November 17, 2016

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi

KASHMIR is regarded as one of the oldest problems in the world. It is also one of the most complicated problems that consumes immense resources and hampers development. Several wars have been fought over the issue claiming the lives of hundreds of people. The problem had its origin in the partition of the subcontinent into two separate nations – India and Pakistan.

India and Pakistan became independent states at the end of decades of struggle and after great sacrifices were made by the people of the subcontinent, mainly Hindus and Muslims. It was also the result of intense negotiations between the colonial government of Great Britain on one hand and the Indian National Congress and All India Muslim League, representing the people of India, on the other. Later, similar intensity was seen in negotiations for the partition of the subcontinent between the Muslim League on one side and the Congress and the British colonial rulers on the other so as to create a separate nation for Muslims.

The state of Pakistan was founded on the basis of the two-nation theory. According to the theory, Muslim majority regions would be part of the new nation of Pakistan while the Hindu majority regions would continue to remain part of India. As for the princely states, they had the freedom to opt either for India or Pakistan. There were more than 500 princely states at the time of the partition of the subcontinent.

The first war was fought between India and Pakistan immediately after achieving independence. The Hindu ruler of Kashmir announced Kashmir’s accession to India even though the majority Muslim population wanted to join Pakistan. This resulted in the intervention of the United Nations, forcing both sides to observe a ceasefire. The international body also passed a number of resolutions, seeking to hold a plebiscite for the self-determination of the Kashmiri people about their future.

Interestingly, the proposal for such a plebiscite first came from none other than Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. But later India backtracked from holding the plebiscite, citing the elections held in Kashmir after the partition of the subcontinent. In those elections, the victor was Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, who wanted Kashmir to remain a part of the Indian federal state, claiming that the election result was virtually the same as self-determination. However, Pakistan and the majority of the Kashmiri people rejected outright this claim; and they continued to demand that a plebiscite be held under the supervision of the United Nations.

The Kashmir problem remains a stumbling block in improving bilateral relations between the neighboring states of India and Pakistan. It has triggered a number of wars fought between these two neighbors with massive losses and human casualties on both sides. The two countries have lost a huge volume of resources that otherwise would have been pumped into mega development projects benefitting the people of both countries, who were earlier part of a single nation.

Leaders of both countries have failed to find an amicable solution to the Kashmir problem that dates back to more than six decades. One such effort to resolve this problem was made while the BharatiyaJanata Party leader AtalBihari Vajpayee was the prime minister of India. There was great hope pinned on that initiative and a series of talks were held but later the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks scuttled the peace talks.

India blamed Pakistan for the attack but Pakistan consistently denied India’s claims that the perpetrators of the attack were Pakistan-based terrorists. Similar is the case with the recent terror attack on India’s army base in Uri in Kashmir. India accused Pakistan of being behind the attack, an allegation that was roundly rejected by Pakistan. Islamabad also accused New Delhi of orchestrating the Uri attack to divert the attention of the world from the Kashmir issue, especially from its excessive use of force in the valley. However, these incidents have contributed to worsening the situation and posing a threat to the security and stability of not only the two nations but also the entire South Asia region.

The political leadership of both India and Pakistan must realize the fact that there will not be any peace without the resolution of the Kashmir problem. If the problem remains insoluble, the situation will continue to prevail and will only become worse, and the dangers will be exacerbated in an unstable region. The solution lies in the execution of the resolutions adopted by the United Nations at the time of the eruption of the problem six decades ago.

The UN resolutions call for holding a plebiscite for the self-determination of the Kashmiri people about their future. Plebiscites have been held in other trouble spots across the world. In Sudan, a referendum was held after a civil war that lasted for two decades, and it resulted in the independence of South Sudan. A similar referendum was also held in Scotland. However, the majority of people decided not to secede but to remain in the United Kingdom. The resolution of the Kashmir problem by giving its people the right to self-determination will lead to an era of stability between the two nations in particular and the South Asia region in general.

It is unfortunate to point out that the dispute over Kashmir has also led to an economic standoff between the two neighboring countries. The strained relations were instrumental in postponing the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) that was supposed to take place in Pakistan this month. This followed the decision of New Delhi to boycott the summit meeting.

—Courtesy: SG

[Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com]