Why disclaiming Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is not prudent
Former Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah recently raised a furore by stating: “I tell them in plain terms– not only the people of India, but also to the world – that the part (of Jammu and Kashmir) which is with Pakistan (PoK), belongs to Pakistan and this side to India. This won’t change.”1
This statement on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in general, and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) in particular, was made even as Dineshwar Sharma, the newly appointed interlocutor on J&K mandated to engage with a broad spectrum of stakeholders, made his maiden visit to the Valley. Within days, Farooq Abdullah supplemented his statement by noting: “How long shall we keep saying that (PoK) is our part? It (PoK) is not their father’s share.”2
He further cautioned that “they (Pakistan) are not weak and are not wearing bangles. They too have atom bomb”, which, in his view, must prevent India from thinking of retaking PoK.3
Abdullah’s views elicited sharp criticism from certain quarters and endorsement from others. Some even resorted to legal action against Abdullah as the issue stirred heated debate in television channels. While a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) was filed in Delhi High Court against Abdullah,4 a court in Bihar ordered the registering of an FIR (First Information Report) against him.5
National Conference leader and former chief minister Omar Abdullah questioned the intent of past Congress-led governments on “taking back” PoK and challenged the present government to do so and prove his father wrong.6
Omar Abdullah also evoked former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s resolve to preserve the sanctity of the Line of Control (LoC) during the Kargil conflict in 1999.7
This is not the first time that such an unrestrained reference undermining India’s position on PoK has been made by senior political leaders. Nor have the reactions and responses to such assertions taken into account the fundamental link between PoK and J&K. Repeatedly, these back and forth statements have translated into high-decibel and divisive for and against debates without being sensitive to the potential fallout. Further, instead of harmonising the domestic discourse on PoK, these polarising debates lead to disjointed analyses and understanding on an issue so critical to India.
Its low-key standing claim on PoK notwithstanding, the territory does embody India’s broader position on J&K; namely, the entire territory of the erstwhile princely state is an integral part of India. A part of the state’s territory, PoK, comprising the so-called Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit Baltistan (G-B), has remained under Pakistan’s control since the tribal raid and India-Pakistan war of 1947-48. Although the territory is largely forgotten by the people of India, and some have even forgone the claim, its salience to India’s overall claim on J&K is undeniable. This is because there is an umbilical link between India’s control over J&K and its standing claim on PoK. Via the Instrument of Accession, the entire territory of what then comprised the princely state of J&K, including what is since being referred to as PoK, acceded to India. The accession was signed in India’s favour by the then ruler of the princely state, Maharaja Hari Singh, on October 26, 1947. It is this Instrument of Accession that warrants India’s territorial control over the entire J&K. India’s extant claim on PoK and its control on J&K are, therefore, inextricably linked. Besides, the Constitution of J&K contains a provision of 24 seats for the representatives of PoK “until the area of the State under the occupation of Pakistan ceases to be so.”8
Therefore, unless India’s official stand on PoK is duly revised at some point, hopefully blueprinting a definitive settlement on J&K, it is premature and self-defeating to subtract PoK from its overall claim.
Determinants of Domestic Complacency
The sustained neglect of India’s claim on PoK in the domestic discourse on Kashmir and the indifference shown by successive political dispensations are responsible for building a cynical perception of the territory’s insignificance in the broader scheme of things. Rash public statements smacking of political opportunism that contradict the official position on PoK have done considerable damage over time.
Uninformed public discourse
Public conversation on PoK within India is uninformed and pessimistic. It is a stark reality that there is inadequate academic focus on PoK in India. This is probably because PoK is considered academically irrelevant and less rewarding in comparison to a purely Valley-centric discourse. Consequently, PoK has remained under-represented in the conventional discourse on Kashmir. Instead, the near exclusive focus during the last nearly three decades has been on alleged human rights violations perpetrated by the security forces. In this view, only criticisms of India’s ‘hard’ approach towards the people of the Valley are considered genuine. Even as Valley-centric issues elicit concern and spawn serious discussions at elite platforms, the issues of political apathy and disenchantment prevalent in PoK are grossly neglected and even avoided. What exists, as a result, is a blinkered view of Kashmir – one that also fails to acknowledge that such a premature signalling on PoK would tantamount to disclaiming PoK with grave repercussions during future negotiations if and when they take place. While is it valid to argue that PoK’s inclusion in the domestic debate may not necessarily resolve the Kashmir issue in India’s favour, it is at the same time self-defeating to project the view that the Kashmir issue can be solved only by insulating it from India’s standing claim on PoK.
India’s subdued stance, a virtual abandonment of its claim on PoK, has ensured that the focus of Pakistan, of the international community and of the people of India remains confined to developments on the Indian side of the LoC. As a result, India’s PoK policy has been deprived of suitable periodic adjustments to match evolving strategic objectives. Successive governments are responsible for engendering a trend that hugely disserves India’s position. That the cartographic representation of PoK as part of India has not translated into mass perceptions of PoK as an integral part of India and the overall failure to mainstream PoK in the public discourse could partly be attributed to inept handling of the issue by the policy-makers.
An agenda of the Right?
Even though India’s position on PoK has never been categorically contested by any mainstream political group, ratcheting up the territorial claim is more than often discredited as mere rants by right-leaning constituencies within the country. Indeed, in the wider vacuum that exists, the right- leaning groups have frequently raked up the issue calling for integration of PoK with India.9
Therefore, on most occasions, discussions on PoK elicit responses to the effect that it is unnecessary raking up a claim that has already been more or less dispensed with.10
Added to this is the recent tendency to ascribe the raising of the PoK issue as a political agenda of particular constituencies. Together, such responses prevent a meaningful and coherent policy-oriented discussion on PoK.
Cues from the past
In contrast to the situation obtaining at present, PoK was vital to India’s defence of its position on Kashmir in the initial years after independence. Former Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon’s elaborate defence during his marathon UN speech in 1957 made repeated references to Pakistan’s deceitful occupation of this portion of territory.11
It is generally perceived that following this impassioned plea, India’s approach on PoK revolved around accepting the ceasefire line and later, LoC as a de facto border and perpetuating the territorial status quo. From “practical” considerations of ceding more territory to Pakistan during the 1960s engagement (Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto-Swaran Singh talks),12 to an alleged informal understanding on maintaining the territorial status quo during the Simla Talks, there was a virtual shift in the debate on Kashmir within India. The territorial aspects of the issue gradually assumed less significance in discussions as terror and violence abetted by Pakistan during late 1980s assumed centre-stage.
Though never pronounced officially, it is believed that successive governments have veered towards the position of retaining the status quo as the permanent solution to the festering issue of Kashmir by simply converting the present LoC into a permanent border. As indicated above, this particular trend in India’s policy posture began around the Simla Conference in 1972, which also laid out the roadmap to bilateralism on Kashmir and the conversion of the cease fire line into LoC. The Simla agreement is widely considered part of India’s quest to formalise the LoC as a permanent border. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s oft-quoted articulation on making borders irrelevant rather than changing them, and heightened anticipation around Musharraf’s four-point formula (constructed around the status quo), were construed as India’s best options while seeking a permanent solution to the Kashmir issue.
Rethink Soft Pedalling
Prudent as it may have appeared to reconcile to the territorial status quo in the past, policy makers must ask themselves whether such an approach has really worked in India’s favour. While India may have been pursuing the option of formalising the LoC into a border, internal security indicators in J&K, dismal bilateral equations with Pakistan, and the persisting tug of war on Kashmir negate the previous approach. Pakistan’s unrelenting perpetration of violence and instability in J&K persists and its hand is more visible than ever in the events that have unfolded after the killing of Burhan Wani. Pakistan’s diplomats have not spared a single opportunity to raise the Kashmir issue internationally. It is abundantly clear that India has not gained anything by seeking to perpetuate the status quo. It is time to look at alternate options. Ceding territory as part of a “LoC plus” solution is not an option anymore.13
India cannot afford to appear to be disowning its extant claim on PoK unless a steadfast guarantee, this time on paper, is extracted on retaining the territorial status quo. Until such a formulation appears on the horizon, it makes no difference to Pakistan whether India abandons its claim on PoK or not. On the contrary, even peripheral overtures indicating India’s disinterestedness in PoK will potentially weaken its position on the broader issue of Kashmir. It is wishful thinking to assume that Pakistan would welcome the territorial status quo as propounded by some sections in India. The Kashmir issue substantially governs the undercurrents of Pakistan’s domestic polity. It is important to understand that Pakistan has long refused to accept the status quo by proclaiming support for secessionist groups in J&K. Its revisionist designs are even more obvious from the way Pakistan commissions militancy in the Valley and continues to house militant camps in PoK.
Due care is required to ensure that stray references by India’s previous leaders suggesting maintenance of the status quo are not interpreted as a climb down/divergence from the stated official position. Instead they must be understood as individual quests to explore pragmatic ways to resolve a protracted issue. It is equally important to articulate that India will not cede territory it controls and see whether Pakistan is willing to conduct a dialogue within this framework. Till the time India approaches a conclusive negotiation stage, it is important that loose references contradicting India’s claim on PoK are avoided at all cost.
Way Forward: Shed Rhetoric, Shore up Claim
Of late, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has given India’s claim on PoK a new lease of life. India has skilfully spun its reservations on the CPEC around the principle of territorial sovereignty and integrity. Therefore, apart from the bilateral imperatives vis-a-vis Pakistan as discussed above, presently, there are pressing geopolitical imperatives that must be heeded while formulating India’s policy position on PoK. In this regard, disregarding the territorial claim on PoK will only weaken India’s position on CPEC.
With CPEC placed under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), asserting claims to PoK has become a strategic necessity rather than an afterthought. It was perhaps owing to such compulsions that India’s inert and understated position on PoK was rescinded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to the territory during his Independence Day address in August 2016. There will always be those who argue that there is nothing substantial that India would lose by dis-claiming PoK. In the present geopolitical scene, however, India is likely to lose more than it gains by ignoring its claim on PoK. There is an urgent need to build a broad consensus on PoK in order to fix the credibility deficit caused by sustained neglect across generations. Unless India sheds its nonchalant approach towards its claim on PoK, it cannot expect the rest of the world to take its position on J&K seriously. For the time being, India has few options other than continue to be relentless in pursuing its claim on PoK.
1. ‘Pak-Occupied Kashmir Belongs To Pakistan, Says Farooq Abdullah’, NDTV, 11 November 2017, athttps://www.ndtv.com/india-news/pak-occupied-kashmir-belongs-to-pakistan….
2.‘Pakistan not weak to allow India to take PoK: Farooq Abdullah’, The Economic Times, November 15, 2017, athttps://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/pakistan-n….
4.‘PIL in HC against Ex-CM Farooq Abdullah for Remarks on PoK,’ Daily Pioneer, November 17, 2017, athttp://www.dailypioneer.com/trending-news/pil-in-hc-against-ex-cm-farooq….
5.‘Bihar court orders FIR against Farooq Abdullah for comment on PoK,’ The Indian Express, November 15, 2017, athttp://indianexpress.com/article/india/bihar-court-orders-fir-against-farooq-abdullah-for-comment-on-pok-4939076/.
6.‘Centre Should Prove My Father Wrong With ‘Actions’: Omar Abdullah’, NDTV, November 17, 2017, athttps://www.ndtv.com/india-news/centre-should-prove-my-father-wrong-with-actions-omar-abdullah-1776499.
8.The Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir, available athttp://jklegislativeassembly.nic.in/Costitution_of_J&K.pdf, pp.16-17.
9.‘RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat wants Modi govt to reclaim parts of Kashmir from Pakistan, China: Report’, Business Standard, August 22, 2016, at http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/rss-chief-mohan-bhagwat-wants-modi-govt-to-reclaim-parts-of-kashmir-from-pakistan-china-report-116082200144_1.html.
10.Based on author’s experience during interactions at meetings and conferences.
11.E. S. Reddy & A. K. Damodaran, Krishna Menon on Kashmir: Selected Speeches at the United Nations – II, Sanchar Publishing House, New Delhi, in association with Krishna Menon National Memorial Committee 1992, athttp://www.geocities.ws/enugareddy/krishnamenon/Krishna_Menon_on_Kashmir….
12.Y D Gundevia, Outside the Archives, Sangam Books, Orient Blackswan, Reprint 2008, p. 241.
13.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 Twenty First Century, 29 February 2012, New Delhi: Centre for Policy Research, 2012, p. 19.