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Breaking the Kashmir Impasse

India and Pakistan are like two hamsters running on parallel wheels.

November 22, 2004|Rajan Menon | Rajan Menon is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Both critics and admirers of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will agree on one thing: The man does not lack boldness or an appetite for risk-taking.

Consider some examples. In 1999, as army chief, he seized power from the elected -- if rather ineffectual -- government of Nawaz Sharif after the prime minister had tried to oust him.

After 9/11, Musharraf abruptly broke with the Taliban, which had acquired and retained power in no small measure thanks to support from Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence services and Pakistani Islamists. He then repositioned his country as an ally in George W. Bush's global war on terrorism. The switch angered Pakistan's Muslim organizations and the Taliban's boosters in the military and put Musharraf on Al Qaeda's enemies list. This has spawned three plots to kill him; one attempt in December came close to succeeding.

The bold proposals that Musharraf made in October concerning Kashmir, then, are of a piece -- sudden, surprising and potentially risky. They are also notable both for what he said and for what he did not say. He refrained from restating Pakistan's long-standing claim that Kashmir, as a Muslim-majority state (the only such one in India), rightfully belongs to Pakistan, which was created in 1947 as a homeland for the Muslims of the British Raj. Nor did he repeat Pakistan's demand that India fulfill its pledge to hold a plebiscite so that Kashmiris could choose whether to be part of India or Pakistan.

More significant, Musharraf made three different proposals to break the deadlock on Kashmir: making it an autonomous, demilitarized territory; having it ruled jointly by India and Pakistan; or reconfiguring its current unequal division between India and Pakistan (created by the "line of control" established after the first Indo-Pakistan war over Kashmir and adjusted in 1972).

As a coda to the last idea he suggested making the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley autonomous. (The Indian-controlled part of Kashmir consists of the valley, Hindu-majority Jammu and largely Buddhist Ladakh.)

There are several problems with this initiative. It's unclear, for instance, how the concept of joint rule could work in practice. Moreover, Musharraf's model has received mixed responses, even in its bare-bones incarnation. The Indian government has been largely noncommittal and has reiterated its demand that Pakistan must first stop all "cross-border terrorism."

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered to hold talks with Kashmir separatists, who responded with a demand for three-way talks -- something India has rejected in the past. Kashmiri separatist leader Mirwaiz Omar Farooq said, "If anybody believes that you can have a bilateral agreement on Kashmir, they are highly mistaken."

Pakistanis are also divided. Although official spokesmen stress the creativity of Musharraf's proposals, Islamic parties view them as a sellout that dishonors those they see as Kashmiri "freedom fighters"; other Pakistanis insist on a plebiscite or lay claim to all of Kashmir on religious grounds.

As for the Kashmiris themselves, some see that Musharraf's ideas could cut Kashmir's Gordian knot; others insist that they, not India and Pakistan, should decide Kashmir's fate. Despite these complications, Musharraf's suggestions (they are no more than that) have merit. India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir and have had numerous skirmishes. This is the moment to alter this violent pattern, given that both sides now wield nuclear weapons.

Further, Musharraf's proposals follow two years of improvement in India-Pakistan relations. Beyond their propitious context, Musharraf's ideas, while hazy, represent a change from the stale stock of solutions proffered by both sides. Pakistan's refrain has been that, as an Islamic state, it has the superior claim to Kashmir. But India will never concede the point.

For its part, Pakistan has supported Islamist groups that fight Indian troops and engage in terrorism. But this strategy has singularly failed to loosen India's grip on Kashmir.

India's policies have only spawned armed resistance in Kashmir. Although India reduces Kashmir's upheaval to terrorism and the infiltration of armed groups supported by Pakistan, the insurgency is also fueled by resentment among Kashmiri Muslims, many of whom chafe under what they deem a callous occupation.

In short, India and Pakistan are like two hamsters on parallel wheels.

Suggestions by third parties to settle the Kashmir dispute are also flawed. A plebiscite allowing Kashmiri self-determination is a noble goal, but it's also futile. India and Pakistan disagree on almost everything concerning Kashmir, but both oppose Kashmiri independence.

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