Shaking the tinderbox

Gareth Price looks at the possible repercussions from Kashmir’s loss of special status

The World Today Updated 30 September 2019 Published 27 September 2019 4 minute READ

Dr Gareth Price

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

A Kashmiri muslim throws back a can of tear gas shot by Indian police on February 05, 2010 in Srinagar, Kashmir, India.

A Kashmiri muslim throws back a can of tear gas shot by Indian police on February 05, 2010 in Srinagar, Kashmir, India.

Had India’s government not taken its 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes out of circulation in November 2016, the decision to remove the special status of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir would undoubtedly rank as its most dramatic undertaking.

Without question though, the international ramifications of the Kashmir decision of September 2019 are far more serious.

Kashmir is at the heart of the dispute between India and Pakistan and has been for more than seven decades.

As a Muslim-majority territory, Pakistan argues that in 1947 Kashmir’s Hindu ruler joined India under duress. Given that the region lies next to it, Pakistan claims the entire territory. India, by contrast, argues that Pakistan is illegally occupying the portion of Kashmir it controls.

And so the argument has continued for more than seven decades, leading to several wars, ongoing hostility and the loss of economic opportunities for the region. While any solution would require this history to be put to one side, neither country has proved able to do so.

Kashmir’s special status – which provided it with power to legislate on more subjects than other Indian states, along with provisions restricting non-Kashmiris’ rights to buy property – was a key example for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies of how the secular Indian state had actually over-empowered the Muslim minority. Its removal has certainly gone down well among the BJP’s supporters. It is worth noting, though, that similar protections, particularly limiting outsiders from buying property, are in place in several other states, notably in north-east India.

The measure to allow outsiders to buy property in Kashmir has been interpreted in various ways. The official line is that the restriction hindered investment, and there is some truth in this. High levels of unemployment and limited economic opportunities are an outcome of the conflict and, in turn, unemployment feeds into resentment against the Indian state.

Others have suggested that the government intends to encourage Hindu settlers as a way of altering the demographic balance. Given that almost two million people – mostly though not all Muslim – are currently in camps with their nationality under question in north-east India, this may not be that far-fetched. That said, were it safe for Hindus to live in Kashmir, first to move there would be the half million ‘Kashmiri pandits’, who were forced to leave in the 1990s, just one of many tragedies in the Kashmir story.

Nuclear capabilities

India and Pakistan have barely talked since the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. For dialogue to occur both sides must want to communicate. Following the Mumbai attacks, which claimed more than 160 lives, India has no interest in talking to Pakistan. More recently, India’s government has found that taking a hard line on Pakistan is electorally popular. On the other hand, the pre-eminent position of Pakistan’s military in the country’s governance relies on the existential threat from India.

Even when there is an interest in talks, what would the two sides talk about? In the past, Pakistan has held that Kashmir should be resolved first. This would allow a transformation in the overall relationship. India has argued that the low level of trust means that first confidence-building measures should be attempted. Out of this dilemma, in the 1990s, came the composite dialogue, discussing a range of issues, including Kashmir. The composite dialogue died in 2008 in Mumbai.

So, for now India claims sovereignty over what it calls ‘Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’, and Pakistan claims sovereignty over what it calls ‘Indian-occupied Kashmir’. After 70 years, it is hard to envisage that any territorial change is likely.

Both countries’ nuclear capability makes the cost of a military solution frighteningly high. So the most likely ‘solution’ would be the conversion of the Line of Control, which currently divides Kashmir, into an official border.

For Pakistan to agree, however, the population of Indian Kashmir would have to be convinced that they had not been abandoned by Pakistan.

By incorporating Jammu and Kashmir into India proper – without the dialogue – perhaps the creation of a recognized border moves a step closer.

Were this the intention, there are many potential hurdles. First and foremost would be a likely bloodbath in Indian Kashmir. While the clampdown there is draconian, it does seem designed to prevent one from taking place. Were large-scale civilian casualties to occur, hard-line Islamist groups in Pakistan – with or without the support of Pakistan’s military – would feel compelled to respond.

Even in the absence of a bloodbath, these same Islamist groups could take action against India, whether in Kashmir or elsewhere. Such an attack would worsen the already dire relationship between two countries. Military action of some scale would be inevitable. India’s gradual escalation in response to recent attacks has not yet resulted in serious conflict, but this cannot be guaranteed in the future.

What is noteworthy though is that thus far, since the re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May, there has not been a significant attack in India. One may take place at any time, but each day in which one doesn’t happen serves as something of a confidence-building measure. It is also worth noting that, since the Indian election, none of the criteria preventing talks taking place is in play: Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership are relatively aligned, and India has no immediate domestic political reasons to actively confront Pakistan.

For 70 years, brief periods of rapprochement aside, politics has trumped economics in the Indian and Pakistani relationship. Numerous studies have suggested the mutual benefits accruing from greater economic interaction, but to no avail. Instead, Indian goods are currently shipped to the Gulf and then re-exported to Pakistan. This makes no sense given that the two countries are next to each other.

In the current politically stressed environment it may seem fanciful, but the boost that would occur from greater trade would be timely. Pakistan’s economy is a mess and in the last quarter, India’s economy grew at its slowest pace for six years. Pushing a Hindutva agenda – that is, affirming the hegemony of the Hindu majority – is only likely to go so far in the absence of rising prosperity. Received wisdom used to be that GDP growth of 8 per cent a year is necessary to generate suffi cient employment. Currently it is about 5 per cent.

China also has a stake in Kashmir, controlling parts of the former princely state, and has criticized India’s actions. India’s political relationship with China is poor, and yet the two countries have deep economic ties.

China was India’s largest trading partner two years ago, narrowly pipped into second place last year by the United States. The acceleration in trade coincided with the tenure of the current Indian foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, as Indian ambassador to Beijing.

Could the Sino-Indian relationship form a template for India and Pakistan, whereby political disputes are set aside but economic ties fl ourish? Modi would be in a stronger position to oversee this than any previous prime minister. Having demonstrated his hard line approach to Pakistan in recent years, it would be diffi cult for opponents to label him ‘soft’. Pakistan’s scope to reciprocate will be determined by the situation in Indian Kashmir, with the caveats noted above.

Poisoned relationship

The Kashmir dispute has poisoned the India-Pakistan relationship for decades and it would require immense political courage on the Pakistan side to accept Indian sovereignty over Indian Kashmir. But Kashmir remains an issue which primarily benefits Pakistan’s military. Were its military to decide that the Pakistani state was better off with a revived economy than with an existential threat, then it could do so. Many Islamic countries are able to curb their response to the oppression of Muslims in other countries. Pakistan, for example, is notably coy on criticizing the treatment of the Uighurs by its friend, China.

For India to accept Pakistani sovereignty over part of Kashmir, however, would be more straightforward. Kashmir was important to the BJP’s political opponents to demonstrate India’s secularism. Asserting claims over the entire princely state showed that India was not just the homeland for Hindus, and was diff erent from Pakistan, homeland for the Muslims of British India.

But the Hindu-nationalist BJP does not share the secular agenda and is re-conceptualizing India to reflect that 80 per cent or so of Indians are Hindu. Consequently, its claims over Muslim population of Pakistan-administered Kashmir seems much less persuasive. This provides it with more scope to take bold steps. It is not just the ‘Nixon going to China’ trope that makes this plausible, it is that the BJP’s notion of what India stands for fits more squarely with Pakistan’s conception of itself.

Putting optimism aside, the situation in South Asia is as precarious as it has been since the Mumbai attacks. If India’s intentions are in part at least positive, the scope for them to be derailed is high. Mapping a path whereby India and Pakistan come to blows, with potentially devastating consequences, is much more straightforward.