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Opinion
The political will for peace in Kashmir
The main obstacle to peace between India and Pakistan is a passive acceptance of the status quo.
Last Modified: 02 Aug 2011 11:56
Kashmir has seen six decades of war, but while there are 'talks', there is no priority for a solution  [GALLO/GETTY]

India and Pakistan are talking again - that is a good thing; especially since it has taken more than two years for both sides to get back to the negotiation table. And it is definitely better than sabre rattling - or all out war.

But what would be best for both countries, for the region at large and for the wider world would be peace. However, we should not expect any more from these talks than a replay of slow and protracted confidence-building measures leading nowhere firm. Peace is a long way off and there is not enough political will on either side to change the status quo.

One could argue that this is a good time to finally sort out the conflict which has held the two countries hostage for six decades and give Kashmiris, caught in the crossfire, the peace they deserve. Pakistan has a mountain of internal and foreign policy problems, starting with the unstable border region with Afghanistan and its liaison with the United States' war as well as increasing domestic instability with home-grown armed groups who terrorise civilians as well as the armed forces.

The Pakistani army does not need conflicts on two fronts. India tends to be smug about Pakistan's unstable situation; sometimes talking about a failed state, but should look closer to home - where not all is well either.

More recently, New Delhi has been plagued by a series of ever-increasing corruption scandals and at least 20 per cent of India's rural areas are under some form of Naxalite control. Poverty and rising inequalities are rife in both countries and both need all possible resources to sort out other issues on both the domestic and the international fronts. In fact, Kashmir is no longer the priority it once was either in India or Pakistan.

While neither side wants to move away from their principled positions, domestic politics tend to focus on other issues and the wider populations no longer seem that interested in Kashmir. So this would be a good time to work out a solution and move on as an overall more stable region.

It would also send a clear signal to extremist elements in Pakistan as well as in India (yes - they exist there as well) that the governments can be stronger than destabilising non-state actors. Peace would be a "win win" situation all around. So why is it unlikely to happen? 

Short sighted goals

 
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The problems are principally structural in both countries. Starting with India, it has become obvious over the past few decades that India lacks a clearly defined long term geopolitical vision. Nehru's goal of India as a leader of the decolonised and developing world is no longer relevant as India has left non-alignment behind and has found an alliance with the United States.

India still wants recognition as a power which matters on the world stage - but there seems to be no clear path carved out to achieve this. Obviously strong economic growth, preferably in double digits, is an important part of a country's power status in the new world order; however, unless India's poverty issue - affecting around 70 per cent of the billion strong population is sorted out, the claims of an economic power house will continue to ring hollow.

Domestic and foreign policy priorities are hampered by two things - the priority for parties to get re-elected, and therefore focusing on short term gains, as well as the lack of coordination between ministries, which operate largely like independent fiefdoms.

There is a lack of vision and leadership as the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) sets its own priorities and cannot monitor the move of each and every ministry. One would expect that Kashmir and the peace process with Pakistan would be a PMO priority - however it is unclear what instructions are given and while the ministry of commerce has in the past expressed the view that increased trade with Pakistan would benefit both countries - this view is diametrically opposed to the home ministry - concerned primarily with security and maintaining a strong border.

The re-election issue is important as well. There is little political capital to be made out of pushing a process that only really affects the Kashmiris. India's vision of itself in the region is unclear. It is today no longer sufficient to simply be the largest and most populous country. But no one seems to be working towards anything like what the Chinese have been doing for two decades - an economic powerhouse well linked into the region through investments and good will gestures.

Army entrenched in old ways

Pakistan is equally to blame. Here, the main structural issue is the political role of the army.

Today, even with a civilian government in Islamabad and an active conflict both inside the country and on Afghanistan's border, Pakistan's army still sees its raison d'être as defending its country against India. There is no understanding that a war is not on India's agenda.

If there were to be peace in Kashmir, the role of the army would have to change and it would lose the political (and possibly also some of its economic) power it has developed over the decades. There is disagreement across different power centres here as well, but rather than ministries, the disagreements seem to come from differences between the intelligence and security forces on one hand and the civilian leadership on the other. And - as in India - it is good to always have someone to blame when things go wrong. Here too, there is no coordinated vision about what to do about India, or indeed Kashmir.

Linked to this issue is the imperative that Pakistan needs to reign in the extremist groups operating on its soil such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. Any further attack in India which can be linked back to a group in Pakistan is likely to spark a military response. The problem is that the military establishment in Pakistan is no longer able to control all groups. Is it possible to have lasting peace when Pakistan cannot control these Kashmiri-sympathising armed organisations and individuals, keen to wage jihad against India?

Beyond these two points which have been made many times before, lies the issue of water. Pakistan has raised the water issue at every track two channel diplomacy meeting that has taken place since 1999. It has called for World Bank arbitration on one disputed dam and taken another that is being built in Kashmir to the International Court of Arbitration at the Hague.

Unless Pakistan works out its water policy, especially how to conserve and better use its dwindling water resources - and there is no indication that it is doing this - it will continue to put pressure on the fragile India-Pakistan dynamic, especially with regard to Kashmir.

There is, of course, the reason that is always held up as making an Indo-Pakistani peace over Kashmir elusive and difficult to achieve - historical legacy, or who is right or wrong when it came to the ascendancy of a state with a majority Muslim population and a Hindu ruler. But actually history is not at the bottom of the impasse.

The structural issues within both countries have resulted in a lack of political will and a certain comfort with the status quo. So as long as there are talks and no one is shooting, doing the painful work of developing genuine peace is really not much of a priority.

Dr Marie Lall is a South Asia expert specialising in political issues and education. She is a member of the faculty at the University of London and an Associate Fellow of the Asia programme at Chatham House.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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