The origin of the India–Pakistan conflict over Kashmir can be traced back to the British rule in the Indian subcontinent, and the two fundamentally irreconcilable ideologies that played instrumental roles in the formation of the two countries. The modus operandi of the British rulers was ‘Divide and rule’, which exacerbated the communal discord and animosity between Hindus and Muslims that predate the British Raj. The Indian National Congress party led the independence movement, purveying its political mantra of secularism and liberal democracy. Hindus, however, dominated its echelons. Congress leaders often didn’t pay heed to Muslim grievances. Leaders of the Muslim league—taking a dislike to a future Hindu dominated unified state—demanded a separate country for Muslims. The Congress and Muslim league failed to resolve the incompatibility between their respective ideologies, which led to the creation of two independent countries. The borders were drawn based on religious affiliations—brushing aside the ethnic, cultural and linguistic commonalities that bind the inhabitants of the sub-continent.
Control over Kashmir, one of the 565 autonomous princely states forced to choose between India and Pakistan, remains the bone of contention between the two countries. Since partition, irredentist aspirations led the two countries to lock horns in four wars and sundry other border skirmishes. As it stands today, India controls 45% of Kashmir, and Pakistan controls 35%. The remaining 20% is controlled by China—bequeathed to it by Pakistan. The heavily militarised Line of Control (LoC) demarcates Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir.
India today, the largest democracy in the world and once a champion of the Non-Alignment Movement, is on the verge of becoming a global superpower. Its economy is booming in tandem with its soaring military might. Despite its strong democratic and secular heritage, there is a lack of transparency in governmental policies, especially regarding Kashmir. Its citizens are often subject to state-sanctioned repressions. Its police and military forces have a notorious record of committing gross human rights violations in Kashmir. Moreover, the advent of the Hindutva ideology in mainstream politics, together with the controversial Hindu populist Narendra Modi’s accession to power, has dented the country’s secular credentials. India’s big brother attitude and its interference in internal affairs often antagonise its other smaller neighbours in the region. Its tussle with the northern neighbour China to exert dominance in the region may further destabilise the volatile region.
India’s arch-rival Pakistan has been fraught with political and social instabilities. Since independence, the panoply of successive military dictatorships, rampant corruption, ethnic tensions, secessionist struggles, and religious terrorism has stifled its democratic progress. The Pakistani military exerts significant clout in the country’s political and economic affairs through an intricate military patronage system. The military legitimises its intrusion in the civil sphere by tapping into popular support for the Kashmir cause. Pakistan military also continues to influence the civilian government’s negotiation approaches with India. It has in the past thwarted peace initiatives adopted by civilian governments by staging putsches, and unilateral military actions against India. Despite the potential looming scenario of becoming a failed state, the Pakistani state and society continue to trudge along–with stupendous resilience.
The underlying interests that impel these two countries to engage in an ‘Interstate conflict over territory’ remain the same. By maintaining control over the disputed territories with the sizeable Muslim population, India wants to vindicate the ideals that legitimise its existence as a Federal Union. Pakistan, on the contrary, championing the religious basis of a state, wants to create a unified Muslim country; which is hitherto, it claims, incomplete without Kashmir. India, however, is willing to put the Kashmir issue to bed by cementing the LOC (Line of Control) as the final border. Sparing some high altitude glaciers, it has even built a mega-budgeted fence barrier along the LoC. Pakistan refuses to recognise the LoC as the final border. It continues to claim Muslim dominated Kashmir as an indispensable part of its territory. However, there is a broader picture as well. India also aspires to be the next superpower in the world; superpowers rarely concede territories and almost never to arch-rivals. Pakistan’s greater aspiration is to humble its arch-rival India. Establishing full sovereignty over Kashmir would not only do that but also help it to gain an equal footing with India in the region.
Pakistan reiterates its demand to hold a fair and independent plebiscite in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. It maintains that a free and impartial plebiscite would lead the people of Jammu and Kashmir to choose Pakistan over India. Withal, India claims that partitioning the sub-continent was a historical mistake in the first place, and any further secession is unacceptable. It rebuked Pakistan’s claim of holding a referendum, claiming the successive state-level elections have legitimisedKashmir’s future with India. Pakistan is keen to involve a third party to kick-start a mediation process. India is averse to the idea of third-party mediation. It considers the Kashmir issue as an internal problem, and in the past engaged in bilateral negotiations with Pakistan. As of today, India continues to reject any proposals from Pakistan and the international community to involve third parties in the negotiation process.
India and Pakistan harness very distinct power resources. As a gigantic country with a massive population of 1.3 billion, India inherited an ancient civilisation that influenced cultures in far-flung parts of the world. Every year India purchases military hardware and technologies in bulk, as it continues to develop its military strength. Its vibrant multicultural society, picturesque landscapes, and spiritual abodes attract foreign tourists in flocks. India’s massive consumer market makes it an attractive destination for global business giants. Moreover, the large Indian Diasporas in the west have many success stories, which enhance its reputation in the West. As a result, it can wield significant soft power in its international dealings.
Pakistan as well draws power from multiple, albeit distinct sources. It has strong economic and cultural ties with the Middle East, where a bevy of Pakistani migrant workers dwell. As a significant partner in the global campaign against terrorism, it receives massive financial and military largesse from the United States. Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friendship’ with China benefited it enormously, and its recent inclusion in China’s Belt and route initiative has resulted in massive Chinese investments in its most impoverished provinces. As the only nuclear-armed Muslim country in the world, Pakistan attracts special deference in the Muslim world. All these factors combined, Pakistan casts a long shadow compared to its size and might.
The international actors who often seek to influence the outcome of the conflict are neighbouring China and the global hegemon United States. China continues to stand by Pakistan and remains its primary source of military hardware. It even controls a portion of Kashmir, known as Aksai Chin, over which India claims its sovereignty. The United States needs both India and Pakistan’s assistance in its protracted war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. A large-scale conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations thus goes against US interests. The US President Bill Clinton’s diplomatic intervention was required in the Kargil war of 1999 to avoid the disastrous prospect of a full-scale nuclear war. There are also secessionist armed groups operating in the region; most of them are backed by Pakistan. However, they do not possess enough military and political clout to change the outcome of the conflict on their own.
When it comes to power relations, India’s diplomatic reach is more robust compared to that of Pakistan. Regarding conventional military power, budget, and spending, the power relations between the two countries so far remain asymmetric. India continues to dominate Pakistan in all these categories. However, the acquisition of nuclear weapons has proved to be a game changer for Pakistan. In contrast to India’s ‘No first use’ policy of using nuclear weapons, Pakistan maintains a ‘first use’ stance. India may prove its military superiority in a protracted war. However, if nuclear warfare starts early, it may lead to total annihilation of both the countries. To curb India’s dominance in traditional military capabilities, Pakistan has continually employed asymmetric strategies—such as supporting insurgents and waging proxy wars in the Kashmir region. The rough terrain of Kashmir provides enough cover for limited incursions by the Pakistani forces. India suffered a humiliating defeat by China in the Himalayan border war of 1962. To avoid a repeat, it has positioned half of its land forces in the border regions it shares with China. As a result, Pakistan enjoys near parity in military strength in the Kashmir border. If a war breaks out and China decides to join Pakistan, India will be forced to fight a war on two fronts, diminishing its conventional military superiority over Pakistan.
On the status of Kashmir, both countries’ citizens echo the demands of their politicians and consider Kashmir as an intrinsic part of their countries. The partition-induced migration and eruption of communal violence scarred the memories of the Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims of the sub-continent. These deeply rooted resentments often come to the fore when relations go sour. Populist ideas have permeated every sphere of social life and resulted in the polarisation of the communities. The liberals in both countries who advocate for a peaceful solution to the conflict are losing their voices. Through their jingoistic din and bolstered with government backings, Hindu Nationalists in India and Islamist groups in Pakistan have successfully instilled a culture of fear which is forcing people to self-censor themselves. India’s hard-line Hindu nationalists use the conflict as an excuse to prop up support for Hindutva ideology. The advocates of Hindutva ideology espouse a future Hindu nation that will replace the secular Indian state. They reminisce of the supposed halcyon days of the ancient past—when Hindu civilisation was at its pinnacle, before the advent of the Muslim invaders. The hard-line Islamist narrative in Pakistan deems Hindus of India as infidels who should be converted to Islam after the sub-continent is brought under Islamic rule. Under the patronage of the military establishment, the ultra-right Islamist conservative parties successfully imbued a significant portion of the Pakistani youth with anti-India sentiments.
Indian and Pakistani societies are predominantly patriarchal with strictly defined gender roles that influence the gender aspects of the conflict. The historical narratives of the India–Pakistan conflict, to this day, remain very patriarchal. Powerful men take centre stage while women play minor peripheral roles. In popular culture, the valiant efforts of men in the battlefields are praised, while women who often make the most significant sacrifices are conveniently ignored. History books on the conflict are thus replete with the deeds of military men and the details of the wars they won. Women are portrayed as entirely subservient to men for their security—devoid of any agency. These patriarchal discourses act as impediments to a peaceful resolution of the conflict by claiming armed struggle as the only viable solution. Violence against women, especially rape, is a common phenomenon in the conflict. There is well-documented evidence of Indian security forces and Kashmiri secessionists backed by Pakistan committing atrocities against women in the Kashmir region, such as rape and torture.
Several solutions were proposed in the past to bring an end to the conflict. However, India and Pakistan often outright rejected some of them and interpreted differently the proposals they initially and partially accepted. The 1948 resolutions of the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) recommended the withdrawal of troops on both sides followed by an UN-supervised plebiscite that would settle the future of Kashmir. India and Pakistan were discordant on how to carry out troop withdrawals. As a result, the proposed plebiscite never took place. The subsequent mediation missions deployed by the UN Security Council met the same fate as both countries could not agree on the number of remaining troops after the demilitarisation, how and when the UN administrated plebiscite would take place, and what roles the two countries would play in it. After the Simla agreement of 1972, both countries agreed to resolve their disputes through bilateral negotiations, effectively banning third parties from the negotiation process.
The opinions of the inhabitants of Kashmir are split over the future of Kashmir. Its minority Hindu and Buddhist population have not shown any aspiration for either independence or accession to Pakistan, while its northern Muslim community supports integration with Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir. The Muslim majority of the valley region is split among three views: join Pakistan, remain with India, or opt for independence. Both India and Pakistan are as averse to the idea of an Independent Kashmir as they are to the idea of leaving it at each other tutelage. Because of the lack of unanimity, a recommendation was made to hold a region based plebiscite. But it was turned down by the Kashmir Independence movement which rejects any division of the state. Moreover, India’s unwillingness to hold an independent plebiscite makes it difficult to determine precisely how the population of Kashmir is divided among these three views.
The hardliners, who now dominate the political landscape in both India and Pakistan, don’t seem too keen to bring an end to the stalemate. The populist modus operandi is to find a target group and blame them for everything. Populists in both countries feel empowered by the conflict because the polarisation of the societies works to their advantage. Only when these spoilers and saboteurs are marginalised can an effective negotiation commence and a solution favourable to both India and Pakistan take effect. Sadly, as of today, there are not any visible signs of both countries pursuing such an agenda. As a result, it is unlikely that we would see a peaceful solution to the conflict in the near future.
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Siddhartha Dhar is a Bangladeshi blogger, writer, and translator. He lives in Sweden where he has been a Swedish PEN guest writer.