Lessons India can learn from Scotland: Bullying won't solve Kashmir dispute

From time to time, British MPs instigated by their Pakistani-origin voters perform a ritual: they get the House of Commons to debate a motion on Kashmir asking their Government to mediate in the dispute.

At the end of a usually desultory and thinly-attended debate, which by the way takes place not in the House but one of the committee rooms, another ritual is repeated: a junior Foreign Office minister (never the Foreign Secretary himself) stands up to reiterate the government's position that it has no intention to mediate as it regards Kashmir as a bilateral issue to be resolved by India and Pakistan themselves.

A third ritual then follows, as if on cue: both Indians and Pakistanis -- the diplomats of the two countries, their media and community activists --then rush to claim "moral victory". Pakistanis boast that the fact that British Parliament discussed the issue at all was a recognition of their position while Indians hail its outcome as a "vindication" of India's policy against foreign intervention.

Back in India and Pakistan, people read their respective journalists' patriotic and suitably slanted accounts. The British media, of course, doesn't give a toss to a non-debate and so you're hardly likely to find a mention in a major London newspaper.

 Lessons India can learn from Scotland: Bullying wont solve Kashmir dispute

Intimidation will not solve geopolitical issues anymore: AP

Here's a flavour of an Indian media report after a debate last week.

"The Indian government is furious...India has always considered any debate on Kashmir by British parliamentarians as an interference in India's internal affairs…Kashmir being topmost on Pakistan's diplomatic agenda, its missions exploit the local Pakistani community to persuade MPs to reflect their point of view in such debate,’’ the report said adding, for good measure, “Those reflecting India's stance on Kashmir were well prepared. Not only did they seem to have been well briefed, but had done their own home work. By comparison, the apologists for Islamabad indulged in ISI-inspired propaganda, including questioning the legitimacy of elections in Kashmir….Had there been a vote, the pro-India lobby would have won hands down.”

I've been watching this routine for well over a decade and each time I'm struck by how otherwise sober and liberal Indians and Pakistanis suddenly turn embarrassingly jingoistic over Kashmir. Pakistanis, obsessed as they are with Kashmir, are expected to react as they do, especially as Britain is home to a large population of Mirpuris who hail from the Pakistan Occupied region of Kashmir.

But what about Indians? British Indians have always regarded themselves as a cut above Pakistanis-- more sophisticated , broadminded, and  liberal. Once they famously sought not be lumped with other Asians demanding that rather than being referred to as "British Asians" they should be called "British Indians" to distinguish them from their lesser subcontinental neighbours .

So, why when it comes to Kashmir, do they start to sound so much like the benighted Pakistanis? They say, “no, no we've no quarrel with Pakistanis: we object to British Parliament interfering in an issue that is India's internal affair.’’

And that’s the nub. The breathless excitement over this empty ritual is symptomatic of India's unwillingness to come to terms with the fact that its claim about Kashmir being an “integral” part of the country is not universally accepted.

There is something called a “Kashmir dispute” and  just because the international community has left it to the two countries to resolve it does not mean that it has ceased to exist ; or that the world accepts either Delhi's or Islamabad's claims at face value.

It seems that India has not noticed that its notion of absolute national sovereignty passed its sell-by date more than two decades ago.  The whole international doctrine of national sovereignty and what constitutes a country's internal affairs has changed profoundly in recent years, especially since the territorial meltdown in Eastern Europe and the Balkans following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The partition of Sudan, the growling momentum of secessionist movements in Africa, and the push for autonomy in the Muslim world-- not to mention what's happening in Ukraine--are all signs of the changing times.

Human rights, people's will and their right to self-determination have trumped the old idea of absolute immutable national sovereignty and non-negotiable territorial integrity. As I write this, the United Kingdom faces the prospect of a break-up with Scotland holding a referendum on September 18 to decide whether or not to continue its 300-year old union with Britain. And it is interesting to see how Britain is approaching it ? Not by bullying or intimidation but by love-bombing the Scots, begging them to stay on, and promising to reward them with greater autonomy if they reject independence.

In India, on the other hand, not only autonomy guaranteed to Kashmir at the time of its accession has been progressively whittled down over the years, the Modi government's official policy is to scrap Article 360 which gives it special status.

It is a prescription for further alienating the Kashmiris and pushing them into the pro-azadi camp whereas the effort should be to win their hearts and minds-- if necessary by bribing them, as the Brits are  doing, offering them inducements they cannot reject. Like everything else, loyalty has a price tag; and how much you are willing to pay shows much you value a relationship.

For all the talk of a "new" India , regrettably its worldview and diplomacy remain stuck in the mid-twentieth century with old notions of nationhood and sovereignty. The twenty- first century is the age of “multinational statehood” and large nations with culturally diverse populations need people's consent to govern them.  It is no longer possible to impose consent from London, Moscow and Delhi. It has to be earned. Jackboots have had their day.

And if you cannot resolve a dispute yourself there's no shame in seeking others’ help to facilitate a settlement. The peace in Northern Ireland was restored not by the army but through long and tortuous negotiations facilitated by the then US president Bill Clinton leading to an agreement to give the province huge powers to govern itself through its own parliament.

India, by contrast, neither wants to involve outsiders, nor it seems does it like to do much talking itself-- either with Kashmiris or the other party to the dispute. Ideally, it doesn't want to do anything because the status quo suits it.

But it's often forgotten that what India has been doing in Kashmir is essentially managing a  holding operation . It has already gone on for too long , and a holding operation, by definition, cannot be sustained forever.  India needs a more grown-up Kashmir policy consistent with the new global approach to secessionist tendencies.

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Updated Date: Sep 18, 2014 12:49:14 IST