Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
The last time I visited Kashmir, in November, I was struck by an apparent contradiction: it was more peaceful than it had been in years, at least in the capital Srinagar, and yet the overwhelming mood was one of gloom. With the peace process between India and Pakistan going nowhere, there was a sense that thousands of people had died for nothing in the violence that had convulsed the region since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989. Although the soldiers had disappeared from the streets of Srinagar, and tourists were flocking back, it retained the some of the same tinderbox atmosphere that I had known at the height of the violence. One spark, people told me, could ignite it again.
When that spark came, in the form of a land dispute between Hindus and Muslims that triggered some of the biggest protests since 1989 (you can see my last posting on this here), the surprise was perhaps not so much that it happened but that so few analysts in Delhi (or Islamabad for that matter) saw it coming.
The sheer size and unexpectedness of the protests have prompted some Indian analysts to ask a question that has been anathema in Delhi for decades: Is it time to consider giving Kashmir independence, or at least to let Kashmiris vote on their future?
“If the experience of the last two decades has taught us anything, it is that the situation never really returns to normal. Even when we see the outward symptoms of peace, we miss the alienation and resentment within. No matter what we do, things never get better, for very long,” writes Vir Sanghvi in the Hindustan Times.
After months of relative peace which turned Kashmir into a near-forgotten conflict, the region has exploded again with some of the biggest protests since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989. What started as a dispute over land allocated to Hindu pilgrims visiting a shrine in Kashmir has snowballed into a full-scale anti-India protest, uniting Kashmiri separatists and reviving calls for independence.
The dispute has also pitted Muslims in Kashmir against Hindus in Jammu – the two regions which along with Ladakh make up the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir – in what is the biggest communal crisis faced by the central government in Delhi since it took office in 2004.
Take two nuclear-armed countries which are not officially at war, yet whose armies shell each other on a near-daily basis. That is how it was between India and Pakistan before a November 2003 ceasefire ended their fighting over the divided former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir. With that ceasefire now showing signs of fraying at the edges and India saying that its peace process with Pakistan is under stress, it is worth remembering quite what a dramatic development it was for two countries which had come close to war in 2001/2002 to tell their armies to stand down.
Nearly five months after the ceasefire, I visited an Indian border post that had seen heavy fighting for years. It was in the Jammu region, at what had been a busy railway station in pre-partition days, on a road that once ran from the town of Jammu to Lahore. The railway station was left in India, with a railroad track that led nowhere, while the road had been closed since 1947.