Independence for Kashmir Could Have Advantages for India
 
Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
Monday, January 7, 2002
HONG KONG War will surely be avoided this time around - the international pressures on India and Pakistan are too strong. But is there any hope at all that the Kashmir dispute, source of several wars between now-nuclear powers and cause of thousands of deaths in an ongoing insurgency, can be resolved?
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On the face of it the answer is "no." The struggle is not just about land. It goes to the heart of the ideological divide which accompanied the division of British-ruled India in 1947.
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For India, the inclusion of a predominantly Muslim state within the borders of a plural nation is a living symbol of the country's secular status. As with Palestine, the division of India was forced on the majority by the colonial power, which yielded to pressure to carve out a separate state for an ethnic/religious minority.
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For Pakistanis, Kashmir is rightfully theirs as heirs to the Muslim-majority areas of British India. Given a democratic opportunity, Kashmiris would have chosen to join Pakistan in 1947, and they would do so today were they given self-determination.
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Nor is there much prospect that the status quo in Kashmir can be changed by force. India has shown determination and ruthlessness in dealing with an insurgency that is backed by Pakistan but also has significant local support. Militant Islamic groups, helped by Pakistan intelligence, have raised the tempo of insurgency but not to anywhere near the point where Indian control becomes untenable. Pakistan is too weak ever to wrest Kashmir away by military means, and for India a conquest of the Pakistan-controlled portion would be more problem than it was worth.
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So the prospect is for no war but no peace for the Kashmir valley, whatever Pakistan now does to rein in the militants. For India, its oppressive counterinsurgency policies will remain a serious blot on its liberal and democratic traditions.
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But is there not a way out in Kashmiri independence? Politically this would be very difficult for a democratic India to accept. Kashmir has become such a symbol of national unity. There are genuine fears that independence for Kashmir would be a first step in the breakup of the Indian union into various ethnic and linguistic entities.
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But there is a precedent - Bangladesh. India played the key role in the breakaway of the former East Pakistan to form Bangladesh. Its primary motive was to weaken Pakistan, but at the time there were fears that India's sponsorship of a new state based on ethnic identity would have dangers for India's own unity.
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China in particular warned that India could reap a secessionist whirlwind. The West simply saw, in Henry Kissinger's words, an international "basket case." In fact, Bangladesh has proved quite a successful state, raising itself up from dependence on food aid, outperforming Pakistan in economic growth, in literacy and in social development, and creating few problems with neighbors or internationally.
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Although it is the most homogeneous nation in the subcontinent, its existence has not led to an upsurge in separatism in India, nor to any significant movement for the reunification of Bengal into a single nation of 200 million people. Bangladesh has worked both for its inhabitants and for stability on the subcontinent. Pakistan has more to fear than India from an independent Kashmir. Like the secession of Bangladesh, it would strike at the root of Pakistan's raison d'Ítre as inheritor of the Muslim parts of British India and as a state in which Islam was supposed to override ethnic, linguistic and geographic differences. There are complications that would require boundary changes for Kashmir. India would reasonably want to keep non-Muslim areas around Jammu in the extreme south and mountainous Ladakh, which is Buddhist and has a long, disputed and strategically important border with China.
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But these issues are resolvable. And an independent Kashmir, with or without the Pakistani-ruled portion, would be tied more closely to India than to Pakistan. Meanwhile, if the Kashmir issues were defused, Pakistan's attention would shift to its western frontiers. Economic cooperation with Indian Punjab could flourish.
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A self-confident India that has held together well is making economic progress, has a workable if messy political system and would do well to think constructively about how to resolve its biggest national as well as international problem.

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