As the borders of Kashmir once again echo with the sound of gunfire and homes in India and Pakistan wake up to news of their people dying, I'm reminded of my friends from the National Defence Academy who have been consumed by this hateful conflict. Other friends have lost their lives. My motivation for writing this article is the fact that too many people have died already and if we don't resolve this conflict amicably then it has the potential to wipe out the entire sub-continent in the event of a nuclear war.
The theatre of conflict
For the uninitiated in the history of the conflict, we would have to time warp to 1947 when at the time of partition, the princely State of Jammu and Kashmir was ruled by the Hindu Dogra ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh who was the great-grandson of Gulab Singh, to whom the British, under the terms of the Treaty of Amritsar (1846) had sold the entire valley of Kashmir. The overwhelming majority of the population was Muslim, and Pakistan thought that Kashmir would be part of the new nation. To put pressure on Hari Singh to sign the accession documents, Pakistan orchestrated a guerrilla offensive on the state by sending tribal fighters from the North Western Frontier Province. Under pressure Hari Singh asked for help from India, who agreed to give military help if the ruler joined India. Thus started the first war between India and Pakistan, which finally ended in 1949 when the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire. The Line of Control was established that has remained the de facto boundary between the Indian and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir.
"[T]he problem in Kashmir has remained intractable as it is often represented primarily as a conflict between India and Pakistan... This, however, leaves out a key stakeholder i.e. the people of Kashmir "
Since then the problem in Kashmir has remained intractable as it is often represented primarily as a conflict between India and Pakistan. The debate revolves around the legitimacy of the accession to India or the demand for a plebiscite by Pakistan. This, however, leaves out a key stakeholder i.e. the people of Kashmir who have paid the price of this conflict by having to forego development, peace and prosperity in the region. As a result the conflict has become focused on local issues of autonomy and development, on both sides of the border. Thus, any solution, in order to be viable, needs to factor in the experiences and aspirations of the people in the Kashmir region.
Before we propose any solution we also need to understand the basic geographic, political, ethnic and religious makeup of the Kashmir region. The Kashmir region comprises of Aksai Chin, Azad Kashmir (a term used by Pakistan; India refers to it as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and the Trans-Karakoram Tract. The region is divided amongst three countries --Pakistan controls the northwest portion (Northern Areas and 'Azad' Kashmir), India controls the central and southern portion (Jammu and Kashmir) and Ladakh, and the People's Republic of China controls the northeastern portion (Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract). For the purpose of this article we will leave out Aksai-Chin and the territorial dispute between India and China as that will warrant an article in itself.
The proposed solution
The current conflict shows no signs of abating because of the rigid attitudes of all the parties concerned. In order to resolve this, it will require the three states of India, Pakistan and China as well as the leaders of the people of the Kashmir region to be flexible and engage in confidence-building measures over an extended period of time. This could be attempted in three phases.
" The unity government could explore a model of self-governance of all public functions by elected representatives by the people of the three regions supported by nominated officials of India and Pakistan."
1. Confidence-building phase: Some low hanging fruits for building confidence are improving trade and connectivity. Opening up border roads and removing trade restrictions would not only revitalise the stagnant economy but will employ the impatient and unemployed youth who are lured by the call of terrorism. Increasing connectivity through roads as well as telephone between people of Indian and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir can be a major step forward and facilitate the ability of the people of Kashmir to again function as one regional entity. Following this up with exchanges on culture, sports etc. will help unite people and families divided for decades behind barbed wires.
2. Disengagement phase: As the next step, the proxy war of terrorism needs to be stopped by both India and Pakistan. While Pakistan can agree to dismantle the terrorist camps within its territory, India can agree to reduce the presence of armed forces in Kashmir, to be replaced by civilian police drawn from the Kashmiri population. These measures will make the Kashmiri people feel free and enabled to run their own lives.
3. Resolution phase: As a final step, which involves the territorial disputes between the two nations, a commonwealth model could be explored comprising a "unity government" spanning areas of the Kashmir Valley controlled by India and Gilgit-Baltistan plus Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The unity government could explore a model of self-governance of all public functions by elected representatives by the people of the three regions supported by nominated officials of India and Pakistan. In this model, both India and Pakistan could lay claim to the territories and citizens of both countries could have free access to the "Commonwealth of Kashmir". There would be similar concessions for Kashmiris who could choose the citizenship of either India or Pakistan and yet stay peacefully in the "Commonwealth of Kashmir" as equal citizens.
A lasting resolution will also involve reopening negotiations with China under the terms of the Sino-Pakistan frontier agreement of 1963, which provides for the same in case of a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Flexibility on the part of China to make the Trans-Karakoram Tract a part of the "Commonwealth of Kashmir" would add to the stature of China on the world stage and allow for a peaceful resolution of arguably the most potent nuclear flashpoint in the world.
In conclusion, we need to remember that the key to any resolution does not lie in territorial exchanges but in focusing on the needs of the people on both sides of the border. Wajahat Habibullah in his report to United States institute of Peace sums up the key to resolving the Kashmir conflict very succinctly in the following words: "There does not have to be territorial change. There needs to changes in the liberties that are exercised by the people of the region whether they be in the area that is in Pakistan or in India"