Professor Alok Rai of Delhi University has suggested an exchange on Kashmir between members of civil society in India and Pakistan (Pakistan’s Kashmir Problem, Daily Times, July 3, 2009). This is a welcome initiative and the thrust of Professor Rai’s conclusions is sensible. But, the framing of the issue – in terms of an India-Pakistan “problem” – is not the best to achieve the end that Professor Rai has in mind.
This framing leads straight back into the morass that has dogged all previous discussions on this topic. The bottom line of Professor’s Rai’s argument is that what’s done is done and cannot be undone; that the status quo is unchangeable; that Pakistan needs Kashmir to validate the two-nation theory; that a cost-benefit analysis should convince Pakistan that attempting to change the reality in Kashmir is not worth the price; and, that India does have a problem in Kashmir but Pakistan should allow it to resolve it on its own.
Pakistanis might agree or disagree with these premises but an engagement along these lines would remain polarized as in the past because of its misplaced focus. This formulation continues to accord centrality to the claims and interests of India and Pakistan and to reduce Kashmir to the status of a “problem” between the two. That is a recipe for a deadlock.
We might be better served by framing this in a South Asian perspective putting the people of Kashmir at the center of the picture. I suppose there should be no difficulty reaching agreement that all those engaged in the discussion give priority to the welfare of the people of Kashmir over the political objectives of India and Pakistan.
If the participants do not agree to this it would immediately become clear that the objective proposed by Professor Rai is mis-specified – Kashmir is only being used to resolve some other leftover issues between India and Pakistan. If so, it would make more sense to understand and pay attention to the other issues instead of making Kashmir pay the price.
If there is agreement that the welfare of the people of Kashmir takes precedence over the political objectives of India and Pakistan, the participants in the debate can move to the next step. What should they be asking of their respective governments in order to further the welfare of the people of Kashmir?
As a first measure, members of civil society should be asking their governments to explain to citizens the precise objectives of their policies on Kashmir, how they are going about pursuing these policies, and what is the sacrifice they are imposing on citizens as a result.
The reality is that governments have not taken citizens in confidence on this issue and the citizens have a very poor idea of what is being done, why it is being done, and at what cost to their lives and those of their children.
For the same reason, it is also misleading to frame this discussion in terms of what Pakistan and India have done, are doing, and should do with regard to Kashmir. Pakistanis and Indians are in the dark; it is a very limited number of people who have been managing, mismanaging or manipulating (take your pick) the issue for reasons that remain opaque to the majority of the citizens of the two countries. Therefore, it is important for civil society members to ask who in their own countries is doing what and why before engaging in a cross-border dialogue.
Seen in this perspective, it also becomes understandable why governments in the two countries might be less than open on their intentions and might resort to lies, sustained indoctrination, manipulation of elections, and even provocative covert actions to provide cover and legitimacy to their designs.
Professor Rai might have the causality reversed in the argument he has presented. It might not be the will of the citizens of the two countries regarding Kashmir that is being implemented by their respective governments. It might well be the will of the governments that is being legitimized through a manipulation of popular consciousness using tactics that scare or trigger emotional responses.
This suggests another useful measure for civil society organizations to undertake within their own countries. An objective, carefully designed survey should be able to uncover what exactly is the will of the Indian and Pakistani people regarding Kashmir and how much of their own welfare they are willing to tradeoff for the achievement of “success” (however defined) in Kashmir.
This would be a major step forward in enabling an evidence-based discussion instead of one based on assumptions of what Pakistanis or Indians desire with respect to Kashmir. The evidence would also serve as an input to the governments that have monopolized the definition of “national interest” without any challenge. Most importantly, it might transform the debate from one of talking at or to one another to the realization that there is a basis for the two civil societies to be presenting their governments with a common demand supported by a majority of citizens in both countries.
There is no morality that can justify the pain that has been inflicted on the people of Kashmir. Civil society clearly needs to debate the reasons for this outcome but it needs to do a lot of homework before such a debate can bear fruit.
The debate also needs to start with the understanding that Kashmir should not be held hostage to the interests of the governments of India and Pakistan. Rather, Indians and Pakistanis should be prepared to make concessions to advance the interests of Kashmir. This is an objective towards which citizens of both countries should volunteer to work together.
Link to follow-up post on assessing Indian and Pakistani policies on Kashmir.