Kashmir in the AfPak equation

By Paul Staniland When Kashmir is discussed in the strategic discourse these days, it is usually in the context of the broader stabilization effort in the region. Reducing tensions between India and Pakistan would improve Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan and thus advance US interests. But Kashmir itself is curiously absent from many of these discussions ...

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By Paul Staniland

When Kashmir is discussed in the strategic discourse these days, it is usually in the context of the broader stabilization effort in the region. Reducing tensions between India and Pakistan would improve Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan and thus advance US interests. But Kashmir itself is curiously absent from many of these discussions -- the assumption seems to be that between them Delhi and Islamabad control the Kashmir Valley, and once the governments agree on the high politics, Kashmiris will fall into line.

By Paul Staniland

When Kashmir is discussed in the strategic discourse these days, it is usually in the context of the broader stabilization effort in the region. Reducing tensions between India and Pakistan would improve Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan and thus advance US interests. But Kashmir itself is curiously absent from many of these discussions — the assumption seems to be that between them Delhi and Islamabad control the Kashmir Valley, and once the governments agree on the high politics, Kashmiris will fall into line.

Lydia Polgreen’s Sunday New York Times article and Kashmir’s recent history instead clearly show that, for better and worse, Kashmiris have the capacity to surprise everyone, even Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies. Though violence has substantially dropped since 2003, the last two years have been in many respects the most dramatic since the insurgency began in 1988.

The summer of 2008 saw a prolonged series of massive street protests over land use issues that catalyzed a broader movement against Indian policy, followed in 2009 by another round of demonstrations against human rights abuses (including a double rape-murder) allegedly committed by the security forces. Both series of protests were able to shut down parts, and at times all, of the Valley for weeks at time.

Yet in between these protests, there was a state assembly election during the winter of 2008 marked by surprisingly high voter turnout, followed by a national election with decent turnout during in the spring of 2009. This political rollercoaster was most recently capped by a sordid series of allegations and counter-allegations between the Valley’s main political parties, including the faux-resignation of the state’s Chief Minister amidst microphone throwing, shouting matches, and walk-outs in the state assembly.

There are two realities in Kashmir that are under-appreciated elsewhere, and which have implications for any future attempts to settle the dispute (or even just reduce tensions between India and Pakistan).

First, the era of mass protest has returned after a grim period in which brutal, extremely violent insurgency and counterinsurgency dominated political life in Kashmir. This political mobilization is often inspired or directed by political leaders of various ideologies, but it shows that mass unrest and disaffection have not disappeared. They are now being expressed openly, and in significant numbers. While in Kashmir it is impossible to miss the depth of sentiment against Indian policy (what Polgreen calls “seemingly bottomless Kashmiri rage”).

Second, the politics of the Valley have become far more closely contested than either the period before militancy, or that of much of the 1990s. Since the rise of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the late 1990s, Valley politics have moved beyond the hegemonic control of the National Conference (NC) and into a hard-fought, extremely partisan battle for electoral power. The separatist movement is also factionalized and often internally competitive. Any possible settlements or confidence-building measures would need to survive this polarized political climate.

In some strange sense, this means that Kashmir has actually become more like “mainland” India, in which strikes, street protest, and cutthroat partisan political competition are par for the course. There are more avenues for people to politically express themselves, both in and outside of mainstream politics, than in 1997 or 1987.

One of the huge differences between Kashmir and India south of the Pir Panjal mountain range, however, is that these protests have been met with lethal force by security forces who have legal impunity and are not accountable to local elected representatives. Moreover, political instability in the state has the potential to disastrously unsettle India-Pakistan relations – what would be a parochial tussle for power among obscure parties in Karnataka or a routinely raucous street protest in Uttar Pradesh has serious geopolitical implications in Kashmir.

If the United States tries to facilitate deals over Kashmir in the future, as some suggest and others fear, it must pay very close attention to the politics on the ground in the Valley. Kashmir looks remarkably different from the streets of Srinagar than it does from the seminar circuits of Delhi, and Kashmiris are serious political players who can thwart the agendas of the Indian and Pakistani governments.

Neither Delhi nor Islamabad have strong track records in predicting or controlling politics in Kashmir, which has an unpredictable, whirlwind political dynamic all its own. Any effort to reduce tensions over Kashmir, with an eye to stabilizing the broader region, must build a coalition that includes at least some major indigenous Kashmiri stakeholders; without this, no deal will realistically bring peace or stability. Taking Kashmiris seriously is essential for slowly removing Kashmir from the “AfPak” equation.

Paul Staniland is a Ph.D candidate in MIT’s Department of Political Science and Security Studies Program.

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

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