Reaching out across the divide

Is Kashmir to be finally solved?


The recent declaration by Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa at the Security Dialogue recently that Pakistan and India needed to solve the Kashmir issue, forget the past and move forward was interesting for a number of reasons, the foremost being the timing. Two of the components of the timing have been in place for some time, so General Bajwa’s declaration must be ascribed to some other aspect.

It has been two years now that the government in Islamabad has no problems with the military. The PML(N) government had seen its leader deposed by the Supreme Court disqualifying him, and the PPP government had also had a PM removed, and the President was found accusing the military of bypassing it. While the PDM launched a campaign against the government, accusing it of being “selected’’ despite being incompetent, the COAS made his declaration both after the PDM had suffered a major setback in the Senate Chairmanship election.

On the other side of the equation, the Indian government had been in the hands of the BJP since 2014. Narendra Modi had won because of the Gujarat anti-Muslim riots, when he had shown his readiness to go the extra mile. The BJP’s previous measures, like demolishing the Babri Mosque and going nuclear, had been anti-Muslim, but Modi did three things internally to put his stamp on the country. First was the preparation of the National Citizenship Register for Assam, and the exclusion of Muslims and designating them Bangladeshi citizens. Then was the end of Kashmir’s special status, and the end of the restriction of ownership there to Kashmiri domiciles. Finally, there was the Citizenship Amendment Act, which allowed for the granting of fast-track citizenship to those fleeing religious persecution, but excluding Muslims.

One of the components of Modi’s politics has been to posture against Pakistan, which he did from the time of the Pulwama attack, on the basis of which he campaigned as a ‘pair of safe hands’, winning a landslide re-election. It is difficult to see what changed that prompted General Bajwa to make his declaration, unless it was the change of guard in the USA, where a Democrat President is expected to continue having China as the primary enemy, for which it will need India as a regional land ally.

The Indian tilt towards the USA has resulted in a problem for the Pakistani establishment, which had been used to an alliance with USA dating back to the Cold War. Pakistan had allied with China as well, because of its differences with India. However, as the USA grew distant from China, it made the alliance with China problematic.

There are many hurdles to cross, before the two countries make a settlement. The biggest issue is how far governments on either side can be trusted. Is Pakistan making offers it knows the Indian government will reject?

Making up with India makes sense if there is indeed the peace dividend that was mentioned at the Security Dialogue. The Cold War does not provide an instructive example, as the USA did not have much of a peace dividend. The US defence budget did not decline, and the USSR saw an almost precipitate decline. That decline may be the manifestation of the reason why the USSR lost the Cold War: it could no longer afford it. The USA has seen something of a slowing down of increase, but the long-term plans of the various services, especially for weapons acquisitions, and for manning levels, are continuing. However, there has been a change in the mission, from opposing the USSR to projecting US power worldwide.

Is that result of the Cold War to be replicated on the Subcontinent? In this case, with India to be cast as the winner, and Pakistan as the loser? It is ironic that this is happening at a time when the USA’s own Freedom House has downgraded India’s ranking, mainly because the BJP government has encroached on freedoms. It should also be noted that the USSR’s military, while it never took over, loomed larger in the state than in the USA. Similarly, while the Indian military has certainly had importance, it has never taken over. The Pakistan military has carried out four takeovers. And now it is Pakistan that is unable to afford the needed expenditure, with one economist predicting that 2025 will be when debt servicing will take up all CBR collection, meaning that defence expenditure will only be met by borrowing.

The most concrete measure of the differences between India and Pakistan is the Kashmir dispute. There are other points of contention, but if the Kashmir issue is solved, their cold war would be over. However, a solution is easier said than done. However, the recent Indian ending of the status of Kashmir as a state, and the splitting of it into two union territories, is in line with the solution that did the rounds about two decades ago, which saw an independent Kashmir, with India keeping the northern Ladakh area. That particular arrangement is very far, but one of the obstacles, the Pakistan Army (according to India), has to be brought on board.

The USA has used Army rule to achieve regional aims before. Ayub Khan entered both SEATO and CENTO. Yahya Khan played a quiet but key role in the Nixon gesture towards China. Ziaul Haq was instrumental in helping defeat the USSR in Afghanistan. Pervez Musharraf was instrumental in the War on Terror’s Afghanistan portion. It is also equally clear that apart from the Baghdad Pact (later CENTO), none of the precipitating events occurred before the military takeover.

It may cause some speculation that Imran Khan has come to power in what the opposition seems to consider a kind of hybrid military rule. This has not preceded either of the two precipitating events, one of which was the Indian move Kashmir’s status, and the other the arrival of a new US President.

The logic is inexorable from the US point of view. Pakistan must accept the logic of the situation. India and Pakistan must not be allowed to plunge the entire world into a nuclear winter. Therefore, there must be a settlement of the issues dividing them, primarily the Kashmir issue.

Pakistan is home to two distinct streams of thought. One sees the similarities with India, which are considerable. Another sees the differences. Both exaggerate their respective positions. The primary divider is religion. One of the primary symbols of religion is Kashmir. India’s refusal to accept that it should be allowed to join India is not just legalistic, or because the Nehrus originated from Kashmir, but because it was the only Muslim-majority state in the Union.

The assumption is that the solution of the Kashmir issue would lead to not just a peace dividend, but the diminution of the influence of the Pakistan Army. This is certainly possible, but by no means certain. Two things need to be remembered. First, the Pakistan Movement received overwhelming support because there were certain inherent contradictions between Hindu and Muslim. Second, the creation of Bangladesh did not break the power of the Army there, and not only were there military takeovers, but even now, the Sh Hasina government relies on its control of the Army through a COAS with criminal connections being given a free hand. A Kashmir settlement would not remove those contradictions, and the only way to prevent them from damaging those relations would be for a pro-Indian Pakistani government to hold office. Is the USA going to press for that? Is Pakistan’s establishment willing to go that route to help it?

There are many hurdles to cross, before the two countries make a settlement. The biggest issue is how far governments on either side can be trusted. Is Pakistan making offers it knows the Indian government will reject?

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