Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been no different than his predecessors with regard to Kashmir policy, as his government both uses bilateral talks and raises the issue internationally. However, India’s move to abrogate the special status of the Kashmir Valley last August, which observers expect to result in demographic changes in the valley, has been significant. It was the first occasion where India made a unilateral move disregarding earlier agreements, resulting in the failure of bilateral talks.
The conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir dates back to 1947 when the British withdrew from the subcontinent and the colonial empire divided into two nation states. Kashmir acceded to India after an attack from tribal invaders. However, Pakistan views Kashmir as an integral part of its territory, owing to the strategic location and the valley’s Islamic identity. Since then, the territory has been disputed between India and Pakistan, with bilateral talks at times but, often, a militaristic approach to resolving the issue.
The historic Simla Agreement signed by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan in July 1972 established that the matter should be solved bilaterally. That principle was followed through various successive agreements between Indian and Pakistani leaders. The two parties were closest to an agreement at the Lahore Declaration in February 1999, under Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. However, the results turned sour after conflict broke out in Kargil in May 1999. The two sides met multiple times after the war, but failed to reach a consensus each time. Furthermore, militancy and the outbreak of violence has complicated the issue even more.
Pakistan’s Kashmir policy in the last decade has been reactionary, largely responding to India’s moves in the subcontinent. This characteristic was observed during the violent protests following the killing of Kashmiri militant leader Burhan Wani in 2016 by Indian soldiers. Following Wani’s death, violent protests ramped up; 90 civilians lost their live and over 2,300 were injured. Showing solidarity with the militant leader, then-Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called Burhan Wani a “martyr” and said July 19 will be observed in Pakistan as “Black Day” to express solidarity with the people of Kashmir.
Speaking in 2015 on a TV interview, Khan had said that Kashmir is a core issue and needs to be resolved through dialogue with India. Khan added that he wanted to have good ties with India and trade relations. Khan’s passive tone on Kashmir was evident during the elections in 2018, where the disputer remained a non-issue. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) chose to ignore the issue of Kashmir in the election manifesto. Even the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, which had vowed to make Kashmir part of Pakistan, ignored Kashmir during the election.
A few months after winning the election, Khan notched a diplomatic achievement with the inauguration of the Kartarpur corridor, allowing pilgrimages for the Indian Sikh community to Kartarpur in Pakistan. But the goodwill was soon overshadowed by a terror attack in Kashmir. On February 14, 2019, a terrorist attack on a convoy of Indian security forces killed around 40 soldiers in Kashmir. The suicide bombing, believed to be carried out by Pakistan-backed forces, led the two countries to the brink of war. A few days later, India carried out a preemptive strike in Pakistan territory on targets which India believed to be terrorist outfits; Pakistan retaliated.
A few months later, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was re-elected with a huge mandate. The larger campaign of the ruling party centered around the terror attack believed to be orchestrated in Pakistan. Soon after the election, the Indian government carried out its long-awaited ambitious project in Kashmir: scrapping Article 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, which gave special status to Kashmir. The amendment brought changes to land ownership rights and preferential treatment for the people of the state in jobs and education.
Imran Khan immediately called the move illegal and a violation of the UNSC resolutions on Kashmir and the Shimla Agreement between the two countries. In an article for the New York Times, Khan called the move an illegal annexation of Kashmir and warned of a nuclear shadow looming over the world. Still, Khan, like his predecessors, maintained that the issue can be resolved through dialogue and negotiations between the two parties.
Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has always been in flux between bilateral talks on the one hand and a militaristic approach on the other. Khan began his tenure without much focus on the Kashmir issue. Only after India’s scrapping of Kashmir’s special status did the issue come into the limelight. Khan, addressing the UN General Assembly, rebuked India for its move, warning of a “blood bath” in Kashmir. Khan’s policy on Kashmir and his approach toward India had significantly changed. Khan, who had earlier talked about solving the issue through bilateral talks, now advocated for international intervention on Kashmir.
Imran Khan, however, is not the first leader to seek international intervention. His predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, raised the issue in the UN General Assembly in 2013 and 2015, while in 2017, the issue was raised by the Pakistani envoy, Maleeha Lodhi. However, Sharif wasn’t able to break the thaw and the matter remained deadlocked.
After the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, however, Pakistan had more support. Initial solidarity came from China, which said that it would support Pakistan in “issues related to its core interests.” Turkey and Malaysia also supported Pakistan on Kashmir. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation also called for the peaceful resolution of the issue and maintained that Kashmir remained one of the OIC’s topmost agenda items. But the diplomatic success was short lived. Saudi Arabia maintained neutrality over the Kashmir issue and backed India on cross-border terror during Modi’s visit to Riyadh in October 2019. The UAE too has described the decision to scrap Article 370 as India’s internal matter. Moreover, four permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom — rejected the Chinese proposal for the council to take up the Kashmir issue.
The case of the United States is particularly interesting. U.S. President Donald Trump has time and again mentioned that he is willing to mediate between the two countries if they wanted it. India has been clear that it does not want U.S. meddling in the Kashmir issue, while Pakistan continues to bring up the possibility. The U.S. State Department had earlier issued a balanced statement in August 2019, stating India’s insistence that the scrapping of Article 370 was India’s internal matter. Analysts believe that India has replaced Pakistan as the United States’ strategic partner, while Islamabad remains a tactical partner in the subcontinent.
Meanwhile, China is an increasingly important player in the subcontinent, and considers Pakistan as “all-weather friend.” The ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) also has a strong stake in Kashmir, as it passes through the Pakistan-administered part of the valley. Some analysts have also claimed that the Kashmir issue provided the catalyst for the recent standoff at the Galwan Valley between China and India.
A year since India’s move in Kashmir, Imran Khan has failed to the resolve the issue with bilateral talks. The bid to internationalize the issue hasn’t gone far, either, thanks to setbacks from Pakistan’s previous track record of harboring terrorism. However, the recent developments in the subcontinent, especially the India-China standoff, have been positive signifiers for Pakistan’s goal of maintaining the status quo in its Kashmir policy.
Majid Alam is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. He is currently studying international affairs at Sciences Po, Paris. His work has been published by Vice, The Wire, The Quint, The Statesman, and The Citizen.