It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: Stepping Away From a Disastrous War Over Kashmir

War looks inevitable now, but the escalation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has invited international involvement.

Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, is seen on the large screen as he speaks during the Howdy Modi Community Summit in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. President Donald Trump received the endorsement of Modi as they shared a stage in Houston, walking hand in hand in a rock-star-like show to address more than 50,000 Indian Americans. Photographer: Scott Dalton/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the crowd at the “Howdy, Modi” event in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 22, 2019.

Photo: Scott Dalton/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At a massive rally in Houston this past weekend, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a stadium packed with supporters that India had bade “farewell” to a constitutional clause granting autonomy to the Himalayan region of Kashmir. “Article 370 had deprived people of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh of development,” Modi told the crowd. “Terror and separatist elements were misusing the situation. Now, people there have got equal rights.” The crowd responded with roaring applause.

Modi’s remark about “equal rights” was a jarring contrast to the news reports that have come in from Kashmir describing thousands of detentionscases of torture and death, and a communications blackout that has severed Kashmir from the rest of the world. The de facto annexation of the long-contested region has further strained relations between India and Pakistan. It has also raised the specter of a full-blown insurgency pitting the Indian government against disaffected Kashmiris.

For those to whom these ratcheted-up tensions look like another flare-up in a troubled area of the world, the situation bears a caveat: This time is different.

If war over Kashmir does break out, it will be all the more tragic for having been avoidable.

Modi’s decision on Kashmir, so raucously cheered in Houston, would essentially close the door on any optimistic vision of a peaceful resolution to this long-running conflict. Clashes have already begun in the troubled territory, even under a heavy security lockdown. When the current restrictions on movement and communication are eventually lifted, violence is almost certain to increase.

Yet the escalation brought with it international scrutiny. In a press conference on Thursday at the United Nations General Assembly, the State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells said that “the United States is concerned by widespread detentions, including those of politicians and business leaders, and the restrictions on the residents of Jammu and Kashmir.” Wells added that conditions should be created in the region that lead to the “improvement of relations between the two nuclear powers,” referring to India and Pakistan.

The two countries have fought several wars over Kashmir in the past. The recent tensions, however, have reached a level not seen in years. Speaking at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Pakistan’s foreign minister warned on September 10 that the two countries were at risk of “an accidental war” over Kashmir.

If such a war does happen, it will be all the more tragic for having been avoidable.

The conflict in Kashmir is, at its root, about a vote on local self-determination that never took place. In 1948, shortly after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent into the nations of India and Pakistan, the U.N. called for a plebiscite to be held in Kashmir that would let the local people decide their political future: whether they wanted to remain with India, join Pakistan, or become an independent nation.

The vote never happened, though many Kashmiris continue to demand it. Instead, following a rigged state election in 1987, an armed movement aiming for self-determination broke out against the Indian government. That movement was met with ferocious repression. Tens of thousands have now been killed in Kashmir, with entire generations having grown up under occupation.


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“The ideal thing is that a plebiscite vote should take place in Kashmir under U.N. auspices,” said Altaf Wani, chair of the Kashmir Institute of International Relations, an activist group that advocates for holding the referendum. “The people of Kashmir should be able to vote and decide their fate, along with the possibility of regional votes that take the perspective of minorities in Kashmir into consideration. But the failure to have a plebiscite at all is why we are facing this crisis today.”

“And unfortunately,” Wani added, “a free vote has become a remote possibility in the present circumstances, now that India has taken the extreme step of completely wiping out Kashmiri autonomy.”

Modi’s recent speech in Houston and the uproarious reaction to annulling Kashmiri sovereignty has made the prospect of violent confrontation with either Kashmiris themselves or their Pakistani supporters more likely.

Indian policemen detain Kashmiri Shiite Muslims as they shout pro-freedom slogans after they made an attempt to take out a religious procession during restrictions in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Authorities in Indian portion of Kashmiri imposed restrictions in some parts of Srinagar fearing religious processions marking the Muslim month of Muharram would turn into anti-India protests. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

Indian policemen detain Kashmiri Shiite Muslims as they shout pro-freedom slogans in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, on Sept. 8, 2019.

Photo: Mukhtar Khan/AP

Despite the hardening of Modi and India’s approach, there is still a way to step away from the current precipice. A recent guidance document issued by a network of Kashmir-focused academics laid out a number of steps for easing the conflict in both the short- and long-term. Among these are releasing the thousands of political prisoners currently held in detention, demilitarizing both the Pakistani- and Indian-held zones of Kashmir, allowing freedom of movement across the border separating these two zones and creating a special rapporteur to investigate human rights abuses.

The thrust of the paper calls for international mediation to ensure not just the end of human rights abuses, but also a settlement that addresses the political causes of the ongoing conflict. “This just settlement must be mediated within the framework of the rights of all Kashmiri peoples to determine their own political future,” it states.

The conflict at its heart continues to revolve around the political future of Kashmiris themselves: the issue of voting for their own self-determination. Various proposals have been laid out in the past for how a vote could work. Kashmir is divided into several regions, including the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley and Jammu, which today is majority Hindu. A plebiscite vote that gave local people the option to either seek independence or join one of the two neighboring countries would prevent any majoritarian solution from being forced on minorities. It would also give both India and Pakistan some stake in the final outcome and remove the main irritant in their troubled seven-decade relationship.

A final settlement in which Kashmiris have the right to freedom of movement, self-governance, and demilitarization of their region would likely be enough to stave off a conflict that otherwise seems inevitable.

The desire for an independence vote has also been growing in Pakistani-held Kashmir, where some locals blame the Pakistani government for “polluting” their national cause by connecting it with Islamic extremist groups. “We were freedom fighters, made up from the Kashmiri people. But then Pakistan pushed groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba on our movement. People began to confuse our struggle for freedom with a desire for terrorism,” one former militant recently said.

In addition to a vote on self-determination, over the years proposals have been raised for defusing the conflict, including implementing soft borders and a free-trade regimen between the Indian- and Pakistani-held sides of Kashmir.

A final settlement in which Kashmiris have the right to freedom of movement, self-governance, and demilitarization of their region would likely be enough to stave off a conflict that otherwise seems inevitable.

India and Pakistan have come close to negotiating a bilateral resolution to the Kashmir conflict on their own. In the early 2000s, a summit was held in the Indian city of Agra between Indian and Pakistani leaders. The aim of the two-day summit was to resolve the outstanding territorial disputes between the two countries.

Four major steps for resolving the conflict were laid out, including demilitarization, freedom of movement for Kashmiris across the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, and an end to Pakistani support for armed militants. The agreement also included the right to self-governance for Kashmiris. The talks ultimately collapsed as a result of internal divisions among Indian and Kashmiri leaders — just as things were reportedly on the verge of going to a signing ceremony.

Until a few months ago, there were hints that India and Pakistan might again try and peacefully resolve their differences over Kashmir on their own. With the current deterioration of relations, however, that seems unlikely.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had previously suggested that Modi’s reelection would make India a good peace partner, has found himself cornered by the Indian leader’s sudden annexation declaration. Khan, in response, has radically changed his message. He now says that Pakistan is ready to “fight to the end” over the disputed territory. In a New York Times op-ed, he characterized Modi as ideologically inspired by German Nazism. The Pakistani public is also being primed for potential conflict. On the last Friday of August, major Pakistani cities came to a halt for half an hour in solidarity with Kashmiris living under a security and communications lockdown.

All indications suggest that the stage is being set for something terrible in Kashmir.

The signs from India have been even more concerning. Indian officials have publicly indicated that they no longer intend to abide by a “no first use” nuclear weapons policy in any future conflict. They also seem ready to go to war with Kashmiris themselves. A rolling government crackdown has effectively decapitated Kashmiri civil society, thrusting thousands of intellectuals, civil rights activists, and local politicians into detention centers. Millions of ordinary people are living under a state of siege. For the outside world, communicating with those inside Kashmir has become nearly impossible. Life there has been effectively paralyzed, with allegations of torture and other abuses taking place in the shadows.

Once the restrictions are lifted, large protests are likely. During past demonstrations, Indian military forces have shown little hesitation to fire into crowds of protesters. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet recently issued a statement expressing concern over the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in the region. All indications suggest that the stage is being set for something terrible in Kashmir.

Kashmiri women shout pro-freedom slogans during protests after friday prayers in Srinagar, Indian Adminstered Kashmir on 20 September 2019. Restrictions continue in Kashmir Valley on 47th day after Indian Government scraps Article 370 on August 05, 2019. However, Indian Forces claim that the restrictions have been relaxed in many parts of Valley. (Photo by Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Kashmiri women shout during protests after Friday prayers in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, on Sept. 20, 2019.

Photo: Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For Kashmiris, the one silver lining in Modi’s actions has been the unintentional internationalization of the conflict. After years of being relatively ignored, Kashmir is on the front pages of newspapers around the world. There has also been a growing response from U.S. politicians. Last week, four senators issued a letter expressing grave concerns over the “humanitarian crisis” in Kashmir. Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., recently called the situation “unacceptable” and expressed support for “a U.N.-backed peaceful resolution that respects the will of the Kashmiri people.”

If the situation in Kashmir has taken a dire turn following drastic decisions made by the Modi government, it has also brought back to global attention the urgency of resolving this long-running conflict that involves two nuclear powers. Modi’s speech in Houston proudly trumpeting the annulment of Kashmiri autonomy as a major accomplishment of his rule demonstrates that, absent international pressure, the situation is likely to deteriorate into an even more dangerous conflict. Khan, the Pakistani prime minister, warned at the U.N. of a “massacre” in Indian-held Kashmir if, as likely, protests begin after the current restrictions are lifted.

“India is currently in the most draconian form it has ever been, but it is now also taking these steps against Kashmiris in full view of the international community,” said Mona Bhan, an associate professor of anthropology at DePauw University. “We need to focus on stopping the human rights violations occurring at present, but also must see the larger issue at hand: restoring political rights, including the right to self-determination for Kashmiris, which have been denied for several decades.”

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