“Poor Kashmir, it lies in the Himalayan ramparts where the borders of India, Pakistan and China rub together. Reality mocks its beauty. There is no escaping the permeating meloncholy of a land that lies under the gun.” — Trevor Fishlock
Kashmir’s ‘locational’ relevance for India, China and Pakistan has always been significant and it has become a driver in its own right for the perpetual state of conflict with Pakistan and a reality which has the potential for keeping the Sino-Indian relations adversarial.
The indelible factors of geography in terms of ‘location,’ ‘space’ and ‘terrain’ in shaping the destiny of nations remains profound. The conflict that has been going on ‘for’ and ‘in’ the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) for seven decades is a prime example; it is the State’s locational position on the face of the earth for China, India and Pakistan that is driving the triangular competition in which Pakistan’s virulence is being used both as the means to ‘contain’ India, and her territory, including what she occupies to act as a spring board for China’s regional outreach.
Contributing to the factors of geography are vestiges of the past. Shadows of history fall long and keep festering if the end state is allowed to remain open ended and if actions are not grounded in strategic logic. Such has been the case of Kashmir – both in handling Pakistan and China and failing to integrate the Kashmiri people. In the absence of the national will to correct what the Chinese call as ‘historic mistakes,’ outrages in the form of periodic sabre rattling and violence would continue – Keran and Samba are merely the recent of the many examples. While mistakes of the past cannot be undone and war is never a good option, corrective measures within a well calibrated operating matrix are always possible.
Though stating the obvious, it is important to highlight that the map is intended to draw attention to the adverse balance sheet after seven decades of conflict; out of the 2,22,236 square kms that originally comprised the Princely State of J & K, 56 percent has already passed under the control of China and Pakistan. The mutilated state of J&K is marked in black and red respectively-lines that have been drawn with blood of soldiers who continue their unending vigil in the absence of a coherent national strategy. At the same time the map reiterates Kashmir’s geographical proximity with Afghanistan, with which it shares a land border, and the proximity of the energy rich Central Asian Republics. Kashmir’s ‘locational’ relevance for India, China and Pakistan has always been significant and it has become a driver in its own right for the perpetual state of conflict with Pakistan and a reality which has the potential for keeping the Sino-Indian relations adversarial.
The triangular strategic competition between China and Pakistan on one side and India on the other is remicent of the Great Game of yesteryears; the aims and ends may have changed, but Kashmir’s strategic value as an avenue for Great Powers, remains a significant factor for conflict. China wants to develop her Silk Route through her territory (Gilgit-Baltistan) and India (ideally) would like to develop energy routes to the CAR nations through Afghanistan, which are best accessed through her territory/Pakistan. Since the aims are not complementary and there is no reason to expect a diplomatic solution, the ‘K’ factor and the dynamics it generates would add to the volatility and exacerbate the competition. If the frequency and scale of incidents of the current year are any indication, preliminary moves for setting the stage to exploit the post 2014 situation are already underway.
Compounding the situation is the issue of river waters since Kashmir is either the source or conduit of the rivers for both India and Pakistan, the war for control of water resources will exacerbate tensions.
The aim is to revisit the geo-strategic realities of J&K and argue the point that despite the desire to further the Indo-Pak peace process, unless there is a fundamental shift in Pakistan’s stance wrt Kashmir, there ‘cannot’ and ‘should not’ be any half baked solution. Given Kashmir’s emotive resonance and charged atmospherics, there is little that discussions and platitudes can accomplish. The reality that stares India in the face is that China’s rise is resulting in her outreach to the Arabian Sea and this requires her to consolidate in Gilgit Baltistan. At the same time, India’s future cannot be held hostage to a toxic and tottering Pakistan. How the situation may play out in geo-strategic terms remains uncertain, but what is certain is the fact that conflict which has been a constant for the region would continue, though its nature and tenor may undergo a change. How, where and in what shape Pakistan will feature and what would be China’s role in pursuing her regional goals will decide the outcome. At the same time, India cannot condense to pledge her future in what portends to be an uncertain environment.
Harsh that it might sound, but the bane for Kashmir and her people ‘is’ and ‘has’ been her strategic relevance and behind the protracted Indo-Pak conflict, obfuscrated under layers of misleading narratives, the core reason is ‘territorial’ –religion is merely the currency and the cover for the conflict. On the other hand, with China there is no need to obfuscate the raison-de-etre for the conflict – it is squarely Kashmir’s locational value as an access point and as an avenue. It was Kashmir’s pivotal location that was the reason for generating conflict for the state during the Great Game played between Czarist Russia and Imperial Britain. The only change that has come with the passage of time is that the actors have changed to India on one side and China and Pakistan on the other.
What has not changed is the fact that Kashmir which provided the avenue for ingress into the plains of the sub-continent remains as important, perhaps even greater since China is planning to develop her Silk Routes to the Arabian Sea coast and to West Asia and to the Middle East. There is no mitigating the fact that Afghanistan that has remained at the cusp of conflict remains fragile, and at the same time her locational relevance and economic importance has gone up exponentially in the latest version of the game. Compounding the situation is the issue of river waters since Kashmir is either the source or conduit of the rivers for both India and Pakistan, the war for control of water resources will exacerbate tensions.
Syed Salahuddin stated: “Kashmir is the source from where all of Pakistan’s water resources originate. If Pakistan loses its battle with India, it will become a desert.”.
Field Marshal Ayub Khan was candid in stating Pakistan’s compulsions to attempt to capture the state:“The very fact that Pakistan had to be content with the waters of the three western rivers (in accordance with the Indus water Treaty) underlined the importance for us of having physical control over the upper reaches for their maximum utilisation for the growing needs of Pakistan.”Syed Salahuddin, the Chairman of the United Jihad Council, the umbrella organisation cording the Pakistan sponsored Jihad in J & K graphically stated: “Kashmir is the source from where all of Pakistan’s water resources originate. If Pakistan loses its battle with India, it will become a desert.”In view of the foregoing, Kashmir and the immediate region would remain a hotspot and for India, remaining on the back-foot as a policy would be counterproductive in geo-strategic terms and grievously retard her potential.
Strategic backdrop. The Cease Fire Line delineated at the Karachi Agreement of 27 Jul 1949, accepted the de facto splitting of the state. On one hand, the creation of POK provided Pakistan a viable buffer against possible Indian aggression opposite her heartland, which translated to a great military advantage. By occupying Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan gained another significant strategic advantage, whose importance has grown with time. Pakistan’s control over this strategic region has opened up multi-dimensional spheres for cooperation/collusion with China. At the same time, the occupation of Aksai Chin and the territorial belt running to the southern tip of the Indo-Tibetan border in East Ladakh has not only put India in a perpetual defensive, but the loss of strategic passes in 1962 (Chang La, Jara La, Charding La and the like) restrict her options and place India at a disadvantage.
When seen holistically, there can be no denial that these developments restrict India’s strategic options whose effect is expected to increase, as the situation gets adversarial. Since Pakistan is increasingly being seen by China as a means and end to further her regional strategic objectives, especially against India, this exacerbates the competition and portends further conflict for Kashmir as the state is physically the geo-strategic fulcrum for Sino-Pak collusion against India. In view of this growing reality, India’s strategic future in Kashmir needs a re-appraisal. Some geo-strategic issues that merit attention are postulated.