Kashmir – the world’s most dangerous place. Kashmir – where three nuclear powers that have already fought four wars against each other in the past 60 years come together. It is the root of the India-Pakistan strife and a magnet for international terrorists. Since the partition and subsequent independence of the subcontinent from British rule, the region has hardly known any peace. Although terrorism was a newer phenomenon of the 1980s, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and American beneficence in the form of billions of dollars of unaccounted for weaponry poured into the region, Kashmir was at the forefront of Indian and Pakistani planning and operations during wars.

Leaving aside the history of the conflict for now, the fact remains that the majority of the state is under Indian occupation, while Pakistan has annexed part of the area under their control and crated Azad Kashmir in a small strip of the remaining land. And the question remains to be answered, what about Kashmir? Why should they want to be with either Pakistan or India? Instead of regurgitating standard answers fed to either side, let us look at this closely and realistically.

Proposal One: Status quo

Kashmir has been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan for more than 50 years. Currently, the Line of Control – named so after the Simla Accords in 1972 – divides the region in two, with one part administered by India and one by Pakistan. India would like to formalise this status quo and make it the accepted international boundary. But Pakistan and Kashmiri activists reject this plan because they both want greater control over the region. Although India claims that the entire state is part of India, it has been prepared to accept the Line of Control as the international border, with some possible modifications. Both the US and the UK have also favoured turning the Line of Control into an internationally-recognised frontier. But Pakistan has consistently refused to accept the Line of Control as the border since the predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley would remain as part of India. Formalising the status quo also does not take account of the aspirations of those Kashmiris who have been fighting since 1989 for independence for the whole or part of the state.

If it were to work, hypothetically, this would be the most face-saving solution. The wishes of the Kashmiris would perhaps be disregarded, but let us revisit that point a little later. Both India and Pakistan get to retain what they have fought for and held on to these past sixty years. This is perhaps also politically the most acceptable on all sides.

Proposal Two: Kashmir goes to Pakistan

Pakistan has consistently favoured this as the best solution to the dispute. In view of the state’s majority Muslim population, it believes that it would vote to become part of Pakistan. However a single plebiscite held in a region which comprises peoples that are culturally, religiously and ethnically diverse, would create disaffected minorities. The Hindus of Jammu, and the Buddhists of Ladakh have never shown any desire to join Pakistan and would protest at the outcome. In 1947 India and Pakistan agreed that the allegiance of the state of Jammu and Kashmir would be decided by a plebiscite. Had the majority voted in favour of Pakistan, the whole state would have become part of Pakistan. This no longer seems to be an option.

A plebiscite offering the choice of union with Pakistan or India also does not take into account the movement for independence which has been supported by political and militant activists since 1989. India has long since rejected the idea of a plebiscite as a means of settling the Kashmir issue. Instead the government argues that the people have exercised their right of self-determination by participating in elections within the state. However the demand for a plebiscite to be held, as recommended by the Governor-General of India, Lord Mountbatten in 1947, and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, is still considered by some as a way of letting Kashmiris exercise their right of self-determination.

This is a far-fetched idea. There is nothing for India to gain in this and everything to lose. It is simply unacceptable to the Indian people, and any Government that agrees to this proposal will be ostracised in Indian politics for decades to come. This solution is militarily also improbable. Barring nuclear weapons (in which both sides will annihilate ach other and this discussion will be moot), India retains a conventional superiority and strategic position in Kashmir. If it came to blows, Pakistan’s risks are disproportionately higher than its improbable gains. This was highlighted in 1999 during the Kargil incident.

Proposal Three: Kashmir is integrated fully into India

Such a solution would be unlikely to bring stability to the region as the Muslim inhabitants of Pakistani-administered Jammu and Kashmir, including the Northern Areas, have never shown any desire to become part of India. In 1947, the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir agreed to the state becoming part of India. India and Pakistan then agreed to hold a plebiscite to confirm which country Kashmir’s citizens wanted to join. The Indian Government believed that the majority population, under the charismatic leadership of Sheikh Abdullah, would vote to join India, with its secular constitution, rather than Muslim Pakistan. If the plebiscite had been held and the majority had voted in favour of India, Pakistan would have had to relinquish control of the Northern Areas and the narrow strip of Jammu and Kashmir which it occupied militarily in 1947-8. As stated earlier, India has long since rejected the idea of holding a single plebiscite as a means of determining the fate of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, arguing that the people made their choice by participating in elections within the state.

Another argument for this is simply the economic prosperity India can offer that Pakistan cannot. Or that Pakistan is Islamic and more (potentially…and presently) restrictive than India. However, Indians do not consider what Kashmiris live through everyday. They suppose that Kashmiris are as Indian as anyone from Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan and therein lays the problem. The fact of the matter is that many Kashmiris do not see the benevolence in Indian rule. Human rights violations abound, and the state has seen none of the stability, peace, or prosperity they would supposedly enjoy under Indian rule.

The newspapers abound with stories of Indian Army and Police atrocities – rapes, shootings, targeted killings, arbitrary detention, random curfews, and shoot on sight orders are the order of the day for the Indian citizens of Kashmir. And last year, hundreds of unidentified graves – believed to contain victims of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other abuses – have been found in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Amnesty International has urged the Indian government to launch urgent investigations into the mass graves, which are thought to contain the remains of victims of human rights abuses in the context of the armed conflict that has raged in the region since 1989.

The findings appear in the report Facts under Ground, issued on 29 March by the Srinagar-based Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). The report details the existence of multiple graves which, because of their proximity to Pakistan controlled-areas, are in areas not accessible without the specific permission of the security forces. Since 2006, the graves of at least 940 people are reported to have been discovered in 18 villages in Uri district alone. The Indian army has claimed that those found buried were armed rebels and “foreign militants” killed lawfully in armed encounters with military forces. However, the report recounts testimonies from local villagers saying that most buried were local residents hailing from the state. The report also alleges that more than 8,000 persons have gone missing in Jammu and Kashmir since 1989. The Indian authorities put the figure at less than 4.000, claiming that most of these went to Pakistan to join armed opposition groups. In 2006, a state police report confirmed the deaths in custody of 331 persons, and also 111 enforced disappearances following detention since 1989.

Unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and torture are violations of both international human rights law and international humanitarian law, set out in treaties to which India is a state party. They also constitute international crimes.

The nationalist critique of this argument is obvious – they would make use of a counterfactual that life would be far worse for these people had they been under Pakistani administration, or they would argue that these complaining Muslims are free to leave for Pakistan and have been since August 14, 1947. Some of them might even try and change the topic by bringing up human rights violations in other countries even in times of peace, such as Saudi Arabia. The fact of the matter is, all these arguments are hollow. The first point is a counterfactual, meaning it cannot be proved either way. If a settlement had been made and Kashmir partitioned or given in toto to either India or Pakistan, the situation would have been stable if the other side did not press the issue. It does not change the fact that living conditions are appalling in Jammu and Kashmir. The argument that the people are free to leave is not even an argument; it is a tantrum of a spoilt child who has not been given a thorough beating once in a while. Why should these people vacate their lands to satisfy some politicians from India or from Pakistan? They have been there longer than the Indian state has been. The third point, that of distraction, is also silly – if India claims to be better than these other places, should they not act like it? If some place is worse, some other place is better – what of it? How does this make your Bharat mahan?

A smarter argument would be that Jammu & Kashmir is a war zone – in a state of war, excesses are committed by all sides. It is unfortunate, but the state cannot be judged by the standards of peace time. Outside active war zones (and Srinagar doesn’t fit that description any longer) the main city in Indian-administered Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarised places I’ve ever seen. Hardly a great advert for Indian democracy. Every 50 metres or so, on every main street, stand several men (or very occasionally women) armed with assault rifles and – more often than not – big sticks. There are undeclared curfews and a blanket of security across the city. Half a million army and police personnel keep watch over Kashmir, and Srinagar has more than its fair share.

In Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s central market square, the reality of life is that one day the market is closed, and the next day it is open, playing havoc with traders’ lives. Down in the old town, the Jama Masjid, Srinagar’s finest mosque, is one of the symbols of Kashmiri identity. On Friday at noon it should be packed with worshippers coming to pray. But it too is totally deserted. The magnificent wooden and brass doors which open into the courtyard of the mosque are padlocked shut – there have been no Friday prayers here for six weeks. In the surrounding streets the Indian security forces have enforced a total shut down.

Is there actually a threat which might justify all this extraordinary security? The nature of the separatist campaign has been changing, moving away from armed insurgency towards other forms of protest like street campaigns. But occasional shootings do occur, claiming the lives of the unaware, or simply the unlucky. There is undoubtedly a terrorist presence in the city as well, with Lashkar-e-Taiba militants frequently being capturd or killed. The Lashkar was originally formed to kick India out of Kashmir. So how do Kashmiris feel about them now?

Khurram Parvez, a human rights activist, has a personal interest in the subject. He was badly injured when his vehicle hit a landmine in 2004. “The authorities told me Lashkar-e-Taiba had planted the mine,” he says. “That’s why I went to talk to them. They were seen by many people,” he says, “as an organisation which was fighting the Indian occupation in any way it could. But if they have done what has happened in Mumbai, it has already affected the popularity of Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir. Because people somehow think that if Lashkar-e-Taiba is responsible for killing innocent people like this, then they can’t fight for anyone’s rights, anyone’s freedom. Because they are people who do not believe in any freedom.”

Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, one of the main leaders of the peaceful campaign for Kashmiri independence agrees that Lashkar-e-Taiba and the accusations it faces over the Mumbai attacks have done Kashmir no favours. “Definitely it has cast a negative shadow over the Kashmir issue,” he says. “It gives leverage to those who want to link Kashmir with international terrorism and extremism. The fact is that Kashmir is a political problem, and we have to find a political solution to it.” But for separatists like Mirwaiz Omar Farooq that doesn’t include fighting elections under the Indian constitution. “For years we had lots of problems here,” says another man. “But the problems are now between two countries. Not here in Kashmir.”

Proposal Four: Kashmir becomes independent

The difficulty of adopting this as a potential solution is that it requires India and Pakistan to give up territory, which they are not willing to do. Any plebiscite or referendum likely to result in a majority vote for independence would therefore probably be opposed by both India and Pakistan. It would also be rejected by the inhabitants of the state who are content with their status as part of the countries to which they already owe allegiance. An independent Jammu and Kashmir might also set in motion the demand for independence by other states in both India and Pakistan and lead to a “Balkanisation” of the region.

In the 1960s, following discussions between India and Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir, a group of Kashmiris demanded that the entire state should become independent as it was prior to the Maharajah’s accession to India in 1947. The movement for independence of the entire state is mainly supported by Kashmiris who inhabit the more populous Kashmir Valley and who would like both India and Pakistan to vacate the areas they are occupying. They base their claim on the fact that the state was formerly an independent princely state, is geographically larger than at least 68 countries of the United Nations, and more populous than 90. This movement is not supported by India or Pakistan, both of which would lose territory. And in view of the likely regional instability, an independent Kashmir is not supported by the international community either.

An independent Kashmir could be created from the Kashmir Valley – currently under Indian administra
tion – and the narrow strip of land which Pakistan calls Azad Jammu and Kashmir. This would leave the strategically important regions of the Northern Areas and Ladakh, bordering China, under the control of Pakistan and India respectively. However both India and Pakistan would be unlikely to enter into discussions which would have this scenario as a possible outcome.

If, as the result of a regional plebiscite, which offered the option of independence, the majority of the inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley chose independence and the majority of the inhabitants of Pakistani-administered Jammu and Kashmir, (excluding the Northern Areas) also chose independence, a smaller, independent Kashmir could be created by administratively joining these two areas together. This would leave the predominantly Muslim Northern Areas as part of Pakistan and Buddhist Ladakh and majority Hindu Jammu as part of India, with the possibility that some Muslim districts of Jammu might also opt to join the independent state. Although Pakistan has demanded a change in the status of the Kashmir Valley, it depends on water from the Mangla Reservoir in Pakistani-administered Jammu and Kashmir and would be unlikely to permit loss of control of the region. India is still committed to retaining the Kashmir Valley as part of the Indian Union and has refused to consider holding a plebiscite in any part of the state.

An independent Kashmir Valley has been considered by some as the best solution because it would address the grievances of those who have been fighting against the Indian Government since the insurgency began in 1989. But critics say that, without external assistance, the region would not be economically viable. With an approximate land mass of 1,800 square miles (80 miles long, 20 to 25 miles wide) it is much larger than Monaco and Liechtenstein – but only one-tenth of the size of Bhutan. Whether or not the rest of the state retained its current political affiliations, many Kashmiris therefore believe that the valley could be viable in its own right. In terms of livelihood, the valley could sustain itself through tourism, handicrafts and agriculture.

But an independent Kashmir Valley would also need to retain good relations with its neighbours in order to survive economically. Not only is the region landlocked, but it is snowbound during winter. An independent Kashmir Valley would have the advantage of giving neither Pakistan nor India a victory out of their longstanding dispute. But although Pakistan might favour the creation of an independent Kashmir Valley, India would be unlikely to agree to the loss of territory involved. Autonomy of the same region under the Indian Union is also an option; Pakistan is more likely to request a ‘joint protectorate’ in order to share in safeguarding the Kashmir valley’s political integrity and economic development.

Ultimately, neither India nor Pakistan would be willing to see this through. The region is economically unviable, and in an effort to keep India and Pakistan out of its affairs, an independent Kashmir may cosy up to China. India will certainly not allow this, and Pakistan, for all its cosy ties with China, worries about the giant whose bed it has crawled into. Chinese control of Pakistani markets is a destabilising factor for many of the smaller industries, and with the West increasingly sceptical about Pakistan’s professions of combating terrorism, Pakistan has no choice but to allow the Yellow Giant preferential access to key sectors of its economy.

The question remains for the Indians, if they wish to woo the Kashmiris away from their separatism, what must they do? Admittedly, with Pakistan right across the porous border, it is a tall order to provide peace and prosperity, but some measures must be taken to at least prevent the indiscipline in the Army. Perhaps more troops on the border would make cross-border terrorism more difficult. Either way, unless India can pull a rabbit out of its turban, the Indian case before Kashmiri eyes will only suffer. Because, as MK Gandhi said, what difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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