It is a truism that some parts of the world are subject to adverse geopolitical circumstances way beyond the control of the people who live there. Jammu and Kashmir is one such place. An artificial entity created by merging very different geographic regions and people, it has been the site of a bitter fight for identity between India and Pakistan.
Much has been written on the subject of the Kashmir “dispute” from the Indian and Pakistani perspectives. There are many books dealing with the history of the dispute. Howard B. Schaffer, a former US ambassador to Bangladesh and a diplomat who has served in both India and Pakistan, has now penned a history of American involvement in the problem. The Limits of Influence: America’s Role in Kashmir (Brookings Institution Press, 2009) is an amalgam of history and advocacy, some of it tendentious to Indian eyes at least.
The ambassador’s interpretation of the difficult history of American involvement in Kashmir makes interesting reading. But what is more interesting is his advocacy of active US involvement in resolving the dispute, something that has not worked in the past. It turns the clock back to that period of US engagement in South Asia when it tried to impose a settlement, the years from 1948 to 1963. Things have, of course, changed. If there is no Soviet Union to back India in the United Nations Security Council, the US too is in no position to force a “solution” on India.
It is, however, interesting to observe the contours of the solution proposed by ambassador Schaffer (Page 199). He argues that Washington should pursue a package that would include several key elements similar to those reportedly under discussion in the India-Pakistan back channel exchanges. He writes:
a) The Line of Control (LoC), or something geographically close to it, will become the permanent border between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir.
b) The border will be sufficiently porous to allow for the easy movement of people and goods across it.
c) Kashmiris on both sides of the line will be granted a greater degree of self-government. There is a much greater call for this in Indian Kashmir than among residents of Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas. But a settlement will be easier to sell in India if Pakistan-held areas are included in a Kashmir autonomy package.
d) Joint institutions will be established on an all-Kashmir basis that will play a role in managing non-controversial matters affecting Kashmiris on both sides of the line.
Any solution based on such ideas presents formidable problems. First and foremost is the problem of selling a solution by leaders in their countries. Under the circumstances that prevail in Pakistan, it is unlikely that Islamabad will be able to settle the matter. The idea of turning the LoC, from a de facto into a de jure border, is an old one. India has gone much farther than that to settle the problem. The agreement between Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan’s prime minister Mohammed Ali Bogra on holding a plebiscite in the Kashmir valley in August 1953 is the farthest that India has gone in terms of concessions to Pakistan. (Pages 42-47). Even that came to naught.
It is very good in theory to talk about a porous border between the two Kashmirs. It is often pointed that similar solutions to ethnic border disputes exist as models to be followed. The example of South Tyrol, a German-majority area in Italy along the border with Austria is one example. While Italy retains control of South Tyrol, there are guarantees to protect the culture and autonomy of the people of the province. That is not a good example for South Asia. The chances of unforeseen political problems in such a solution are very real. The history of bad blood between India and Pakistan; the secession of East Pakistan and its establishment as Bangladesh being blamed on India; the decades of terrorism unleashed against India by the terrorist-military combine in Pakistan—this complicated history makes a South Tyrol-type solution to J&K a Panglossian possibility.
Then there are other, geopolitical, issues at hand. If India agrees to turn the entire J&K region into an enclave over which both Pakistan and it have something less than the substance of sovereignty, it will create a situation that political theorists have scarce imagined. The ceding of sovereignty over territory, subjects and people by nation-states is a relatively unexplored domain of international relations. (A recent work on the subject, Contracting States: Sovereign Transfers in International Relations by Alexander Cooley and Hendrik Spruyt, Princeton University Press 2009, makes an interesting argument.) It has the potential to unleash such demands elsewhere in the subcontinent.
Finally, there is a matter of realpolitik. Why should India make concessions to a failing state when it is in a much better position economically and in strategic terms? American diplomats from George Kennan onwards have felt that Indian leaders couch their arguments in moralist terms and not in the currency of realism. This is the time for India to present a realist argument to the US: In a world where America’s unipolar moment passed away a long time ago and a multipolar order is a possibility, why back a lame horse? (Barack Obama knows that; witness recent American dealings with Russia, Iran and a certain delicacy in handling relations with China.) India has much more to offer than Pakistan ever will. A South Asia with a pre-eminent India is an option for peace and development. If the US sides with India willingly, it will gain a friend. If it does not, it matters little: India will attain what it needs to, the US notwithstanding. Ambassador Schaffer’s book should be read in this light: It a is list of American failures to bend India on Kashmir to its liking. It should serve as a salutary astringent to the Washington establishment.
Siddharth Singh is deputy editor, Views, Mint. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org