Region: At A Turning Point Of Kashmir?


Dr Auriol Weigold

Although overshadowed by violence, assembly elections in the state of Jammu and Kashmir (7-11 October 2002) have been described as 'fair' by India and endorsed internationally. Nonetheless, they have been rejected by Pakistan which disputes India's claim to Kashmir and also by militant Kashmiri groups opposed to Indian rule.

The 'dispute', which is an understated description, has continued on and off since the 'Instrument of Accession to India' was signed under pressure following India's independence and the creation of the new state of Pakistan in 1947. Both countries share borders with Kashmir.

In the recent elections the National Conference (NC) Party, which is aligned with the ruling national government in India, appears to have lost 30 seats (winning only 28 of the 87 seats), while the secular Indian National Congress (INC) won 20 (13 more seats than in 1996). The INC seems likely to form a coalition with the new People's Democratic Party (PDP), which won 16 seats. The National Conference Party, on the other hand, may have to content itself with becoming the main opposition party. Can this be a turning point for India and Kashmir?

As indicated earlier, Indo-Pakistan relations have been poisoned for 55 years over the issue of Kashmir. Only a few months after the original transfer of power, India and Pakistan were at war in Kashmir. The Maharaja of Kashmir, whose procrastination over accession escalated the dispute, sought military assistance from India when Pakistan tribesmen invaded with support from Pakistani officials.

Indian assistance rested on establishing a constitutional base for action. Accession of the state of Jammu and Kashmir to India provided it. Much of Kashmir was cleared of insurgents and in time fighting gave way to stalemate, political recriminations and then renewed fighting. A pattern of action and reaction was set in place and the deadlock continues.

But change in the India-Kashmir relationship can perhaps be observed despite the continuing violence. For example, in 1990 thousands of members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Hinduist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which was allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), decided to unfold the national flag in the summer capital Srinagar where it had been burned on other occasions by Kashmiri militants. Yet, now the BJP-led Indian government has offered to hold talks with Kashmiri leaders (including separatists who boycotted the elections) on moving towards greater autonomy.

This offer may well be seen as propagandist in many quarters, but the party has had to compromise on issues that have been at the heart of its campaign for a decade – issues such as the scrapping of Kashmir's special constitutional status; and it has had to downplay other issues such as the demand for Indian sovereignty over Kashmir.

The recent resignation of Farooq Abdullah, chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, may well signal a turning point for India and Kashmir. (He was closely aligned with the national government and his son, who was head of the National Conference Party, lost his seat in the elections.) The Indo-Pakistan dispute, however, remains.

WATCHPOINT: Can the deadlock in talks between the PDP and INC over which party should lead be satisfactorily resolved so that a new coalition government can be formed which will deliver stable government to the region?


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