Stepping Away From a Disastrous War Over Kashmir

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At a massive rally in Houston this past weekend, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a stadium packed with supporters that India had bade “farewell” to a constitutional clause granting autonomy to the Himalayan region of Kashmir. “Article 370 had deprived people of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh of development,” Modi told the crowd. “Terror and separatist elements were misusing the situation. Now, people there have got equal rights.” The crowd responded with roaring applause.

Modi’s remark about “equal rights” was a jarring contrast to the news reports that have come in from Kashmir describing thousands of detentionscases of torture and death, and a communications blackout that has severed Kashmir from the rest of the world. The de facto annexation of the long-contested region has further strained relations between India and Pakistan. It has also raised the specter of a full-blown insurgency pitting the Indian government against disaffected Kashmiris.

For those to whom these ratcheted-up tensions look like another flare-up in a troubled area of the world, the situation bears a caveat: This time is different.

If war over Kashmir does break out, it will be all the more tragic for having been avoidable.

Modi’s decision on Kashmir, so raucously cheered in Houston, would essentially close the door on any optimistic vision of a peaceful resolution to this long-running conflict. Clashes have already begun in the troubled territory, even under a heavy security lockdown. When the current restrictions on movement and communication are eventually lifted, violence is almost certain to increase.

Yet the escalation brought with it international scrutiny. In a press conference on Thursday at the United Nations General Assembly, the State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells said that “the United States is concerned by widespread detentions, including those of politicians and business leaders, and the restrictions on the residents of Jammu and Kashmir.” Wells added that conditions should be created in the region that lead to the “improvement of relations between the two nuclear powers,” referring to India and Pakistan.

The two countries have fought several wars over Kashmir in the past. The recent tensions, however, have reached a level not seen in years. Speaking at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Pakistan’s foreign minister warned on September 10 that the two countries were at risk of “an accidental war” over Kashmir.

If such a war does happen, it will be all the more tragic for having been avoidable.

The conflict in Kashmir is, at its root, about a vote on local self-determination that never took place. In 1948, shortly after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent into the nations of India and Pakistan, the U.N. called for a plebiscite to be held in Kashmir that would let the local people decide their political future: whether they wanted to remain with India, join Pakistan, or become an independent nation.

The vote never happened, though many Kashmiris continue to demand it. Instead, following a rigged state election in 1987, an armed movement aiming for self-determination broke out against the Indian government. That movement was met with ferocious repression. Tens of thousands have now been killed in Kashmir, with entire generations having grown up under occupation.

“The ideal thing is that a plebiscite vote should take place in Kashmir under U.N. auspices,” said Altaf Wani, chair of the Kashmir Institute of International Relations, an activist group that advocates for holding the referendum. “The people of Kashmir should be able to vote and decide their fate, along with the possibility of regional votes that take the perspective of minorities in Kashmir into consideration. But the failure to have a plebiscite at all is why we are facing this crisis today.”

“And unfortunately,” Wani added, “a free vote has become a remote possibility in the present circumstances, now that India has taken the extreme step of completely wiping out Kashmiri autonomy.”

Modi’s recent speech in Houston and the uproarious reaction to annulling Kashmiri sovereignty has made the prospect of violent confrontation with either Kashmiris themselves or their Pakistani supporters more likely.

Despite the hardening of Modi and India’s approach, there is still a way to step away from the current precipice. A recent guidance document issued by a network of Kashmir-focused academics laid out a number of steps for easing the conflict in both the short- and long-term. Among these are releasing the thousands of political prisoners currently held in detention, demilitarizing both the Pakistani- and Indian-held zones of Kashmir, allowing freedom of movement across the border separating these two zones and creating a special rapporteur to investigate human rights abuses.

The thrust of the paper calls for international mediation to ensure not just the end of human rights abuses, but also a settlement that addresses the political causes of the ongoing conflict. “This just settlement must be mediated within the framework of the rights of all Kashmiri peoples to determine their own political future,” it states.

The conflict at its heart continues to revolve around the political future of Kashmiris themselves: the issue of voting for their own self-determination. Various proposals have been laid out in the past for how a vote could work. Kashmir is divided into several regions, including the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley and Jammu, which today is majority Hindu. A plebiscite vote that gave local people the option to either seek independence or join one of the two neighboring countries would prevent any majoritarian solution from being forced on minorities. It would also give both India and Pakistan some stake in the final outcome and remove the main irritant in their troubled seven-decade relationship.

A final settlement in which Kashmiris have the right to freedom of movement, self-governance, and demilitarization of their region would likely be enough to stave off a conflict that otherwise seems inevitable.

The desire for an independence vote has also been growing in Pakistani-held Kashmir, where some locals blame the Pakistani government for “polluting” their national cause by connecting it with Islamic extremist groups. “We were freedom fighters, made up from the Kashmiri people. But then Pakistan pushed groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba on our movement. People began to confuse our struggle for freedom with a desire for terrorism,” one former militant recently said.

In addition to a vote on self-determination, over the years proposals have been raised for defusing the conflict, including implementing soft borders and a free-trade regimen between the Indian- and Pakistani-held sides of Kashmir.

A final settlement in which Kashmiris have the right to freedom of movement, self-governance, and demilitarization of their region would likely be enough to stave off a conflict that otherwise seems inevitable.

India and Pakistan have come close to negotiating a bilateral resolution to the Kashmir conflict on their own. In the early 2000s, a summit was held in the Indian city of Agra between Indian and Pakistani leaders. The aim of the two-day summit was to resolve the outstanding territorial disputes between the two countries.

Four major steps for resolving the conflict were laid out, including demilitarization, freedom of movement for Kashmiris across the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, and an end to Pakistani support for armed militants. The agreement also included the right to self-governance for Kashmiris. The talks ultimately collapsed as a result of internal divisions among Indian and Kashmiri leaders — just as things were reportedly on the verge of going to a signing ceremony.

Until a few months ago, there were hints that India and Pakistan might again try and peacefully resolve their differences over Kashmir on their own. With the current deterioration of relations, however, that seems unlikely.

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