Rethinking India’s approach towards Pakistan-occupied Kashmir

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Since 1948, the Indian approach to the Kashmir issue has been to seek a settlement on the basis of the territorial status quo, albeit with minor territorial adjustments. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru first proposed such a solution to his Pakistani counterpart, Liaquat Ali Khan, in November 1948 at the Commonwealth conference held in London. Subsequently, he reprised the offer during his May 1955 discussions in Delhi with the visiting Pakistani prime minister and interior minister, Mohammad Ali Bogra and Iskander Mirza. Similar proposals were advanced by India during the Swaran Singh-Zulfiqar Bhutto foreign minister talks held under US-UK pressure in 1963-64. Nehru’s successors have persisted with this approach. At the 1972 Simla conference held in the aftermath of the 1971 War, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi proposed to President Zulfiqar Bhutto that the LoC be transformed into an international border as part of structuring a durable peace. More recently, the back channel talks during the 2000s were conducted on the basis of maintaining the territorial status quo, albeit by making borders irrelevant in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s formulation.

Notwithstanding this broad continuity in its approach towards a Kashmir settlement, India has on occasion highlighted the fact that the only unresolved issue is Pakistan’s continued occupation since 1947 of a substantial portion of Jammu and Kashmir’s territory. The most significant in this regard is the February 1994 resolution passed by parliament, which demanded that Pakistan vacate those portions of Jammu and Kashmir territory under its illegal occupation. And one recent statement to this effect was Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s assertion in the UN General Assembly in October 2015 that if Kashmir is indeed under foreign occupation then “the occupier in question is Pakistan.”

Nevertheless, the fact remains that India has not made a concerted and consistent effort to assert its claim to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The general impression both within and outside the country is that India is reconciled to ceding this territory as part of arriving at a modus vivendi with Pakistan. But this approach of ceding PoK as part of a final settlement does not comport with India’s national and strategic interests, especially in terms of dealing with the challenge posed by China-Pakistan collaboration. Two aspects of this collaboration are of critical importance in the current context:
1) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC): While there are purportedly multiple motives behind the envisioning of this corridor, the most important from the Indian perspective is China’s wish to overcome what former Chinese President Hu Jintao referred to as the ‘Malacca Dilemma’ – the fear of its sea lanes of communication running through the Indian Ocean being disrupted at this choke point. Once the CPEC becomes fully operational, what little strategic leverage India may have vis-à-vis China in the naval realm is likely to be lost. From this perspective, China gaining direct overland access to the Arabian Sea is not in India’s interest. Further, the entrenchment of Chinese economic and geopolitical interests in PoK is only likely to increase China’s interests in perpetuating the territorial status quo including through military intervention.
2) China-Pakistan Security Collaboration: Since the 1960s, China has made conscious and concerted efforts to sustain and use Pakistan to keep Indian power constrained and Indian energies confined within the subcontinent. From the Chinese perspective, such a policy prevents India from adopting a hostile policy towards China. As one Chinese analyst bluntly put it, an improvement in the adversarial relations between India and Pakistan “would be a precondition for India adopting more aggressive policies toward China.” But from the Indian perspective, China’s support for Pakistan has had the effect of not only making Pakistan even more intransigent but also, by bogging India down within the subcontinent, prevents it from acquiring a larger role in Asian and international affairs. The Chinese security commitment to Pakistan will only increase with the fruition of the CPEC.

A key factor in China’s ability to pursue the CPEC as well as security collaboration with Pakistan is the territorial contiguity the two countries enjoy – a contiguity made possible by Pakistan’s control over Gilgit-Baltistan. Admittedly, the contiguous border is more important for China’s objective of gaining access to the Arabian Sea than it is for keeping India diplomatically and militarily constrained within the subcontinent. After all, China-Pakistan security collaboration can flourish even in the absence of a shared border, so long as each shares a border with India. Nevertheless, the advantages of a shared border for China-Pakistan military collaboration against India cannot be completely dismissed as irrelevant. Indeed, it is this direct territorial link, especially the potent symbol that is the Karakoram Highway, which has contributed to the realisation of a friendship characterised as higher than the highest mountain.

In the light of these factors, it is in India’s interest to seek to reclaim PoK in its entirety even if that takes several decades more. Regaining this territory would also provide India a direct land link to Afghanistan and thence to the Central Asian Republics, both of which are increasingly falling into the Chinese sphere of economic and political influence.

This ideal is, however, not attainable under existing circumstances. A war is impossible to envisage, especially a war to recover large swathes of territory in mountainous terrain, against a reasonably strong adversary that is moreover a nuclear weapons power. Nor is China likely to remain quiet if India were to make an effort to recapture territory that it views as strategically and geopolitically important. India therefore appears destined to live with the extant territorial status quo into the foreseeable future. Under these circumstances, what really are India’s options vis-à-vis Gilgit-Baltistan in particular, Pakistan’s ongoing efforts to incorporate it, and China’s determination to use it for geopolitical purposes?

The most obvious course of policy is to begin asserting claims to this territory as frequently as necessary, as vocally as possible, and in as many forums as needed. But adopting a diplomatic narrative based on legal claims is unlikely to make a major difference. As the saying goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law, and India has not had possession for 69 years now.

The legal claim has to be reinforced by, indeed rest upon, the mobilisation of public opinion in PoK, in India and especially in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in the rest of the world and particularly in Western countries – a vital task to which inadequate attention has been paid so far. As Hans Morgenthau observed decades ago, international politics is “in a specific sense a struggle for the minds of men.” Therefore, within PoK and among the PoK diaspora, public opinion needs to be mobilised in favour of India’s democratic polity, inclusiveness, and economic and social progress and contrast these with Pakistan’s history of regressive militarism, sectarianism and sponsorship of terrorism. Within India and particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, public opinion needs to be generated about the plight of PoK residents as well as in support of India’s claims to, and vital national interests in, that region. And in the rest of the world, and particularly in Western countries, public opinion needs to be informed about Pakistan’s state-sponsored sectarianism, terrorism and human rights violations in PoK, on the one hand, and China’s ulterior geopolitical objectives, on the other. A pre-requisite for all this is the reasonably widespread dissemination of news about the goings-on in PoK, which is practically non-existent at present and about which there is inadequate consciousness in the minds of both the Indian and global public.

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