SINCE DECEMBER 1989, Indian security forces have been engaged in suppressing a violent secessionist insurgency in the Valley of Kashmir. The insurgency in Kashmir grew out of a fundamental paradox of Indian democracy: while political mobilization in the past few decades grew rapidly, political institutions declined. The expansion of literacy, mass media exposure, and educational opportunity produced a generation of politically conscious and assertive Kashmiris. But successive governments in New Delhi construed the Kashmiris' growing assertiveness and demands for greater autonomy as incipient secessionist sentiment, responding to these demands with further centralization and extra-parliamentary means to undermine local political authority. By resorting to such misguided tactics, New Delhi only increased local discontent.
The vast majority of Kashmiris have thus become alienated from the Indian state. Yet contrary to Pakistani claims, there is no groundswell of support for uniting with Pakistan. Most Kashmiris would prefer an end to the continuing fratricidal violence; their preferences for an eventual political arrangement for Kashmir are still a contested issue. The most realistic solution would be a negotiated settlement in which India granted greater autonomy to Kashmir while retaining it as part of the Indian union.
Why Kashmir Matters
India has held on to Kashmir with extraordinary tenacity, while Pakistan has tried equally hard to wrest Kashmir from India. The determination of both sides has raised fears of full-scale armed conflict between the two nations and, worse still, the prospect of escalation into nuclear war. Kashmir has become such a contested issue because the stakes involved for both India and Pakistan go far beyond territorial aggrandizement; both sides perceive the control of Kashmir as a legitimation of their national philosophies. From the very outset, India sought to hold on to Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state, to demonstrate that regardless of faith, minorities could thrive under the aegis of a secular polity. By the same token, Pakistan sought to incorporate Kashmir because of the common religion and geographic proximity. At least one prominent Pakistani leader, former President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, publicly argued that Pakistan was "incomplete" without Kashmir.
The dramatic fraying of India's secular fabric in recent years, with the growth of Hindu nationalism and the explosion of religious riots, has made India's desire to hold on to Kashmir less a result of moral principle and more an imperative of statecraft. A rhetorical commitment to the secular principle certainly remains, but India now needs to retain Kashmir for more pragmatic reasons. No national government in India could survive if it conceded Kashmir to Pakistan. The prospect of Kashmir's departure from the Indian union invokes deep-seated fears of India's disintegrative potential. Whether such misgivings are valid is largely immaterial; they are widely shared among India's attentive public. Furthermore, given the abysmal state of communal relations within India, Kashmir's exit from the polity would place the future of India's Mulsim minority in jeopardy. It is doubtful that any Indian central government could muster sufficient resources to prevent widespread communal conflict after such an event.
Pakistan meanwhile has shown equal zest in seeking to detach Kashmir from India. For part of the Pakistani elite, Kashmir remains the "unfinished business" of the partition of British India. This component of the claim is simply irredentist: because Kashmir had religious and historical ties to present-day Pakistan, it should have gone to Pakistan at the time of partition. The other components of the Pakistani claim stem from more pragmatic considerations. A segment of the military-bureaucratic-political elite in Pakistan simply wishes to pay back India for its successful support of the Bangladeshi independence movement of 1971. …