Enwrapped in the conventional atmospherics of cautious optimism at one level and politico-diplomatic acrimony at another, the recent meeting between the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan ended on the well beaten note — Kashmir. Breaking established protocol, Pakistan issued a statement even before the talks concluded, yet again reiterating Kashmir as the core issue by noting that “it was vital to find a just solution to this long standing issue, as per the UN Security Council resolutions and wishes of the Kashmiri people.”1
Lately, the euphoric sense of vindication, especially as India had managed to secure primacy for terrorism over Kashmir in the Ufa statement, i.e., no talks without action on terror by Pakistan, stands somewhat diluted. India-Pakistan ties witnessed significant momentum at the cusp of 2015-16. The intense political elation generated by Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Lahore got quickly dissipated by the Pathankot attack. Despite the visit of the Pakistan JIT (Joint Investigation Team), India has raised the ante against Jaish-e-Mohammed and its chief, Masood Azhar. The subsequent arrest of an alleged Indian RAW agent by Pakistan, which has accused him of brewing trouble in restive Balochistan, is perceived as an attempt to neutralize India’s growing demand for tangible action against terror. Coinciding with that, Pakistan raising the Kashmir bogey once again has pushed negotiations back to square one.
Pakistan’s Kashmir gambit is neither new nor surprising. Un-substantive as it is, it nevertheless adds some energy to the mostly bound-to-fizzle media frenzy in both countries, resulting in exchange of statements and counters from both sides. Pakistan’s core strategy each time it brings up the Kashmir issue has been to put India on the defensive. Perceptibly, India has been portrayed as looking edgy each time the Kashmir card is played by Pakistan. But the fact remains that the basic contention between the two countries lies in the order of priority in which negotiations are carried out — India wants terrorism to be discussed in a substantive manner ahead of other issues, while Pakistan unfailingly raises Kashmir as the core issue.
In this context, certain concrete and viable options need to be explored and tested by India to blunt Pakistan’s propaganda, vital among which could be raising the issue of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) in an assertive manner. Apart from sticking to its principled stand on persuading Pakistan to act against terrorism, India needs to proactively buttress its broader position on the issue of PoK every time the issue of Kashmir comes up for discussion in bilateral discussions. By doing so, India will be adhering to its official stance on PoK governed by the Parliamentary resolution of 1994. Whether India likes it not, Pakistan will never forgo an opportunity to rake up the Kashmir issue, bilaterally or otherwise. Hence, parallel to supporting the dialogue and peace process, it is imperative that that India thinks in terms of formulating an alternate strategy— a plan B in which PoK is pivotally and strategically positioned.
Pakistan’s J&K, India’s PoK
Pakistan has optimized gains vis-a-vis Kashmir by investing considerable political and diplomatic capital on the issue. It has manipulated global realities to its advantage and rallied hard to ensure international receptivity, which appears somewhat inclined towards the Pakistani position on Kashmir. India, on the other hand, has traditionally avoided making major pronouncements on PoK. While it has never explicitly spelt out the idea of converting the Line of Control into a permanent border, its muted policy on PoK has shaped common perceptions that India has bypassed its claim to the region i.e., the remainder of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir under Pakistan’s occupation since 1947. Besides, India’s episodic reactions to infrastructure building and Chinese activities in PoK have not accrued much strategic vantage.
Sifting through joint statements and press notes, it is hard to ascertain whether PoK has ever effectively figured in the India-Pakistan bilateral agenda, though the possibility of it being discussed or alluded to during backchannels cannot be categorically ruled out. Nonetheless, gross neglect and lack of robust policy articulation spanning decades calls for course correction in the Indian approach, in terms of gradually shifting the policy thrust on PoK and graduating from a reactive to proactive mode, generating greater awareness through public statements and checking public misperceptions at large. Backed by government pronouncements, PoK related issues should be disseminated much more in the public domain than ever before. This could potentially shore up media coverage of PoK— a region more or less under a state of virtual media neglect within India, unlike in Pakistan’s mainstream and vernacular media where Kashmir consistently features as the predominant byte.
Retain J&K, Claim PoK
Discussing India’s “progressive neglect” of PoK, the Non Alignment 2.0 document posits that India needs to proactively pursue its claim on the PoK region to impede perceptions that the ultimate resolution of the Kashmir problem will be premised on a “LoC plus solution”, based on the LoC as the “starting point” of negotiation.2 It is, therefore, in India’s larger interest that it strengthens its negotiating strategy by prudently pinning PoK to the bilateral agenda dealing with Kashmir. Adding PoK as a potential strategic leveller could diminish Pakistan’s Kashmir propaganda during and after the talks. Additionally, India could possibly leverage the fact that there is a democracy-deficit in PoK which could dent Pakistan’s international support base.
The two sides of J&K have been separated for decades during which both parts have undergone transitions of various kinds, the most significant being the demographic transformation in PoK. Nonetheless, there still exists a degree of political cohesion and unanimity vis a vis the broader issue of Kashmir’s future. This was manifest recently in the Hurriyat’s (All Parties Hurriyat Conference) expression of unequivocal reservations on Pakistan’s attempt to subsume Gilgit Baltistan as its fifth province. Such circumstantial realities existing in J&K need to be taken into account while India firms up its policy course on PoK.
The latest statement from the Pakistani side advocates a resolution of Kashmir through UNSC (United Nations Security Council) resolutions. Notably, these resolutions apply to PoK as well, and therefore, cannot be implemented in Indian J&K in isolation. India needs to reaffirm the demilitarization clause as an essential pre-condition preceding the proposed plebiscite that requires Pakistan to first withdraw its military forces from areas belonging to the erstwhile princely state of J&K, which are currently under its control. The stigma of Indian non-compliance is based on a selective reading of the UNSC resolutions. India needs to gradually set things right in this regard by adopting an inclusive, concerted and coherent approach on PoK and all related issues.
PoK: An Effective Counter-balancer?
India’s high rates of economic growth and global aspirations have given rise to innumerable pressures and expectations from all quarters. While India prepares to deal with such pressures, both in the medium and long term, ceding territory in any form could be construed as a sign of weakness. This could potentially affect India’s regional and global ambitions. India has no option but to uphold its territorial integrity. In this regard, inserting PoK in the bilateral agenda could be a useful long term strategic investment. Leveraging PoK as a bargaining chip would help sustain India’s geopolitical interests against an arch adversary, uphold territorial limits and enhance negotiating capability during crucial talks on Kashmir. Pakistan may resist or ignore talking about PoK, which would only bolster India’s position on the broader issue.
Re-asserting claims on PoK will accord further legitimacy to India’s reservations on the upcoming strategic China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a critical portion of which cuts through PoK (read Gilgit Baltistan). As India continues to be boxed by the Chinese-led region-wide infrastructural juggernaut, and now getting hemmed in by the very concept of a multi-billion dollar CPEC, it is time that India thinks about ways and means to tide over the stratagem unleashed by Pakistan together with China. Stepping up the ante on PoK is a positive and concrete step to begin with in this regard.
2.Sunil Khilnani, Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Prakash Menon, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran, and Siddharth Varadarajan, “Non Alignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the 21st Century, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, February 29, 2012, available athttp://www.cprindia.org/sites/default/files/working_papers/NonAlignment%202.0_1.pdf, p. 19.