LAHORE/NEW DELHI – A subtle shift may be occurring in one of the world’s longest-standing and most intractable conflicts – the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Increasingly, it seems, Pakistanis are questioning what the Kashmir dispute has done to their own state and society.
When Pakistan was carved out of India by the departing British in the 1947 Partition, the 562 “princely states” (regions nominally ruled by assorted potentates, but owing allegiance to the British Raj) were required to accede to either of the two new countries. The Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir – a Muslim-majority state with a Hindu ruler – dithered over which of the two to join, and flirted with the idea of remaining independent.
But rumors that the Maharaja was leaning towards India triggered an invasion from Muslim revolutionaries and Pakistani tribesmen. The Maharaja, fearing that his state would fall to the marauders, acceded to India, which promptly sent troops to stop the aggressors (by that point augmented by the Pakistan Army). The First Kashmir War lasted until 1948, at which point India took the issue to the United Nations Security Council, which resulted in a cease-fire that left India in possession of roughly two-thirds of the state.
In order to determine the Kashmiris’ preference, the UN mandated a plebiscite, to be conducted after Pakistani troops had withdrawn from the territory. India had insisted on a popular vote. Kashmir's National Conference Party, led by the fiery and hugely popular Sheikh Abdullah, was a democratic, pluralist movement that was closer to the Indian National Congress, the party of Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first prime minister, than it was to the Muslim League, which had advocated the creation of Pakistan.
Nehru had no doubt that India would win a plebiscite. Pakistan, well aware of Abdullah’s popularity and worried that Nehru was right about the outcome, ignored the UN mandate and refused to withdraw. The plebiscite was never held, and the dispute has festered ever since.
Four wars (in 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999) have been fought across the cease-fire line, now called the Line of Control (LOC), without materially altering the situation. Beginning in the late 1980's, a Kashmiri Muslim insurrection erupted, backed by Pakistan both financially and with armed militants who crossed the LOC into India.
Both the uprising and the Indian security forces’ response have caused widespread casualties and destruction of property, all but wrecking Kashmir’s economy, which depends largely on tourism and handicrafts. In the process, both countries have suffered enormously. Thousands of India’s citizens have been killed, and the country has had to deploy more than a half-million troops to keep the peace.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s strategy of “bleeding India to death” through insurgency and terrorism has accomplished little other than to make its military enormously powerful and disproportionately wealthy. (Largely thanks to Kashmir, the Pakistani Army controls a larger share of its country’s national budget than any other army in the world.)
The Pakistani military may have once thought that fomenting militancy and terrorism in India was an effective strategy for hurting the enemy at little cost. But now Pakistan’s government increasingly recognizes that it may have become the main victim of its Kashmir policy, which has left the country with a distorted polity and a military that has carried out four coups and calls the shots from behind the scenes.
Moreover, Pakistan’s economy is collapsing, with inflation raging and a large number of unemployed and under-educated young men radicalized by years of Islamist propaganda against the Indian infidel. The result is a combustible mixture of extremism and hopelessness that threatens to consume the Pakistani state, as government-sponsored terrorists now turn on their erstwhile patrons.
Leading members of the Pakistani establishment are beginning to see this. On a recent visit to Islamabad and Lahore, I sensed in private conversations a widespread desire to put the Kashmir dispute on the back burner and explore avenues of mutually beneficial cooperation with India.
Pakistanis are saying it publicly, too. In a recent interview, the politician and religious leader Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman spoke frankly about Kashmir: “Obviously, we are in favor of a political solution….Things have changed so much. Now the concept of winning Kashmir has taken a back seat to the urgency of saving Pakistan.”
Younger Pakistanis are going even further. The columnist Yaqoob Khan Bangash, for example, openly derides the hallowed Pakistani argument that, as Muslims, Indian Kashmiris would want to join Pakistan: “Despite being practically a war zone since 1989, Indian Kashmir has managed higher literacy, economic growth, and per capita income rates than most of Pakistan,” he wrote recently. “Why would the Kashmiris want to join Pakistan now? What do we have to offer them?”
Beyond that, many argue, the costs of the prolonged obsession with Kashmir have become unsustainable for a Pakistan mired in internal problems. Kashmiris, wrote Bangash, “should certainly not come at the cost of our own survival, and not when all that we will be able to offer them is a failed state.”
This is still a heretical position in Pakistan, but it is a view that is gaining ground. When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who consistently advocates peace with his nuclear-armed neighbor, suggested last summer that Pakistan should “leave the Kashmir issue alone” and focus on its domestic challenges, the comment did not elicit the customary howls of outrage in the Pakistan media. Instead, it was met with a grudging acknowledgement that this time India’s leader might be right.
If such episodes reflect an incipient new national mood in Pakistan, it could well be time for India to seize the moment to build a lasting peace.