Since 1947 India and Pakistan have fought three and half wars over Kashmir and held more than 60 rounds of talks to bilaterally resolve the dispute which has its origin in the partition of British India into two countries. There have also been several unilateral efforts by the Indian government to solve the conflict through some arrangement within the Indian constitution. All these efforts have proved incapable of resolving it. In six decades, reality has mutated, as a movement for independence has grown and the terms of public discourse over the right of self-determination in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have been expanded. And now the rulers of India and Pakistan are working out a deal on J&K, with the people of J&K reduced to being mere recipients of their decision.

Up until now, the only effort that appeared to break new ground was the back channel dialogue between the military regime of Pervez Musharaf in Pakistan and National Democratic Alliance and United Progressive Alliance governments in India between 2002 and 2007. It imagined a solution which would involve no change of border but some kind of joint control. However, the military regime’s illegitimacy in Pakistan sank this effort.

Now India is attempting a mix of the two: it is resuming talks with Pakistan where they left off, while carrying on with unilateral efforts. While efforts to bring about a peaceful and democratic solution are necessary, this “peace process” is flawed on three counts. For one, it is not a “people’s” agenda that is being promoted but rather a deal being thrashed out between India and Pakistan. This process has the blessing of the United States, which cheers these efforts even as the Indian government marches on with its own attempts to create new facts on the ground in the shape of a patchwork agreement with pro-Indian parties in Kashmir. In the second place, those who claim that self-determination is passé, for whatever reason, do not realize that what they are giving up is something which is not theirs to give away: the right of self-determination is a right of the people, not a commodity which can be bartered in exchange for what some believe is a realizable solution. Finally, and most importantly, the “peace process” will end up legitimizing and consolidating oppression.

The Indian government perceives itself as magnanimous in exploring solutions within India’s constitutional parameters and agreeing to discuss a possible agreement with Pakistan, but it has not made a single gesture to show the subjugated people that it is even contemplating rolling back the repressive regime in J&K. Instead there is a lot of noise about “battle fatigue” and “the primacy of economics in today’s international relations.” If there is any “battle fatigue,” it is probably over the vacillation of the various leaders rather than over the basic demand for realizing the right of self-determination.

An India-Pakistan solution imposed on Kashmir?

Now, through back channel diplomacy, India and Pakistan are trying to bridge the distance between them over the issue of the Line of Control – the ceasefire line brought about at the end of the war in 1971 – and joint control/management. India’s offer of a so-called soft border and joint consultative mechanism falls short of Pakistan’s position that the LOC cannot be made permanent and its insistence on joint control. Sultan Mahmood Chaudhuri, the former Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir (Pakistan-held Kashmir), pointed out on a visit to Srinagar on September 17, 2011, that “easing restriction on travel between both sides of LOC and pulling out troops from Kashmir are fine, but other elements of the proposal are unacceptable … because the proposal is in fact intended to turn the LOC into an international border, which is unacceptable to Kashmir.”

The Indian establishment sees a pressing need to reach a compromise because of their assessment that while they are able to contain militancy they have not won the battle for the “hearts and minds” of a large section of the people of J&K. They believe that they could win this battle were they to reach a deal with Pakistan, which is seen as being the key to both driving a wedge in the movement and subduing the recalcitrant population by convincing them that Pakistan, which for all these decades supported them, is ready for a compromise or has forsaken them. Further, the prospects of striking a deal have improved, in the Indian assessment, because the global “War on Terror” has placed Pakistan in the unenviable situation of coming under U.S. tutelage, constraining its room for manoeuvre vis-à-vis India on Kashmir. Thus, the “peace process” is taking place as the United States is breathing down the neck of Pakistan while helping India emerge as a great power.

Of course if two governments are determined then they can simply ride roughshod over people. They may even manage to deal a blow to resistance and cajole some leaders to come on board. But can a deal be imposed on an alienated and rebellious people? What happens if this deal fails to take wings? While it is the rulers’ prerogative to ram down decisions, even the best laid plans can create a backlash if the popular mood remains defiant. We are already witnessing the growing emphasis within movement ranks on becoming self-reliant because overdependence on Pakistan can be fatal. After 22 years of both armed and peaceful resistance, contemporary J&K is unlike anything that preceded it between 1947 and 1989.

The issue of water sharing under the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) illustrates what can happen when India and Pakistan come to an agreement over the heads of the people of J&K. In 1960 the waters of the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers, which traverse J&K, were virtually handed over to Pakistan, while waters from the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas, which do not, were given to India. This meant that J&K lost its rights as the upper riparian state. Under the agreement, the use of water for irrigation or for harnessing power is restricted because the flow of water cannot be interrupted by building a reservoir or controlled by placing any impediment in the path of the water’s flow. At the time the IWT was reached, there wasn’t even a semblance of “represantative” government in either part of Kashmir. The agreement has been a continuing sore point and many political parties have pitched for compensating J&K for losses incurred because of the Indus Waters Treaty. Another area of conflict is the fact that in the last 60 years J&K, with enormous hydroelectric potential, has remained an “area of darkness.” Even projects that do exist do not feed J&K’s own needs.

Increasingly, “preempting” militants from taking advantage of fast-returning normalcy in J&K is cited as an argument for maintaining heavy troop deployment, although the presence of 600,000 soldiers against an estimated fewer than 500 militants makes little sense. Now the need to maintain tight control to impose any agreement that might be reached between India and Pakistan on a reluctant and defiant people is emerging as an additional argument for continuing with militarization. In any case, whatever the argument, it merely legitimizes the presence of the very security force that has earned notoriety among the people of Kashmir. Thus, the same Indian civilian and military authorities who occupy, own, manage and control the land and water of J&K, with the attendant financial dependence and corrupting influence, will also have the task of enforcing the “peace process.”

Neither the current “peace process,” the efforts of “interlocutors” nor the promotion of “peace through economic reconstruction” is capable of burying the right of self-determination or solving the problem that has defied solution for six decades. Even if the need to bring about “normalcy” is accepted, it cannot be delinked from the fulfilment of conditions that would enable people to freely express their will through a referendum. Normalcy cannot mean enabling the militarized authority to consolidate its rule in J&K. This delinking is the crux of the matter, undermining the peace process where it really matters: the battle for hearts and minds.

India’s geostrategic interests

In searching for a solution, we need to situate the J&K dispute in its geostrategic context. A major complicating factor is the presence of U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan and U.S. troops in Pakistan, bringing them very close to China and Central Asia. While it is true that the United States and NATO want to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014 and reach a tacit or explicit deal with what is called the Afghan Taliban, this will not mean a complete pullout insofar as they will retain a military foothold in Afghanistan – in their contention with China it does not behoove them to forego opportunities to establish bases in such a strategically important area.

From the Indian security perspective, this is a positive development, as the U.S.-NATO presence complements India’s security buildup vis-à-vis China. However, in Indian strategic thinking, India ought to be allowed a larger role in Afghanistan and Central Asia rather than just playing second fiddle to the United States and NATO. To the extent that the United States must take on board Pakistan’s concerns regarding India in Afghanistan – Pakistan is stridently opposed to Indian military trainers working with the Afghan army – India may not get its way. In fact, for Pakistan it is of vital importance that India does not get to play any significant role in the regional dialogue to reach a settlement between the Karzai regime and the Afghan Taliban.

While Pakistan tries to prevent an increased Indian role in Afghanistan, the growing Chinese presence in Pakistan-held areas of Kashmir is seen as a challenge for India. India has expressed concern over two projects in which China is engaged: Diamer Bhasha dam and the upgrading of the Karakoram Highway. India’s contention is that such participation by China in Pakistan-held Kashmir amounts to taking sides in a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan.

This issue has broader significance, as India and Vietnam are engaged in a search for oil in the South China Sea, where China claims it exercises “indisputable sovereignty” but both Vietnam and the Philippines contest the Chinese claim. China’s emergence as both a military and an economic powerhouse has increased the Indian government’s security anxieties, just as the simultaneous reemergence of a U.S. naval presence in the South China Sea has added to Chinese concerns. These fears and apprehensions and the uncertain future in Central Asia may well become an impediment to a democratic solution of the J&K dispute.

The regional situation gets further complicated by U.S.-NATO hostility toward Iran. In the late 1990s, Iran, Russia and India were on the same side fighting the Taliban. Now, not only are India’s relations with Iran more distant, but its relations with Russia are not as close as they once were since India began to draw close to the United States. The shifting alliances and strategic thinking, with India seeing its future as a regional power tied to the United States and NATO, informs Indian perceptions of J&K.

Meanwhile, a very interesting shift has taken place in Pakistan’s internal politics, in the form of a rift between the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Group) – the PML-N. The PML-N, which is strong in Punjab, the largest province in terms of population, has once again emphasized the need for rapprochement between India and Pakistan. Thus there is a strong constituency in Pakistan for taking such a course.

This line being promoted by the PML-N undercuts the Pakistani military’s prime argument for its own preeminence: an inflated reading of the threat posed by India. The military’s position enables it to stop the civilian government from adopting a course that could reduce threat perceptions. Even with a negligible Indian military presence in Afghanistan, this line adopted by the PML-N opens the prospect of Indian economic ties with Afghanistan on the basis of an overland route through Pakistan, and raises the possibility of promoting trade links with Central Asia. Since Pakistan has legal standing in J&K, such prospects would dramatically alter the uncertain regional scenario.

The beneficial fallout of a democratic solution

A resolution of the Kashmir issue would have beneficial fallout by easing tensions with Pakistan and making it impossible for China to play the dispute to its advantage against India. Reducing tensions between Pakistan and India over Afghanistan would prevent outside powers such as the United States and NATO from exploiting differences to gain a foothold in the area aimed against China (and to an extent Russia).Reducing tensions between Pakistan and India over Afghanistan would prevent outside powers such as the United States and NATO from exploiting differences to gain a foothold in the area aimed against China (and to an extent Russia). This could create opportunities for India to improve regional ties. For instance, India’s relations with Iran have been at an impasse. Were the presence of the United States and NATO in central Asia to be reduced, their capacity for mischief against Iran would get blunted.

It would also open new possibilities for India and China to restart their regional search for commercial ties, exploration for oil and minerals or exploitation of water resources, all to become part of a negotiated solution. If there is a democratic solution of the Kashmir dispute, China will come under pressure on its lack of resolution of the Tibet issue. And it would be prudent on its part to seek an amicable solution in both South Asia and the South China Sea to ease the likely pressure over Tibet.

One fear that has been expressed is that emergence of another Muslim-majority state with a legal system based primarily on shari‘a will encourage right-wing religious movements to gain the upper hand elsewhere. Thus, it could end up lending weight to Hindu fundamentalism in India, or legitimize Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism in Sri Lanka, or boost the morale of regressive religious groups in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In reality, however, many momentous changes have eroded secular constitutional provisions where majoritarian interests have come to dominate. The only way out, I am convinced, is a process which would allow for a democratic way of ascertaining people’s will. It is only when that is done that people’s aspirations can be reconciled with geostrategic realities and historical dimensions of the dispute. Only when people are first allowed to express what they desire will the search for a solution be seen as legitimate. The resulting benefits to people through regional economic cooperation and the strengthening of democratic processes will far outweigh anything India believes it will lose or Pakistan will have to forego.

The immense untapped potential for regional cooperation has special meaning for J&K, whose traditional trade and ties were through northwestern and eastern routes to Central Asia. While trade with the south opened from 1848 on, after 1947 it turned into dependency on New Delhi which, for geostrategic reasons, curtailed J&K’s interactions with the wider world through Central Asia. Conflict in J&K since 1947 and especially after 1989 was not entirely conducive to any cultivation of or efforts to renew these historical links. With trade between two sides of Kashmir across the LOC constrained as a result of the geostrategic approach of the Indian and, to a lesser extent, the Pakistani government, the possibility of J&K to trade or promote links with Central Asia is circumscribed.

For Kashmiri Muslims, especially after 1989, those who could sent their children outside J&K, often to India but preferably outside India. A recent news item reported that the Overseas Development and Employment Promotion Council under the labour ministry of Kerala state selected 180 doctors in Kashmir for employment in Saudi Arabia. While such recruitment will also take place in Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bangalore, the important thing to note is that most of the 180 doctors selected in Srinagar were educated in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and China. The synergy in this three-way process indicates the far greater possibilities waiting to be tapped for regional cooperation. These possibilities can be unlocked through a democratic solution that would undercut fear and insecurity. And that can only happen through a major shift away from military suppression and silencing the aspirations of the Kashmiri people toward ascertaining the wishes of the people and then negotiating while addressing geostrategic concerns.