India’s recent decision to end the relative autonomy and special status of its half of Jammu and Kashmir could reduce the region to a powder keg, provided the resultant situation is handled tactfully and insightfully by the Indian state in particular. Needless to say, J&K is a hotly contested territory between India and Pakistan and the possibility is strong of the sides going to war once again over it unless the parties are extra alert to each other’s sensitivities.
However, right now the onus is more on India to act with great circumspection since its move to end the constitutionally-guaranteed special status of Kashmir is inflaming passions on particularly the Pakistani side of the Kashmiri Line of Control. For instance, the occasions have not been few of late of gunfire across the border claiming lives on both sides of the divide. So pregnant is the situation with portentous possibilities that some sections of Pakistani opinion are now reportedly speaking about another ‘intifada’ in the J&K territory ruled by India.
Of great interest to the student of the J&K issue is the recent featuring of the question in no less a place than the UN Security Council. Taking it up once again after 50 years, the UNSC ought to find the deliberative process very difficult to handle on account of the highly contentious nature of the problem. The issue has been in virtual cold storage in UN circles over the decades on account of the contending parties’ inability to see eye-to-eye on it. But the ideological background to the issue ought to disclose why this is so to a degree.
India’s position at the time of partition was that J&K’s princely ruler at the time had consented in writing to J&K being part of India. On the other hand, Pakistan’s reading of the situation at the time of partition was that a UN-supervised plebiscite needed to be held in the province to ascertain the wishes of the people of J&K on whether they wished to be part of India or be incorporated into Pakistan.
No common ground was found between the sides on this question over the decades in the relevant discussion forums, resulting in the issue being stalemated and consigned to the back burner. Consequently, the territorial status quo of India ruling some two thirds of J&K and Pakistan having physical possession of one third of the province has remained uncomfortably congealed. A veritable eye-ball-to-eye-ball stand-off between the sides over the Line of Control has been unavoidable over the years.
However, the fundamental ideological differences between the sides on the imbroglio that render the issue unresolvable on the political plane could be summed up thus: for India, J&K goes to the very heart of her identity. India is a widely inclusive, democratic state which is home to a multiplicity of identities. If J&K is to be conceded to Pakistan on the basis that it is a Muslim majority state, the move would undermine India’s essential identity. On the other hand, given the province’s Muslim majority status, Pakistan argues that J&K should be an indivisible part of Pakistan.
It is plain that these are irreconcilably conflicting positions. Hence, the enormous difficulty in resolving the problem through political negotiations. On the other hand, any attempts to resolve the issue militarily would prove disastrous for the states concerned and the region.
Given the intractability of the problem, the sides have no choice but to prevent the ground situation from becoming worse. Besides holding fire, the sides need to respect very strictly each other’s sensitivities. India is unlikely to go back on what it has done on the issue of J&K autonomy but it will need to ensure that Muslim passions are not inflamed. It will need to remember that the Muslim community on its side of the divide has been accustomed to believing that it is of some special status within the Indian Union. Hence, everything possible needs to be done to ensure that nothing drastic has occurred to change this status. The fundamental rights, for instance, of the Kashmiri Muslims must be strengthened and protected. They should also be shielded from bodily harm.
Pakistan, on the other hand, would need to ensure that no grounds exist for India to believe that it is stirring popular unrest or fuelling Jihadist ‘terror’ on the Indian side of the J&K border or in larger India. Talks should begin between the states to build strong bridges of trust as early as possible.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump is on record as offering to mediate in this new crisis in Indo-Pakistani relations. The world may be unaccustomed to seeing the US President as a peace-maker on any front but in this connection Trump may need to be taken at his word. This is on account of the fact that the US needs stability in South Asia, besides the consideration that India is being seen as a worthy ally by the US. From the US viewpoint, there is an abundance of business opportunities waiting to be exploited in India. It cannot do so if the Indian subcontinent descends into conflict and instability. Accordingly, peace between India and Pakistan is a must and the US would prefer to be peacemaker.
Besides, India must be supported and strengthened as a counterweight to China. While India’s democratic identity is of some importance to the US, a US-India alliance must be shored up to crowd out the influence of China in South and South-West Asia in particular. In addition, the US’ alliance with Pakistan must be revived because China must be disallowed the opportunity to exploit any perceived widening differences between the US and Pakistan. Accordingly, peace in the Indian subcontinent is of paramount interest to the US.
However, enduring peace and stability in South Asia would be determined by India’s and Pakistan’s success in burying the hatchet, so to speak, and on their efforts in cementing ties of friendship between them, based on goodwill and a strong desire to put the past behind.