India and Pakistan’s failure to resolve Kashmir could see a huge escalation of violence, and derail an Afghan settlement

Reviving tension over the divided territory, claimed in its entirety by both sides and the spark for two previous wars, has already upset Indo-Pakistan peace talks. More importantly for Britain and the US, a new Kashmir confrontation could derail their spluttering Afghan strategy.

About 50 people have died and hundreds have been injured in the biggest anti-India protests seen in the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar, for several years. The trouble flared on 11 June when a 17-year-old student was killed by police. Since then, thousands of young Muslims have defied attempts by the Indian security forces, the Jammu and Kashmir state government, and older-generation separatist party leaders to restore order.

In an echo of Iran’s lost “green revolution”, the youthful protesters organised using text messaging and social media such as Facebook and YouTube. Their wrath focused in particular on the so-called “black laws”, otherwise known as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, that authorises Indian security forces to stop, search, arrest and shoot suspects with impunity. As the beatings, detentions and curfews made matters worse, chief minister, Omar Abdullah, elected in 2008 as Kashmir’s bright new hope, fell back on an old expedient – requesting army reinforcements from Delhi.

Despite plenty of evidence that the unrest was both spontaneous and rooted in decades of neglect, discrimination and repression of Jammu and Kashmir’s Muslim majority, the Indian government has also stuck to an old story: blaming Pakistan. Delhi has repeatedly accused Islamabad of covertly backing efforts by militant Islamist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, held responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, to destabilise Kashmir. Now it says that Pakistan, switching tack, is at it again.

Interior minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told the Indian parliament last week:

“Pakistan appears to have altered its strategy in influencing events in Jammu and Kashmir. It is possible that they believe that relying upon civilian unrest will pay them better dividends. But I am confident if we are able to win the hearts and minds of the people … those designs can be foiled.”

Such claims would be risible if they were not potentially so dangerous. India has good reason to believe that Pakistan, or elements within Pakistan, meddle in Indian-administered Kashmir. Since the separatist agitation began in earnest in 1989, at least 50,000 people have died, and much of that violence is attributable to outside interference, militants and weaponry. Although he did not say so, David Cameron’s recent remarks in Bangalore about Pakistan “exporting terror” applied to Kashmir as much as to Afghanistan – hence the wild Indian applause.

But Delhi’s blinkered Kashmir policy since partition in 1947 – ignoring UN demands for a self-determination plebiscite, rigging elections, manipulating or overthrowing elected governments, and neglecting economic development – lies at the heart of the problem, according to Barbara Crossette, writing in the Nation.

The violence “is a reminder that many Kashmiris still do not consider themselves part of India and profess that they never will,” she said. “India maintains a force of several hundred thousand troops and paramilitaries in Kashmir, turning the summer capital, Srinagar, into an armed camp frequently under curfew and always under the gun. The media is labouring under severe restrictions. Torture and human rights violations have been well documented.” Comparisons with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians were not inappropriate.

India’s failure to win “hearts and minds” was highlighted by a recent study by Robert Bradnock of Chatham House. It found that 43% of the total adult population of Kashmir, on both sides of the line of control (the unrecognised boundary between Indian and Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir), supported independence for Kashmir while only 21%, nearly all of whom live on the Indian side, wanted to be part of India. Hardly anyone in Jammu and Kashmir wanted to join Pakistan.

While most people said the Kashmir dispute was “very important” to them personally, 81% said unemployment was the biggest problem, followed by corruption, Bradnock found.

Although the violence has subsided in recent days, possibly due to flooding in Ladakh and the imminence of Ramadan, regional commentators have been sharply critical of Delhi’s response and warn of more trouble to come.

“A death on 11 June was shrugged off as an incident. It took eight weeks for Delhi to rise from slumber and then only to offer boring cliches as balm. Shoot-at-sight orders have had no effect: you can’t shoot a whole city,” said MJ Akbar in the Times of India, before suggesting Pakistan’s generals were seeking “revenge for [the 1971 loss of] Bangladesh through Kashmir”. When it came to the Kashmir challenge, “the government doesn’t have much of a clue,” said Siddharth Varadarajan of the Hindu newspaper.

The US and Britain, and the UN, tend to keep mum on Kashmir for fear of riling India. But writing in the Washington Post, Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid said it was in their own interest to speak up. A durable settlement in Afghanistan required “a concerted effort” to bring India and Pakistan to the negotiating table – and that meant, first and foremost, ending their confrontation over Kashmir, he said. “If the US hopes to salvage any remotely positive outcome from its … war in Afghanistan, then it should move a resolution [of] Kashmir up its list of priorities.”

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