At the moment everyone is pitching in on the situation in Catalonia as the real story. Having held a referendum on independence, in defiance of the Spanish constitution, the Catalan regional parliament must have expected Madrid to defend that constitution by not recognising the result, re-imposing direct rule to prevent it being enacted and jailing people who advocated doing so. So much can be said in retrospect for self-determination, and so-called European values, as all that is but a moot point by now.
However unsavoury these measures, it is the Spanish government’s claimed Constitutional Duty to take them, as was the case in Georgia in 2008. But of course the Central government is spurring separatist sentiment all over Europe and beyond, in countries where such votes can be legally held and then respected with greater ease. We can expect a number of other regions which identify themselves as separate, whether ethnically, politically or historically, to regard the Catalans as martyrs and go down the same path.
Catalonia as a convenient distraction
However Catalonia is also a convenient distraction. Another “occupied region” is demanding independence – Kashmir . If Catalan independence is becoming a hornet’s nest of problems, these pale into insignificance beside those of Kashmir. This conflict has all the potential to surpass the US-North Korea standoff as a potential disaster you don’t want to think about.
Kashmir has been used for years as a means of retaining the regional balance to prevent those problems. But that is precisely why there is now a push to independence. Trapped between regional enemies and great power rivals, it has nothing to lose by trying to go it alone. The only questions are who will decide to support it, whether Kashmir wants that support or not – and what harm its nuclear-armed neighbours will do to each other, and the rest of the world, because the locals in this remote region are sick and tired of all of them.
Too many truths to be true
Kashmir is the one place on a political map with lines across it. It is claimed by both India and Pakistan, which have fought at least two wars over the territory. India administers a plurality of it and Pakistan most of the rest, but both countries claim the whole of it. If either abandoned these claims this would have a knock-on effect on their other territorial claims, so they never will.
That is bad enough for the locals. However China is also part of the mix, as it controls two Kashmiri regions as a result of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Neither India nor Pakistan recognise the Chinese claim to these regions, as once again doing so would affect their own claims elsewhere. But China is preventing either from exercising their claimed rights at the expense of the other, and not losing, rather than winning, has always been the point of the India-Pakistan conflict.
When India became independent Jammu and Kashmir was one of the hundreds of small, independent “princely states” in the Indian subcontinent which were protected by, but not actually owned by, the British. The British had no authority to incorporate them into either India or Pakistan. Each was given the option of joining either country, or remaining independent, after British protection was unilaterally removed in 1947.
But this right was given to the rulers of these states, not the people. Most citizens of Jammu and Kashmir were Muslim, but its maharaja was the Hindu Hari Singh, long trained and supported by the highest levels of the British establishment. He sought to retain his state’s independence by manouvering between the two, but this merely raised suspicions on both sides that he was going to join the other eventually.
While the maharaja was busy convincing the new state of Pakistan not to invade, an irregular Muslim force, certainly supported and probably organised by Pakistan, entered from Afghanistan to try and prevent him by force from joining India. The British would not supply troops, so the only way Hari Singh could retain his authority was to ask India for help. On Britain’s suggestion, he legitimised this move by agreeing to join India, thus making the Indian troops his own.
India therefore claims that the whole of Jammu and Kashmir is part of India because its ruler signed an Instrument of Accession saying so, like dozens of other local princes did. This is true. Pakistan claims the territory because the Indian Independence Act gave all the Muslim majority areas to Pakistan, which is also true, even though Jammu and Kashmir was not covered by that act.
China has always maintained that the portion it controls is an integral part of China “stolen” by the princely state, as China never agreed the boundaries the British set for that state. In itself, that is also true. But if this claim is accepted it invalidates both the Instrument of Accession and the Indian Independence Act, and if these are invalid, have either India or Pakistan a legal right to even exist?
Kashmiris caught in the middle argue that their country has been ruled by foreigners for 500 years, having previously been their own. The maharajas of the princely state were just as alien to them as Delhi is now, a fact Pakistan continues to exploit. So as you would expect from people who feel they have had no political voice for centuries, local opposition long took the form of a disparate, disjointed but enduring armed resistance, particularly in the Kashmir Valley, the most disputed part of the area.
But some armed groups wanted independence, some wanted unification with Pakistan and others wanted the people to decide when the foreigners had been expelled. Already on a hiding to nothing trying to take on India, China and the Pakistanis who wouldn’t countenance independence, these splits ensured that most of these groups were eventually suppressed by Indian troops. However this has created an opportunity for civilian groups, more likely to gain international support, to take the lead. These are now arguing, quite sensibly, that Kashmir should be independent simply because enough is enough, and the only way to end the cycle of violence is to invalidate everyone’s claims by kicking them all out.
China doesn’t want trouble in Kashmir when it is moving ahead, nor to give up territory when it is claiming it elsewhere, such as the South China Sea. India and Pakistan won’t render the authority which created their states meaningless. Every side has some legitimacy in its position, and unfortunately, enough of that to attract the support of greater powers who have long sought to control the whole subcontinent.
It was no coincidence that China took its part of Kashmir during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in a war whose dates exactly corresponded to the dates of that crisis. Only when others were distracted could it do what it wanted, as no one wants any side in this dispute to win over another. An independent Kashmir would be everyone’s friend because it is everyone else’s enemy, and the independence campaign could release intolerable pressures internationally, let alone locally.
Change is staying the same
It is in this context that we should view the most recent developments in Kashmir. After all these years, India is now promising a “sustained dialogue” with the Kashmiris. This means two things. Firstly, India will not just send troops in and then refuse to listen to the people the armed groups claim to represent. Secondly, India has no intention of granting Kashmir independence. That would mean no further dialogue was necessary, so places at the table and bribery to remain in India are being offered as the alternative.
Furthermore, this dialogue is being offered to “understand the legitimate aspirations of Kashmiri people”. India knows perfectly well that Kashmiris ultimately want respect, whether that is obtained through union with Pakistan, which would grant them the same rights other Muslims were granted, or greater or full independence. The question is what India regards as a “legitimate aspiration”, and who it regards as “Kashmiri people”.
It is an old trick to dismiss an aspiration you don’t like as illegitimate because you say it comes from terrorists, not the people. Northern Irish republicans, who are utterly opposed to terrorism, and unconnected with it, still want to be ruled from Dublin like the terrorists do, but as long as this view is associated with terrorists it is not a “legitimate aspiration”. India has not stated who it will be negotiating with either, giving it the right to pick and choose who is “representative”, as happens in the Middle East where “Palestinian” and “PLO” are differentiated to great effect.
At the same time, India has been ordered by its own Human Rights Commission to investigate a number of mass graves near the administrative boundary with Pakistan . On the face of it, this is a positive move. But India was ordered to do this by the European Parliament in 2008, on pain of sanctions, and did nothing. The same Human Rights Commission then gave the same instruction in 2011, but nothing was done then either.
India’s excuse has always been that such an investigation would create a “law and order” problem in Kashmir. However it also maintains that any mass graves must contain the bodies of locals who were being armed and trained in Pakistan to fight for the armed groups. Kashmiris in general are sympathetic to the political aims of the armed groups but do not join them, so if this is true, investigation of the graves will change nothing. If it is not, and the bodies are those of disappeared civilians, that would be a threat to law and order.
But the fact that India has been order to do this also serves Delhi’s purposes. It reinforces its claims to the region by recognising the Indian government as the competent authority to carry it out – the Pakistani government has not, as yet, been asked to investigate mass graves in its part of Kashmir, if they exist. This is ultimately more important to India than what the graves contain. Even if there were clear evidence that these were civilians slain by Indian troops without good reason, the international community would treat this as a domestic crime rather than that committed by a foreign army of occupation, which is why such a situation developed in the first place.
Give my head peace
The ongoing conflict in Kashmir suits too many people to ever be resolved. China only claims the part of it it controls, so it is unlikely to intervene further as its claim to this part on historic grounds would then be undermined. Nor will the collapse of Pakistan, much more likely than India’s because it is no longer useful, resolve anything as this would increase direct foreign support for the independence movement, now it was no longer associated with one “occupier” or the other.
As mentioned in previous articles, Pakistan is there to stop India getting too high and mighty and India is allowed to develop with strings attached. Both countries know the purpose they serve. They are no more functionally independent than a Kashmiri state carved out of them would ever be. Catalonia may not affect the international order, but Kashmir inevitably will.
Supporting Pakistan means supporting its claim to Kashmir; this is obliged to include a clause about “letting the Kashmiri people ultimately decide” because the Pakistani claim rests on the religious orientation of the majority of those people, rather than the actions of their old Maharaja. But Kashmir’s claim to independence is likewise largely based on the locals’ religious difference to Indians, and the fact this was once recognised as the basis for separating from India.
Actual independence would weaken Pakistan considerably because it would mean that being an Indian subcontinent Muslim no longer meant you should be Pakistani. This would have ramifications throughout the Muslim world, which is publicly struggling with whether you support fellow Muslims for the sake of it, or particular nations even if they oppose fellow Muslims.
India itself is highly multi-ethnic, and each group has some sort of grudge to bear. The Sri Lankan government claims to have defeated the Tamil Tigers, but this has given the local Tamils greater kinship with their brethren in India. The historic DMK, which long governed Tamil Nadu, initially pressed for a separate South Indian state, and largely because of this secession is now as illegal in India as it is in Spain. The great powers would rub their hands in glee at an Indian civil war, as they would be able to support both sides simultaneously, given their positions for and against India in different arenas, and obtain greater control of both regardless of the outcome.
Don’t look, and don’t leap either
Independence inevitably creates new political realities anywhere. If one place can achieve it, others think themselves similarly qualified. They also routinely think that the principle is worth sacrificing everything for, including the security of all the countries around them.
Faced with a problem like Kashmir wanting independence, many diplomats would simply give up and find easier ones to look at. But that isn’t an option either. In a conflict where everyone is right and everyone is wrong, perpetual frozen hostility is the only way of maintaining peace. This means making continual efforts to get all parties to sign up to that, and if anyone fails to make the effort, then their rivals will gain at their expense, by proxy.
During the Cold War there was much discussion about which side would be forced to go nuclear first in the event of any war. In Kashmir nuclear war is as much a danger as it was then, not because conventional forces would run out but because the issues people are fighting about are so difficult to resolve that simply destroying the place may be the only realistic way of doing that. In the present frozen conflict, no one has to look for answers, only recognise the questions. If any player jumps on the bandwagon of Kashmiri independence answers will have to be found – and no one has seen one in the last seventy years, when they have had breathing space to do so.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.