We have all seen the news from the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir: barbed wire fences across streets, Indian troops patrolling, Pakistani troops threatening. The latest flare up in this never-ending conflict is being blamed on the diplomatic sophistry which made it a disputed territory to begin with: as it has been, so it is now, with all actors making the same points they always have.
But we are not dealing with quite the same actors. True, it is India and Pakistan pressing their standard historic claims to ownership of the territory in a melange of different terms, the most recent being the move to deprive the Indian-controlled part of its special constitutional status
But if we look at who is running India and Pakistan, we get to the heart of the current problem.
India’s Prime Minister is Narendra Modi, an entrepreneur who has a great fondness for publicity, as his opponents keep reminding him. His political party, the BJP, is usually described as “Hindu Nationalist” but might more accurately be termed “Modi-ist”: unlike previous BJP leaders, even ones well-known before taking office he has made his party an extension of himself, his own personal characteristics becoming synonymous with the platform of the party.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister is Imran Khan, the cricket star (and thus national hero to Pakistanis) and former international playboy who has revelled in being in the eye of publicity all his life He has taken advantage of the eminence his family and looks offered him to conquer every world he has entered, as since he left cricket his capacity for garnering positive publicity is what has set him apart from rivals.
Plenty of celebrities have entered politics, but few have provoked their incumbent national government to declare that it was “not intimidated” by them doing so, before they had even announced a candidacy. Thus is the power of the publicity surrounding Imran, and it represents the main reason this aristocrat has come from nowhere to rule Pakistan on a “populist” platform which sounds very similar to non-populist ones, when expressed by someone else.
Both men know that war sells newspapers. Like Kirk Douglas in the Billy Wilder film Ace in the Hole they know the personal rewards of spinning a story people want to hear,as the consumers of such stories are less interested in reality than sensation. This is one of the reasons Kashmir has always been disputed territory, when the dispute could have been resolved: it has given both sides an excuse to fan their domestic support through real or threatened conflict, which is what created the separate states of India and Pakistan in the first place.
So who benefits from the Kashmir conflict? Both India and Pakistan. It brings them both into the media spotlight for the reasons they would want, and gives them time to fix their other problems, if that can be done, before the clouds of suspicion hanging over both states start to weigh them down again.
Back in the parade
India currently faces challenges because it is like Modi – full of talk of its achievements, but not recognising that the reality doesn’t quite match. It may still be the big emerging superpower, but not much of that has got down to the majority of its population – one of the reasons the BJP, with its more visceral appeal to the majority of the population, comprehensively won the last election at the expense of the “Champagne Socialist” Congress Party, now seen as out of touch and elitist.
India ticks a number of boxes the world wants it to tick. The problem is that this no longer matters as much as it used to. China is even more of an emerging power, if it hasn’t already emerged. New Delhi can no longer play honest broker between its traditional Western and Soviet friends because the West doesn’t want to grant it such importance, and is increasingly demanding that each ally chooses one over the other. It can no longer offer the West a foothold in a region often in turmoil, as the West won’t need one for as long as it keeps selling everything to the Chinese.
Pakistan was created as a separate state to keep India in its place. Colonial powers do not like granting their former colonies independence on equal terms, as they then have to start treating them as equals. Pakistan was carved out of British India as the separate state of the Muslim minority, in an attempt to portray independence as being imposed upon the people, by Hindu rebels who did not care about the interests of their non-Hindu neighbours.
How much the West actually cared about the Muslim minority was seen in the fact that Pakistan was an unworkable state, the Muslim majority areas being on opposite sides of British India? This solution was bound to cause conflict, and this eventually led to East Pakistan gaining its independence as Bangladesh with Indian assistance, and enduring mass poverty with it
Pakistan was there to be the regional bad boy, to stop India getting above itself. The religious difference between the two countries was played for all it was worth by Western countries who never recognised it in colonial days.
But who needs bad Muslims now? There are so many terrorist groups around claiming to be “Muslim fundamentalists” that a functioning Muslim state is almost treasonous, in Western thinking. There are too many other Muslim bad boys around to threaten countries which step out of line.
Pakistan has other dimensions but has not been able to use them to its advantage because no one thinks about the country in that way. It has found itself isolated by not fulfilling its traditional role, not because it has no friends. It needs to be all the things it was created to be to regain the influence it once had, Imran Khan or no Imran Khan.
Every man’s no man’s land
In this context, the latest Kashmir Valley dispute makes perfect sense. India needs to be at the forefront of global progressive movements, Pakistan needs to restore its status as the contrary irritant to India. Modi and Khan may not have deliberately set out to go to war, but neither will make any serious effort to prevent it.
Kashmir is a disputed territory because the terms on which India and Pakistan became independent states gave both sides a claim to it. A former princely state, it had been purchased from the British in 1846 and was ruled by a Sikh maharajah, Hari Singh, independently in practice but under the ultimate authority of the British.
As it had a clear Muslim majority, Kashmir should have joined Pakistan in 1947. However the decision lay with the maharajah, who hesitated to do this because many of his Muslim subjects were not happy with the idea. Pakistan thus tried to force the issue with guerrilla raids. These prompted Hari Singh to ask the last British Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, for protection.
Mountbatten insisted that he would send support if the maharajah gave Kashmir to India. After Indian soldiers cleared out most of the guerrillas, the UN was called in and promised a referendum on the future status of the state. As this has never been held, both countries claim the whole of Kashmir as their own – and to keep them both honest, a small part of it belongs to China, thus preventing either India or Pakistan from taking control of the whole area they claim anyway.
Since then India and Pakistan have fought four wars over Kashmir, and the Chinese incursion also led India to war with China. The majority of the population is still Muslim, but most of the Muslims are in Indian-controlled areas. Pakistan controls a portion of the old princely state, which has been divided into two de facto provinces. But in a typical British compromise, the Indian part has until now been given wide autonomy under India’s constitution – which gives the region a “special status”, but does not allow the Kashmiri Muslims to be part of the Muslim state the British insisted on establishing for people like them.
The Muslim Kashmiris are dissatisfied, wanting either integration with Pakistan or independence. India is dissatisfied with Article 370 its own constitution, because Kashmiri autonomy is seen as having promoted discrimination. Under that article, Kashmir can make its own laws in most areas, and this has meant that property rights and citizenship are not available to outsiders, or (in many cases) women. This is not the case in India itself, but the consequence of autonomy granted with the best of motives.
Autonomy only works if the autonomous get a better deal, and the rest of the country can live with that. If it makes people feel worse off, but they can’t decide which daddy to run to, it will ensure conflict simmers but never goes away. As we have seen in many other disputed territories, the argument is more valuable than the winning of it for most of the people, most of the time – a triumph of democracy, in other words.
Brothers in each other’s arms
India wants to be seen as progressive to retain its seat at the top table with the trendsetting countries. Kashmir’s policies are anathema to current Western thinking, and therefore unacceptable to India. Nor do they protect the Muslim population there from assimilation, but rather cut them off from Pakistan whilst leaving them as unequal non-citizens of India. So something has to give, but both India and Pakistan are merely exploiting the situation, not encouraging any resolution.
Modi knows very well that Islamabad cannot accept a solution in which the Indian part, Jammu and Kashmir, is divided into two union territories directly controlled from New Delhi. Of all the possible options, this is the one which is most likely to cause conflict, even though it is reasonable from an Indian point of view: if India wants to be progressive, it needs to show it will impose modern values from the top down, given the “backward” instincts of the locals who allowed the discrimination to happen.
Imran Khan also knows very well that New Delhi will not accept his pleas for dialogue over Indian territory. He may want the rest of the world to sanction India, but they are not going to do it for Pakistan.
India has resorted to the trick of claiming that terrorists from Afghanistan have entered Jammu and Kashmir, thus giving it an excuse not to talk by putting all Muslims beyond the pale. Pakistan is no use as the good guy, because accepting the notion of a decent Muslim nation would derail decades of carefully lain Western policy. So it has to be the bad guy, even though it can’t do that either with any credibility, assuming it would want to.
How Modi and Khan must long for the good old days, when both countries were poverty stricken and war was a way of life. India was the poor bedraggled ally which could get away with begging for Soviet assistance because of it. Pakistan was an ally because it was a big stick to use against India.
Western help made India a nuclear power, then Pakistan joined the club with the same Western assistance, despite the history of conflict between the two countries. The excuse given was that if the Soviets made them nuclear powers they would fall out of Western influence. In fact it solved every problem by forcing these combatants to become generally friendly, but still capable of conflict at any moment: still in their places, their traditional roles reinforced without the need for all the guns.
Time has seen India and Pakistan become more self-reliant, if not prosperous. The old paradigm doesn’t work anymore. But the rest of the world won’t accept these countries any other way. So it’s back to the war games so that they can reinvent their old roles in a blaze of international publicity – and if more powerful countries don’t like it, ultimately they only have themselves to blame.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.