Not So Fast

8 June 2008
The Guardian

Islamabad: Having done some tea drinking with the locals while backpacking around Kashmir, Alex Stein has decided that Kashmir should be an independent state. He calls on India the only stable, functioning democracy in South Asia to relinquish control over it and leave itself and the Kashmiri people prey to the autocratic and jihadist forces that encircle it. Like many thousands of Israelis who travel to India each year (it is a popular destination for them after military service), Stein moved freely in a nation with a Muslim population of 150 million without any fear of prejudice or harm. Would he feel so safe holidaying in Pakistan? I think not. You only have to remember Daniel Pearl to know that Jews face certain ideological threats in many Islamic states. But Kashmir is very different because for 60 years it has been part of a broadly liberal, democratic India. Had Pakistan absorbed Kashmir, you can be sure he wouldn't have holidayed there for fear of being nabbed by jihadists who'd upload his execution onto the internet. Kashmiris do have a right to autonomy and self-determination. But India has an overwhelming right to protect its security and territorial integrity and spread its democratic values. The sole democracy in the region, India is surrounded by states that are either tyrannies or on the brink of collapse (in some cases both) Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Nepal and Burma. This has made it impossible for India to negotiate its border disputes reasonably. Tyrannies and military juntas do not have the instinct for dialogue and compromise that democracies do. While having no regard for the human rights of its own people, successive Pakistani regimes have sought to 'liberate' Kashmir from Indian control. The issue has become a national neurosis: Pakistani governments have poured more resources and energy into reclaiming Kashmir than they have into achieving civil rights, literacy and democracy on their home soil a perverse state of affairs to say the least. How can regimes that have no record of good governance within their own borders expect to be co-opted into some form of joint sovereignty as General Pervez Musharraf proposed in 2004? Autonomy for Kashmir or sharing sovereignty with an unstable Pakistan would only create another weak failing state vulnerable to fundamentalism, further threatening India's security. Stein rightly pointed out the suffering of the Kashmiri people in the decade-long conflict that has consumed the region. The Indian security forces do stand accused of some very dark crimes in Kashmir. But Stein made no mention of the fact that Kashmir's insurgency was initially waged not by Kashmiris but by zealous battle-hardened mujahideen unleashed by the Pakistani regime of General Zia ul-Haq. The most bloodthirsty of these terrorist groups, Lashkar-i-Toiba, was formed not in Kashmir but on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Following the defeat of the Soviet Union, it was itching for another holy war and conveniently found one in Kashmir. Pakistan's claim on Kashmir and its demands for Kashmiri autonomy have often been loaded with hypocrisy. It denounces India's human rights record while having an even poorer one in the portion of Kashmir it does govern and calls 'Free Kashmir'. And while it continuously challenges India's right to rule the territory, it never disputes China's control of the vast area of northern Kashmir it annexed during its brutal 1962 invasion of India, renamed Aksai Chin. For Pakistan, it seems that democratic rule by Delhi has less legitimacy than one-party government by Beijing, a position explained by the huge amounts of nuclear-capable missile technology that has been provided to Pakistan by China. Kashmir is vital to India because it is not only at the heart of India's security policy vis-a-vis Pakistan but also its superpower rival, China. While Kashmir may be a pawn in Pakistan's regional game, the Pakistanis themselves are merely pawns in a much bigger Chinese one. Stein showed little knowledge of the broad range problems that surround Kashmir. But those want to hear an informed discussion of relations between India and Pakistan can do so on June 26-27 when Tehelka, India's leading campaigning left-leaning newspaper, holds a summit at London's Royal Society of Arts on the future of the two countries. Called India-Pakistan: Designing A New Future, it will bring together voices from across Pakistan's and India's military, political and cultural spectrum. Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan and Jaswant Singh, leader of the Indian opposition, will be among those giving their insights into the prospects for these countries following the recent return of democracy to Pakistan. Stable democratic rule in Pakistan is central to the resolution of the Kashmiri dispute. And India, as a democracy itself, has a moral obligation to help Pakistan achieve that in every way possible. This issue is also critical to the security of the UK, given that Kashmir is often cited as a reason for the radicalisation of young British Muslims who have, on occasion, received training from groups involved in terrorism there. A democratic Pakistani government is already inspiring enough faith in India for the two countries to resume tentative discussions on Kashmir. Even the notion of dual sovereignty has been raised again and is being taken more seriously this time. The return of democracy to Pakistan and the Indian economic boom that is spreading to Kashmir despite the conflict herald a possible new chapter for Kashmir and the relationship between the two countries. Anyone interested in their future should be at the Royal Society later this month to hear what might be in store.