The latest diplomatic fiasco between Pakistan and India is further evidence that the Kashmir issue can only be resolved if Kashmiris are given an equal seat at the table.

In a brisk set of events last week, the possibility of Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York arose unexpectedly but was quickly nipped in the bud.

Since winning elections in July this year, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan has made several warm gestures toward his country’s bitter rival India, including one in his electoral victory speech when he stated he was willing to take two steps toward India if the latter took one toward Pakistan.

In a region marked by toe to toe grandstanding and belligerent chest-thumping, Khan’s speech was seen as breaking the mold.

As part of making good on this promise, Khan responded to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory letter by calling for restarting diplomatic talks on contentious issues, including the long-standing dispute over Kashmir.

Khan also asked that foreign ministers of the two countries meet in New York. To this, the Indian government swiftly announced that its foreign minister Sushma Swaraj will indeed meet Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. The announcement created a sudden flutter of hope among several liberal constituencies in both countries that would like normalised relations, including an emphasis on trade and travel, over dead-end military posturing and diplomatic feuds.

Then the inevitable happened. Kashmir, of course, came in the way. Or at least that is what India claimed.

Violence against Indian police officers in Kashmir and the release of stamps in Pakistan to commemorate Kashmiri rebel leader Burhan Wani became the immediate alibi behind India’s U-turn on the meeting. Neither of these two events could have been planned in advance.

Violence in Kashmir, by state and by non-state actors, has been a reality for decades. Ditto for stamps; their release could not have been pre-planned to magically coincide with the Indian announcement—in fact they were released months back.

Not only did India cancel the meeting, its external affairs ministry also chose to mock Khan personally, piling on disparaging personal remarks made previously by another junior Indian minister. Khan responded by calling Indian leaders “small men occupying big offices.”  

An intractable status quo

Beyond this clash of words lay years of bickering in which India’s ruling elite have played a prominent part. Especially since Modi’s party, the Hindu-rightwing BJP came to power in 2014, Indian political language in relation to Pakistan has sunk irredeemably and acquired a tone of fantasy.

Nightly TV discussions in India regularly enter frenzied, one-upmanship competitions over suggesting to their government ways to “punish Pakistan” and to “teach them a lesson.” This downward turn in public discourse has become stark, given the reality of an actual war with a nuclear-armed Pakistan would be a frighteningly self-destructive idea.

Regardless of these realities, the Modi government and India’s current military chief have nurtured a fantasy world of imaginary revenge by claiming they have or plan to conduct “surgical strikes” against Pakistan.

India’s education minister has asked higher education institutions to celebrate “Surgical Strike Day” by holding parades and marches, while the defense minister has been recently heard boasting that Indian military has been cutting off Pakistani soldiers’ heads.

It is in the grim context of this mass hysteria that the Indian announcement to agree to talks at the UN sounded abnormal. But no sooner had the announcement of a possible rapprochement been made that the blood-curdling “debates” on Indian TV news networks began.

India’s security and military experts who run from TV station to TV station every evening shouting their opinions were outraged. For long these hawkish experts have used prime-time talk shows to shape Indian policy of trying to isolate Pakistan diplomatically and adopting a vindictive approach in Kashmir against civilian support for pro-independence rebels. The policy has met with zero success in both arenas. But within the echo chambers of the Indian public sphere, the reality is perceived differently.

Virulent anti-Pakistan and anti-Kashmir polemic in India has taken a life of its own that now needs no correspondence with political reality. So, the experts warned BJP leaders to withdraw from talks, and BJP, which invests heavily in maintaining the image of “tough on Pakistan,” not only fell in line but decided to personally insult Imran Khan as well.  

Indeed, within seasoned sections of the Indian establishment, there is a desire to normalise relations with Pakistan—as long as the ‘K-word’ is never mentioned. Each time in the past when Pakistani leaders failed to mention Kashmir at international fora, Indian newspapers reported the absence elatedly, even using the opportunity to deride Kashmiris, while the Indian government self-importantly “welcomed” such omissions as signs of the civilian government in Pakistan moving away from Pakistan military’s control over foreign affairs.

Nevertheless, back channel diplomacy was mostly kept open. But those sections of the establishment have been marginalised in the din of made-for-TV patriotism. This time, even the moderate Congress, the main opposition party, cornered the hawkish BJP government for accepting the invitation for foreign ministers to meet, and when the talks were canceled, exacted on prime-time TV their pound of flesh for it.

Shifting realities in Kashmir

India gains nothing by remaining tied in a cold war with Pakistan. Normalised relations with Pakistan might give India access to Central Asian oil and natural gas markets, not to mention closer ties with Afghanistan. In some liberal Pakistani circles, this is well known. They want their country to leverage its geopolitical position to end Indian hostility and thereby reduce their military’s footprint from the public sphere.

Some Pakistanis might even be willing to throw Kashmiris under the bus toward this end. India would, of course, prefer them to do so. India wants to end Pakistani state and society’s support to the Kashmiri self-determination movement, isolate Kashmiris, and, thus, remove the last obstacle to achieving national territorial integrity it espouses as a sacred principle.   

Yet, within Kashmir, the dynamics of the self-determination movement have changed drastically from the early 1990s when the movement was materially backed by Pakistan.

The Kashmiri self-determination movement is more indigenous than it has ever been.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US, Pakistan significantly reduced its support to Kashmiri rebels, forcing the latter to find local resources to sustain the independence struggle. Until a few years ago, the Indian government was even claiming total success in its war against Kashmiri rebels and their cause. But India has been rudely awakened by how powerfully the rebels’ cause has found renewed support across Kashmir.

Over the last three years, starting with an overwhelming outpouring of grief and anger against the killing of Burhan Wani, people in the erstwhile pacified Kashmiri countryside have been rushing to ‘encounter’ sites and fearlessly clashing with hundreds of Indian armed forces to help entrapped rebels escape.

In this new dynamic, Pakistan’s support has been reduced to symbolic statements and acts, like releasing stamps of commemoration.  

No freedom without representation

When the news of possible India-Pakistan talks reached Kashmir, there was hardly any murmur of enthusiasm. The news was received as inconsequential.

As the Indian military’s grip on Kashmir has hardened, India’s political argument supporting its position on Kashmir has become increasingly tenuous. Traditionally, the Indian establishment’s ideological justification for its hold on Kashmir had been to suggest that Kashmiri independence would not only disintegrate India as a union of regions but also imperil India’s beleaguered Muslims, who are a target for right-wing Hindu parties.

Yet, as the spate of cow-related lynchings in recent years have shown, India’s Muslims remain vulnerable with or without Kashmir. Alongside these ideological non-sequiturs, India has continued to sell “democracy” as a reward for accepting Indian sovereignty—this despite the well-known historical dramedy of election-manipulations in Kashmir.

But more and more, political arguments have been replaced by former military generals and raving TV experts calling for war against Pakistan as a way to win the war against Kashmiris. The security establishment in New Delhi has complied, adopting a war-mongering attitude toward Pakistan and a vindictive approach in Kashmir: it has given its military a carte-blanche to act against the rebellious Muslim population in Kashmir and on the border with Pakistan, while its spokespersons issue statements on TV shows that intensify public hatred for Kashmiris. This militaristic approach has yielded no more than bloodshed, wanton destruction of Kashmiri lives and property, and images of brutality.

As a testimony to how toxic the Indian political sphere has become, photographs of state violence and human rights violations in Kashmir are now seen in India as objects of pride, celebration, and even religious veneration.

The carefully cultivated hatred toward Kashmiris in India has been met by outrage and resistance inside Kashmir. Even those few Kashmiris who may have previously imagined a possible future with India appear exhausted by Indian government’s intransigence.

Already discredited among Kashmiris, major pro-India political parties in Kashmir seem to have concluded that ordinary Kashmiris can no longer be convinced to trust India.

Recently, a number of parties have refused to participate in municipal elections and have called for talks with the leaders of the self-determination movement.   

In this context, Imran Khan’s enthusiasm for talks with India reflects his inexperienced government’s naivete. 

If the goal was to let the Indian government be ridiculed, he succeeded. But if he hoped for a breakthrough or steps toward resolving Kashmir, then he is not only naive but presumptuous as well. He is naive because Indian hostility toward Pakistan has precious little to do with Pakistani policy itself, which in any case has been chronically rudderless. 

Hostility toward Pakistan has become a staple within the Indian public sphere, regularly served to a majoritarian electorate bent on asserting its supremacy over the Muslim minority. Any sign of warmth or compromise—or even a call for reason—is seen as crossing the line that invites an immediate dressing down on evening TV shows.

Imran Khan is presumptuous to call for talks on Kashmir because the question of Kashmir is no longer exclusively in the realm of India-Pakistan affairs.

In fact, the public support for Kashmiri rebel’s no longer requires reference to traditional motifs of “territorial dispute” between India and Pakistan. Kashmiri revolt against India’s military control has become implacable, a situation Pakistani diplomacy will be unable to give a voice to.

As pro-freedom Kashmiri activists have long argued, Kashmir will be resolved only when Kashmiri representatives have a place on the table. And until that happens, South Asian peace, inextricably wound up with Kashmir’s struggle for freedom, will also remain a distant dream. 

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