Pakistan, India and the cross-currents over Kashmir

October 20, 2008

Fisherman on the Dal lake in Srinagar/Fayaz KabliIndia and Pakistan will open a trade link across divided Kashmir for the first time in six decades on Tuesday, aiming to ease tensions by creating soft borders in the disputed region. The move looks to be fairly tentative; lorries will be allowed across the military ceasefire line only once a week, carrying a limited list of goods, and will be expected to unload some 10 km to 15 km beyond the Line of Control which separates the Indian and Pakistani-held parts of the region. But it has potentially more than symbolic significance, particularly if it helps to open up the isolated Kashmir Valley — at the heart of the separatist revolt – to the outside world.

The step, which would have been unthinkable before a ceasefire on the Line of Control in late 2003, is also meant to build trust between India and Pakistan. The region’s governor, N.N. Vohra, described it as an important milestone in India-Pakistan relations. But as is so often the case in India-Pakistan relations, there have been some unexpected counter-currents recently, acting as a powerful undertow against attempts to improve the two countries’ approach to Kashmir.

At the Chenab river in BagliharAs I discussed in a post in June, the two countries are getting tetchy about the use of water from rivers they share in divided Kashmir. India and Pakistan have successfully regulated their use of the rivers through the Indus Waters Treaty  (see full pdf document here), signed in 1960 under the auspices of the World Bank. It is the only agreement to have been fully implemented by India and Pakistan; it held through two full-scale wars in 1965 and 1971 and survived long periods of intense antagonism.

But matters came to a head earlier this month when Pakistan complained that India had violated the treaty while building a dam on the Chenab river in Kashmir for a power project. Although a Pakistani team is now in India for talks on the controversial Baglihar dam, the row has raised questions about the durability of the Indus Waters Treaty at a time when both countries are desperate for water both to grow food and provide hydroelectric power. (The Times of India has just run two stories on it here and here.)

In a separate issue, Pakistan also protested last week against a trip by US Army Chief General George Casey to the Siachen glacier while he was visiting India. It complained the trip might be seen as an endorsement of the Indian position. India and Pakistan have battled since 1984 for control of Siachen, in the mountains beyond Kashmir, though they stopped actual fighting there when the 2003 ceasefire was agreed. 

File photo of protests in SrinagarOn top of that, Indian plans to push ahead with state elections in Jammu and Kashmir in November and December, after the biggest protests since the separatist revolt began in 1989, and in the face of a planned boycott by Kashmiri separatists, also complicate the picture. Pakistan has traditionally opposed elections in Jammu and Kashmir, seeing them as an attempt by New Delhi to impose a purely Indian solution that excludes Islamabad.

So one step forward and three steps back? The usual eddying currents that have made the Kashmir issue so intractable for more than half a century? Or will the opening up of trade shift mindsets enough to offer the possibility of further progress?

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