Crisis in Kashmir

By Ashok K Metha for The Wall Street Journal

A few months ago, Pakistan was virtually begging India to restart the dialogue process between the two governments, suspended after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. Now Pakistani spokesman Abdul Basit asserts that Pakistan will not agree to “any preconditions for resuming the dialogue process.” Why did Islamabad’s attitude change?

The answer lies in two cities: Srinagar and Kabul.

With 62 civilian deaths in the ongoing rioting in the capital city Srinagar and two districts, over the past couple months Kashmir has witnessed a fresh uprising against the symbols of the state. Kashmiris are using every avenue they have—from stones to the Internet—to demand azaadi, or freedom. The mostly spontaneous upheaval involves young men, women and even children. Kashmiris want freedom from corruption, bad governance and the overbearing presence of soldiers.

For decades Pakistan has been trying to wrest Kashmir away from India by sponsoring insurgency. But today, thanks to the ineffective administration in Srinagar, Pakistan doesn’t have to try very hard. After the security forces managed to restore law and order three years ago, India failed to take the political initiative, and frittered away its gains. The result is widespread disillusionment. At a ceremony commemorating India’s Independence Day this month, a local policeman threw a shoe at Omar Abdullah, chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, whose grandfather Sheikh Abdullah ratified the state’s accession to India.

Up until 2008, the state had a lot going for it: several round-table meetings for self rule and confidence-building measures, periodic release of economic packages, annual visits by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, conferences connecting the people and quiet dialogue with moderate and hardline separatist leaders. The ceasefire on the Line of Control was holding, and a four-point formula for resolving the Kashmir dispute hammered out with Pakistan through back channels seemed as good as done.

Indian security personnel beat detained Kashmiri Muslim protesters in Srinagar, India.
Mysteriously, the peace process then ground to a halt. The India-Pakistan dialogue began unraveling soon after Gen. Pervez Musharraf left the scene. The new Pakistani Army Chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, a Fort Leavenworth graduate and favorite of the U.S. establishment, reversed the process of reconciliation. The ceasefire has become shaky, and the Pakistani government’s rhetoric on Kashmir has returned to the rights of the people to self determination and “diplomatic and moral support to Kashmir in their legitimate struggle no matter how brutally Indian forces try to suppress it.”

The reason Gen. Kayani feels emboldened to take a harder line is easy to discern. Tensions deepened after the U.S. elevated Pakistan from “major non-NATO ally” to the linchpin of its Afghan exit strategy, and excluded India from a political solution in Afghanistan. Despite the denials of U.S. Af-Pak point man Richard Holbrooke, the Afghanistan-Pakistan free trade agreement has only underscored India’s irrelevance to Kabul.

Civilian strife in the Kashmir Valley will only strengthen Pakistan’s case that resumption of a dialogue on Kashmir alone will enable a more focused fight against the Taliban on the Western frontier. This is not entirely true, as the Pakistan Army has already redeployed to the west 52% of its offensive and 45% of its defensive forces previously devoted to facing down India.

The priority for Delhi is to stop the stone-throwing in Kashmir. Every death—one recent fatality was a child of eight years old—is fresh cause for protests. On an hour’s notice, 10,000 people will come out on the streets to join the funeral procession of someone they don’t know. Further, Kashmir’s moderate Islam is being radicalized by the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami, which has made even separatist leaders irrelevant. No one is willing to talk unconditionally anymore.

Delhi will have to start from scratch in rolling back alienation by reaching out to youth. Yet Rahul Gandhi, India’s prime-minister-in-waiting and supposedly its youth leader, has not reached out to his favorite constituency in Kashmir. Neither has Congress President Sonia Gandhi or Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Srinagar since the troubles began in June. Until a few months back, Kashmir was the most violence-free state in India, as security forces had significantly marginalized insurgent and terrorist groups over the last three years.

Islamabad is not about to take over Kashmir—according to a survey by London-based think tank Chatham House last month, just 2% of the population favors joining Pakistan. But as the cry for azaadi grows louder, no one has a clue when this uprising is going to stop. Even as the faithful observe Ramadan, Delhi needs to do something before U.S. President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit in November.

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