Nobody Puts Kashmir in a Corner


On the day that Pakistani television talk show host Hamid Mir was shot and wounded in Karachi, I was visiting the tulip gardens in Kashmir. It is a cliché to cite the tulip gardens, with their clusters of garishly dressed Indian tourists, as evidence of how peace has returned to the Kashmir Valley. But the coincidence of timing will stay with me, a reminder of how much the situation has reversed between Kashmir and Pakistan since I began reporting on the region 14 years ago.  Back then Pakistan was more peaceful domestically, but exported violence to Indian Kashmir by sending jihadis to bolster its separatist insurgency. Now violence has ebbed from the valley and instead Pakistan is tearing itself apart. Fifty thousand people have died in Pakistan since the start of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in 2001. Hamid Mir was lucky to escape after gunmen shot six times at his car as he travelled to a Karachi television studio. The attack, for which his employer Geo TV blamed the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, has unleashed a new round of potentially deadly in-fighting within Pakistan and crippling political brawling.

This reversal in the levels of violence has been under way for a while as some of the jihadis nurtured by Pakistan to fight India in Kashmir and counter its influence in Afghanistan turned on the Pakistani state. But what has also been happening — and this is all the more striking when you visit the disputed region — is that during its years of internal strife, Pakistan has lost Kashmir. It is an idea that has not been fully articulated as yet, at least not within Pakistan.  It is, however, an issue that is likely to cause problems in the months and years ahead as Pakistan ramps up its rhetoric in support of “liberating” Kashmir only to discover that its zeal is unmatched in the region itself.

It is not that the aspiration in Kashmir for “azadi” — a loosely defined term that can mean independence, autonomy, self-determination or freedom from India — has gone. That may go into abeyance for a few years, even a generation, before resurfacing into new forms of contestation with India, as happened in 2008–2010 during a series of summer protests in which unarmed youths throwing stones at Indian security forces took the place once occupied by armed gunmen. Nor have the grievances about Indian human rights violations been forgotten; Kashmir continues to be governed by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives Indian security forces far-reaching powers over the civilian population and immunity from prosecution. Nor has violence disappeared altogether — although you would certainly be a lot safer these days walking in the streets of downtown Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, than in Karachi, or Delhi for that matter.

But in relative terms, the situation in Pakistan has worsened so significantly in recent years that it no longer offers any hope to Kashmiris, either as an aspiration to belong to it or as source of support to be played off against India. As one man old enough to remember people cheering for Pakistan in 1947 told me, when the separatist revolt erupted in the late 1980s, “We all felt it was rivers of honey in Pakistan … We would never have thought that even Hamid Mir would be shot at.”

In the meantime, Kashmir has changed dramatically. When I first started visiting, you could barely move without seeing a gun, carried by soldiers shivering behind sandbags or swivelled nervously by those patrolling the streets on gun turrets atop armoured vehicles. Now in Srinagar, most of the security forces have gone, as have the sandbags. Driving out of town, you no longer run into the soldiers who used to thwack the hoods of civilian cars with a bamboo lathi to ensure people stopped for passing military convoys. In the city, you can drive home after dark without worrying about being shot. From a high-intensity conflict — about 4,500 people died in 2001 — the death toll came down to 181 last year, of which 100 were militants, according to data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

Politically, Kashmir remains exceptional. While India is gripped by debate on the possibility of Narendra Modi from the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) becoming prime minister, there is little interest in the national election beyond wondering whether a hardline Modi government might have more flexibility in initiating peace moves with Pakistan than the ruling Congress party. The focus is on state elections due later this year and on local issues. After a harsh winter, the roads, for example, have turned cracked and dusty with the coming of spring and people want them repaired. “Hartals”, shutdown protests by separatists, have become unpopular for keeping people away from work, children away from school, and day laborers out of money.

Yet for all the many changes within Kashmir, the gap in views between India and Pakistan on the disputed region is greater than at any time in a decade. Believing it has asserted control in Kashmir — of the land, if not the people — India has little reason to make concessions to a Pakistan that now looks as though it is bent on destroying itself. At best, Modi, if elected, could try to address some Kashmiri grievances, for example, by limiting the area covered by AFSPA to the Line of Control dividing the region between India and Pakistan. At worst, he could inflame them by trying to abolish Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gives special autonomous status to Kashmir (though the BJP watered down a long-standing commitment to do so by promising in its manifesto to consult all stakeholders first). Most likely, he will aim for a status quo as regards both Kashmir and Pakistan; Modi has promised the Indian electorate repeatedly to focus on reviving economic growth and has little reason to risk this by courting conflict. (Nor is the status quo likely to be changed dramatically in favour of peace with Pakistan. Speculation in Delhi of a “great leap forward” through increased trade with Pakistan is unlikely to yield much given the Pakistan army’s opposition to it.)

Pakistan, by contrast, has increasingly asserted its claim on Kashmir, abandoning a more conciliatory position initiated by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf. Forced to step down in 2008 and now on trial for treason, Musharraf had offered to set aside Pakistan’s position calling for the implementation of a U.N.-mandated plebiscite on Kashmir in favor of a negotiated peace deal with India. This peace deal would have maintained the status quo — in which the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan — while making borders irrelevant and acknowledging that both countries had a stake in its future. (Curiously enough, because of these efforts to reach a peace deal, one of the few places where you hear praise for Musharraf nowadays is in Kashmir; he is deeply unpopular in Pakistan.)

Pakistan, where foreign and security policy is dominated by the army, had been moving away from Musharraf’s position for several years. But this month Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif described Kashmir as “the jugular vein of Pakistan”, reviving a once-familiar phrase that had fallen out of currency in recent years. Modi said the comments were a “highly provocative” interference in the internal affairs of India. Meanwhile, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, seen by India and the United States as the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group behind the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, has held protests to defend the Pakistan army and the ISI in their row with GEO TV over the attack on Hamid Mir. Its leader Hafez Saeed made the price of his support for the military clear when he said on his Twitter feed,

After a long time, Gen. Raheel Sharif uttered the words of Quaid-e-Azam (the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah) …’Kashmir is Pakistan’s jugular vein’…Quaid’s order to free #Kashmir is a debt on Pakistan’s Army Chief today.

Personally, I don’t believe that Pakistan can revive the separatist insurgency in Kashmir. Like the Afghans, Kashmiris are weary of death after decades of violence and just want to get on with their lives. To be sure, predicting outcomes in conflict zones is often a fool’s game. But the gulf between the views expressed in Pakistan of Kashmir, those you hear in the Kashmir Valley, and those you hear in Delhi is definitely a cause for worry.

Having revived the idea of the jugular vein, where will the Pakistan army channel the zeal of Pakistan’s jihadis if they can’t be sent to fight in Kashmir? When the Soviet Union retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, the “Kashmir cause” was waiting for many of the militants trained by Pakistan to fight the Russians. Back then, an indigenous revolt against Indian rule, exacerbated by a harsh Indian crackdown, provided fertile ground. Those conditions are no longer there.

Will Pakistan therefore feel compelled to try to hit India, and because it can no longer use Kashmir to bleed India dry, do so in another way — perhaps, for example, through a major attack on the mainland? Nobody knows for sure, and Pakistan has always denied any official involvement in acts of terrorism in India. The anticipated arrival of a new government in India, however, has revived talk of Indian retaliation were any attacks to be traced back to Pakistan. Modi has suggested that he could authorize Indian intelligence operations against targets inside Pakistan. In an article earlier this month, Indian security correspondent Praveen Swami wrote that Indian intelligence had even explored the possibility of working with Afghan intelligence to target Hafez Saeed after the Mumbai attacks. The project was rejected by the government, which remained committed to talks with Pakistan. In any case, given that in India Hafez Saeed is seen as acting on behalf of the Pakistan army, assassinating him would be to shoot the messenger; a more appropriate response, so the argument goes, would be to strike at a Pakistani military target, despite the potential for escalation.

As noted above, it is possible to be overly alarmist about the prospects of a confrontation between Pakistan and India. As a champion of economic growth and keen to woo foreign investors, Modi is not going to be actively seeking conflict with Pakistan, and not only because both countries have nuclear weapons. Should conventional retaliation escalate into tit-for-tat strikes, among the more vulnerable targets would be India’s biggest port at Mundra, built by the Adani Group in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, which borders Pakistan.

Yet at the same time, with its rhetoric on Kashmir, Pakistan is painting itself into a corner. Since its birth in 1947, Pakistan has taken huge risks to try to wrest control of Kashmir from India, nurturing many of the Islamist militants who have since turned on the Pakistani state. By promising a renewed effort to “free” Kashmir at a time when the separatist insurgency cannot easily be revived there, it has embarked on yet another reckless course. The place described in Pakistani rhetoric is not the same place I visited last month.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. She was Chief Correspondent in France and Bureau Chief in India. After publishing Heights of Madness, a book on the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, she has focused in recent years on writing about Pakistan.


Photo credit: Amanda W