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  Kashmir Conflict

The current South Asian conflict between India and Pakistan must find a lasting solution for stability in the region. There are no winners in a stand-off, only losers. And the losers will yet again be the minorities on both sides - the poor, dependant and religious minorities. A spirit of negotiation and level-headedness on both sides is required. It is essential for this situation that has lasted for some 50 years be resolved if both nations are to move forward. Failure to do so will result in an unbearable millstone around the region's neck.

The dispute over Kashmir goes back to the time of partition between India and Pakistan in 1947. The princely state of Kashmir had a majority Muslim population but a Hindu ruler (the Maharaja), who was unable to decide whether his state should accede to the new nations of India or Pakistan. While he was dithering, guerrilla fighters crossed the border from the Pakistan side. He requested help from India and also agreed to the accession of Kashmir to India. Indian forces were airlifted in but what was expected to be a swift campaign turned into a prolonged war which ended only with a United Nations sponsored cease-fire on 1st January 1949.

Neither India nor Pakistan was willing to give up its claims and the stalemate has continued for over 50 years, with two of India and Pakistan's three wars (1947-49, 1965, 1961) being fought over Kashmir. In 2000 a limited war was fought over Kargil, a point on the line of control between the two countries. There have been three United Nations commissions and a number of UN resolutions. India and Pakistan have also signed bilateral agreements regarding Kashmir but have been unable to solve the conflict.

The dispute is not just between the two countries. The people of Kashmir are the third party in the struggle. Since the original instrument of accession, Kashmir has had a special status (enshrined in article 370 of the Constitution of India) and the expectation of many has been a preference for independence from either country. This certainly became the desire of Sheikh Abdullah, the first Chief Minister of the state, although he had worked closely with Prime Minister Nehru in the early days.

In practice the former state of Kashmir has been partitioned for the last 50 years, with the Indian side containing three distinct regions - the Veil of Kashmir, the capital at Srinagar, the lower lying Jammu, which used to contain more Hindus and the mountainous Ladakh, with its Tibetan Buddhist population. The Pakistan side of the line of control contains a strip of land from Mirpur in the South Western corner up to the beautiful mountain region of Gilget in the North West. The populations of all these regions have shifted over the years, with ethnic cleansing on both sides. The number of those killed or made homeless over the years run into many thousands. Here in the UK, the majority of British people of Pakistani origin are in fact from Mirpur in Kashmir.

As the violence continues and threatens to escalate into another major war what are the options?

  1. The whole of Kashmir should belong to India or to Pakistan
    - Clearly both sides would like this but neither is willing to give in to the other.
  2. Kashmir should be allowed to become an independent state.
    - This is the wish of many Kashmiris but it is viable given the geopolitical realities? Among Kashmiris opinions differ, ranging from those who use violence and terror as their weapons to the moderates who want independence but through political process, to those who just want peace and would be happy to remain part of either India or Pakistan.
  3. Kashmir should be partitioned along the line of control, given legal recognition to what has been the reality of many years.
    - This would require substantial compromise from both sides and a willingness to back down from the rhetoric of the past and present.

Anybody offering a quick solution to the Kashmir problem is clearly out of touch with reality. Comparisons with Northern Ireland tell us that disputes like these can not be solved without the willingness to compromise, to accept reality, to agree to forget the past. Combining peace and justice, truth and reconciliation have to be the ideal but it is very difficult on the ground to include them all.

The struggle over Kashmir reflects a broader struggle between different visions of nation building. The vision of a theocratic state that was part of the founding of Pakistan has generated extremists for an Islamic nation. They have been matched by those equally extreme for a Hindu nation which rejects the vision of a state where people of all religious and cultural backgrounds are equally accepted, for one that looks back to dreams of Hindu culture and glory as the basis of a Hindu nation. This extremism, from both sides, brings fanaticism and violence in place of reason and tolerance. The evidence can be seen in both countries, with the unremitting pressure on minorities in Pakistan, where non-Muslims are considered second class by many; and the growing violence between Hindu extremists and people of other backgrounds. The continuing killing and destruction of property in Gujarat is an ominous sign of this tendency. What is more worrying is that more and more people seem to accept that violence in inevitable.

In this context, a number of related responses are in the pipeline:

- the forthcoming conference on Human Rights and Minorities in India (London-August 15)
- the book Changing India by Robin Thomson

The most critical issue in the current crisis is what do Kashmiris want in this situation? According to a Mori poll (May 31st), the vast majority (76%) oppose India and Pakistan going to war, 86% want free and fair elections to elect the people's representatives, a similar percentage an end to militant violence and 93% increased economic development of the region to reduce poverty and provide more jobs.

Surely, as overseas South Asians, we should be supporting the Kashmiris to achieve these aims. India, Pakistan and foreign governments should strive to do whatever it takes to tackle these underlying causes if there is to be lasting peace in the region, which would be in the interests of all concerned: Kashmir, India, Pakistan and the world at large. Nothing less than that will be an answer to our prayers.

Deepak Mahtani
International Director

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