Straddling Kashmir’s infamous Line of Control

Al Jazeera asks author Luv Puri why the long-running Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan remains so intractable.

Kashmiri women and soldier
The Pakistani foreign secretary, right, shakes hands with his Indian counterpart before a meeting. On June 24, the top diplomats of India and Pakistan held their first formal talks on disputed Kashmir in two-and-a-half years [Reuters]

Al Jazeera speaks with Luv Puri, a political analyst who has won a Fulbright scholarship and European Commission Award for Human Rights and Democracy.

Puri recently wrote Across the Line of Control, which focuses on life in Pakistan-administered Jammu & Kashmir – to be published by Columbia University Press in Fall 2011.

Your book makes an effort to focus on more than just the geopolitical problems at stake in Kashmir. But the reality is rooted in a struggle for geopolitical control over an area 43 per cent administered by India, 37 per cent by Pakistan, and an additional 20 per cent by China. What is your basic assessment of the conflicting territorial claims in the region known historically as Kashmir?

Luv Puri: Lots has been written on the India-Pakistan rivalry over Jammu and Kashmir. While some portion of the region presently under China was gifted by Pakistan as per the Sino-Pakistan agreement in 1962-63, practically speaking the issue is restricted to India and Pakistan.

We often ignore the internal political and social forces within J&K on both sides of the Line of Control. The region is one of the most ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse parts of South Asia and the internal political dynamics are critical to understanding some of the developments relating to the region.

The core of my book is on Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir, an area which has escaped the eyes of most scholars who discuss South Asia. I felt the region is particularly interesting from a broader framework.

It is a lesser known fact that the region is one of the highest sources of migration from South Asia to the West in the last century. Rather than repeating the known, I tried to push the envelope on existing research. I hope this will help policy makers in both India and Pakistan.

The Line of Control is the ceasefire line between two nuclear powers who have fought each other in three major wars since Partition in 1947. A low-level insurgency has raged on the Indian side of this line since the late 1980’s, arguably sustained by Pakistan-funded groups. What is the symbolism of this temporary border, and might it become India’s permanent frontier?

Luv Puri: Conversion of the Line of Control into am international border, i.e. status quo ante, is India’s best bet. But Pakistan refuses to accept this. There is a lot of emotional and institutional investment within Pakistan regarding Jammu and Kashmir. And of course the same is true for India.

When we approach a contested issue, we must take into consideration the interests of both countries and importantly, the people of Jammu and Kashmir. An incremental approach toward resolution of the problems between India and Pakistan is important to reduce the trust deficit between them.

Sufficient progress in this regard has already been made by the leadership of both countries, particularly under the stewardship of Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf from 2004-07.

Manmohan Singh’s statement that let the Line of Control be reduced to a few dots on the map and open the borders is the broad framework which has an undeclared consensus in the pragmatic sections of civil society in India and Pakistan.

What is the likelihood, 10-20 years down the road, that India will hold onto Jammu and Ladakh – but no longer retain sovereignty over the Kashmir Valley?

Luv Puri: As I stated earlier, the incremental approach is the key toward resolution of the issue. So I cannot say what will happen. In this context, I would like to quote an adage which says there is nothing final except God. So let us stop talking in terms of final solution.

Let us first create a political environment in India and Pakistan to approach the problems in a mature fashion by fully appreciating the concerns of both countries and move step-by-step.

You have hinted at an interesting and a very important aspect. It is right that each unit within the J&K region is ethnically and linguistically distinct. However, division of the state is a remedy worse than the disease, as it would re-open the chapter of 1947 communal backlash.

The region at the crossroads between South Asia and China is home to tremendous ethno-linguistic and religious diversity. From Shia Muslims to Hindu Pundits and Buddhist Tibetans, what have you observed about the capacity of these myriad groups to get along in their shared mountainous homeland?

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Luv Puri: There is hardly any region within South Asia with as enormous diversity as exists on the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir. The age-old bonds there have been under stress for the last few years.

There have been tensions within the region among various groups. I firmly believe that a harmonious entity called Jammu and Kashmir on both sides of the Line of Control – at peace with all its diversity – is a prerequisite to peace between India and Pakistan.

It is important for the people of the region to reconcile differences within it. There have been several mature and pragmatic proposals by public intellectuals within the region like regional autonomy (i.e. five-tier political devolution within the region). The proposals are already in the public domain and it is time policy makers take note.

There is a broad consensus among the mainstream in India, Pakistan and even Jammu and Kashmir that the region cannot be divided. Once we divide the state, we sow seeds of division even within Jammu and Ladakh. Jammu has five Hindu-majority districts and five Muslim-majority districts. Ladakh is equally divided between Buddhists and Shias.

At present, Jammu Muslims feel very much part of Jammu’s identity and are ethnically quite distinct from valley Muslims. However, once we divide the state along religious lines, we make them insecure and they will also demand separation from Jammu Hindus.

And within Muslim-majority districts, there are Hindu-majority administrative blocks so it is simply impossible to neatly divide Jammu.

So any division of the region will only result in further divisions, and this is far from a practical approach. The division is also not in the interest of valley’s own pluralistic tradition.

Division negates India’s secular fabric and it will be disastrous for the Indian polity.

The division of the region will also be disastrous for Pakistan. Pakistan’s refusal to accept ethnic and linguistic identity within its own territory has played havoc – and even led to its dismemberment in 1971-72. The resolution of Jammu and Kashmir on religious grounds will only encourage extremists in Pakistan.

As an Indian citizen and as a Hindu, surely you’ve faced difficulties in covering the situation in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, an area referred to as Azad Kashmir by Pakistan and as Pakistan-administered Jammu & Kashmir (PAJK) by India. How does your personal connection to Kashmir enhance your understanding of one of South Asia’s most sought-after regions?

Luv Puri: I never faced difficulties researching in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir and even Pakistan. Before I started my field work, I was well prepared to do the task.

You must understand that Pakistan-administered J&K requires a substantial understanding of Pakistani polity and not just issues related to Jammu and Kashmir. There are areas within the region which are more or less politically, socially and even economically integrated to the Pakistani polity.

For instance, the Pakistani military has strong links with the central part of the region, as it is one of the main catchments areas. Some of the leading Pakistani military generals come from this region.

Though the borders were closed for civilian traffic, I got early exposure to Pakistani mass media, which in earlier days was quite vibrant and progressive. This helped me to understand societal dynamics within that country. I had an advantage that I knew the sort of chaste Punjabi spoken by many Pakistanis, and Pothowari, a language spoken in PAJK.

Very few Indian journalists have crossed the LoC to report in Pakistan. And during the past few years, new bus routes have provided more freedom of movement across this highly militarized boundary. What have you discovered about the humanitarian needs of the population just beyond the LoC in Pakistan?

Luv Puri: The chapter on humanitarian needs of the people is the most important part of my book. A multi-dimensional humanitarian tragedy exists in the region.

For instance there has been a corpus of studies in Punjab on either side of the divide on the violence against women in 1947. Pinjar and Khamosh Pani are some of the recent films in Hindustani and Punjabi, respectively, on this subject. However, not much is known about a similar tragedy in the context of Jammu and Kashmir.

Researching on women who were abducted and forcibly married in 1947 was one of the most difficult aspects of my research and there were several difficult moments for me. Just imagine the plight of the women who had to completely re-shape their lives and completely shun their ties with blood relatives.

I must confess that I intentionally withheld some of my research where I felt re-opening old wounds of the women will be catastrophic for their families on either side. In some cases, there were several uncomfortable moments as there was societal opposition and I respected that.

In your book, you point out that, as a result of the remittances Kashmiris send back to PAJK, the standard of living there is higher than that of both Indian-administered Kashmir and of the rest of Pakistan. Aside from this economic difference, has Azad Kashmir generally become more similar to the rest of Pakistan since it became a semi-autonomous part of that country in 1948? How Azad is Azad?

Luv Puri: My pivotal goal was to be objective in my research and analysis. There is a misconception that the Pakistani side of Jammu and Kashmir is economically backward. In fact, it is economically better off, principally due to the large scale remittances sent by the diaspora. The diaspora is the prime source of foreign exchange for Pakistan.

As compared to other South Asian diasporas, I have found that the diaspora from the region retains strong familial links with PAJK.

The real concern is the lack of political autonomy on the Pakistani part of the state, which I have elaborated in my book.

Leaving aside the claim of an independent country, the region does not enjoy the autonomy which other provinces of Pakistan enjoy. Even within Pakistan, there is a growing appreciation of this fact, which is reflected in some recent articles in the Pakistani press.

In a recent article, you cited a statement made by Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, in 2007: “I dream of a day, while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live.” Does the meaning behind this quote inspire your work?

Luv Puri: One must travel along the India-Pakistan border on both sides to fully gauge the rationale behind
the PM’s statement. Progress has been stifled in border areas due to closure of natural routes for over 60
years. For instance, Gurdaspur district on the Indo-Pak border remains in abysmal poverty in the
otherwise prosperous Indian Punjab. I can give countless examples on both sides of the border.

Also, a stable and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Prime Minister Singh’s peace offensive
with Pakistan is guided by the fact that if India wants to become an Asian power in the real sense, it
has to extricate itself from contentious issues of South Asia.

Rivalries with its neighbours keep India perpetually at a low equilibrium and do not allow it to realize its true potential. In addition, some of the present challenges within Pakistan are quite independent of Pakistan’s relationship with India. However, peace with India can certainly help Pakistan to become a stable and confident entity.

Source: Al Jazeera