It is remarkable that in over sixty years of conflict, there has been no systematic attempt to establish the opinions of Kashmiris on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) about their problems and their future. This is surprising given that in recent years opinion polling has become commonplace in both India and Pakistan. It is more remarkable given that in the last twenty years the dispute has widely been portrayed by Pakistan as a question of self-determination.
As India and Pakistan haltingly re-engage after the hiatus caused by the deadly Mumbai terror attack in November 2008, the publication of the first poll to be held on both sides of the LoC offers unique insights into Kashmiri views of the dispute and paths to its solution.
The conclusions are indeed striking. They reflect the great social and regional diversity of the former princely state, which is divided into Azad Kashmir, (AJK) on the Pakistan side and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on the Indian, while at the same time showing that some concerns run through the whole population.
Eighty percent of Kashmiris say the dispute is very important to them personally. Despite the cessation of cross- border shelling and a major reduction in militant violence since India and Pakistan started talks in 2003, concern over human rights abuses still figures prominently (19 percent in AJK and 43 percent in J&K).
Alongside worries about the dispute itself run other major problems: 81 percent say unemployment is the most significant difficulty facing Kashmiris (66 percent in AJK, 87 percent in J&K), government corruption (22 percent in AJK and 68 percent in J&K), and poor economic development (42 percent in AJK and 43 percent in J&K) are all major issues.
Although there was some awareness of talks between India and Pakistan (86 percent in AJK and 71 percent in J&K) of those who knew talks were taking place only 27 percent in AJK and 57 percent in J&K thought that they would improve the chances of peace; a degree of subdued optimism reflecting perhaps the snail’s-pace progress actually made. At the same time seventy percent of the total population thought that militant violence would make peace less likely or would make no difference (61 percent in AJK and 75 percent in J&K).
However, it is attitudes to political options which are really striking. The poll asked respondents if they were given a vote tomorrow what they would vote for: independence for all of Kashmir, for the whole of Kashmir to join India, for all of Kashmir to join Pakistan, or other options including joint sovereignty or the status quo.
Independence: In aggregate 44 percent in AJK and 43 percent in J&K said they would vote for independence. However, while this is the most popular option overall, not only does it fail to carry an overall majority, on the Indian side of the LoC it is heavily polarised. In the Kashmir Valley Division, commonly regarded as the core region of Kashmiri identity and of demands for its political recognition, support for independence runs at between 74 percent and 95 percent. In contrast, across Jammu Division it is under one percent. In Leh it is thirty percent and Kargil twenty percent.
Joining India: Twenty-one percent overall said they would vote to join India. However, only one percent on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control said they would vote for this, compared with 28 percent on the Indian side. In the Vale of Kashmir support for joining India was much lower, down to just two percent in Baramula. Only in Jammu and Ladakh Divisions was there majority support for joining India, rising to as high as eighty percent in Kargil.
Joining Pakistan: Fifteen percent overall said they would vote to join Pakistan. Fifty percent of the population on the Pakistani side of the LoC said they would choose to join Pakistan, compared with two percent in J&K, on the Indian side of the LoC. Badgam, in the Kashmir Valley Division, had the highest percentage vote for joining Pakistan at seven percent.
One conclusion is clear: a plebiscite along the lines envisaged in the UN resolutions of 1948-49 is extremely unlikely to offer a solution today. However, the results of the poll also suggest that there is no single proposition for the future of Kashmir which could be put to the population of the former princely state and get majority support.
This might suggest deadlock, but other answers offer hope that Kashmiri opinion could be mobilised behind wider political agreement. As reflected in the poll, attitudes to the Line of Control, for example, were nuanced. Twenty-seven percent favoured making it permanent in its present form. A further 58 percent said they would accept it if people and/or trade could move freely across, giving a total of 85 percent who would accept the LoC in some form as a permanent border.
There is strong support on both sides of the line for measures of de-militarisation of Kashmir as a means of improving the chances of peace: 74 percent think the withdrawal of all Pakistani forces would improve the chances of resolving the dispute (52 percent AJK, 82 percent J&K); 69 percent the withdrawal of all Indian forces (78 percent AJK, 66 percent J&K). Seventy-six percent support removing all mines and 56 percent all weapons. There was also a strong belief that all shades of Kashmiri political opinion should be represented in talks: 76 percent overall think this will improve the chances of resolving the dispute (73 percent in AJK, 77 percent J&K).
The overwhelming majority of the people of Kashmir want a solution to the dispute. The poll suggests no simple fixes, but offers signposts in public opinion through which the political process, engaging India, Pakistan and wide Kashmiri representation, could move it towards resolution. As India and Pakistan gingerly re-open the door to negotiation, this poll suggests that for millions of Kashmiris there is an overwhelming desire for peace, and a peace in which they can fully participate.