FOR years, Pakistani bureaucrats, politicians and army chiefs have wondered: ‘how can we get the world to take an interest in Kashmir?’ The state’s diplomats have presented the case to their counterparts in foreign capitals. The military men have raised it with their opposite numbers abroad and the spin doctors have implored foreign journalists to write about the issue. And yet it never seems to happen.
After all, other national causes do attract international sympathy. Islamabad’s close relationship with Beijing may mean that the Tibetans don’t enjoy much support from Pakistanis, but around the world there is significant moral backing for Tibetan rights. Similarly, the Kurds have managed to convince many that they have suffered a historical injustice. Others such as the East Timorese, the South Sudanese, the Bosnians and the Kosovans have managed to break free of those who they believed were oppressing them. Why is Kashmir different?
Certain characteristics of the Kashmir dispute are unusual. First and foremost, Kashmir is the subject of an international bilateral dispute. Many of the currently active independence movements around the world — take for example the Scots, the Uyghurs and the Baloch — consist of local nationalists using various tactics, violent and peaceful, to struggle against their government. And although many Kashmiris may see their campaign in those terms, the involvement of Islamabad and New Delhi has always made it more complicated. Were the Kashmiris to achieve some of their objectives, New Delhi would not only suffer the loss of territory but also a defeat at the hands of Islamabad. Put another way, the juxtaposed interests of Islamabad and New Delhi have made it more difficult for Kashmiris who want to break free of India to couch the demands as a straightforward battle for their rights.
Why isn’t the world interested in Kashmir?
The long-standing ambivalence of Kashmir’s leading political family reveals another aspect of the problem. In their less idealistic moments, some Kashmiris fear what independence would look like. I once asked Farooq Abdullah why he was not more supportive of those Kashmiri youths who refused to give up on their commitment to Kashmiri self-determination. With a sense of world-weary resignation he outlined his perspective, sitting in Srinigar. Kashmir, he explained, was a small landlocked country surrounded by three nuclear powers; it was impossible to go it alone.
The economic disparity between India and Pakistan is also important. Most Western governments crave access to the Indian market. The more the Indian economy powers ahead, the more acute the craving. If Pakistan’s 200 million consumers had the wealth to buy significant amounts of Western goods then the country’s diplomats would find it easier to get heard. Perhaps understandably, given the number of short-term crises it has faced, the Pakistani military has never understood that the advancement of Pakistan’s national interests lies as much in reforming the economy as it does in securing big defence budgets. Pakistan’s projection of power on the world stage depends not so much on its stock of guns as on the excellence of its schools and the ability to produce citizens who can generate economic growth.
The Kashmiris face yet another problem. Independence movements associated with violent jihadism run counter to the post 9/11 policy of the great powers — Russia included — to resist Islamic extremism wherever they see it. Back in the late 1980s when the Kashmiri insurgency began, it was led by the predominately nationalist JKLF. Because the latter was committed to Kashmiri independence rather than union with Pakistan, the security establishment decided to switch its support to a group with more pro-Pakistan sentiment and which it could more easily control: Hizbul Mujahideen. While the move made sense to those promoting the interests of the Pakistan state, it has coloured the Kashmiri movement ever since. And few in the international community are going to be very enthusiastic about transferring power from the secular Indian government to local politicians in Kashmir who may, at some stage, be unable to resist the jihadists in their midst.
In the weeks after 9/11, when the US needed Pakistan’s support, Islamabad’s generals and diplomats were successful in deftly managing to decouple Kashmir from the rest of the so-called war on terror. Despite occasionally going off script — Donald Rumsfeld, for example, said in 2002 that Al Qaeda was training in Kashmir — US officials took great care to avoid describing the Kashmiri struggle as part of the same phenomenon they were combating in Afghanistan, northwest Pakistan, the Middle East and North Africa. But even if the Kashmiri movement has never been directly in the Pentagon’s sights, it is quite another thing to expect Western capitals to back a movement that uses jihad to fire up some of its supporters. And to those who indignantly argue that it is exactly what the US did when it paid the mujahideen to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan comes the obvious riposte: once bitten, twice shy.