Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra
As the season’s first snow falls in Kashmir, the leaders of India and Pakistan deliberate in New Delhi to further build confidence towards transforming conflict in one of most violent regions of South Asia. On December 14 India and Pakistan signed agreements to liberalize the visa regime to facilitate people- to- people contact and the flow of goods between the two countries. The past decade in Kashmir has witnessed an ‘irreversible’ peace process which has impacted the conflict discourse and reduced the constituency for radicalism in the subcontinent. Though violence remains a challenge — as the fighting in the Kashmir valley led to death of three militants just before the latest discussions — it has not deterred the parties to the conflict from continuing the peace process.
Since its inception in late 1940s, the Kashmir conflict has caused the loss of at least 50,000 lives, displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, and the crippling of the economy. The two major players, India and Pakistan, pursued their rigid policies, fought four wars, and built up arms including nuclear arms, while millions of people lived below the poverty line. The costs of the conflicts, coupled with humanitarian costs in terms of the division of families due to drawing and redrawing of borders, loss of livelihood particularly tourism, militancy, and an all pervasive atmosphere of anxiety has made the lives of the people living on the borders quite miserable. Both India and Pakistan have claimed the entire territory of Kashmir, currently divided between these two countries and China, and have fought wars while the civilians suffered.
In the context of the Kashmir conflict, two interlinked dimensions can be identified: external and internal. In its external dimension it is the conflict waged between two independent states, India and Pakistan, which emerged after the British rule ended in the subcontinent in 1947. In its internal dimension, an armed rebellion started in Indian controlled Kashmir in late 1980s with the rebels fighting for independence from the Indian control. For about a decade from the early 1990’s to the early 2000’s Kashmir witnessed the daily dance of death and destruction, prompting then US President, Bill Clinton to term it ‘the most violent place on the earth.’ During the cold war Kashmir was entangled in the superpower rivalry as reflected in United Nations Security Council debates and voting on Kashmir issues, but most of the violence and destruction has taken place in the decade since the late 1980’s.
The advent of globalization, increasing emphasis on peaceful resolution of conflicts, emphasis on economic diplomacy in place of political diplomacy, and the softening of borders in different parts of the world have reshaped the conflict discourse in Kashmir. The civil society organizations in India, Pakistan and Kashmir have also played a crucial role in pressuring governments to think beyond state-centric policies. They organized ‘heart-to-heart talks,’ peace movements and sensitized policy makers about peaceful methods of conflict resolution. In 1999, the Indian prime minister boarded a bus from the Indian capital New Delhi to Pakistan’s cultural capital Lahore. In 2003 both countries announced a series of confidence building measures. In 2005 and 2006, two border routes were opened to facilitate people-to- people interaction, and for the reunion of divided families. Since 2008, these two routes were opened for intra-Kashmir trade. Pakistan’s granting of most favored nation status to India in 2011 further enhanced prospects for economic cooperation. The visa agreement signed in New Delhi on 14 December 2012 has many new provisions, such as visa-on-arrival, increase in the number of places-of-visit, extended period of stay, etc. (for details of the agreement see here.)
There have been temporary setbacks to the peace process such as the brief period after the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. However, both countries resumed dialogue within a span of 18 months. There are detractors of the peace process, particularly extremist organizations who seek a violent and religion-based resolution of the conflict. However, their constituency has shrunk with the passage of years. The recent years have also witnessed peace in various important regions, particularly in the troubled Kashmir valley, famous for its tourist attractions. Tourism is the main source of revenue for Kashmir. It is estimated that the valley lost 27 million tourists from 1989-2002 leading to tourism revenue loss of $3.6 billion. However, the recent years have witnessed the rise in number of tourists. The Economist has pointed out the the number of tourists in the valley has recently passed 1.3 million.
The separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference (Mirwaiz faction) is commencing its week-long visit to Pakistan on December 15. This is a positive step — unimaginable during militancy in 1990s — towards building peace in the region. Its leader emphasized that the main purpose of the visit is to make a ‘process-oriented effort’ towards resolution of the conflict (for details see here.)
Since the civilian government came to power in Islamabad in 2008, the peace process has gathered momentum. The current focus of the two countries is to strengthen the peace constituency by boosting economic cooperation, and promoting people-to-people interaction. The idea of converting the border in Kashmir from a rigid line of control to a flexible line of contact, communication and cooperation has gathered momentum, and India and Pakistan appear to have geared their policy mechanisms to realize this idea.
Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a PhD student in the Global Governance and Human Security Program at UMass Boston. He is also an Associate Fellow at the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy.