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Turmoil in South Asia: India, Pakistan and Kashmir epos_print_logo.png
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Turmoil in South Asia: India, Pakistan and Kashmir

Friday, 23 December 2016 09:17
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Epos converses with Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra

by Nicolamaria Coppola (EPOS)
EPOS Conversations


South Asia continues to be in turmoil with India and Pakistan engaged in a fierce cold fight over a number of issues, primarily Kashmir. After Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, invited Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, to his oath taking ceremony in May 2014, which Sharif accepted, and made a surprise visit to Lahore in December 2015 to meet Sharif, it was expected that something ‘extraordinary’ would happen to address the contentious issues. The expectations were belied as India and Pakistan engaged in saber-rattling and border clashes after the violence erupted in the Kashmir valley following the killing of a Hizbul Mujahideen commander in July 2016. Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra, an expert on conflict management and peace building with a focus on South Asia, associated with the EPOS as Senior Fellow, in conversation with Nicolamaria Coppola, talks about the state of India-Pakistan relations, violence in Kashmir and related issues, which are not only relevant for South Asia but also for the world.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: Why does Kashmir continue to be a major source of contention between India and Pakistan?

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra: Kashmir is a protracted conflict. Its roots can be traced to 1947 when the British India was partitioned and independent states of India and Pakistan were created. The Mountbatten Plan which guided the partition and made the related rules stipulated that the rulers of the princely states have to decide which of the either newly created states they wish to join. The Princely state of Kashmir, which abutted both India and Pakistan, became a major issue of contention as both the states claimed its territory. And the rigid positions remain unchanged even after about 70 years of the conflict, and after both the countries engaging in wars and cross-border skirmishes. In the late 1980s, a separatist movement erupted in the Kashmir valley, with the support from Pakistan. The militancy changed the nature of the conflict – while Pakistan actively supported the militants and provided them bases in its controlled territory, India’s massive deployment of forces in the valley to curb militancy contributed to the protracted nature of the conflict. In the midst of violence, it is the common people in the Valley who suffered the most. The ongoing violence can be seen in this context. The incidents of militant attack in Indian army camp in Uri in September 2016 and in Nagrota in November 2016 further inflamed the tensions.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: Do you think war or third party mediation is an option?

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra: War certainly is not an option. It has already been tried in the past. The third party mediation such as by the United Nations may not be successful. The United Nations in the past made attempts on several occasions, sending missions to Kashmir, and deliberating the issue at the Security Council, but nothing concrete was realized. Unless both the countries come forward, sit together and negotiate, peace will be a difficult commodity in Kashmir. War is not an option because a possible nuclear war may prove catastrophic for the whole region. For peace, positive steps are needed.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: The earlier BJP led NDA government under Atal B. Vajpayee witnessed the strengthening of India-Pakistan relations with Vajpayee riding a bus to Lahore in 1999 and initiating a series of peace measures, reciprocated by Pakistan. Will Modi be able to revive the spirit of his mentor, Vajpayee?

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra: Modi invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in May 2014 to attend his oath taking ceremony, which Sharif accepted. The relations received a setback when India cancelled Foreign Secretary level talks in August following the meeting of the separatist Hurriyat leaders with Pakistan Ambassador in New Delhi. The relations picked up after developments such as Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit to Pakistan in March 2015, the meeting of both the Prime Ministers at the side lines of Shanghai Cooperation Organization in July 2015 and the Paris Climate Conference in November 2015. The relations further improved in December 2015, when Modi visited Lahore to meet Sharif and attend his family event. After few days of the Lahore visit, Pathankot attack took place, masterminded by a Pakistan based extremist organization. Pathankot is an Indian air force base in its Punjab province, close to the border. The notable fact is that Sharif promised action against the culprits and sent a team to the site of the attack. The Foreign Secretary level talk finally took place in April 2016.

All the good will in relations, generated through the visits and talks, were squandered once violence erupted in the Kashmir Valley after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani. Hizbul Mujahideen is based in Pakistan controlled Kashmir, with the goal of merging the undivided Kashmir with Pakistan. Indian forces reacted to the violent protests, leading to death of more than 100 people and injuries to hundreds. So, whatever relative peace was established in the valley during Vajpayee and later during his successor Manmohan and during the first two years of Modi, got disrupted.

Modi appears to be interested to build strong relations with Pakistan, but he wants the relations not to be determined by religious extremist organizations or other hard line elements. And this strategy is difficult to materialize as the Pakistani decision making is shaped by radical organizations and hard line elements. So, one step forward and two steps backward appear to be the rule as far as India-Pakistan relations are concerned.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: Kashmir is again in the news. The violent unrest on the streets is visible for months. This is happening despite the fact that the incumbent coalition government in Kashmir includes BJP, which is also in power in New Delhi, and Indian PM has visited the region several times in a span of two years. What do you think needs to be done?

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra: Kashmir problem has to be tackled at two levels keeping in view that there are two interlinked dimensions- external and internal. I think it is worthwhile for India to focus more on the internal situation. It is unlikely that India would make territorial compromise on Kashmir. The militancy is posing a challenge to the Indian state, and discourages its leaders to adopt reconciliatory approach towards Pakistan. The Indian state, however, needs to make a clear distinction between the alienated people supporting the violence and those perpetrating the violence. These are two different groups, of course with interlinkage, but they need to be dealt with differently.

Kashmir is a problem rooted within, but also with sustained support from Pakistan. Notably, militancy is confined to some regions. So, when we say Kashmiris are agitated or alienated it does not mean that the whole demography within the region is alienated. The militancy is limited to few pockets in the region of Jammu and there are no traces of militancy in the Ladakh region. Hence, the question is: if the injustice was done by the Indian government to the whole demography why the alienation is limited to few pockets. The alienated Kashmiris in the valley share religious and sectarian ties with Pakistan. Hence, it was not difficult for Pakistan to exploit the volatile situation.

Pakistan may be a major factor in initiating and sustaining the militancy but India has to look within to resolve this issue. So, to start with, as I said earlier, the government has to make a distinction between the gun-wielding militants and the alienated people. The latter group should be the focal group. Multi-pronged policies should be adopted to bring them to the mainstream. They need to be engaged and accommodated. Mere economic packages cannot help to annihilate the deep-rooted alienation. The Indian government has to walk extra miles through making people-friendly policies which can help towards emergence of a constituency of gainers and eventually a constituency of peace. Once the people are convinced that there are sincere attempts to accommodate them and that peace is paying rich dividends then the scenario is likely to change.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: There are reports that the Islamic State (IS), which has a stronghold in parts of Syria and Iraq, making inroads in the region. Will this development impact India-Pakistan relations?

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra: After a period of relative peace, militancy in Kashmir has revived in recent times with young Kashmiris joining militant outfits and displaying allegiance to global radical organizations like the IS. This is unprecedented in the history of the conflict. Anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans have been common in the Kashmir valley since the late 1980s but not support for global terrorist organizations. The display of the IS flags during anti-state protests and Friday prayers indicates that the dreaded organization is gaining a foothold in the region. Many of the protesting youth, poor and unemployed, were born during the peak of militancy in the 1990s. They find in the IS a vehicle to protest India’s rule. Though India appears more concerned with containing Kashmir-based militant outfits, the rising popularity of the IS - essentially a foreign movement - has raised fears that it may overshadow indigenous militant groups.

Kashmir has proved a fertile ground for the IS. In the past Al Qaeda had looked at turning the region into a center of global jihad. The IS appears interested in giving shape to this idea. It has used social media to manipulate vulnerable youth. The week Modi visited Pakistan in December 2015, India nabbed three young Indians who were about to board a flight from Nagpur to Srinagar, allegedly to join the IS.

Pakistan too has been grappling with the IS and many other radical groups including the Taliban, perhaps on a larger scale than India. The increasing popularity of the IS in Kashmir could have a contagion effect in Pakistan and challenge its fragile democracy. Many radical groups in Pakistan such as Mujahid in Khorasan (a breakaway group of Pakistani Taliban), Tehreek-e-Khilafat and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have already sworn allegiance to the IS. Pakistan’s proximity to the Middle East and increasing radicalization make it vulnerable to the IS influence. Hardliners in Pakistan may be interested to retain the IS presence as a strategic asset against India as they have done with many other radical organizations. Such an approach would further deepen the schism between India and Pakistan and have a boomerang effect on Pakistan as the IS ideology undermines state sovereignty and democracy. Also, there is a fear that the radical groups may get hold of nuclear weapons. A report suggests that the increasing popularity of the IS in Balochistan province, a major area for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, could help the extremist organization to obtain a ‘dirty’ bomb. The IS’s propaganda magazine claimed that the organization could use its oil money to buy a nuclear weapon from Pakistan. Abdul Qadeer Khan, founder of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, had asserted that in 1990s North Korea had bribed Pakistani military officials to obtain nuclear technology. If the IS claim materializes, the result could be catastrophic.

Though the initial engagements between Modi and Sharif raised hopes that they will be able to stem the IS and address other issues, the later developments belied those hopes. The clash of ideologies between India and Pakistan is deep-rooted, with the latter considering itself home for South Asian Muslims and the former considering itself a home for all religions. This played a key role in shaping the political boundaries of the now-divided Kashmir, and the struggle for its soul. Spoilers would be interested to scuttle any peace initiative between the two countries.


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the interviewed’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s editorial policy

Last modified on Monday, 26 December 2016 09:50

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