The conflict in South Asia between India and Pakistan is one of the most volatile international rivalries in the world, and no issue embodies this rivalry more clearly than the regions of Jammu and Kashmir. Resolving this issue would ease tensions between these two nuclear powers. What’s driving the conflict in Kashmir? Would granting the region independence lead to peace? How much is this conflict driven by local actions in the region, and how much is it fuelled by policies in Islamabad and New Delhi? Doug Becker spoke with T.V. Paul and Mona Bhan.

T.V. Paul is a Professor of International Relations at McGill University. He is an expert in comparative politics in South Asia and is the author of Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era.

Mona Bhan is a Professor of Anthropology at DePauw University. She is an expert in cultural anthropology and is the author of Counterinsurgency, Democracy, and the Politics of Identity in India.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Doug Becker: Let’s start with you T.V. Can you please give us a brief background as to what happened recently in February which led to border skirmishes between India and Pakistan?

T.V. Paul: The February events were quite a random event but what you notice is that in this rivalry you find these periodic eruptions often initiated by individuals or groups that allegedly have connections to the Pakistani establishment. But in this case, an individual from Kashmir slammed a car into a convoy of Indian troops going into Kashmir and killed forty of them. It is perhaps the largest attack on a group of Indian soldiers other than in wartime. So the Indians naturally took it as a major event and it generated a lot of antagonism towards Pakistan because the assumption is that the Jaish-e-Mohammed is headquartered in Pakistan and that the Pakistani establishment is supporting this activity. Since then you have had increased tension, although the other week the Pakistani government re-arrested the chief of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar, and also opened Pakistani airspace to all flights coming in through South Asia, India, and other parts of Asia. So this is somewhat of a cooling down but I am not sure we are seeing any permanent peace of any sort any time soon as any new individual act like that can trigger another round of conflict rapidly.

DB: Mona Bhan, what is the core of this conflict, is it about territory or about identity or about history, what is driving this conflict?

Mona Bhan: I actually don’t see this act that happened in February as a random attack. I see it as part of this very long history of an Indian presence in Kashmir which of course harks back to the history of 1947. So for me, the history of this event needs to really be tracked back to 1947 or perhaps even earlier maybe to the 1930s when Kashmiris for the first time came together and mobilised to seek independence, to seek freedom from the monarch who they saw as an outsider, they saw them as a representation of foreign rule in Kashmir. So to me this is not a random attack, this is really part of this long history of Indian occupation of Kashmir. So while we might track this attack to Pakistan, which is what the Indian line has been, the Indian line in Kashmir has always been consistently promoting an indigenous struggle for freedom from India as a proxy-war of Pakistan’s. Now this is not to deny that Pakistan has a role to play in this but we have to first and foremost place Kashmiri agency in this long struggle against the Indian state.

DB: T.V. Paul, part of what we are describing is what is referred to by historians as Partition. In what ways has the partition and its aftermath contributed to such destabilization of this region?

TVP: The Partition was one of the most tragic events that has happened in the sub-continent. The British left in such a hurry that the state was not there to protect the millions who perished or who had to migrate from their homelands. And so the Partition is still looming large, Kashmir is the unfinished business of Partition. Partition gave the right to each of the princely states to accede to either India or Pakistan. Mona is right that the Kashmiri people have been demanding independence or something similar but she is wrong in saying that Pakistan’s role is limited. Without Pakistan there is very little movement that would have persisted this long because it is an irredentist struggle for Pakistan. Pakistan wants to assimilate both parts of Kashmir as part of its national identity and without it, it feels that Pakistan will never be complete.

India on the other hand views it as a testament for its identity of a so-called secular state and that giving away this gain under threat to Pakistan will considerably weaken the Indian unity as well as the secular credentials. Where Mona is partially right is the role of Kashmiri people in this. But the question is who are the Kashmiri people? Does the separatist movement represent all of Kashmir? There is a sizeable Hindu and Buddhist minority in Kashmir and so the largest movement is actually happening in the Vale of Kashmir, which is a certain part of Kashmir at this point. So it is hard to say whether everyone in Kashmir wants to separate and there is a sizeable number who still want to be part of India but definitely don’t want to join Pakistan. And that is where the whole problem arises. Imagine if Kashmir ever becomes an independent state, will it be abandoned by Pakistan? Very unlikely, given Pakistan is run by a military system and it is very unlikely they will forgo Kashmir as they are doing with Afghanistan. So it is not okay to say that Pakistan is only marginally important here, I disagree with that part.

I agree with the fact the Indian state has failed to integrate or give some kind of sense of belonging and it is now out of their hands. But what is happening today is it has become such an important dimension in India’s political discourse and Pakistan’s too that it is unlikely that Kashmir will get independence anytime soon. The reason why I say that is the Hindu fundamentalists – the BJP – that have come into power in India really find this as a great issue on which to maintain their rule and they are winning elections in the name of acting tough on Kashmir and acting tough on Pakistan. They are losing very few sympathisers within India for Kashmir and so Kashmir will boil like this and India will unlikely give up on the issue anytime soon.

DB: Mona Bhan, your response?

MB: In no way did I want to undermine Pakistan’s role, in fact Pakistan is a legitimate stakeholder in this issue and I think that has been part of the problem in how the issue has been approached by India, most predominantly that it seeks to de-legitimise Pakistan’s stake in Kashmir which is not legally, politically, or historically correct. So I am not denying Pakistan’s role, nor am I saying Pakistan is not a legitimate stakeholder. What I am really questioning here is this constant reduction of Kashmir to a border dispute between India and Pakistan, because what tends to happen is indignation when Kashmir is reduced to a border dispute and Kashmiri aspirations for independence or for alternative territoriality is completely subsumed within this larger border dispute issue. So a lot of Kashmiris will constantly redirect this position and say ‘Don’t reduce us to a border dispute between India and Pakistan, we have our own legitimate aspirations that get completely erased when Kashmir is promoted or projected as a border dispute and a bilateral issue’. In many ways India doesn’t even want to acknowledge that it is a bilateral issue because India keeps pushing for this narrative that Kashmir is essentially an internal matter, which it is not given it is a pending matter at the UN, it has been a pending matter at the UN for the last seventy years, it is an international dispute. But for Kashmiris right now, the problem is not necessarily about India and Pakistan alone, the problem is Kashmiris themselves trying to fight for their legitimate rights. So I would correct TV Paul’s assessment of my assessment, I was not denying Pakistan’s involvement at all. On the contrary we do need to recognise that it is a legitimate stakeholder and there is a proxy war, absolutely, but to call it just that is not paying attention to what has really been happening on the ground in Kashmir.

Now having said that, I do agree that Pakistan has its own vested interests in claiming Kashmir as its own, and so does India. Going back to Partition in 1947, India wanted to hold on to Kashmir because Kashmir legitimised India’s secular identity. Now we are at a very interesting moment where we are seeing essentially an establishment of a Hindu state in India under Narendra Modi, especially as he came back with such a big majority for his second term. What is fascinating to me is India is no longer interested in maintaining its secular credentials. That is not what its project is. Its project in Kashmir is very different, its project is to Hinduise that territory and it has been doing that through recasting space and people as civilisationally Hindu. There is also this assault on constitutional privileges that Kashmiris enjoy under articles 370 and 35a which basically grant special rights to Kashmiris. So what the BJP is trying to do now is dismantle those privileges in order to fully assimilate Kashmiri territory and its people into the Indian mainstream. Having said that, I also want to dispute this notion that this project of self-determination that Kashmiris are fighting for is only limited to Kashmir. Why I say this is there has been a divide and rule policy in India over Kashmir for the longest time because you have three different provinces now seemingly completely split politically. But that does not mean that there are no issues. In Ladakh, there is a line of control that splits families and has done so for the past seventy years, and we cannot make any strides unless the Kashmiri issue is resolved. So while Jammu and Ladakh might seem different, ultimately it is all connected to this political impasse on Kashmir between India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan’s rivalry means nothing without Kashmir, so unless Kashmir is resolved the rivalry will continue to unfold, it will continue to take on different forms across time, there might be some easing of relationships but nothing will really come out of it unless Kashmir is resolved – keeping in mind Kashmiri aspirations.

TVP: Let me respond a little bit because there is a chicken or egg problem here which is very important. Firstly, I am quite sympathetic to the Kashmiris’ struggle in terms of the human rights violations as well as for their autonomy. I have serious doubts that Kashmir will ever become independent. Some five hundred groups would like to be independent in the modern world, many of them are supressed by majority groups, and within India in the north-east you have quite a few. What is the big distinction here is neither India nor Pakistan would allow an independent state. It may be independent in what you call a very legalistic sense, but it is potentially an Afghanistan given the ethnic composition and the tendency of involvement by these two vying for status and domination and creation of their own version of a nation-state in the sub-continent. Unfortunately, whenever there is violence of this magnitude it just generates such nationalism in India, which unfortunately, if you like it or not, has the upper hand in terms of military force. And one can say that a lot of powerful states had to give up their control over territories, but many haven’t, so it is not clear how easy it is going to achieve this goal of independence. I went and gave a talk at the University of Kashmir once and I suggested look at the Quebec model, the model where it is autonomous within Canada. Otherwise, it is going to be extremely difficult to achieve this goal of independence and we need to think of mechanisms, at least in the short run that alleviates the pain the Kashmiri people suffer as well as satisfy some level of interest of the other parties.

One should also acknowledge that Kashmir is unfortunately in the wrong strategic space. Whether we like it or not, it is in the corner of the world where the interests of big powers intersect. And the great powers rarely give up unless they are forced to and India’s aspirations today is to achieve the role of a great power and they know that if they let Kashmir go that may suffer, in their mind. So to assume that somehow this movement is going to be achieved in the next few decades is very unlikely unless India disintegrates, which I don’t think is going to happen. So we have to think of alternative models and structures if you want to increase the economic and political rights of the Kashmiri people.

DB: Mona Bhan, is there an option that hasn’t been explored yet? TV Paul raises this question about the possibility of some sort of recognition of the unique character of Kashmir in a less centralised more autonomous state. Is independence really the only option that the Kashmiris would accept?

MB: Just taking a step back, so far India has used democracy as a way to prop up its military regime in Kashmir. That has been happening for the last seventy years, elections in Kashmir are never really free of fair and are never truly representative of the will of the people. Now that has been happening repeatedly from the 1940s onwards and it is something we do need to keep in mind because India will use democracy as a way to legitimise its rule and also India’s identity globally. India self-identifies as a democracy and is recognised internationally as a democracy, so I just want to make sure that we recognise that India’s operations in Kashmir have never been democratic whether under the Congress party or under the BJP. Having said that, there were mainstream parties supported by the Indian government from the 1970s onwards that tried to push for autonomy within the Indian state. We have come to a point in Kashmir where nothing short of the end of Indian occupation is acceptable to Kashmiris given what has been happening for the last seventy years. There is a new generation of dissenters and rebels that has come of age in the last twenty to thirty years, and there are seasoned people who completely fully recognise the machinations of autonomy in that region. And there is no trust left. There was no trust to begin with, but in the past few years now it is very clear to them that nothing short of the project of self-determination will allow Kashmiris to articulate their true political sentiment.

For Kashmiris, in their eyes, both the BJP and the Congress have continued a strong hold over Kashmir by calling it an integral part of India. So as far as policy goes it is not that different. What is different is that the velvet gloves are off now. Up until 2014 there was a ‘hearts and minds’ operation at work, but now we are seeing more draconian policies in place, you do see the end of this secular regime in India, it is out-and-out a Hindu state and people recognise that. Muslims in India have started feeling uncomfortable so it not just about Kashmiris now but also Muslims in India who are scared of their future in India. So the way things have unfolded in the past five years is the kind of brutality and victimisation and suppression that you see. Right now the anger level in Kashmir is very high so we have to take that into account and realise that no soft power policies from the Indian government are going to work. They never worked in the past and increasingly now, given the scale of anger, the widespread resentment against India, it is becoming even more impossible for any of this to work.

TVP: What is the reaction of the Indian state? The Indian state is hardening its position. Why is that so? Mona rightly mentions the minority situation in India is getting quite difficult partly because the Congress party is nowhere on the scene anymore and the BJP run the show. You need some sympathisers for any kind of transformational policies and during the past few years what you notice was there were some people in India who were talking about giving Kashmir more autonomy, but that number has decreased and that is partly because of the strategy that – by the way – not all Kashmiri’s have adopted. A small section is into the kind of attack we notice, and when forty Indian soldiers are killed the Indian public gets very animated. That is where the big difference today is, the Indian state’s coercive capacity is increasing, it is buying all the weapons it can and domestically it is becoming intolerant to some extent. So why would the Kashmiris expect anything greater would happen to them? The whole world is going through this populist phase, democracies are becoming less inclusive, and the impression that Mona is giving that somehow because the Kashmiris are boiling they will achieve their goal I think is basically a narrative that is naïve.

MB: I think we do need to recognise here that Kashmiris are dying every day and have been for the past thirty years. So while there is rage in India against forty soldiers dying there is deeper rage in Kashmir against the presence of a massive military state – it is the most densely militarised state in the world today. So while I see your point that there is this rage against these attacks by Kashmiris on Indian security forces, I don’t see why that rage is legitimate but the rage that Kashmiris feel against the Indian state is not. And for some reason we expect them to contain that rage and figure out a way to live peacefully with this occupying state. That to me seems a little hypocritical given that Kashmiri rage is as real given how much suffering has happened.

To your point that because there is no future people, should not demand what is there fundamental right. Just because India is draconian right now, just because India is expanding their military power, Kashmiris should just sort of sit quietly and not champion their rights is also I think a little problematic. Instead of saying ‘Let’s figure out a way for the international community to mobilise around Kashmir’, we are actually forcing people to just succumb to these military powers just because we don’t see a future for them. So I just don’t understand why our rage should be not directed at these forces that are mobilising and why we should be directing it to people who are fighting for their rights.

DB: This is a conflict area that has drawn quite a bit of interest external to the region. T.V. Paul, are external actors playing more of a peacebuilding role, more of a conflict-driven role, or more of an observational role?

TVP: Unfortunately, external actors are losing interest in this thing unless there is an attack or crisis such as in February where the US did help to settle the dispute. But the problem is that you need international sympathy and support for any independence movement to win. What is happening is that this movement in Kashmir is losing that support because India is becoming stronger and is able to promote diplomatic ties with different countries including some of the Gulf countries. So the lack of support for the Kashmiri movement is partly a problem. The only country that is trying to engage, up to a point, is China, but India does not look at China as a favourable supporter of its position and unfortunately the China-Pakistan economic corridor which India claims is going through some portions of the Pakistani side of Kashmir, India sees as another challenge to its rule. The problem is China always talks about solving the problem but China is not an active player in diplomacy or any sort of settlement in these regional issues. In South Asia, we have this problem where the states in South Asia tend to use coercive power to suppress nationalist movements. In Sri Lanka there was a brutal war that killed the Tamil movement, in Balochistan the Pakistani military is using extraordinary force, and India itself has been using force in north-East India in particular, it claims it has stopped the Khalistan movement through violent means and suppression. The problem also is that within the India-China rivalry, Kashmir will not be the number one issue in their minds, any of these external players really. Russia has no interest in India suffering, the US has become closer to India, the US is interested in a settlement but there is no pressure from the US for any kind of settlement at this time because the US has other geopolitical interests to keep India as a strategic partner. So we have to think that the larger context is not in favour of the Kashmiri movement, I’m sorry to say. We can dream about it but there are larger forces working here.

MB: Absolutely, I hear your point and I couldn’t agree more that there have been some emerging alliances, the military alliance between India and Israel for example, India and America also. I am also pessimistic about the unfolding international geopolitical order that we are witnessing, but at the same time there are these pockets of hope. Last year the UNSCR released their report on Kashmir and it is quite a compelling report because it sets Kashmir apart from what has been happening in places like Punjab or for that matter in the north-east of India. And the thing that sets it apart is that the UNSCR has basically pushed India and Pakistan to grant access to its special repertories, to grant access to its team of investigators to look into human rights violations and so on. India didn’t grant this but Pakistan then stepped in and said we can grant access only if India grants access which is unfortunate. The point being is that the first UNSCR report came out in 2018, the second report a few weeks ago which basically asked for a commission of inquiry to be set up in Kashmir. But the other thing I also want to outline is that in the first report it is very important to keep in mind that self-determination is listed as a human right. Often times what we see happen in Indian academic and policy circles is there is a lot of support to counter the human rights violations of the Indian government and military in Kashmir, but then people stop short of asking for a political resolution. So often times human rights then becomes a way to de-politicise the larger context. But in the report itself you see that self-determination is listed as a human right and the UNSCR report pushes India and Pakistan to recognise that as a fundamental human right for Kashmiris. The European Parliament is also one such space where there is a lot of solidarity work happening around Kashmir. So I do not deny that we need to be realistic about what we are up against and there are these regimes coming together in interesting ways through trade or strategic interventions, but there are also other things happening where the civil society has played an instrumental role in trying to push for a solution for Kashmir that is in accordance with people’s long term aspirations and rights. I won’t discount all that energy just because we are at a very unfortunate political moment. I am optimistic about the fact that things can change because that is how our history has unfolded. So yes, while we might be in a very unfortunate moment as of now, but that configuration of power will shift, but we cannot fully predict what the future will bring especially when climate change will become a very important force of politics.

DB: Are the fears of the possibility of a nuclear strike legitimate or are they being stoked?

TVP: I agree that this was the first time since 1999 that we have been very close to the threat of a nuclear strike. What is different here is that the Indian air force penetrated Pakistani territory and attacked an area where supposedly non-state actors were residing. There is dispute whether they hit the targets or they hit some trees and returned. And then the Pakistanis shot down an Indian aircraft and an Indian pilot was captured and then returned. During this time, the nuclear fear was coming back into the play because as far as we know Pakistani military doctrine says it will raise the nuclear threshold if India ever attacks its territory. And so the manner in which the Indian government did that gave Modi an attractive platform for the election that was happening a few months later. What is likely to happen, if anything like this happens again, is that India is likely to retaliate thinking that Pakistan is not going to do much, or other third parties will intervene as it happened again in this case with the US. The thresholds are tested by both sides and what is surprising is that before this India also had this conflict with Pakistan but rarely was it used for electoral purposes. Now Modi has figured out that this is a big winner for him electorally, even though the economy is not doing all that well and this is unlikely to go away. The nuclear factor is again worrisome because Pakistan has at least claimed to deploy some tactical weapons on the border with India, arguing if India reacts massively to any insurgency Pakistan will respond with a nuclear attack.

The other change is happening within India’s doctrine itself. There are considerable pressures within India to abandon their ‘no first use’ policy, which means if India expects Pakistan to respond, India could pre-empt or engage in a preventative attack. All these are unlikely but at the same time not beyond the realms of possibility. So escalation of control is difficult here because the parties don’t talk much, they don’t have much interaction. They occasionally meet, a few weeks back they had meetings and somehow sorted out some of the issues, but there is nothing happening in that relationship that gives you a pause for hope despite an expectation that things will calm down. Nuclear deterrence has not prevented this sub-strategic level conflict going on in the region and it is going to get worse because the electoral aspect in India’s case.

MB: I agree with that. I think Kashmir remains a nuclear flashpoint and a very grave one at that. If nothing, then that is something that should definitely alarm the international community. In terms of Modi using the attack as a way to win the election, commentators called it a reckless move, it was essentially a move to showcase India’s muscular nationalism – very thoughtless, but strategic to the extent that it won him an election. This is why I feel that we do need to take very seriously the status of Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint because it is real and given that we have reckless governments in place, governments that are very invested in consolidating their power-base regardless of the larger implications for communities, we do need to take into account Kashmir’s status right now. We also need to urge the international community act quickly and speedily to resolve this long-standing issue.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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