Jammu and Kashmir have enjoyed relative peace over the last five years. Militancy has declined and normal life has gradually asserted itself. Tourism, a mainstay of the state’s economy, has been on the upswing.
Presiding over this turnaround in India’s most volatile state is Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, the youngest scion of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah’s family, which has been at the forefront of the state’s fight against militancy and the institutionalization of democracy in the region.
Yet, despite successes, Jammu and Kashmir face significant challenges amid regional political developments, from the recent Chinese incursion in the region of Ladakh to the potentially destabilizing withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, scheduled for 2014.
Most recently, Pakistan’s recent elections raise important questions about the stability of Abdullah’s state. Will the new Pakistani government under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif extend its hand in friendship, offering a chance at lasting peace in the Kashmir Valley?
“The fact is that Nawaz Sharif wants to resume the dialogue process,” Abdullah told a group of journalists earlier this week at a conference in New Delhi, attended by The Diplomat. “He wants to invite the Indian Prime Minister to Pakistan. He wants to revive the incomplete peace process that was interrupted after the Kargil war.”
Abdullah was measured with his optimism, however. He continued, “Obviously his position sounds good. Let’s see how the whole thing plays out in the next couple of years. (But) I don't expect much in the next few years.”
As Abdullah explained, many overlook the fact that Pakistan’s elections represent only one side of this dynamic. In 2014, India will also undergo a national leadership transition. At that point, anything could happen.
“India is going to pass through the same grind next year,” Abdullah said. “So clearly expecting any major development or initiative on the Jammu and Kashmir front is expecting too much. However, if we keep talking with each other that itself would be a great feat.”
Further to the west, in Afghanistan, other potential issues loom for Jammu and Kashmir. Many fear that the scheduled withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014 will create a vacuum that terrorist groups could readily fill. This prospect is particularly worrisome for Jammu and Kashmir, which was plagued by terrorism in the 1990s during the Taliban’s rule of the landlocked country. While this fear is understandable, Abdullah has a different view of the matter.
“I might be in a minority here, but I don't believe that there is going to be any significant impact in Jammu and Kashmir after the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan for a number of reasons,” Abdullah said in response to a question posed by The Diplomat. “I don't believe that security forces are going to leave Afghanistan completely and leave a vacuum there. For a massive influx of militancy into Jammu and Kashmir from Afghanistan after the withdrawal it would require a complete turning of a blind eye to the situation by the international community.”
“The international community knows what happens when the situation flares up in the region,” he continued. “If the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan means a dramatic reversal of the situation in Kashmir… it would mean that whatever has happened in my state has happened either because of Pakistan or Afghanistan, or because of international troops, which I’m not willing to accept.”
A state besieged from both sides, Jammu and Kashmir has also struggled to secure itself to the east, as seen in the recent incursion by Chinese troops who recently set up tents in the region of Ladakh.
Yet, there is one key differentiating point in the case of China. While the main concern with Afghanistan is security, India’s diplomatic tensions with China carry the possibility of significant economic fallout. One example: tourism.
“Tourism in Ladakh was affected by the recent development, not because the incursion was anywhere near the area, but because of the Indian media reporting about the situation,” Abdullah said. “We need a good relationship between India and China and our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has conveyed to the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that peace and tranquility has to be maintained under any circumstances.”
In response to a question about how he would address border disputes with China, he continued, “My message would be to sit down together and work out a mechanism to deal with such situations. No interest is served by this kind of provocation.”
While Abdullah acknowledged the challenges associated with shoring up Jammu and Kashmir’s eastern and western borders, he clearly demarcated the underlying challenges India faces with its two largest neighbors.
“China does not encourage terrorism,” he said. “Comparing our relations with Pakistan and China is like comparing chalk and cheese.”