Asia Program

The Kashmir Issue in Times of Uncertainty: A French View

Jean-Luc Racine Senior Fellow, Center for the Study of India and South Asia,

May 08, 2003

The following essay was first presented, in slightly modified form, at an Asia Program seminar held on April 16, 2003. Its author, Jean-Luc Racine, is one of Europe's most-respected scholars of South Asia.

The Kashmir tangle has always eluded solutions, and cannot even be cooled down for just a moment, because it involves fundamental issues for the nations and for the states of India and Pakistan, and also because, as with the Russian matrioshka nesting dolls, its intricacy revolves around multi-scale parameters. Kashmiris—but not just Kashmiris—pay the price for a conflict which has multidimensional facets, and which calls more for a study in shades of grey than for a clear black and white sketch.

I would suggest several ways to look at the Kashmir issue, in an attempt to delineate, beyond the rhetoric from all sides, what is at stake here, and more importantly, where do we stand today, in a context defined by the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of 1998, by the post-9/11 war on terrorism, and up to a point, by the U.S. administration paradigm which has backed the war in Iraq.

A first way to look at Kashmir is as a bilateral Indo-Pak problem, a legacy of the colonial and post-colonial past.
The Muslim League's "two nations theory," the debate on the accession to India decided by Maharaja Hari Singh, the wars launched in 1947 and 1965 by irregulars backed by the Pakistan Army, India's abandonment of its self-determination commitment, and the break-up of Pakistan due to the secession of Bangladesh supported by Indian forces are milestones in a disturbed history which developed what I would call the "Partition syndrome." Beyond conflicting definitions of the nation, beyond different strategic interests, beyond internal rationales of power, the "Partition syndrome" incorporates psychological fundamentals, deep emotions (eventually instrumentalized) and, overall, a culture of mistrust adverse to all attempts at confidence building measures and strong enough, in official circles, for narrowing the scope offered by people-to-people initiatives.

This legacy of the past is still potent, and has gained a disturbingly new relevance since the open nuclearization of South Asia in May 1998, and the dramatic shift of Pakistan's Afghan policy post-9/11.

The open nuclearization, supposed to bring peace through deterrence, has in fact heightened the level of risk, not just because of the proximity of the two opponents, but also because both sides believe in (or at least seriously consider) the theory of limited conflict under a nuclear umbrella. The Pakistan Army tested this theory quickly in Kashmir, at Kargil, in the middle of 1999, and killed, by the way, the benefits expected from the Lahore declaration co-signed earlier that year by the prime ministers of the two countries. After the military takeover that followed, unrepentant optimists had to finally accept the fallacy of the theory arguing that, rather than weak governments, strong ones would be able to chart new paths. The Hindu nationalist BJP in India, and the military power in Pakistan, failed to agree on Kashmir at the Agra summit in July 2001.

After 9/11, the immediate turnaround of General Musharraf regarding the Taliban, and Pakistan joining once again the U.S. coalition as a "frontline state," failed to bring a dramatic change in Kashmir, for Kashmir is more important to Pakistan than Afghanistan is. After the December 13, 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, Musharraf's speech on January 12, 2002 defined a new official paradigm. Condemning the jihad as such, and banning the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, two key jihadi groups operating in Kashmir, could not, however, convince India of the genuineness of the new line, for attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere continued. Indian "coercive diplomacy" and military mobilization all along the border raised the stakes for months, before ebbing under international pressure, first in June 2002, and furthermore after elections were held in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir in September and October. India, until mid-April 2003, stuck however to its agenda: no dialogue until infiltrations from Pakistan into Kashmir end. Islamabad denied such infiltrations, conceding only that some uncontrolled elements may cross the line, and suggesting that a bilateral or international monitoring force could be established for checking their movements, a point New Delhi was not ready to accept.

A second way to look at Kashmir brings us to the ground. At this level of analysis, we stand quite far from the Huntington paradigm of civilizational fault lines.
The acute frustration of most Kashmiri Muslims results from a long history of political mismanagement by New Delhi, and has been further developed by the harsh repression conducted by the Indian forces after the upsurge against India was launched, in 1989, following rigged elections in 1987. Certainly, a sense of Muslim identity is very much there, and has been aggrieved by what is perceived as prejudice against Islam. The success of Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s may have had an impact on the youth who launched the first attacks against Indian authorities in 1989. But the separatists, while referring to the Muslim identity of Kashmir, take great care to refer as well to the kashmiriyat, reject plans of tri-partition of the State on religious lines, and speak in favor of the return of the exiled Hindu Kashmiri Pandits.

Politically speaking, while there are Kashmiris willing to join Pakistan because it is an Islamic Republic, most would probably opt, if a hypothetical plebiscite would ever permit it, for an independent Kashmir. India's rejection of maximal autonomy for Kashmir has been accepted by the Kashmir Assembly, which voted for the 1957 Jammu and Kashmir-specific Constitution. Nevertheless, the political mistakes of New Delhi have hurt the Kashmiri psyche, and have helped to develop a deep feeling of frustration, which mixes easily with a sense of Muslim identity.

In such a context, many Kashmiris welcomed, at the beginning, the support offered by Pakistan to "the boys" crossing the Line of Control in order to fight Indian forces. Even the jihadis sent from Pakistan, after largely sidelining the independence-minded and secular Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, were accepted as a welcome addition to the local Hizbul Mujahideen. This is no more the case today, after dozens of thousands of deaths brought no victory, ruined a generation of youths, and left many in doubt regarding the strategy to follow. A number of separatist leaders from the Hurriyat Conference believe that the hardcore jihadis with a fundamentalist agenda are now hijacking the Kashmir issue for a doctrine which has nothing to do with their own vision of Kashmir, nor with their own vision of Islam.

References to "the freedom struggle" and to "the right of self-determination recognized by UN resolutions" are still parts of the dominant anti-India discourse, in Srinagar as well as in Pakistan. But the Hurriyat Conference leadership, as well as non-Hurriyat leader Shabir Shah, plead openly for a political solution which might finally rely upon a compromise. For most of these leaders, Pakistan is not a state to join, but a way to put pressure on India for negotiation. Even some Kashmiri militants of the Hizbul Mujahideen proposed in 2000 a ceasefire, which failed, partly because the Hizbul leadership based in Pakistan's Azad Kashmir opposed it. The Hizbul has officially split in April 2003. Obviously, intricate power games are at play in both Kashmirs.

In other words, the strategy of asymmetric conflict favored by Pakistan in Kashmir—what New Delhi labels as a "proxy war" relying upon "cross-border terrorism"—has not fully paid off in the face of an unexpected Indian resilience. True, Pakistan's strategy has stuck hundreds of thousands of Indian troops in Kashmir for more than a decade, at low cost …except for the Kashmiris. Many of them are now in doubt, balancing between their reluctance to compromise with India and their understanding that the old strategy is not decisive. Last fall's elections have shown that the number of Kashmiris ready to join the electoral process despite threats or calls for boycott is growing on the whole, although voters are still few in the towns of the Valley of Srinagar.

A third way to look at the Kashmir issue calls for an international perspective. All parties to the conflict are disappointed in this regard.
For years, Kashmir has not really been on the international agenda, as long as the conflict appeared to be confined to the distant Himalayas, and not prone to drift into an open war between Pakistan and India. Both countries had opposite diplomatic strategies. For India, the less the international community was talking about Kashmir, the better. Pakistan opted for the adverse proposition, and tried repeatedly to internationalize the issue. India largely won this diplomatic war for several reasons.

Firstly, the Kashmiri separatist movement never found a charismatic leader, able to project his cause with force in the international media and in the global forum (partly because Pakistan did its best to prevent the emergence of any strong and united leadership).

Secondly, India's thesis about self-determination was found acceptable by many countries. Most were not willing to evaluate the merits of a plebiscite in Kashmir, more than fifty years after UN resolutions called for it. They were more eager to support India's view that self-determination was legitimate against colonial rule, but that it was not a proper recourse against independent nation states, particularly in multicultural countries. Some powers were directly concerned: China, because of Tibet and Xinjiang; Russia because of Chechnya, etc… Other powers simply favored the principle of the status quo, in order to avoid the possibility that the Pandora's box of self-determination would open an era of trouble far away from Kashmir. For all of them, East Timor was supposed to be an exception rather than a rule, although many, in Kashmir and elsewhere in Muslim countries, decided that the exception was simply accepted because it favored a Christian secession against Muslim Indonesia.

Naturally, the open nuclearization of South Asia drew the concerned attention of the international community. It reversed the global trend promoting the extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It also brought the tense history of Indo-Pak relations and the low intensity war in Kashmir under a different light. Command and control capacities were questioned, nuclear doctrines–never fully official–were analyzed. If faced with a conventional attack threatening its vital interests, Pakistan was believed to be ready to rely, in dire necessity, upon a first strike, while India opted only for a second strike. Beyond the exalted deterrence rhetoric, how were the nuclear thresholds to be defined at the operational level?

Kashmir was soon projected as a possible nuclear flash point, even as "the most dangerous place in the world," where a limited conflict could lead to a conventional war drifting toward the nuclear option. Officials in India and Pakistan were found to blow hot and cold, stating one day that a nuclear conflict was simply unthinkable, and assuring the next day that armed forces were ready to face any challenge.

After 9/11, Operation Enduring Freedom launched in Afghanistan with the support of Pakistan made the situation in Kashmir much more complex. India had suddenly to adjust to the rules of realpolitik dear to its BJP government. New Delhi warned Washington, however, that no double standard on terrorism could be accepted: if the jihadis were to be crushed in Afghanistan, they had to be eliminated as well in Kashmir. In a way, Indian diplomacy was trying to draw international attention to the issue of terrorism in Kashmir, without wanting the international community to pay attention to the Kashmir issue itself. Islamabad retorted that India was simply trying to use the new international agenda for its benefit, by labeling as terrorist "a genuine Kashmiri freedom struggle."

Under the new circumstances, much more fraught with risk than before, the old paradigm appears to prevail: the international community at large, and the United States in particular, are not really concerned with Kashmir per se, or with the fate of the Kashmiris. They are concerned with the risk of war–conventional or nuclear. For the U.S. administration, the regional priority for the moment is to chase Al Qaeda, and General Musharraf's help is needed for success. Seen from such an international perspective, Kashmir is just a flashpoint between India and Pakistan, and any move towards dialogue would be encouraged, without promoting any specific solution. India, Pakistan, and the Kashmiri separatists all expect the international community, and particularly the United States, to put more pressure on their respective opponent.

For the international community, however, Kashmir appears as a trouble spot in a sensitive location, which has to be somehow quieted down, if not fully solved. It happens to be a contested territory divided between the three Asian nuclear powers: China, India and Pakistan. It happens also to be a dramatic bone of contention between two "pivotal states" of special interest for the U.S. In short, it affects various American strategic scenarios which tend to promote India as the key regional power, as a pole of stability on the southern flank of Asia and along the northern rim of the Indian Ocean, and, eventually, as a possible counterpoint to a rising China supposed to be "congaged." No surprise then if the U.S. administration has paid so much attention to the region since 1998. No surprise if it defines South Asia as "a region where (its) most vital interests are at stake" (Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca, 3/26/03). Such interests, shared by India at least, require a policy of appeasement in Kashmir.

Where do we stand today in this context, when the U.S. is busy rethinking the region next door, the Middle-East?
In Kashmir, the new government elected in October 2002—a coalition led by the People's Democratic Party of Jammu and Kashmir and the Congress—seeks to implement better governance and to provide "the healing touch." Known for its willingness to dialogue with all Kashmiris, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's Government has not yet succeeded in bringing the Hurriyat leadership to the table, for the Hurriyat—which once again boycotted the elections–wishes to discuss with Delhi, and still pleads for bringing Pakistan, one way or another, into a trilateral negotiation. On which agenda? On this matter the Hurriyat is extremely careful, partly because of being divided, partly because it lives under threat after the assassination of its most moderate leader Abdul Ghani Lone in 2002. Accordingly, the Hurriyat leadership makes a point not to define what, short of independence and self-determination, could be discussed. In the meantime, Sayeed's government remains under pressure from terrorists, who attacked a Hindu temple in the city of Jammu soon after he took over, and who killed 24 Hindus Pandits in a South Kashmir village in March 2003. One day earlier, they killed the Hizbul leader Abdul Majid Dar, who had called for a ceasefire in 2000. The message is clear: separatists ready to compromise, be they political leaders as Lone or armed commanders as Dar, will be eliminated.

After the shock of the attack on Parliament, New Delhi appeared to be in no hurry to seize the opportunity to move on Kashmir, partly because the BJP is divided and under the pressure of the hardliners of the Sangh Parivar, who won elections in Gujarat after large-scale killings of Muslims in 2002. With the next general election scheduled for 2004, the government sends conflicting signals to the Kashmiris. It affirms one day that dialogue with separatists non-committed to violence is possible and appoints a top retired bureaucrat for discussing devolution of power with elected members of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, and perhaps with all those "ready to talk," but manages not to receive the Hurriyat leaders.

In the meantime, the government of India makes the best out of U.S. intervention in the region. While Yashwant Sinha, Minister of External Affairs, resorts more and more to tough talk regarding Pakistan, the Foreign Office spokesman requests the U.S. not to use different yardsticks in the struggle against terror, and asks candidly: "If dialogue per se is more critical than combating international terrorism with all necessary means, then one can legitimately ask why both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, military action, instead of dialogue, has been resorted to." (quoted in The Hindu, 3/28/03)

Pakistan's leadership draws the conclusion that the concept of "pre-emptive war" is fraught with danger, particularly between opponents who have "nuclear potential." The U.S. administration had in fact to clarify that, viewed from Washington, the rationale for pre-emptive war against Iraq could not and should not be valid in South Asia. But India is not the only matter of concern. Equally disturbing for Islamabad are the repeated calls from the U.S. administration for ending what Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, called on 2/11, 2003 , "continued cross border infiltrations from Pakistan." A few days earlier, Nancy Powell, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, had said in a public speech that "the Government of Pakistan must ensure its pledges are implemented to prevent infiltration across the Line of Control and end the use of Pakistan as a platform for terrorism."

Strong words indeed, which drew diplomatic denials from the government of Pakistan, and undiplomatic protests from the Muttahidas e Majlis Amal, the United Front for Action, a coalition of Islamist parties which placed third in the last general elections, and which presently rules the two Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan. Add the troubling question of proliferation and the political space for the Musharraf regime seems to be shrinking, despite the successes noted against Al Qaeda, particularly after the arrest of Khaled Sheik Mohammad in February.

In this context of intense pressure, the Pakistani English press has published as never before a spate of analyses which call for "introspection," and even, explicitly, for "rethinking the Kashmir policy." One quote amongst many illustrates this problem: "Pakistan's handling of its friendship with the U.S. and enmity with India is more and more problematic…. Obviously we are not able to come to terms with the changes of living in the new world that was born on September 11th" (Ghazi Salahuddin, The News, 3/25/03). Many have concluded that defending the cause of the Kashmiris calls for a new strategy, for instance Imtiaz Alam: "Time has come to say farewell to arms and push the Kashmir cause on a popular and political place where we can win support of the international community for the just cause of the Kashmiris" (The News, 1/27/03). Other don't even believe this would work and suggest to "shift the focus of resolving the Kashmir dispute" to "progress on the other issues" (Inayatullah, The News, 2/4/03). The most pessimistic raise another question: "Iraq, North Korea. Who is next?"

Could these concerns have an impact on Islamabad's policy on Kashmir? As far as the government is concerned, the discourses are mostly expected: Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, on March 12th, repeated that Kashmir is "the cornerstone" of Pakistan's foreign policy. But he also went a bit further when calling India to "come to the table to get convinced or convince us (my emphasis) with a view to resolving" this problem. His Minister for Information, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, is reported to have gone even further, predicting that the Kashmir dispute may be resolved within the next three years, and warning that "settlement may not be in accordance with the aspirations of the peoples of Pakistan and India" (as reported in Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema's column, The News, 3/9/03).

Indeed? Was this thought meant for public consumption, or was Ahmed really testing the water? For which agenda? Since 1950, dozens of reports, studies and blueprints have suggested diverse proposals to "solve" the Kashmir problem, usually by a mix of territorial compromises and political adjustments. This is not the place to list them, but one may wonder if India would be ready to go beyond the recognition of the status quo (converting the Line of Control into an international border, perhaps open to easy relationships between the two sides of Kashmir).

One may wonder as well about the political willingness of the BJP to concede a measure of autonomy acceptable to the Kashmiris, who plead today for "peace with dignity," and acceptable as well by Pakistan as a face saving device.

One may finally wonder about the willingness of the Pakistani military to move in a way which would not simply end the manipulation of Islamist forces having served for decades its regional strategy in Afghanistan as well as in Kashmir, but which would also change the prevailing security paradigm, and to weaken eventually the role of the Army itself, and hence to alter the very structure of power in the State.

Quite a number of "ifs," indeed, after decades of troubles, wars and disillusions in Kashmir; decades of mistrust, repeated "talks on talks" for lack of (shared) political statesmanship, and failed dialogues. Pakistan believes that a mediator is a must. India insists that the problem is purely bilateral. Recently, the United States presented itself at the most as a "facilitator," with "no preferred solutions for Kashmir" but with a clear resolve to "prevent conflict throughout South Asia in order to avoid instability favorable to terrorist movements" (Christina Rocca).

On April 18th, in Srinagar, Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee called for restarting Indo-Pak dialogue, a move welcomed in Islamabad. The next day, he reiterated that "the time has come for a new beginning to be made," but underlined also that ending terrorism was necessary for creating the required atmosphere for talks. It is too early to decide if a new beginning will effectively materialize, or if, once again, an attempted dialogue will collapse. Past experiences call for caution. What is at stake, in any case, is decisive. First, for the Kashmiris, who deserve better than the tragedy they are stuck in, but also for India and for Pakistan. Recurrent tensions or enduring normalization, not to mention war and peace, could change not just the geopolitics of the region, but also the future of South Asia in the new globalized world order, for worst or for better.

Upcoming Events

Experts & Staff