Global Security Brief #8: Peacemaking in Kashmir: From Physical Tremor to Political Earthquake?

The massive tremor that struck northern Pakistan and Kashmir on October 8, 2005 cut through a fault line of conflict that has divided Pakistan and India for 58 years. The epicenter of the quake was near the cease-fire line demarcating Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir—the so-called Line of Control. With the death toll unofficially pegged at close to 90,000, the disaster within mere minutes inflicted even greater suffering than that wrought by 16 years of conflict: since 1989, an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 people have been killed in the region.

Although the bulk of the quake casualties were in Pakistan and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, the earthquake paid no heed to human-drawn boundaries. The shared suffering, and the need for joint relief and rebuilding efforts, requires that India and Pakistan similarly transcend their deep political divide. But beyond tending to the immediate needs of the survivors, the post-disaster situation offers a unique opportunity to:

  1. Build trust between the two hostile neighboring countries and overcome decades of enmity,
  2. Defuse the Kashmir conflict, and
  3. Reduce military expenditures and shift scarce resources to urgent social needs.

During the past three years, the leaders of India and Pakistan have undertaken some hesitant steps toward normalizing relations. But without energetic earthquake diplomacy, they are in danger of squandering the current opportunity to achieve a historic breakthrough. Given that both countries are armed with nuclear weapons and have gone to war three times against each other, forging regional peace is imperative.

The physical tremor in Kashmir needs to translate into a political earthquake that jolts deeply-ingrained status quo thinking. Two months after the catastrophe, it is time to put human needs unambiguously ahead of narrow military and political calculus. Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should meet as soon as possible to shift earthquake diplomacy into high gear. In a region where hundreds of thousands of soldiers normally face each other down, pragmatic side-by-side cooperation for relief and rebuilding could build mutual trust. High-level political and military-to-military contacts are important. But to build strong constituencies for cross-border dialogue and peace, civil society contacts must also blossom.

The physical tremor in Kashmir needs to translate into a political earthquake that jolts deeply-ingrained status quo thinking.

Background: Origins of the Kashmir Conflict

India-Pakistan enmity and the Kashmir conflict date to 1947, when British colonial rule came to an end and the subcontinent was divided.

  • Kashmir was asked by Britain to choose between joining India or Pakistan. The majority of the population was Muslim, but many favored either independence or joining India. The Maharaja—Kashmir’s Hindu ruler—remained undecided. In October 1947, a pro-Pakistan rebellion was aided by Pakistani troops. India lent military support to the Maharaja, but requested that Kashmir accede to India. Fighting ended in January 1949. The ceasefire line—known since 1972 as the Line of Control (LoC)—has served as the de facto border ever since.
  • In 1965, a second war between India and Pakistan broke out after Pakistani forces infiltrated across the ceasefire line. Fighting spread beyond Kashmiri territory, but was ultimately militarily indecisive. (A third war broke out in 1971. Though some fighting took place in Kashmir, the principal focus was independence for Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.)
  • Since 1989, Kashmiri separatists—some favoring independence, others preferring to join Pakistan—have resorted to growing violence against Indian rule. Initially nationalistic and secular in orientation, the separatist movement is now dominated by militant Islamic groups. Pakistan’s intelligence service has aided some of the most radical groups.
  • In 1999, after Pakistani forces crossed the LoC into Indian-controlled Kashmir near the Kargil mountain ridges, skirmishes broke out again between the two countries, but did not escalate to full-scale war.
  • In December 2001, gunmen attacked the Indian parliament. Because India suspected that Pakistan abetted the Kashmiri militants carrying out the attack, the two rivals—armed since 1998 with nuclear arms—subsequently came to the brink of war. During a tense 6-month standoff, some 1 million soldiers confronted each other along the LoC.

After the Quake: Goodwill and Missed Opportunities

Goodwill prevailed immediately after the October 8 tremor. Within two weeks of the disaster, India had delivered close to 300 tons of food, medicine, and tents to Pakistan, consented to let Pakistani helicopters operate in a no-fly zone along the border, and temporarily re-established cross-border phone links severed nearly 16 years ago. It also pledged an additional $25 million worth of relief aid to Pakistan.

The two governments agreed to negotiate an agreement on opening five crossing points along the LoC to facilitate cross-border relief and allow separated families to meet. But mutual suspicions slowed down the talks. An agreement was finally signed on October 29, but it was not before November 7 that the first crossing was opened, and not before November 17 that the first civilians were finally allowed passage. Even now, crossing points open only intermittently. A situation with the potential for a historic breakthrough became, instead, a timid and tightly circumscribed exercise.

Distrust between the two neighbors remains strong. An Indian offer to have its army helicopters join search-and-rescue missions foundered because Pakistan, referring to “military sensitivities,” refused to allow Indian pilots to fly the aircraft. India in turn insisted on using its own crews.

Confidence Building and Demilitarization

Bold earthquake diplomacy could breathe new life into halting efforts to thaw Indo-Pakistani relations. Recognizing the danger of a nuclear exchange between them, New Delhi and Islamabad began to step back from the precipice in April 2003. They:

  • restored full diplomatic relations and resumed severed transportation links,
  • adopted a cease-fire along the LoC in November 2003,
  • agreed to pre-notify each other of ballistic-missile tests,
  • initiated peace talks over Kashmir in February 2004, and
  • inaugurated a bus service across the LoC in April 2005 that allowed families separated in 1947 to visit their relatives. (After the earthquake, impassable roads halted the bus service.)

As part of what became known as “cricket diplomacy,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf to India in April 2005. Since then, however, the two sides have failed to generate additional momentum for peace. The more time goes by, the more status quo thinking will reassert itself.

While the shared grief and feelings of mutual goodwill are still strong, bold initiatives are needed to demilitarize the bilateral relationship, and particularly to defuse the dangerous standoff over Kashmir. India, for instance, should follow through on earlier-stated intentions to withdraw some of its troops stationed in Kashmir.

Resolving the Kashmir conflict would allow the two neighbors to reduce their military expenditures and attend to urgent social needs as well as provide earthquake relief. Even after factoring in inflation, the two countries’ military spending escalated by more than 50 percent, from $12.1 billion to $18.7 billion between 1995 and 2004.

The huge cost of earthquake relief efforts—estimated at $5.2 billion—is straining Pakistan’s financial resources. In response to growing pressure from civil society, President Musharraf announced in early November that he would postpone the planned $4.5 billion purchase of 75 to 80 F-16 fighter jets from the United States. Musharraf is also under pressure to reconsider a $1 billion purchase of an airborne surveillance system from Sweden.

Postponing or canceling the F-16 purchase would bring more than economic dividends. India severely criticized the planned purchase when it was announced in March 2005, in part because the jets can carry nuclear weapons and thus escalate the Indo-Pakistani arms race. Clever diplomacy might tie an abandonment of the deal to a reciprocating step from India.

Civil Society and the Militants

The scale of the disaster and the mountain geography make relief efforts daunting. Still, both the Indian and Pakistani governments have been criticized for inadequate measures. In Pakistan, the army has dominated earthquake aid efforts, but it has been slow to reach some of the survivors even as winter approaches. In India, Khurram Parvez of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies complained that the Indian army acted more like an occupying force than a relief agent.

Stepping into the void left by the Pakistani government, civil society has initiated a massive mobilization in support of earthquake victims. Some observers, like veteran journalist Ahmed Rashid, think that this may well translate into growing pressure on Musharraf’s government and greater calls for democratization.

The terrorist attacks in New Delhi carried out by Kashmiri militants in late October 2005 underscore the urgency of achieving a basic breakthrough before the emotional impact of the quake fades and the logic of confrontation is resurrected.

On the other hand, the potential for anger and alienation grows. In Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, militant groups are playing a major role in feeding, housing, and clothing survivors and providing medical care. The danger is that this will provide them with additional sources of legitimacy and recruitment. In the Indian portion of Kashmir, the highhandedness of New Delhi’s security forces towards Kashmiris has fueled pro-independence sentiments during the past 16 years of conflict. The slow pace of relief may well reinforce them.

One thing is certain: the biggest loser in the Kashmir conflict has been the civilian population. Confrontational policies of the past must be clearly left behind if Kashmiris are to be persuaded that India and Pakistan care about their wellbeing, rather than territorial control and regional dominance. The terrorist attacks in New Delhi carried out by Kashmiri militants in late October 2005 underscore the urgency of achieving a basic breakthrough before the emotional impact of the quake fades and the logic of confrontation is resurrected.

From Humanitarianism to Peacemaking

To translate post-disaster goodwill into far-reaching political change, the protagonists must act decisively and imaginatively to navigate the straits and narrows of peace processes.

Goodwill and confidence-building in the aftermath of disasters can be a powerful catalyst for transforming conflict dynamics, but they do not lead to peace automatically. Humanitarianism needs to translate into tangible political change. That means:

  • addressing grievances and root causes of conflict,
  • giving a strong voice to civil society, and
  • pressing forward with demilitarization.

It also means taking on the vested interests of those who benefit from a continuation of conflict or are ideologically opposed to its resolution, and might therefore try to derail a peace process. The military, for instance, fears that conflict resolution may lead to cuts in its budget and diminished influence over society. Also, rebels and militant groups would hold less sway in peacetime, and arms industries and dealers would see their sales decline.

Recent cases demonstrate the potential for vastly different outcomes. In late 1999, a series of powerful earthquakes shook Turkey and Greece, two countries that have long been at odds and almost went to war in 1996. The tremors triggered an outpouring of mutual goodwill, and subsequent earthquake diplomacy facilitated a dÂŽtente between Athens and Ankara.

And the catastrophic December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed almost 170,000 people in Indonesia’s Aceh province—more than ten times the number that perished there in three decades of civil war—triggered a fundamental change in attitudes that led to successful peace negotiations between the Indonesian government and Aceh’s GAM rebels.

But in Sri Lanka, which was also hit hard by the tsunami, the political fronts between the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority hardened again after a brief phase of goodwill, raising fears that the country may drift back to war.

To translate post-disaster goodwill into far-reaching political change, the protagonists must act decisively and imaginatively to navigate the straits and narrows of peace processes. The leaders of India and Pakistan are truly in a position to make history, provided they are prepared to take some calculated risks.

The following measures by the Indian and Pakistani governments could bring about a breakthrough:

  1. Open the five agreed crossing points permanently and designate additional crossing points.
  2. Re-establish and expand bus service between Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.
  3. Initiate close cooperation between the two countries’ armed forces in ongoing relief and rebuilding operations.
  4. Abandon the heavy-handed and undemocratic way in which the Indian and Pakistani governments deal with their respective parts of Kashmir.
  5. Undertake steps to demilitarize Kashmir, including reciprocating troop reductions and inviting international monitors.
  6. Abandon the Pakistani purchase of F-16 jets, inviting India to undertake reciprocating steps.

Clearly, even with such steps toward demilitarization and normalization of relations, very difficult questions remain. The Indian and Pakistani governments, as well as different groups inside Kashmir, all hold strongly divergent views on how to resolve the Kashmir question, making conflict resolution a huge challenge. But any discussions have a better chance of success if earthquake diplomacy creates a new basis for negotiations.

About the author: Michael Renner is Director of the Global Security Project at the Worldwatch Institute. He is currently studying the connections between natural disasters and peacemaking.