In a recent BBC interview, the noted British writer of Indian origin, Salman Rushdie, argued that the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir should, in an ideal world, enjoy independence.
His argument is hardly novel and has been made many times, including among some intellectual circles in India and Pakistan. Most importantly, some Kashmiri political activists in the Indian as well as Pakistani segments of this divided state have also periodically raised this prospect.
Despite the seeming attractiveness of this option, it is expressly not a solution to this long-standing dispute. To understand why the dispute has proven so intractable, exacted such a high price in blood and treasure and continues to fuel the Indo-Pakistan rivalry, it is necessary to briefly review its origins.
The roots of the dispute hark back to the partition of the British Indian Empire in 1947. At the time of British colonial disengagement, the state was comprised of 565 such entities, all of which had been nominally independent as long they recognized the British as the paramount power in South Asia. Accordingly, they had control over most of their domestic affairs but defense, foreign relations and communications had been the preserve of the British Crown. As independence approached and the British, unable to forge unity between the two principal, nationalist political entities, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, chose to partition their empire. The princely states were given the option of joining one of the two nascent countries on the basis of geographic propinquity and religious demography.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir posed a dilemma. It had a Hindu monarch, a predominantly Muslim population and it abutted both India and Pakistan. The monarch, Maharaja Hari Singh, a Hindu, obviously did not wish to accede to Pakistan, which had been created as a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia. However, he was also loath to throw in his lot with India because he feared that the socialist leanings of India’s dominant nationalist leader (and eventually its first prime minister), Jawaharlal Nehru, would spell the end of his vast monarchical privileges. As he dithered on the question of accession, a tribal rebellion erupted in the state. Within days thereof Pakistan chose to send in troops, disguised as local tribesmen, to support the revolt. In a panic, Singh appealed to India for military assistance. India agreed to send in troops but only after obtaining the imprimatur of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, the leader of the largest, secular and popular organization in the state, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference. After Singh’s accession Indian troops flew in and stopped the Pakistan-assisted tribal advance, but not before they had managed to seize about a third of the state.
As the fighting continued, on the advice of Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, India referred the case to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In the UNSC, the issue quickly became embroiled in the politics of the Cold War and therefore deadlocked. Even when a plan emerged to hold a referendum to determine the wishes of the Kashmiris, India and Pakistan could not agree to the terms of its implementation. Subsequently, bilateral negotiations and two wars (in 1965 and 1999) were used to try and resolve it status.
To compound matters, in 1989, an insurgency erupted in the Indian-controlled portion of the state. The origins of the insurgency were rooted in electoral and other malfeasances on the part of the Indian state. Following its outbreak Pakistan quickly became involved in supporting, organizing and training the insurgents, thereby expanding the insurgency’s scope and deepening its lethality. After an initial poorly implemented counterinsurgency strategy, Indian forces devised more sophisticated methods. Combined with electoral reform, India used massive transfers of national government assistance and persistent repression of the insurgents to put down the rebellion. Consequently, Indian-controlled Kashmir now enjoys order if not law. Nonetheless, many Kashmiris, especially its Muslim-majority population, remain alienated and distrustful of the Indian government.
Given the substantial and persistent disaffection of Kashmiris, combined with the costs of a major military presence in the state, might it not be desirable for India to simply grant the state independence and be rid of both the moral opprobrium as well as the material costs of holding onto the territory?
This ostensibly attractive proposition is fundamentally flawed for four major reasons. First, even if India and Pakistan both granted independence to their portions of Kashmir, and the two portions merged, what would happen to the religious and sectarian minorities- the Hindus, Buddhists and Shia- within the state? Despite their demands for self-determination, Kashmiri Muslim political activists, let alone their insurgent counterparts, have never agreed to protect the rights of such “nested minorities.”
Second, there’s little reason to believe such an entity would be economically viable. Kashmir is indeed a land of spectacular beauty and a tourist haven. However, tourism alone would not be able to provide for the economic needs of the population. Before long it would prove to be yet another ward of the international community.
Third, it is far from clear that if India chose to walk away from the portion of Kashmir that it controls, Pakistan would readily follow suit. Beset with sectarian, class and regional strife, Islamabad would be loath to dispense with a significant part of its country. Indeed Pakistan-controlled Kashmir’s exit could easily trigger a series of demands for secession elsewhere, thereby threatening to unravel an already fragile social fabric in Pakistan. Fourth and finally, a behemoth neighbor, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), though hardly sympathetic toward India, would nevertheless fear the demonstration effects an independent Kashmir would have for its own secessionist forces in Tibet and Sinkiang.
In sum, the views of Rushdie and other intellectuals of his ilk, however well meaning, are misguided. In their rush to alleviate human suffering they may be advocating policies that would leave the very people they seek to help worse off.