed two women; the Indian army said the women drowned in a stream. Indian suspicions of Pakistan grew when a court released Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, who had been under house arrest after the Mumbai attacks in November.

Both countries are also weighed down by the historical baggage going back to their independence from Britain. On the eve of the creation of India and Pakistan from the British Indian empire, Pakistan was confident that Kashmir, with its majority Muslim population, would become part of Pakistan. After all, the 'K' in the word 'Pakistan' was supposed to stand for Kashmir.

But Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, had deep family roots in Kashmir and the state had a Hindu ruler who was prevailed upon to opt for India as the best option since neither country would allow the territory what most Kashmiris would probably have opted for: independence. The first war was triggered by guerilla activity encouraged by Pakistan almost as soon as the two countries were created. Kashmir was split across the icy wastes, with India taking the valley and Pakistan enough territory to threaten India from its Azad (Free) Kashmir.

Indians believe that their best chance of solving the question came in 1972 when leaders of the two countries met in Simla to make peace after the brief war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Kashmir was a sideshow in that war, though some fierce battles were fought in the rough terrain. India had 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war when prime minister Indira Gandhi met to negotiate with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the new civilian leader of Pakistan riding the crest of a popular wave over the defeated and disgraced military.

P.N. Haksar, Gandhi's principal private secretary, and the person closest to the talks, told me some years afterwards that the two leaders had agreed on a secret clause that effectively accepted the Line of Control between the two armies dividing Kashmir as the international boundary between India and Pakistan. The Simla deal pledged the two countries to settle their disagreements peacefully, to respect the Line of Control and not to use force if it is violated.

But Bhutto turned whatever had been agreed on its head and declared subsequently - before being hanged by the vengeful military - that at Simla: 'Happily for Pakistan and the people of Kashmir, India accepted, once again, the existence of the Kashmir dispute.'

To an outsider, it might seem that the sensible thing would be to accept the facts of life, and agree to a split in Kashmir based on the Line of Control. An independent Kashmir is a non-starter, not least because neither India nor Pakistan would accept it, and even if it put up a flag of independence, it would not be a buffer but a bone of contention for the aggrieved forces of Pakistan and India.

Is there a leader brave enough to realise that Kashmir is dragging down both countries? Dr Singh may be. 'India cannot realise its ambitions unless there is peace and prosperity in South Asia as a whole and if our neighbourhood is suffering from instability and turbulence that has a bearing on our own evolution as a democratic polity committed to sustained growth and development,' he said this week.

But Kashmir epitomises the old saying that terrorists in one country are freedom fighters to another. Although Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, has renewed calls for peace, his prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, promised that political and other support for Kashmir (code words for backing freedom fighters) would be resumed. Pakistan's 'freedom fighters' for Kashmir are from the same fundamentalist branch of Islam that has been causing mayhem and bloodshed in Pakistan's major cities.

Unfortunately, Kashmir offers the rationale for Pakistan maintaining such huge armed forces - 700,000 on active duty plus 300,000 paramilitary and 600,000 reservists - and for other countries, notably China and the US, to make big arms sales. India's army is equally huge but has been maintained under strict civilian control.

This means that it is probably fruitless to try to take the Kashmir issue head on. Dr Singh has to offer better economic and trade ties as a way of persuading Pakistan of the virtue of good and peaceful relations and the futility of war between two nuclear armed states who could blow themselves and much of the neighbourhood to pieces.

Kevin Rafferty was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group