Over the five weeks since August 5, the day the government revoked the special status of Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has talked up the threat of nuclear war in South Asia. It may be his way of getting the world to condemn the big changes that India has wrought in the relations between Delhi and J&K, but it is war talk nevertheless.
As well, several times since August 5, there is a growing clamour in India that the government’s next mission must be to wrest back Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. PokBanegaIndia is a trending hashtag. The country’s most powerful have encouraged the clamour. Most recently, it was External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar who said that India expects to have control over parts of J&K that are on the other side of the LoC.
What lies across? PoK is an area of 13,297 sq km, which was under the control of the Pakistani forces when the ceasefire line came into effect on January 1, 1949. That was after a 14-month period of hostilities between India and Pakistan, which began with an invasion of Kashmir by Pashtun tribesmen and later, the Pakistan army to seize Kashmir. It has a population of over 40 lakh, according to the 2017 census, and is divided into 10 districts. In 1963, through an agreement, Pakistan ceded to China over 5,000 sq km of J&K land under its control, in the Shaksgam area, in northern Kashmir, beyond the Karakoram.
Then there is Gilgit Baltistan. The British sold it along with the rest of Kashmir to the Dogra ruler of Jammu, Gulab Singh, after defeating the Sikh army in 1846, but controlled the area through a lease from the Maharajah. The last renewal of the lease was in 1935. In 1947, a British army officer of the rank of a colonel imprisoned Maharaja Hari Singh’s Governor in the region and handed over the the area for accession to Pakistan. Spread over 72,871 sq km, it is five-and-a-half times the size of PoK, and with just under 20 lakh people, sparsely populated.
Though both PoK and G-B are ruled directly from Islamabad, officially they are not listed as the territory of Pakistan, which has just four provinces. PoK and G-B are “autonomous territories”. Pakistan has kept this fiction going, as incorporating them into its own map would affect its international position in the UN and elsewhere that the entire J&K is “disputed”. For India, on the other hand, as per a resolution passed by Parliament in 1994, PoK and GB are a part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, which is an integral part of India by virtue of its accession to it in 1947.
But forget Pakistan, think objectively and ask yourself — is there a snowball’s chance in hell that India is going to get back any land ceded to China by Pakistan? It is as unlikely as India rolling back its decision on the withdrawal of special status to J&K, under pressure from Kashmiris, or Imran Khan’s fulminations or even the whole world.
So does that mean India and Pakistan are destined for a forever hostility fuelled by expedient statements of politicians and the certitudes of TV studio types?
It is not inevitable, nor desirable, but first, it will need us to confront our own rhetoric. Despite the periodically renewed commitments to Kashmir as the “jugular vein” in Pakistan and “atoot ang” in India, the ruling elites on both sides know, and have known at least for the four decades since the Simla Agreement, that there isn’t going to be a hand over of territory by any party, China included, to the other. If it does, it means hostility in the region for ever. Moreover, do we really want to add 60 lakh more disaffected people to the Union? We want colonies? Despite what Indians are being led to believe nightly by so-called experts, most people of GB in fact want to become fully part of Pakistan ASAP, and PoK has no desire at all to become part of India. August 5, though, has provided an improbable opening for finding peace.
Much has been written on how the revocation of special status to J&K has solidified India’s hold over the part of J&K on its side of the LoC. And that in doing so, it may have, even if unwittingly, taken a step towards joining the dotted lines of the LoC. What if Pakistan were to just go ahead and do the same — make GB and PoK its fifth and sixth provinces? Sure, it would undermine its international position on Kashmir, but no one is listening to Pakistan anyway. It might also elicit hysteria in India, much like the Indian actions have provoked in Pakistan.
But eventually and desirably, the two sides may simply move on, because that is what the leadership on both sides have secretly desired all this time without having the courage to say it out loud. Having an international boundary, instead of an LoC, between the two countries would make war, or even the thought of it, that much more difficult. There was a missed opportunity in 1972. It could have all been wrapped up when India and Pakistan arrived at the Simla Agreement. Perhaps the time has finally come.
But that still leaves out the Kashmiris. Should two nations, especially one that calls itself the world’s biggest democracy, agree to the divvying up of a territory without thought to the people who live there? The people of Kashmir have long demanded a seat at the table with India and Pakistan, for a say in the shaping of their own destiny. India does not recognise this demand, and underlined that rejection in the very manner in which the August 5 decisions were unrolled. A communication blockade is now in its 45th day. No influential Kashmiri voice has been allowed to speak on the far reaching decisions of the Centre. Kashmiris feel robbed of all agency. It makes their “integration” with India more difficult than before. Everyone knows this is another entry in the Kashmiri book of betrayals by Delhi. Far from “solving” the Kashmir issue, it appears that under the new regimen, the Valley will remain as, if not more, militarised. The costs of this for India and South Asia — in every way — are going to be huge.
It was the acknowledgement that Kashmiris need to be counted in, plus the realism that neither diplomacy nor war would change the map, that propelled the backchannel talks on the four-point solution for Kashmir in the first decade of the century. It was a truly exciting period in this history of South Asia, because for the first time, here was a historic opportunity to end the hostility. It had four elements — borders will not change, but Kashmiris will be allowed to move freely across it; a phased withdrawal of the military on both sides; more autonomy from Islamabad to PoK, and from Delhi to J&K; and a joint mechanism for the “supervision” of J&K. This formula remains the best way out of the mess that India and Pakistan have created in Kashmir.
By unilaterally taking that first step towards freezing the map, India has given this plan another chance. Irrespective of what Imran Khan says, he and his army know that war with India is not a good idea, and a proxy war even worse. At this point — not unlike a 1971 moment for Pakistan — if India wishes to salvage something of its own credibility as the world’s largest democracy, it should first first roll back all the restrictions imposed in J&K, free all political prisoners, restore communications and other rights of people. Then it should then signal its readiness for talks with Pakistan along the lines of the only plan for a modus vivendi acceptable to Pakistan, India and the people of J&K, and on which, counter-intuitively speaking, Delhi has already made the first move.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 19, 2019 under the title ‘A frozen map, a diplomatic opening’. email@example.com