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Kashmir for The Kashmiris

Published by PostGlobal [article link] on 2008-01-23

Some say it was al-Qaeda, others see the malevolent hand of the Taliban, and still others see shadowy forces aligned with state security services. But regardless of who was responsible for the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last month, the tragedy once again brings the issue of regional terrorism in South Asia to the forefront.

But long before al-Qaeda and the Taliban emerged as destabilizing forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, long before indigenous Islamists began raising money to disrupt national life, there was the issue of Kashmir: the 60-year dispute with neighboring India over a mountainous region that both countries claim.

It was an issue on which Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif remained unified. And it is an issue that will be conspicuous on the agenda of a new Pakistani administration after next month's expected elections - not the least because of the resurgence of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in India, which has won important state polls in which party leaders more than once implicitly reasserted India's claim to all of Kashmir.
The Bhutto assassination, of course, is likely to have ripple effects that will most certainly be felt in Kashmir and India. But in Kashmir itself, the anti-India insurgency is far from being eliminated, even if Indian authorities are publicly reluctant to discuss it. Indian officials have even attributed terrorist acts in other parts of India to militants trained in Kashmir.

While Kashmir may not figure prominently on the global geopolitical radar because of other world crises, tensions remain high in this region, where the towering Himalayan and Karakoram ranges meet. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch are accusing the Indian armed forces of brutalizing the indigenous population; hundreds of young Kashmiri males continue to cross the "Line of Control" to obtain weapons from Pakistani-administered Kashmir; and what was once known as the "Switzerland of Asia" has disintegrated into the equivalent of a battle-scarred Lebanon or Kosovo.

The dispute has cost tens of thousands of lives over the years, and has driven an unsustainable arms race, diverting much-needed funds from domestic economic development in both countries. There was even talk in India that parts of the Pakistan-controlled section of Kashmir had been used by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda for training purposes: that wouldn't be such a stretch because the borders between northern Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir are porous, and virtually impossible to monitor continuously.

Yet, before Bhutto's assassination, there was a sense that both governments were privately willing to give serious consideration to stepping down the conflict. One of several teams working toward this goal was the privately-funded Kashmir Study Group, which consisted of several retired American diplomats as well as influential scholars. While there's never been a shortage of ideas on resolving the Kashmir imbroglio, officials in both New Delhi and Islamabad say that the Kashmir Study Group's report was taken more seriously than several other independent studies, largely on account of the group's composition. The Kashmir Study Group's 26 members included several distinguished former American diplomats such as Ambassador Howard Schaffer, Director of Studies at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy - which is part of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service - who spent 36 years representing America in South Asia.

The group was formed in 1996 and was led by the Kashmir-born M. Farooq Kathwari, chairman and chief executive officer of one of the world's most prominent interior design companies, Ethan Allen. As a boy, he moved with his mother and siblings from his native Srinagar to the Pakistani-controlled section of Kashmir, where his father had initially gone to do business. He was refused re-entry to the Indian-held portion of the state. Kathwari eventually returned to Srinagar and distinguished himself academically at Kashmir University; he was also captain of the cricket team, an experience he often cites as shaping his leadership values.

(Perhaps because Kathwari has lived on both sides of divided Kashmir, there have been long-running rumors in India that he has secretly funded the Kashmir separatists - an allegation he strongly denies. It's unlikely that top officials in India would receive him if his presence in their country suggested a security hazard.)

While there was no formal multilateral endorsement of the KSG's recommendations, there was quiet recognition that they advanced arguments worth debating for sustainable governance of Kashmir. The group's recommendations consisted of three elements: (1) That three entities - Kashmir, Jammu, and Ladakh - would be established in the portion of the pre-1947 state now administered by India; (2) That two entities - Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas - would be established on the side currently administered by Pakistan; and (3) That an all-Kashmir body would be created to coordinate issues such as regional trade, tourism, and the environment. This body would have representatives from each of the five proposed entities, plus from India and Pakistan.

The critical subtext of the proposals lay in the fact that they acknowledged the cultural identity of the peoples of Kashmir, quite possibly for the first time. In effect, there were three categories of Kashmiris: those that live in the Kashmir Valley; those who inhabit the part controlled by Pakistan and tend to be more tribal in their characteristics; and those who live in Jammu, who are mostly Hindus.

Kashmir hasn't belonged to the Kashmiris for quite some time now - since India and Pakistan became independent countries in 1947, carved out of the larger entity of India that was long regarded as the British Raj's jewel in the crown. Pakistan controls roughly a third of the 220,000 square-kilometer territory, seized by Pakistani-armed marauders and administered under the rubric of "Azad Kashmir," or "Free Kashmir." India has possession of almost 45 percent of the territory, ceded to it by the Hindu maharajah of an overwhelmingly Muslim land; and China has bitten off the rest, an area so remote and forbidding that the glacial chunk doesn't even figure in most international discussions about Kashmir.

To be sure, the recommendations of the Kashmir Study Group are unlikely to be adopted in totality. They seem to challenge India's claim of sovereignty over the entire region. They don't fully address the question of terrorism. And they don't tackle the issue of how to revive Kashmir's once flourishing economy, one that drew tourists from many corners of the world to ski, to ride boats on lakes, to buy saffron and carpets, and to take in the sheer beauty of the place.
It was, after all, General Musharraf who supposedly supported the Kashmir turmoil when he was commander of Pakistan's armed forces. Nawaz Sharif was not far behind in staking Pakistan's claim to Kashmir. And Benazir Bhutto, notwithstanding her occasional conciliatory remarks about India, was steadfast in her belief that India had no business claiming sovereignty over Pakistan. Perhaps most distressing of all, Pakistan's ISI and major segments of the military believe that it is important to keep India on the edge on the Kashmir issue.

One need look no further than a recent report that $5 billion that the Bush Administration gave to Pakistan to fight terrorism was, in fact, diverted to developing new weapons systems - against India. There are those who may argue that Kashmir should be left for the moment as a dormant geopolitical issue. But they are mistaken. The ultra-rightwing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party - which recently won stunning victories in legislative elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh - is poised to make a comeback on the national scene. There's increasing uncertainty if the current fourteen-party, Congress-led coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will last its full term through May 2009; a snap election may well be called before then if the Communists in India's parliament withdraw their support. The BJP is unlikely to soften its traditional hard-line stance on Kashmir - which is that all of Kashmir, not just the portion now occupied by India, belongs to India. Whatever the unfolding political scenario, it would be prudent to preempt a more volatile situation in Kashmir for the next Pakistan administration and for Prime Minister Singh's government to revisit the issue. After all, trade between the two countries - currently around $12 billion annually -- is blossoming, and there's potential for more. More visas are being given on both sides for personal and professional visits. Both countries could better use their revenues for domestic economic development instead of ratcheting up their defense budgets.

All it would take for fresh talks on Kashmir is the political will to make a fresh start. One likes to think that there are Pakistani and Indian leaders who might be able to summon such will.


Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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