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David Miller: What Is Happening In Kashmir?

David Miller Online: What Is Happening In Kashmir?

The report this week that India and Pakistan may meet for talks over the disputed Kashmir region is promising news. The possibility of talks, which would be the first to be held in over two years, comes at a time of renewed violence in the disputed province and against a backdrop of armed confrontation, the potential for another India-Pakistan war and a development of a nuclear arms programme. However, in the wake of ongoing conflict and tension and the ever-present threat of nuclear confrontation, can there be optimism that the talks will lead to an eventual resolution?

Kashmir has been at the heart of the dispute between India and Pakistan since 1947. When the British granted the Indian subcontinent independence, the Muslim dominated area of Pakistan split from India, while Kashmir became something of anomaly. It was a predominantly Muslim province with a Hindu ruler who acceded his control to India at this point in time. Pakistan refused to recognise this move, claiming that it was done against the will of the people and as a result the first war between the two countries erupted. Since this point each country has laid claim to Kashmir as being part of its territory and a Line of Control (LOC) has been established which effectively divides the province into two areas. The western area is known as Azad (free) Kashmir and this has an independent government with strong ties to Pakistan, while the eastern section lie the Valley of Kashmir and the Jammu and Ladakh areas that are administered by India.

The prospects for resolution of the Kashmiri dispute have always been remote due to the gulf that still exists between the demands of each country and the conditions each has imposed as a prerequisite to peace. India lays claim to the entire region of Kashmir, including the areas controlled by Pakistan and even China. The dominance of Islam in Kashmir does not impact on the Indian point of view as it maintains that it is a secular country. This position is in contrast with that of Pakistan, which continues to fight for what it calls the rights of the Kashmiri people and as an Islamic state sees the need to liberate another Muslim province from Hindu control. Hence the intractability of the situation becomes clear. Even the stipulations for peace that each side has made are heavily at odds. New Delhi has sought to negotiate with Islamabad on the basis of a broad based dialogue including discussion of issues such as trade and terrorism, while Pakistan continues to insist Kashmir be placed at the heart of any negotiations.

In light of this history of violence, tension and mistrust, the announcement that the Indian government has invited Pakistan’s military rule General Pervez Musharraf for talks is very much a positive sign. The invitation comes at a time when India has announced that it is ending its ceasefire in its struggle to contain Islamic Kashmiri militants who have been engaged in an insurgency that began in 1989. The insurgency has proved to be another cause for dispute between the two powers as India has accused Pakistan of training and arming militant groups for acts of terrorism in Kashmir. Pakistan denies that claim, saying that it only extends moral support to the struggle of the Kashmiri people.

More than 30,000 men, women and children have died in the past decade of violence in Kashmir and as result of this, India has deployed more than 500,000 security personnel to the province to combat the insurgency. There have been reports of human rights abuses by the Indian military and paramilitary forces in the area, however this charge has always been denied. The insurgency has widened in scope over the past few years. Thousands of Hindus have fled the area in fear of ethnic cleansing by militant groups there and those engaged in the revolt have received help from pan-Islamic groups, especially trained recruits from Afghanistan, who claim to be fighting a "jihad" or holy war against India in Kashmir. One aspect of the United States’ criticism of Pakistan is that it continues to support groups fighting in the region and may be a significant factor should Pakistan ever be placed on the State Department’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

The possibility that India and Pakistan will again go to war over Kashmir can never be discarded completely, however with the nuclear element ever present now, both countries realise the consequences of letting any incident along the border escalate out of control. It is likely that there will be continued skirmishes along the Line of Control, including cross border artillery fire, airspace intrusions and massive military exercises such as the one India recently conducted. Should General Musharraf’s visit to New Delhi go ahead then it would be a major step in easing tension between the two states, however it is no guarantee that there will be a resolution. For a resolution to be found both India and Pakistan would have to be willing to move from their present stance and the wishes of the Kashmiri people must be recognised. Those living in the Kashmir valley, where the violence is the greatest, must be given greater autonomy from the Indian state. Until this occurs Kashmir will remain one of the world’s leading flashpoints.

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