Re-read the Kashmir story

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A WELL-INFORMED Indian strategic analyst in London sounded slightly puzzled over the post-Uri uproar. Because, according to him, India had in fact been “expecting” some excitement ahead of the SAARC Summit. He contrasted the sound and fury over the attack to the muted reaction to the Pathankot incident when India even agreed to let in an ISI officer to join its investigation. But his sense was that the Uri row would blow over for now, India having registered its protest with the so-called “surgical strikes” and the SAARC boycott. Pakistan’s insistent denial that such strikes ever took place suggested that it didn’t want to pursue the matter further, and draw a line under the episode. 

To my question, where do we go from here, and, where are India-Pakistan relations headed, his response was a cold sigh. Well, let’s get this right. They’re not headed anywhere unless the elephant in the room is tackled. Which means India acknowledging the centrality of the Kashmir issue in its troubled relationship with Pakistan, and agreeing to take a fresh look at the dysfunctional post-Partition regime. Sahir Ludhianvi wrote, ‘Woh afsana jise anjaam tak laana ho mushkil, use ek khubsoorat mor dekar chhorna achha’. You can’t force someone to love you.

For 70 years, India has been trying, in turn cajoling, coaxing, and frequently forcing Kashmiris to fall in love with it. But nothing has worked; the harder it tries, the more cold-hearted is the response. Blame it on their bloody-mindedness, blame it on Pakistan, the India-Kashmir story has no future. Illusions, like faith, can be very comforting but sometimes it helps to do a reality check. 

Kashmiris want a divorce and seem determined, with a little help from across the border. It is significant that the latest burst of insurgency by a new generation of Kashmiris is not backed by economic demands. They’ve a one-point agenda — azadi. Full stop. And under the currently fashionable international doctrine, the will of the people takes precedence over national sovereignty. It doesn’t recognise the old notions of absolute sanctity of state sovereignty and non-negotiable territorial integrity. Redrawing of borders in accordance with the wishes of the people, and  devolution of powers to restless regions have become a routine feature of advanced democratic societies. Even well-established centuries-old arrangements  are  not safe. Britain was forced to agree to a referendum over the future of its 300-year-old union with Scotland and despite the risk it involved — a breakup of the United Kingdom — London put the wishes of the people of Scotland above the idea of  Britain’s “territorial integrity”.

The argument that discussing Kashmir means “surrendering” to Pakistan is a red herring; and it plays into the hands of Pakistan’s hawkish security establishment which has invested heavily in keeping the issue alive. The last thing Pakistan wants is a solution of the Kashmir dispute; once it is settled it will lose any justification for its anti-Indian activities. And if it persists, India will be in a stronger position to challenge it and mobilise international support. At the moment, India is diplomatically isolated. Contrary to breathless media claims, the international reaction to the Uri attack has been extremely cautious and limited to routine condemnation of terrorism in general terms. 

Even as the Indian media was hyperventilating about Washington being keen to show solidarity with India, the fact was that John Kerry was reported  “commending” Pakistani security forces for their “efforts to counter extremist violence”. Accompanied by a gentle reminder of  “the need for Pakistan to prevent all terrorists from using Pakistani territory as safe havens”. So much for American support. Much has been made of the fact that two Republican Congressmen have moved a bill calling for Pakistan to be designated as a “state  sponsor of terrorism”. Yes, they have. Except that one of them, Ted Poe from Texas, is a known Indian lobbyist. That apart, their move predates the Uri attack and is not a consequence of New Delhi’s international “diplomatic offensive”.

In reality, beyond polite expressions of sympathy India has little support over Kashmir. That Pakistan is a bad boy with a penchant for exporting terror is recognised even by its allies. But that doesn’t equal support for India. For one thing, as Ayesha Siddiqa, well-known Pakistani analyst, wrote in The Hindu,  “the international community is reluctant to take measures against Pakistan” because different countries have their “own calculations of their interests”. Islamabad serves their potential strategic interests better than India does. However, India’s biggest Achilles’ heel, according to Western observers, is the human rights situation in Kashmir; and  allegations of military and police excesses. Photographs of  little children blinded by pellets in police firing have added to old concerns about use of disproportionate force against unarmed civilians. There’s also a great deal of frustration over New Delhi’s refusal to countenance independent international verification of allegations of rights violations. British and European MPs have been repeatedly refused permission to visit Kashmir;  and reports by international Red Cross, World Watch and Amnesty International are dismissed as biased and politically motivated. The question frequently asked is: why is India so sensitive if it has nothing to hide?  

Successive governments, aware of India’s own vulnerability on the issue, wisely refrained from making too much of a public fuss over Pakistan’s appalling rights situation. So, the Modi government’s decision to internationalise rights abuses in PoK and Balochistan is a high-risk strategy; and has inevitably raised eyebrows. It is likely to encourage Pakistan (already has) to talk up its accusation of India’s role in stirring up trouble in Balochistan. There’s a view that the Modi government has decided to pursue a “ruthlessly pragmatic” policy on Pakistan irrespective of the risks, and its Balochistan gambit is part of that policy. Narendra Modi started with pragmatism inviting Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in; when that didn’t work, he switched to ruthlessness; and when that failed too; he’s now talking about “ruthless pragmatism”. The truth is, he is playing it blind. The famous American screenwriter  William Goldman wrote about Hollywood that “nobody knows anything”. “Not one person… knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out, it’s a guess, and if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

One can be forgiven for saying pretty much the same thing about India’s Pakistan policy. Nobody knows anything. Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is happily busy causing havoc. Anyone in Delhi noticed “him”?    –

The Article First Appeared In The Tribune 

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