Kashmir: back to square one

Top political leadership of India, Pakistan need to take grand initiatives to break the logjam

Kashmir Day is observed with traditional zeal and fervour in Pakistan on February 5. It appears that recent developments have put Kashmir back on the crossroads of history. There is increased competitive politics between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Both Islamabad and New Delhi are flexing their muscles to defy each other on the longstanding dispute. India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar recently stated, “It will be ensured that the ‘enemy’ doesn’t show any more interest in a proxy war in the next six months.”

Previously, not only Indian military leaders, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself resolved to teach a lesson to Pakistan. Earlier he had warned: “When there is a challenge at the border, it is soldiers who answer with fingers on the trigger; it is not for politicians to respond.” Such war-mongering on the part of the BJP government suggest that India has given its armed forces a green signal to act at will. This is an unprecedented step in the history of India-Pakistan relations.

The November 2003 ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC) has almost been broken and hardly a day has passed over the last seven months without exchange of fire over the LoC. This has caused colossal damage to life and property of Kashmiris and forced massive civilian displacement on both sides of the dividing line.

Additionally, not only has political dialogue been suspended by New Delhi, but also forces’ sector commanders at the borders were barred from solving day-to-day affairs at the local level. The DGMOs of    India    and Pakistan have not talked for the last four months. The lone direct air link between the two states is through PIA’s flights to India three times a week. Even that has an uncertain future as the PIA office was told by authorities in New Delhi to “dispose off” its real estate as its purchase was “unauthorised”.

The impressive voter turnout in the recent Kashmir elections massively emboldened the Indian government to take unilateral steps to consolidate its claim on Kashmir and isolate Pakistan worldwide. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has entered into a power-sharing agreement with the Peoples Democratic Party led by Mufti Muhammad Sayeed to establish a coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir. It is predicted that BJP will have a major share in the future power structure.

The dialogue with separatist parties such as the All Parties Hurriyat Conference seems out of the question in the prevailing conditions. Some hardliners have hinted that Indian authorities may book All Parties Hurriyat Conference leaders under sedition laws, particularly Syed Ali Gilani, who paid tribute to militants who were killed in an encounter with the Indian forces last week in the Tral area of southern Kashmir.

Amazingly, Indian authorities are misinterpreting voter turnout once again. They believe that the more than 70 percent voters placed their trust in the Indian claim under the ambit of constitution and rejected the “pro-independence” sentiment. This reminds us of the 1987 elections wherein voter turnout was 78.65 percent, but it played a catalytic role to persuade a generation of Kashmiris towards radical and militant outfits.

The aggressive Indian approach over Kashmir has drastically shrunk the pro-peace and normalisation constituency in Pakistan. Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar aptly encapsulated it in one of his tweets. He said that statements emanating from New Delhi confirmed Pakistan’s apprehensions about its security.

The prime casualty of the current deadlock is the 2003-2008 peace process which had created huge goodwill and brought India and Pakistan close to a deal over Kashmir where Pakistan was about to grant India the Most Favoured Nation status to multiply trade and business relations. The incumbent BJP government’s antagonistic policies not only compelled the ruling party to reconsider its friendly approach towards India, but also invited harsh criticism from Pakistan’s political figures like Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Imran Khan.

Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif has also    highlighted, on several occasions, the importance of the resolution of the Kashmir issue for long-term peace in the region and for better ties with India. On the other hand, Pakistan has upped the ante by internationalising the Kashmir issue.

Immediately, after US President Barack Obama’s visit to New Delhi, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry invited the ambassadors    of    P-5 countries    and the European Union to the Foreign Office and told them that Pakistan would continue to support the indigenous struggle of the Kashmiris by extending unflinching political, moral and diplomatic support to the Kashmiri people.

The growing hostility between Islamabad and New Delhi has hugely disturbed Kashmiri politics as well as the area’s socio-economic life. When peaceful means to vent grievances or political aspirations are exhausted people are pushed to violence to achieve their political goals. All factors indicate that the frustration-level among the Kashmiri youth is fast rising.

Indian General Officer Commanding of Army’s 15 Corps Lt Gen Subrata Saha expressed his serious concerns over the renewed trend of Kashmiri youth joining militant ranks. In January this year, ten militants died in different encounters in the valley.

Surprisingly, a massive crowd offered their funeral prayers. Dissidents who used to distance themselves from violent outfits now declare slain militants their heroes. Above all, one of the deceased militants was the son of a police constable while his mother was a government employee.

In Pakistan administered Kashmir, the government has reduced its strict vigilance over militant outfits. To mark India’s Republic Day as a ‘black day’ Hizbul Mujahideen organised a big rally in Muzaffarabad. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed has also upped the rhetoric of violence without any fear of accountability.

A zero-sum game is gradually unfolding in both India and Pakistan. Several high-placed government functionaries believe that Pakistan should talk to India from the point of strength. The current balance of power and international environment do not favour us to engage India over Kashmir. Likewise, Indian strategists suggest their government should stick to the hard-line stance as Pakistan is weak and “Kashmiri resistance” is fragmented.

Kashmir might be back in international headlines, but its resolution now seems a pipedream. It might further aggravate India-Pakistan relations unless the top political leadership of both the countries take grand initiatives to break the logjam – the way Atal Behari Vajpayee did in 1999 when he travelled to Lahore and started a new chapter in the history of India-Pakistan relations.

Author can be mailed at ershad.mahmud@gmail.com