It was only weeks ago that the Kashmiris on both sides of the divide came under the onslaught of hostile weather with the Jhelum river bursting its banks. Hundreds died and tens of thousands of people were evacuated to safety while the governments on both sides of the divide came in for heavy criticism for their lack of disaster preparedness and woefully inadequate relief measures.
This week the people of Kashmir were angry again as both India and Pakistan clashed across the border with mortar fire raining on civilian areas. Some 17 civilians – ten in Pakistan and seven in India -- have been killed and scores wounded while nearly 20,000 people have fled their homes in search of safe places as the two countries launched tit-for-tat attacks.
Described as the worst violence since the 1999 Kargil war, the ongoing clashes have shattered hopes of finding a solution to the seven-decade-old problem – hopes that grew out of India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy turnaround when he took oaths on May 26 this year in the presence of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other regional leaders. A day after the swearing-in ceremony, the two leaders had a constructive dialogue and agreed to resume high-level talks.
However, this euphoria-generating meeting did not lead to any lowering of guard by the two armies. Instead, tension grew with each side accusing the other of unprovoked violations of a 2003 border truce. It is not unusual for the two countries to point fingers at each other or the two armies to fire at each other; but what is unusual is that for first time in more than a decade there have been a large number of civilian casualties.
This is alarming and needless to say the confrontation between two nuclear neighbours requires the immediate attention of the world body and world powers, who are more focused these days on the dual war on Ebola and ISIS. They must realise that India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no softie. He is surrounded by advisors who are hadliners and Pakistan haters.
Though Modi appeared to be interested in promoting regional cooperation and neighbourly relations, he is now pursuing a muscular foreign policy, especially with regard to Pakistan. One wonders whether he was implementing his campaign promise.
In his election manifesto, Modi vowed to uphold India’s territorial integrity and abrogate the constitutional provision that recognised Kashmir as a special region with greater autonomy. On campaign trail, he hit out at the Congress government for being too soft on Pakistan. Since forming the government in May this year, Modi has visited the disputed region several times, giving a militaristic outlook to his Kashmir policy. The places he visited included Kargil -- where a clash between the two countries in 1999, dragged the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust.
Senior BJP members and hardline alliance partners such as Shiv Sena and RSS demand that Modi implement his campaign promise on Kashmir where the cry for independence is as loud as it was when the Himalayan kingdom’s Hindu ruler, in defiance of the Muslim majority’s wish, agreed to a union with India in the face of an invasion from the newly created state of Pakistan.
Bowing to pressure from hardliners, Modi in August cancelled foreign-secretary-level talks with Pakistan in response to a meeting Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi had with Kashmiri separatist groups, whom Islamabad describes as stakeholders in peace talks. In the past, such meetings were hardly regarded as provocations that warranted such drastic action as the cancellation of high-level talks. The 2003 ceasefire between the two countries largely held, even after the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai and the beheading of an Indian soldier in 2013.
But this time around, the spotlight was on Modi. The hardliners in the party and a section of the media embedded to the Modi camp were prodding the Prime Minister for a tough response. He succumbed to the pressure instead of taking a statesman-like stance and upholding the regional cooperation spirit with which he celebrated his swearing-in.
The hardening of positions was taking place not only in India. In Pakistan, too, political events have tilted the balance in favour of the hawks. The military is apparently dictating the country’s Kashmir policy. This happened after Premier Sharif buckled under pressure when opposition groups led by Imran Khan and radical cleric Tahir al-Qadri led a massive march to Islamabad and laid siege to the parliament building and the prime minister’s residence demanding his resignation. Sharif survived the crisis only because he managed to get the military on board -- but not without ceding space to the generals to decide on key defence matters, including Kashmir and the war against the Taliban.
Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars says, “This unrest is a logical consequence of worsening political relations between India and Pakistan. What’s particularly worrisome is that Pakistan’s military appears to now be in the driver’s seat of India policy -- and the military has much less enthusiasm for reconciliation.”
It is amidst the toughening of stances that Sharif further aroused India’s fury by mentioning the ‘K’ word in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly annual sessions and also at his meeting with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
In his speech, Sharif said the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir should be resolved though a plebiscite as proposed by the UN Security Council in 1948. He added that the holding of such a plebiscite was the responsibility of the international community, as the people of Jammu and Kashmir were still waiting for the fulfillment of the promise of a plebiscite. “We cannot draw a veil over the issue of Jammu and Kashmir,” he said, adding that “many generations of Kashmiris have lived in violence” and that the people of the state had suffered, especially its women.
Sharif said Pakistan was ready for negotiations to solve the crisis. “Regional peace and security, political peace, social justice and rule of law are absolutely essential... My government’s aspiration is to build a peaceful neighbourhood,” Sharif said provoking an angry response from India but much praise from Kashmiri groups campaigning for freedom from India’s control.
The United Nations Secretary General told the media later that the world body was willing to mediate in the Kashmir issue “if so requested” by both concerned parties.
An angry Modi snubbed Sharif by not agreeing to meet him on the sidelines of the UN conference. In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Modi rebuked Pakistan for trying to internationalise the Kashmir dispute whereas, he said, it should have been solved through dialogue.
“Raising it at the UN won’t resolve bilateral issues,” Modi said, adding that it was a pointless exercise when there were so many more pressing issues facing the region and the world.
Trying to show he was not a hardliner as often described by the Western media for his alleged complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, Modi pointed out his government’s positive outreach to India’s South Asian neighbours from day one, and said its approach to Pakistan was in the same vein.
“We want to promote friendship with Pakistan too, but we can only talk without the shadow of terrorism over us,” Modi said.
In another swipe at Pakistan, he said, “Even today there were countries that were giving shelter to terrorist organisations and differentiating between good terrorists and bad terrorists which raised questions about their intentions and motives.”
Pakistan says India’s military is abusing the human rights of Muslims in Kashmir, which it describes as one of the world’s most highly militarised regions. There are about 500,000 to 700,000 Indian troops in the India-held Kashmir. Pakistan, which holds the one third of Kashmir, also dismisses India’s claims of terrorist infiltration as greatly exaggerated, saying such claims were aimed at covering up India’s human rights violations. It calls on India to allow international human rights groups to visit the disputed territory to investigate allegations of violence, torture and rape.
Yesterday India’s Defence Minister Arun Jaitley told Pakistan to stop its shelling across the Line of Control, warning that India would make such attacks “unaffordable”.
Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif said his country was “fully capable of responding befittingly to India’s aggression,” but urged India to exercise caution.
As India and Pakistan accuse each other of ratcheting up tension along the Line of Control, the two countries are also well aware that neither country could afford a full-scale military confrontation which could even lead to a nuclear catastrophe. Both countries must put aside their prejudices and domestic political compulsions and solve the Kashmiri issue that has prevented not only the normalisation of ties between the two countries but also efforts to make South Asian regional cooperation meaningful and beneficial to hundreds of millions of poverty-stricken people.
India which prides itself as being the biggest democracy on earth should let the Kashmiris decide what they want – whether to join India or Pakistan or to emerge as an independent state. Or the two countries can even make the Line of Control the permanent border with Kashmiris being given special permission to visit the other side of the border without much hassle. But the bottom line is that neither India nor Pakistan has a serious interest in making a significant move towards peace. They appear to be content with the status quo and unconcerned about the plight of the Kashmiris who have seen three major wars and umpteen warlike situations since 1948.
Let there be a handshake for peace when the two leaders attend the SAARC summit in Kathmandu next month.