As the Obama administration assumes office for a second and final term, it will continue to confront various protracted conflicts that plague the world. Some lack straightforward policy options. But one such conflict located in South Asia does offer clear-cut policy choices: the status of the disputed state on the India-Pakistan border, Jammu and Kashmir.
Confronting this conflict will call on the administration to shed some long held shibboleths and display a degree of boldness. Specifically, it will entail stating forthrightly and unequivocally that the Line of Control (LOC) that divides the disputed territory should be converted into an international border and that the United States will be the first to so recognize it. This would effectively transform the Kashmir impasse from an bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan into an important Indian domestic problem.
Origins of the Conflict
The origins of the Indo-Pakistani dispute are complex. It can be traced to the process of British colonial disengagement from the subcontinent in 1947. As independence and the partition of the British Indian Empire approached, a set of 532 nominally independent “princely states” were given the option of joining either India or Pakistan. Kashmir had posed a problem as it had a Hindu monarch, a Muslim-majority population and abutted both nascent states. To compound matters, the monarch sought independence. When he refused to accede to either state, Pakistani forces taking advantage of a tribal rebellion invaded the state.
Contrary to the popular Pakistani canard that these were simple tribal marauders acting of their own accord to free their Muslim brethren, the intruders enjoyed extensive military and civilian assistance from Pakistan. The monarch, Maharaja Hari Singh, now in a panic, sought India’s military assistance. India agreed to come to Kashmir’s defense only after he agreed to accede. The Indian military stopped the Pakistani invaders and their tribal allies but not before they had seized a third of the state.
Because Singh was fully vested with the power to join the dominion of India, the accession was legal. However, Nehru had proposed that Kashmiri should make this legitimate as well as legal by expressing their preferences in a plebiscite.
Ironically, it was India that took this matter first to the United Nations and it was Pakistan that initially opposed the plebiscite. Nevertheless, the UN passed two critical resolutions in 1948 which specifically called on Pakistan first to withdraw all Pakistani nationals who entered Kashmir “for the purposes of fighting, and to prevent any intrusion into the State of such elements and any furnishing of material aid to those fighting in the State.” Once Pakistan met that criteria satisfactorily, India was to put forth a “plan for withdrawing their own forces from Jammu and Kashmir and reducing them progressively to the minimum strength required for the support of the civil power in the maintenance of law and order.” Once these two steps were taken, a plebiscite was to be fielded to ascertain whether Kashmiris preferred to join India or Pakistan.
While Pakistan continues to harp upon India’s perfidy for denying Kashmiris their opportunity to voice their aspirations, Pakistan refused to withdraw its forces, which was the first necessary but insufficient step that would have culminated in the plebiscite. Needless to say, the plebiscite was never required for Kashmir’s accession to be legal and binding.
Since the first tribal incursion that led to the first Indo-Pakistan war of 1947-48, Pakistan has initiated wars in 1965 and in 1999 in an effort to change the territorial status quo. It has sustained a terror campaign in Indian-administered Kashmir and the rest of India in an effort to coerce New Delhi to recognize Pakistan’s interests in this dispute. With the overt nuclearization of both adversaries in 1998, each new provocation runs the risk of prompting a general war with the potential for nuclear escalation.