Public conversation on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) within India is uninformed and pessimistic. It is a stark reality that there is inadequate academic focus on PoK in India. This is probably because PoK is considered academically irrelevant and less rewarding in comparison to purely Valley-centric discourse. PoK has remained under-represented in the conventional discourse on Kashmir.
Instead, the near exclusive focus during the last nearly three decades has been on alleged human rights violations perpetrated by the security forces. In this view, only criticisms of India’s ‘hard’ approach towards the people of the Valley are considered genuine. Even as Valley-centric issues elicit concern and spawn serious discussions at elite platforms, the issues of political apathy and disenchantment prevalent in PoK are grossly neglected and even avoided.
What exists, as a result, is a blinkered view of Kashmir- one that also fails to acknowledge that such a premature signalling on PoK would tantamount to disclaiming PoK with grave repercussions during future negotiations if and when they take place. While is it valid to argue that PoK’s inclusion in the domestic debate may not necessarily resolve the Kashmir issue in India’s favour, it is at the same time self-defeating to project the view that the Kashmir issue can be solved only by insulating it from India’s standing claim on PoK.
Even though India’s position on PoK has never been categorically contested by any mainstream political group, ratcheting up the territorial claim is more than often discredited as mere rants by right-leaning constituencies within the country. Indeed, in the wider vacuum that exists, the right- leaning groups have frequently raked up the issue calling for integration of PoK with India.
Therefore, on most occasions, discussions on PoK elicit responses to the effect that it is unnecessary raking up a claim that has already been more or less dispensed with. Added to this is recent tendency to ascribe raising of PoK issue as a political agenda of particular constituencies. Together, such responses prevent a meaningful and coherent policy-oriented discussion on PoK.
In contrast to the situation obtaining at present, PoK was vital to India’s defence of its position on Kashmir in the initial years after independence. Former Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon’s elaborate defence during his marathon UN speech in 1957 made repeated references to Pakistan’s deceitful occupation of this portion of territory.
It is generally perceived that following this impassioned plea, India’s approach on PoK revolved around accepting the ceasefire line and later, LoC as a de facto border and perpetuating the territorial status quo. From “practical” considerations of ceding more territory to Pakistan during the 1960s engagement (Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto-Swaran Singh talks), to an alleged informal understanding on maintaining the territorial status quo during the Shimla Talks, there was a virtual shift in the debate on Kashmir within India. Territorial aspects of the issue gradually assumed less significance in discussions as terror and violence abetted by Pakistan during late 1980s assumed centre-stage.
Due care is required to ensure that stray references by India’s previous leaders suggesting maintenance of the status quo are not interpreted as a climb down/divergence from the stated official position. Instead they must be understood as individual quests to explore pragmatic ways to resolve a protracted issue. It is equally important to articulate that India will not cede territory it controls and see whether Pakistan is willing to conduct a dialogue within this framework. Till the time India approaches a conclusive negotiation stage, it is important that loose references contradicting India’s claim on PoK are avoided at all cost.
Of late, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has given India’s claim on PoK a new lease of life. India has skilfully spun its reservations on the CPEC around the principle of territorial sovereignty and integrity. Therefore, apart from the bilateral imperatives vis-a-vis Pakistan as discussed above, presently, there are pressing geopolitical imperatives that must be heeded while formulating India’s policy position on PoK. In this regard, disregarding the territorial claim on PoK will only weaken India’s position on CPEC.
With CPEC placed under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), asserting claims to PoK has become a strategic necessity rather than an afterthought. It was perhaps owing to such compulsions that India’s inert and understated position on PoK was rescinded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to the territory during his Independence Day address in August 2016. There will always be those who argue that there is nothing substantial that India would lose by dis-claiming PoK. In the present geopolitical scene, however, India is likely to lose more than it gains by ignoring its claim on PoK. There is an urgent need to build a broad consensus on PoK in order to fix the credibility deficit caused by sustained neglect across generations. Unless India sheds its nonchalant approach towards its claim on PoK, it cannot expect the rest of the world to take its position on J&K seriously. For the time being, India has few options other than continue to be relentless in pursuing its claim on PoK.