South Asia’s Kashmir predicament :

The Nation

South Asia’s Kashmir predicament

Mohsin Raza Malik

April 30, 2019

Though the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir atops the South Asian region geographically, this troubled valley appears to have become somewhat a proverbial tail of the region which is currently wagging the dog. For over seven decades, India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads over Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region largely-held by India but exclusively claimed by both. Noticeably, this ‘core issue’ between the two nuclear-armed South Asian giants has just given rise to such an enduring rivalry between them which has almost eclipsed the regional integration and development of the South Asian region.

In 1947, when British India was being bifurcated into two independent ‘dominions’- India and Pakistan, no one could have anticipated that the two newly independent states would be locking horns with each other over Kashmir, the ‘unfinished agenda of partition’, for decades to come. Sadly, soon after gaining independence, both countries instantly involved in a fierce tug of war over the mountainous state of J&K rather than focusing on the socio-economic uplift of their long-deprived subjects, which was also the primary raison d’être of their independence. Both India and Pakistan chose to make an exclusive claim over the territory of Kashmir. India readily declared Kashmir its “integral part”. And Pakistan started calling Kashmir its “jugular vein”.

The Kashmir dispute has led to two full-scale wars and a limited armed conflict between India and Pakistan. This mutual confrontation has nuclearized South Asia in addition to initiating a conventional arms race in the region. Both arch-rivals are also currently busy in developing certain state-of-the-art missile delivery and defense systems. Their ambitious military commanders and strategists have constantly been devising some military strategies and war doctrines against each other. Moreover, they have also started articulating and achieving their broader strategic goals in the region through non-state actors. Afghanistan has become an active theatre of a proxy war between them. The troops of both countries are stationed eyeball to eyeball on the Siachin Glacier, “the world’s highest battlefield”, since 1984. And each country has lost hundreds of its soldiers besides incurring heavy operational costs in what has been dubbed the world’s first ‘oropolitical’ conflict.

We have also observed that Pakistan and India just got closer to a full-blown armed conflict as military tensions between them escalated in consequence of a verbal tirade unleashed by New Delhi against Islamabad following a terrorist attack in Pulwama district in the Indian-held Kashmir in February this year. Noticeably, a typical blame game follows every major terror incident in either country. However, while choosing to promptly pointing the finger at each other for destabilization; both countries have never seriously bothered to look inwardly. Nor have they ever sincerely endeavoured to resolve their longstanding bilateral disputes.

Both India and Pakistan have really paid a heavy price for their ‘Mission Kashmir’. They spend a substantial portion of their federal budgets on defense. It is now an historical fact that India played an instrumental role in bifurcating Pakistan to create Bangladesh in 1971. So, Pakistan is such an unfortunate country which has lost one of its limbs while retrieving its “jugular vein” from the enemy. On the other side, For India, the cost of occupying and holding the state of J&K has been even higher. The Indian-held Kashmir is considered to be the world’s most militarized zone as India has deployed more than half a million regular military troops in the valley in addition to a large number of personnel of paramilitary forces and civilian law enforcing agencies to suppress the ongoing resistance movement there. The atrocities committed by Indian security forces in Kashmir are badly distorting the India’s image as the ‘world’s largest democracy’. The Kashmir dispute is also one of the major hurdles in the way of India’s ambitions to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

The South Asian region possesses vast economic, human and natural resources. It is home to one-fourth of the world population. This region has huge potential to thrive. India is among five BRICKS countries, which are believed to be the world’s five major emerging economies. Similarly, Pakistan and Bangladesh are part of so-called Next Eleven- the eleven developing countries, which also have great potential of becoming major economies in the 21st century. This region is also very crucial to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

At present, South Asia is the least-integrated region in the world. The entire region has been adversely affected by the perpetual Pak-India confrontation. This mutual conflict has rendered the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a regional organization aims at prompting economic cooperation among South Asian countries, an ineffective and dysfunctional body. The Pak-India bilateral relations have deteriorated to an extent that they can no longer sit together and talk to each other on a non-political regional forum like the SAARC. The 19th SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan in November 2016 was cancelled when India boycotted it. India has also actively endeavoured to promote another regional organization- the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BISMTC). Many believe this Indian move to be a clever trick to isolate Pakistan regionally by uniting major South Asian countries on an alternative regional forum.

No substantial megaproject aims at regional development or connectivity has yet been materialized in South Asia . The long-cherished dream of creating the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) has just shattered. The multi-billion dollar Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project was suspended when India abandoned it in 2008. Similarly, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project is also in the middle of nowhere. So, the trust deficit between India and Pakistan has made things worse in this energy-deficient region.

Worryingly, the international surveys and assessments like Global Hunger Index (GHI) and Human Development Index (HDI) etc. place the South Asian countries only next to the least-developed African countries in the world. Currently, almost two-thirds of the South Asian population lives in absolute poverty. A large segment of the population has no access to safe drinking water, and basic health and sanitation facilities. This region also houses the world’s largest segment of illiterate population. And the percentage of malnourished and stunted children is also the highest in the world. Nevertheless, South Asian countries are among the largest importers of arms in the world. Ironically, these countries spend a major chunk of their national income on defending themselves against each other rather than spending on their deprived masses.

It is now almost obvious that Pakistan can by no means ‘conquer’ Indian-held Kashmir militarily. Nor can India peacefully hold and constitutionally absorb this disputed territory. No doubt, the state of J&K has somehow become such a cumbersome liability for both major South Asian countries which is only consuming their extensive financial resources. It is, therefore, in the interest of both countries to amicably resolve this longstanding unresolved issue now. It would be a win-win situation for both countries. Since the Kashmir dispute is the only major source of confrontation between India and Pakistan, both countries would relatively at ease to make peace with each other once this dispute is resolved. There would also be a positive impact of such Pak-India detente on the entire South Asian region.

Kashmir is said to be the gateway to South Asian peace and prosperity. The Kashmir issue doesn’t merely involve a question of fundamental political and human rights of millions of Kashmiris, it is essentially related, directly or indirectly, to the future of more than one and half billion people living in the South Asian region. Regrettably, every fourth person on the globe has been made to bear the brunt of Pak-India stalemate on Kashmir. So, in terms of its humanitarian impact, it is, undeniably, the gravest unresolved issue in the contemporary world. It is, therefore, advisable that both India and Pakistan must learn to live peacefully side by side after resolving this longstanding bilateral issue. Moreover, the world community should also play a role in the pacific settlement of what is called the “oldest dispute at the UN agenda”.