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The Shaky Peace over Kashmir

erald Meyerle



eace talks between India and Pakistan tend to collapse in spectacular failure. Every attempt at peace during the last 15 years deteriorated within months into explosive military crises over Kashmir – in 1990, 1999, and 2002. India and Pakistan are again attempting peace, and have been doing so since May 2003 with a minimum of violence and mutual recrimination. Does this signal a break from the past? Is the “world’s most dangerous conflict”, as President Bill Clinton once called it, moving towards a final resolution? Supporters of peace everywhere jump to answer in the affirmative, and they may be right. But solutions to conflicts like Kashmir, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, or Palestine do not happen quickly. Understanding the complexity and volatility of the Kashmir problem demands a heavy dose of realism, as a lasting agreement will require hard decisions and tough bargaining. Yet analysts on both sides fail to look critically enough at the problem, basing their arguments on wrong assumptions. It would be a shame if yet another Indo-Pakistani peace process fell victim to unrealistic expectations. 

The stated claims of Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri leaders remain irreconcilable, though they appear more flexible these days. Indian politicians maintain that Kashmir is an integral part of their country, and that Islamic Pakistan’s religion-based claim to the Muslim-majority region is illegitimate. They believe that Kashmir willingly joined India in 1947, but that Pakistan invaded to thwart this development, taking and holding one third of the state in the first war over Kashmir in 1948. Two more wars followed in 1965 and 1999, yet the 1948 ceasefire line remains the de-facto boundary between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. India asserts that allowing Kashmir to become independent or join Pakistan would threaten the unity of the country. Pakistani leaders, on the other hand, believe that without Kashmir their country can be neither complete nor secure. They argue that, according to the rules governing the partition of British India in 1947, the predominantly Muslim region of Kashmir should have gone to Islamic Pakistan. When separatist Kashmiri militants took up arms against the Indian state in the midst of a massive popular uprising in 1989, Pakistan argued that human rights abuses by security forces made Indian rule in Kashmir illegitimate.

One of the reasons the Kashmir conflict seems so intractable is that the issue has so many difficult dimensions, yet no one person can hope to fully understand – much less control – them all. If any one falls out of sync, the entire process could collapse like a house of cards. The conflict’s first dimension is Kashmiri politics in which the pervasive sentiment of azadi (freedom) confronts the overwhelming might of the Indian state. The explosion of violent rebellion that catapulted Kashmir into the international spotlight in 1989 proved that the famously disputed territory is more than just a piece of real estate to be fought over by outside powers. A second aspect is the 57-year-old confrontation between the Indian and Pakistani strategic establishments over who should control Kashmir. This unceasing, low-level war overshadows almost every aspect of relations between the two countries, and threatens to destabilize the region. The third is public opinion in India and Pakistan where Kashmir is an extremely emotive issue. Any government hoping to negotiate in good faith will have a hard time convincing its people to go along. Lastly, the much talked about and often exaggerated American role.

Kashmiris caught in the middle

Indian analysts give the impression that the “silent majority” of Kashmiris are tired of violence and are ready to give up their secessionist struggle. It is only a violent and vocal minority that is really anti-India. Kashmiris want to participate in national elections and join the Indian mainstream, so the story goes, but are afraid of Pakistani terrorists who threaten them with violence. Pakistanis, on the other hand, assume that Kashmiris will never accept anything short of secession (and accession to Pakistan), and will forever support the glorious “freedom fighters” battling the Indian state. Kashmiris, goes the usual argument, appreciate how Pakistan has trumpeted their cause internationally and supported the militant struggle. These wildly divergent perspectives on what Kashmiris want reflect the opposing strategic interests of the two countries, and have little to do with Kashmiri public opinion.

Kashmiri-speaking Muslims, who make up almost 70% of the state’s population, appear to favor independence from both India and Pakistan, though one can never say for sure because no accurate opinion polls exist. This desire for independence, which has always brewed beneath the surface, did not gain momentum until the 1980s when street agitations and police firings rocked the Kashmir Valley. Following an apparently rigged election in 1987 and the deaths of hundreds of protestors at the hands of Indian security forces during the next few years, many Kashmiri youth became militants, apparently convinced that democratic methods had failed. Indians would like to believe that once the democratic process in Kashmir is firmly reestablished and governance improved, the people will give up their struggle and the problem will go away. But a deep cynicism about Indian democracy remains, even though the last two Kashmiri elections were widely considered free and fair. The dominant argument in the Valley is that elections remain insufficient as long as New Delhi refuses to address the possibilities of independence, a plebiscite to determine the will of Kashmiris, or even administrative autonomy. Indian officials hope that Kashmiris will tire of their struggle in the long-run and settle for functioning democracy and Indian citizenship. To this end, India’s leaders are willing to wait forever because time is on their side. They have what they want of Kashmir, the power to defend it against Pakistan, and the ability to contain the insurgency, which they believe will wane over time. This fact arouses passionate consternation among Pakistani officials, frustration among well-meaning peace activists, great sadness among secessionist leaders, and deep apathy among the impoverished Kashmiri farmers who want only to feed their families and protect them from violence.  

As no accurate poll exists to ascertain the wishes of Kashmiris regarding independence or accession to India or Pakistan, one must rely on the views of political leaders and journalists in touch with public sentiment. Interviews with top separatist leaders and editors of major newspapers in the Kashmir Valley indicate that support for independence remains strong, suspicion of India high, and distrust of Pakistan less but growing. The Indian government is disliked for its heavy-handed policies and abrogation of its many agreements with Kashmiri leaders; Pakistan is distrusted because of the murky role of its intelligence agencies in backing fundamentalist, pro-Pakistan militants, and helping destroy the pro-independence outfits. Until about ten years ago, many Kashmiris appreciated Pakistan’s help, but goodwill towards Pakistan has since dried up, and Kashmiris now see themselves sandwiched between two powerful governments pursuing their own particular interests. Joining Pakistan would mean “trading one slavery for another,” according to one separatist leader. No leader opposed to independence (whether he wants accession to Pakistan or India) can command broad popular support; even the most pro-India Kashmiri politicians promise azadi (freedom) at public rallies.

While the fundamental demand for independence remains strong, popular support for the tactic of militancy and terrorism is declining. Nearly all the pro-independence militants were either dead or in jail by 1992. By the late 1990s, more powerful pan-Islamist outfits from Pakistan, known to use suicide bombers and target civilians, were sidelining the only remaining Kashmiri militant outfit, the Hizbul Mujahideen. Indian officials claim that more than 80% of the militants are from either Pakistan or Afghanistan. Though the accuracy of this statistic is debated, many Kashmiri journalists, separatists, and former insurgents have said that foreign militants now outnumber their more popular but less deadly Kashmiri counterparts. Referred to in the valley as “mehamaan mujahideen (guest freedom fighters), these new militants are seen as outsiders under the influence of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, whose goal is not independence for Kashmiris but merger of the state with Pakistan. The killing of moderate separatist leaders such as Abdul Ghani Lone in 2002 and the uncle of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq in 2004 has also dealt a blow to the militant cause. So has the killing of many innocent Kashmiris in grenade attacks and bombings.

An April 2002 poll by MORI, an independent British polling agency, found that out of 850 Kashmiris interviewed, 65% believed that foreign militants are damaging the Kashmir cause, while most of the rest said they are neither damaging nor helpful. Two thirds of respondents said Pakistan’s involvement in the region during the last decade has been bad, reflecting the view that Pakistan’s generals hijacked the militant cause, turning it to serve their own strategic interests. By spring 2004, every major separatist leader except one had distanced themselves from militancy – the exception being the pro-Pakistan hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has a troubled relationship with his party, the Jamaat-i-Islami of Kashmir, whose leadership wants to distance itself from the militant struggle. Most top secessionist leaders are pro-dialogue support the peace process. The separatists’ shift away from violent methods was striking, as nearly every secessionist outfit supported the armed struggle during the 1990s: the pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) was a militant organization until 1992, while the Jamaat-i-Islami, People’s Conference, and Awami Action Committee had militant wings.

There was much hope for peace during this time as politics in the Valley appeared to be undergoing a structural shift towards peaceful methods of protest. But by June 2004, the tide turned with renewed militant attacks on moderate, pro-dialogue separatist leaders, and lukewarm commitment to dialogue by India’s newly elected government in New Delhi. As a result the hardliners re-emerged. Syed Ali Geelani regained control over the powerful Jamaat-i-Islami, and reappeared in the headlines opposing dialogue and voicing cynicism about the peace process in the midst of a new wave of political violence, including attacks on pro-dialogue separatist leaders. Many analysts say this is only a temporary setback, but there is no way to know until the snows melt in the spring and the passes through the mountains are cleared.  

The influx of pan-Islamist militants from Pakistan – many of whom either have links with Al Qaeda or share its ideological predilections – has contributed to declining international support for the separatist cause. After 2001, the US State Department in its annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report designated the two major pan-Islamist outfits, the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, foreign terrorist organizations subject to a wide range of sanctions, and put the Kashmiri Hizbul Mujahideen on a lesser watch list of “other terrorist groups”. The radically changed global environment following the terrorist attacks of September 2001 convinced moderate separatist leaders that they should distance themselves from militancy for fear of being associated with terrorism and losing international support altogether. According to Bilal Lone, a member of the Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella organization of top separatist leaders, September 11th changed everything. “Kashmir is part of the world and must change with the world,” according to Lone. “We have recognized that where there is jihad, there will be no international support. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs will have to live together side by side.” This sentiment remains among a mostly divided and despondent separatist leadership despite the recent escalation in militancy. 

Strategic Myths

For 15 years, Pakistani strategists have based their Kashmir policy on the assumption that they can wrest the disputed region from India through a combination of force, support to militants, and international pressure. There is a pervasive belief in Pakistan’s strategic establishment that the Indians are weak and cowardly, that they will eventually buckle under the strain of a popular insurgency and international criticism of the human rights abuses that have accompanied the suppression of this rebellion. Pakistani strategists talk passionately about Kashmir and the plight of Kashmiris, and many believe its possession by India is an unacceptable threat to their security. Indians, on the other hand, believe that Pakistan is a rogue state with rogue intelligence agencies obsessed with spreading terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. Indian strategists assume that the world will eventually see this, at which time the international community will come around to India’s point of view and force Pakistan to back off. Indian policy-makers also assume that their terrorism problem is entirely the result of Pakistani involvement. They believe, therefore, that once the major powers force Pakistan to cut its links with the militants, then Kashmiris will give up on secession and participate in national elections. The problem will then simply go away.

Rather than buckle as Pakistani strategists hoped, India has not budged an inch since the Kashmir Valley exploded into violence in 1989. Rather than run like cowards, India responded with overwhelming force when Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry secretly took strategic peaks on the Indian side in 1999. Indian strategists now believe they have a better hold than ever over the insurgency, and enjoy greater international support in their efforts to eliminate the most dangerous militant outfits. The heavy international criticism of alleged human rights abuses by Indian security forces that was so prevalent during the 1990s has dropped off. According to Yasin Malik, a separatist leader and former militant commander, organizations such as Amnesty International that pledged support to the separatist cause during the early and mid 1990s have all but disappeared from the scene since 2001.

While Pakistan’s renewed relations with the US helped it emerge from the prolonged financial crisis and international isolation into which it had sunk by the late 1990s, strategic relations between the US and India have also improved, including unprecedented cooperation on counter-terrorism. In the meantime, India’s economy, which is already six times larger than Pakistan’s, is surging ahead, helping to finance an ambitious defense modernization plan. Pakistan’s economy, on the other hand, is stagnating, despite an enormous infusion of capital from the US, much of which has gone either to the military or the country’s small elite. Pakistan is also facing pressure from the International Monetary Fund to cut defense spending. These and other developments have given Indian strategists new confidence. Indian policy-makers feel stronger than ever, determined to hold their ground and speak from a position of strength.

On the other hand, India’s assumptions that the international community will eventually notice Pakistan’s connection to Islamic militancy may be correct, but whether the major powers would force Pakistan to back off is another matter. Indian hopes that the US would declare Pakistan a rogue state were dashed soon after September 11th, 2001 when it became clear that Pakistan would become a major US ally against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As long as the violence in Kashmir does not adversely affect the western powers, Pakistan’s role will be overlooked. The attack on America’s World Trade Center towers forced Pakistan to distance itself from Islamic militants for fear of becoming a target of America’s new “war on terrorism”. If the Pakistan army makes what appears to be a sincere about face on Kashmiri militancy, they could steal India’s thunder, and the international community would have little reason to weigh in on India’s side. President Musharraf pledged to disarm the terrorist organizations operating on Pakistani soil, and reform the Pakistani political system. Washington’s policy-makers support Musharraf, and believe that he is the man most needed to track down Al Qaeda militants on Pakistani soil and prevent instability in Afghanistan.  

It also remains to be seen whether the problem in Kashmir would really go away once the Pakistan connection is severed. While there appear to be more foreign than Kashmiri militants, Kashmiris continue to carry out regular attacks against security forces, and many remain quite popular despite dampened public enthusiasm for violent methods. In 2001, the last year for which data is available, more than 40% of militants killed by security forces were local Kashmiris. Though the separatist politicians have, for the most part, cut their links with the militants, they do not criticize them; to do so would “dishonor the blood of the martyrs”, according to Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a well-regarded separatist leader. What he means is that because so many Kashmiris have died in the struggle, the cause must not be abandoned. Average Kashmiris may be tired of violence and cynical about their leaders, but that does not mean that they have given up their desire to be free. Furthermore, a drop-off in militancy would not necessarily bring a return to “normalcy” without a serious peace agreement between Pakistan, India, and Kashmiri separatist leaders because the separatist politicians may very well renew the street protests and boycotts of the 1980s, leading to the usual over-reaction by Indian security forces.  

Misunderstanding public opinion

One hears people on all sides – whether in India, Pakistan, Kashmir, or western capitals – say that ordinary people want peace. It is only the governments that get in the way. Pakistanis believe that Indian politicians profess peace, but only for political mileage, and always go back on their commitments. Pakistan’s leaders believe that Indians are anti-Muslim, that they will never accept Pakistan (created as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims) as a legitimate political entity, and that they seek the break up of Pakistan. Most Indians believe that Pakistan’s generals are committed only to making war, and will never stop until they have taken all of Kashmir and weakened India in the process.  

Reading the Indian press and talking to leaders as well as ordinary people, one gets the impression that Indians, for the most part, do indeed want peace. To the surprise of many Pakistanis, India’s Hindu nationalist government showed a remarkable commitment to peace that was lacking in previous administrations. As the peace process gained momentum through the first half of 2004, there was very little criticism from either the Indian press or the political opposition. However, Indian leaders have yet to take significant risks – that is, to talk about Kashmir and offer solid concessions. If the Indian leadership moves beyond mere rhetoric and commits itself to offering Pakistan enough territorial concessions to allow it a peace with honor, would the Indian public go along? The US-based Kashmir study group has suggested that the Muslim majority areas of Kashmir become independent and the Hindu and Buddhist portions be ceded permanently to India. But the Indian public has never warmed to this possibility. Could a weak coalition government follow through on it in the teeth of popular opposition? Because of India’s status-quo position on Kashmir, it is easy for Indians to seek peace with Pakistan and appear reasonable and rational, as long as they do not have to give away land. “Why can’t we just let bygones by bygones,” Indian diplomats ask. “Let’s forget the past. You keep your part of Kashmir, and we keep ours.” India’s only offer is – and likely will be for the indefinite future – to turn the Line of Control separating Indian and Pakistani portions of Kashmir into a permanent international boundary.

Public opinion in Pakistan is more complex, and varies from region to region. In the outlying provinces of Baluchistan, Sindh, and even the North West Frontier Province, Kashmir is not a high priority, and the people are willing to accept whatever the government decides. In the core province of Punjab, however, Kashmir is a hugely emotive issue, made all the more so by decades of government propaganda and the fact that more than 80% of the army hails from this region. Public opinion in Punjab is mostly opposed to any settlement that involves backing down on Pakistan’s claims to Kashmir, or cutting support to the “freedom fighters” battling the Indian state. What liberal Indian commentators often refer to as Pakistan’s “peace constituency” of “civil society groups” is exaggerated, limited as it is to a small and isolated circle of English-speaking elites with little interest in grass roots sentiment or much influence over official policy.   

Many prominent Pakistani politicians and press persons are critical of the peace process because they believe President Musharraf is offering too many concessions (probably under US pressure) without getting enough in return. The hawks on Pakistan’s powerful political right are increasingly influential and appear to be more in touch with grass roots public opinion on foreign policy matters. The fastest growing and now largest-circulated daily in Pakistan is the Urdu-language Nawa-e-Vaqt, a stridently right wing paper known for its hawkish positions on foreign policy, sympathy for Islamist causes, and its stridently nationalist yet libertarian positions on other domestic issues. For example, the paper supports the Taliban, opposes the peace process with India, and is deeply critical of Pakistan’s renewed relations with the United States. When the Nawa-e-Vaqt refused to compromise on its opposition to peace with India, the military government pulled all official advertisements, which make up a substantial portion of the paper’s revenue.

Musharraf has faced stinging criticism for his abrupt turn-arounds on the Taliban, nuclear weapons, and support to the jihad in Kashmir. Yet many Pakistanis still believe in the ideologies that justified the old policies, and think the president has betrayed what were almost sacred causes until a few years ago. Making peace with India over Kashmir will require Musharraf to back down on what is, arguably, the country’s most sacred foreign policy issue. Salim Bokhari, editor of The News, a major Pakistani English-language daily, told the author: “It is in the blood of every Pakistani that Kashmir be a part of Pakistan, but India will not give it up on a silver platter. We will have to take it. This is what the Pakistani people were told for years. You can’t just turn this around over night.” Musharraf is facing a rising tide of public criticism for betraying the very same ideas that the army taught people to believe in for decades. If opposition to Musharraf’s policies grows, the peace process could collapse, as taking a strident line on Kashmir may be the quickest way for Musharraf to shore up support among the country’s powerful and vocal political right. The Islamists and anti-peace Kashmir hawks will continue to be strong as long as the military keeps the mainstream parties divided and their leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, in exile. As things stand now, the most vocal and articulate advocates for democracy and an end to military rule are leaders on the religious right such as Qazi Hussein Ahmed of the Jamaat-i-Islami and Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islami.

Inflated hopes about America’s role

After the attack on America’s World Trade Center towers in September 2001, Indian strategists assumed that the US would finally pay attention to Pakistan’s connection to the jihadis and declare the country a state sponsor of terrorism. They hoped that Washington would recognize that India and the US share the common threats of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, both of which emanate from Pakistan, and have been supported for years by the country’s security establishment. Indian strategists, therefore, concentrated on exposing the Pakistan connection, and refused to talk about Kashmir until “cross-border terrorism” ended. Pakistani strategists, on the other hand, assumed that their renewed importance to the United States after its attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan would ensure that American policy-makers would turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s support for militants in Kashmir. Pakistani policy-makers assumed they could escalate the level of militant violence, and rely on the US to prevent India from attacking in retaliation.

The US favored neither country, disrupting calculations on both sides. American policy-makers recognize that if they become too involved, they could ruin the entire process. Critics on both sides are wary of US involvement, and could easily discredit any agreement seen as the result of US pressure. This is a particular danger in Pakistan where the public is extremely angry about the inordinate influence Washington has over the country’s foreign and domestic security policies. America’s official role in Kashmir has remained limited to encouraging dialogue and preventing another flare-up that could compromise US interests in Afghanistan. Washington policy makers seek good relations with both countries, and will not take sides on Kashmir.

To the surprise of Pakistanis, the US, recognizing that Islamabad’s support to terrorist groups could cause another war with India or further destabilize the Pakistani state, pressured Musharraf to put a stop to the infiltration of militants into Indian Kashmir. The Pakistan military reluctantly complied, though it has made little effort to close down the jihadi network. American leaders disappointed India as well. They did not even suggest that Pakistan was a state sponsor of terrorism; to do so would have made ridiculous the claim that Musharraf was a frontline ally in the “war on terrorism”. As long as Pakistan cooperates with the US and attempts to shut down the jihadi groups operating on its soil, there is no reason to isolate its leadership, whatever may have been its past transgressions. It was naïve for India to believe the US would expend valuable political capital to shut down militant outfits that are not involved in attacks against western interests. The US played down Pakistan’s support to militancy, working in private to ensure a reduction in infiltration without appearing to take sides. American policy-makers did not originally agree with the Indian view that Kashmir is a terrorism problem, or that it should be considered part of the war on terrorism. Rather, they concerned themselves with ensuring Pakistan’s stability and gaining the support of its leadership.

This attitude has changed slowly during the years since September 11th. More awareness about the situation in South Asia has led more US officials to note the connection between the jihadi movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Islamist extremists fighting in Kashmir. While the US remains sensitive to the independence movement in the Valley, many American officials are also talking about the possibility that many, if not most, of the militants fighting in Kashmir are from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Realizing this fact does not mean that the US will expend political capital to address the problem, however. US officials are concerned most of all with not rocking the boat in Pakistan in a way that might cause problems for Musharraf’s government or compromise US-Pakistan relations. American policy-makers want to ensure that tensions over Kashmir diminish, but their greater concern is the stability of Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

New Complications

India’s Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was ousted from power last May, and replaced by a new government whose policies on Pakistan and Kashmir remain unclear. Despite its hawkish proclivities and Hindu nationalist ideology, Vajpayee’s government showed unprecedented creativity and flexibility in its dealings with Pakistan and the Kashmiri separatists. Vajpayee was the first prime minister to visit the Valley since troubles began in 1989, and he did so at great risk to his life. Will India’s new Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, follow through on his predecessor’s political program? Since he came to power, relations between the center and the separatists have deteriorated; militant attacks on moderate separatist leaders have increased; the moderate, pro-dialogue Maulvi Abbas Ansari has stepped down as leader of the separatist Hurriyat coalition; and the hard-line, pro-Pakistan leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani has reemerged as the uniting factor in the Hurriyat, thereby strengthening the hardliners in the separatist camp. Singh demonstrated his government’s commitment to solving the conflict, however, by visiting the Valley in November. It will be difficult for him to make a deal with Pakistan, however, until he consolidates his party’s grip on power. 

In the meantime, Pakistan is engulfed in an intense civil-military struggle over the future structure of the Pakistani state. General Pervez Musharraf, who is both president and army chief, is attempting to carve out a permanent role for the military in Pakistani politics. Musharraf recently decided to continue military rule for another five years, backtracking on his promises to bring democracy back by the end of 2004. He is under heavy criticism for compromising with India over Kashmir, sending the army into the tribal areas to capture alleged militants, and for his close cooperation with the US. Pakistan’s political opposition is growing in strength, recovering after more than three years of army rule, and tapping into a growing tide of anti-military sentiment. The Islamists are emerging as key opposition figures and are growing in strength, while moderate leaders remain in jail or exile. The Islamists are the most bitter critics of Musharraf’s peace process with India, and the most vocal opponents of military rule. Will Musharraf be more likely to make a lasting peace than an elected leader? Can he afford to negotiate with India, and survive both popular opposition and the ire of the Islamists? Will India give him enough concessions to allow him a peace with honor? All these unanswered questions make for a shaky peace process.    

Gerald Meyerle is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics, University of Virginia.  His e-mail address is gmm5f@virginia.edu


Logos 4.1 - winter 2005
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