If there is one topic India’s political pundits love to shoot their mouths of on, it’s Kashmir. Everyone and his son in-law, it seems, has an opinion; and the views range from bleeding heart to blatantly belligerent. It’s another matter that after more than 20 years of pontificating, the “experts” are no closer to finding a solution to the Kashmir “problem” than when they started.
Whenever there is an impasse, the obvious impulse is to cover up one’s incompetence by looking for a scapegoat. In the case of Kashmir, Pakistan is an obvious candidate. No one doubts that Pakistan has gone out of its way to ferment trouble in Kashmir. However, the vacillating response of successive Indian governments has certainly not helped matters. India cannot talk tough with its neighbour one day; and then say there is no alternative to peace talks. When will we learn that appeasing a bully only makes him more aggressive and scornful?
There is a general perception that India is being subtly coerced to make nice with Pakistan by the US. This is probably true, but if India thinks giving in to America’s wishes is going to tilt the superpower to its side in its dealings with Pakistan, we are deluding ourselves. The only reason the US wants calm along the Line of Control (LoC) is that it can then try to persuade Pakistan to divert more of its armed forces to its Western border to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda. If India is serious about bringing Pakistan to the peace talks table, it should make a lot of noise, including a fair bit of sabre rattling along the LoC. This would compel Pakistan to pull out forces from the fight against the militants; and rattle America so much that it would put immense pressure on Pakistan to stop needling India and make peace.
The latest buzz word in the Kashmir valley is azadi. By opposing this idea so vehemently, the Indian government is actually playing into the hands of the separatists and their brainwashed followers. India’s strong opposition makes it easy for Geelani and company to convince their followers that it is cause worth agitating for. They have made it the Holy Grail for the citizens of Srinagar and surrounding areas. If at all the separatists have thought through the implications of total independence, they are not revealing much to their followers. Think about it. First of all, a fully independent Kashmir would lose Jammu and Ladakh, since it is highly improbable that those regions would want to separate from India. Moreover, an independent Kashmir restricted to the Valley is simply not viable. It would be completely land locked, with dicey communications during the winter months; it has no heavy industry to speak of; and without the hundreds of crores of Rupees that India pumps into the state every year, it would be virtually bankrupt within a year.
So what if India was to wash its hands off the Kashmir valley and let the inhabitants stew in their own juice? My presumption is that it would not take the Kashmiris long to face the painful reality that an azad Kashmir is not the paradise they were promised. Once the economy collapsed and chronic unemployment became epidemic, they would probably plead to revert to the status quo ante; army or no army. India could then negotiate re-annexation from a position of strength.
The counter argument to this scenario, of course, is that, once the Indian armed forces withdrew, Pakistan would quickly move in and occupy the valley. Even if that were to happen, the implication for India would be that the de-facto LoC would shift from its present position to the boundaries of the valley. It would not make India any more vulnerable. Moreover, although conventional wisdom dictates a swift Pakistan takeover, I am not convinced that this is inevitable. My reasoning is this. Once India vacated the Kashmir valley, there would no longer be any cause for conflict between the two neighbours; and I don’t think peace is in the scheme of things of the Pakistan army and the ISI. These two institutions thrive; nay survive, on fermenting and sustaining hatred of India. It is what makes the people of Pakistan so amenable to frequent military dictatorship. Remove the threat and the Pakistani population could seriously consider the benefits of a functioning democracy. No, a lasting peace would not suit the military at all.
I have also heard the argument that granting azadi, or even full autonomy to Kashmir, would encourage similar demands from India’s North-Eastern states, where the ethnicity of the local population is closer to Chinese than Indian. However, the situation is somewhat different here. True, some elements in Bangla Desh are instigating trouble in these regions, but it is nowhere as intense or widespread as along India’s Western border. Besides, Bangla Desh is too feeble – economically and militarily to pose any real threat to India. Moreover, I don’t believe the Maoists and Naxalites – who are essentially guerrilla fighters – would want to take on the onerous responsibility of governing a country of their own.
I am aware that the above suggestions will be deemed too radical by many; and there is no guarantee that they would work. Well, conventional wisdom hasn’t got us very far after 20 years of trying. So maybe a bold new initiative is the need of the hour.