Renewed violence in the Kashmir Valley is seen by Pakistan as a chance to press its case internationally, but Owen Bennett-Jones reports that Islamabad is unlikely to succeed
Two months of curfews and a series of gun battles have once again exposed the depth of the political divisions in the Kashmir Valley. More than 70 people, mostly young men, have been killed and many more injured in the worst clashes for years. The violence has spread from the streets of Srinagar to elsewhere in Kashmir, with an attack by suspected Pakistani-backed militants on a brigade headquarters in the town of Uri leaving 18 soldiers dead, markedly increasing tensions between the two countries.
Indian ministers and officials insisted not only that Pakistan was responsible for the attack – which Islamabad denied – but also that India had the right to respond. However, on previous occasions India, fearing uncontrolled escalation between the two nuclear states, has not responded to attacks originating from Pakistan, such as the assault on Mumbai in 2008 that left 166 dead. Similarly, there was a muted Indian response to the attack on Pathankot in January this year.
As India considers its options, Pakistan has been wondering whether the popular expression of discontent could support its long-running efforts to ensure greater international attention on the Kashmir issue. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has announced that 22 Pakistani parliamentarians will be despatched around the world to highlight the Kashmir issue, while Pakistani ambassadors to the UN and other international bodies have made impassioned speeches about the sufferings of the Kashmiri people. Many of their talking points are familiar. The army chief, Raheel Sharif, has once again described Kashmir as Pakistan’s ‘jugular vein’. And at the UN Human Rights Council, Pakistani officials demanded India accept that there is an internationally-recognised dispute in Kashmir.
Beneath all this political and diplomatic activity, officials in Islamabad are also grappling with tactical decisions. In August, for example, a meeting of Pakistan’s ambassadors to South Asian countries raised the possibility of what they called a ‘separate’ dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir. Although the phrase was new, the question of what type of dialogue should occur between India and Pakistan has a long history.
Traditionally, Islamabad has argued that the Kashmir dispute is of such overwhelming importance that any dialogue between India and Pakistan should first address Kashmir before moving on to other bilateral issues. But that line has never been strictly adhered to. In 1987, for example, General Zia ul-Haq, despite securing no concessions on Kashmir, engaged in ‘cricket diplomacy’ by attending a Test match between India and Pakistan in Jaipur.
Civilian governments have done much the same. When Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister in 1988 she reached out to her Indian counterpart, Rajiv Gandhi, despite his having given no ground on Kashmir. A decade later Benazir’s great political rival, Nawaz Sharif, invited the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to Lahore. In the Lahore Declaration of February 1999, Pakistan agreed to confidence-building measures, despite India making no movement on Kashmir. On the contrary, Vajpayee secured a Pakistani concession: a reiteration by Sharif that the dispute should be resolved bilaterally. Although this had always been the formal position, as stated in the Simla Accord, Pakistan had repeatedly called for third-party mediation. But the Lahore Declaration reaffirmed the wording agreed in Simla.
Despite such precedents, suggesting flexibility in Islamabad’s position on the nature of the dialogue process, some voices in Pakistan – such as the former ambassador to the UN, Munir Akram – have criticised the latest offer of separate dialogue, arguing that there is no point discussing anything with India until Delhi feels greater pressure from Kashmiris and the international community. That the nature of any talks, never mind the substance, is such a controversial topic suggests that agreement is as far away as ever.
In any event, many observers of Pakistani politics believe it will be impossible for Islamabad and Delhi to find agreement at a time when a civilian government is in power in Islamabad. Only the army, they argue, has the political strength to do a deal on Kashmir and sell it to the Pakistan people. After all, the current Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his predecessor, Asif Zardari, both started their terms in power wanting to improve relations with India. Both calculated that improved trading ties between the two South Asian rivals could provide a significant boost to the Pakistani economy. But both were frustrated by the Pakistan army.
As a military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf was in a better position to change Pakistan’s situation. First, though, he had to change his own stance. His initial statement that ‘there is no other issue’ than Kashmir gave way to an acceptance of a composite dialogue, taking in a broad range of issues. Then, at the ill-fated 2001 Agra summit, he offered some highly significant concessions, saying Pakistan could give up its claim to Kashmir and drop demands for a UN-organised plebiscite if India agreed to wide-ranging autonomy or self-governance for Kashmir. His four-point plan involved a gradual withdrawal of troops, self-governance, no changes to the region’s borders and a joint supervision mechanism. In general terms the idea was not, as many others have proposed, to harden the line of control into an international border but, rather to lessen its importance.
General Musharraf blamed the failure of the Agra summit on the BJP’s LK Advani. According to the former Pakistani leader, Advani advised the then Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to insist that Pakistan publicly acknowledge that the men fighting the Indian forces in Kashmir were not freedom fighters but terrorists. It was something that even a military ruler in Pakistan could not do for fear of alienating opinion in his own army and, more broadly, in Pakistani society.
Subsequent events have moved in favour of Advani’s position. After 9/11 Islamabad did its best to ensure that Kashmir militants were not targeted by US forces on the lookout for violent jihadists. But Pakistan’s diplomatic and media position has since been eroded, and the US State Department has designated some of the militant groups active in Kashmir as terroristic.
Despite these setbacks, Islamabad sees the recent violence as a chance to make its case on Kashmir once again. Pakistani officials argue that the right to self-determination is a central principle enshrined in the UN Charter, but with violent jihadism preoccupying contemporary world politics, coupled with the nature of the Uri attack, it will be difficult for Pakistan to present the Kashmir protesters as nationalists fighting for self-determination. The international community seems more likely to view the fighters in Kashmir through the prism of al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
As for the bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan, it will, at best, remain stalled.
Owen Bennett-Jones is the London correspondent for Dawn newspaper and presents Newshour Extra on the BBC World Service. He is the author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (Yale University Press), a history of Pakistan now in its third edition