With the resignation today of President Pervez Musharraf, a new political era in Pakistan and a forthcoming national election in India would seem to promise hope for reopening in a serious way the question of what to do about Kashmir. In this Himalayan region of romance and myth, the two now nuclear-armed countries have faced off for almost sixty years, sporadically shooting across a “line of control” that serves as a tenuous border.
What kind of crisis is this? An Islamic rebellion? India (and some Pakistani hotheads) would like the world to think so, for different reasons. That explanation has resonance among Islam-shy anti-terror warriors as well as among international jihadists. The Kashmiris, a mix of Muslims, Hindus and some Buddhists, see it differently, none more so than the indigenous Muslims of the Kashmir Valley.
This week, thousands of Kashmiris in the Muslim-majority valley have been marching to demand that the United Nations intervene after Indian troops opened fire on protesters, killing a moderate separatist leader and at least twenty-one others, marking a resurgence in violence not seen since 1989-1991. Tens of thousands of Kashmiris have died since then, many other have disappeared.
Keeping a lid on the unfinished business of Kashmir is the mandate of UN’s second-oldest peacekeeping mission, established in January 1949 and still technically active, though just, with a total staff of 116 people and almost no room to maneuver. Over six decades, the UN has never been able to conduct a referendum among Kashmiris. India flatly denies one is needed and rejects any outside interference. It claims its part of the region as the integrated Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan maintains the fiction that its part, Azad (Free) Kashmir, is an autonomous entity with its own government.
The United States, numerous other countries and the United Nations do not recognize either Indian or Pakistani control, a conveniently forgotten reality. To the world this is still occupied territory. To the Muslims of the Kashmir Valley, it is a former princely state whose people were robbed of their right to choose their future at the breakup of British India in 1947. It remains a restive ethnic and cultural enclave in search of independence or something close to it. Think Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, East Timor, Tibet.
In July, before Musharraf’s resignation became inevitable and violence reignited in the Kashmir Valley, sparked by a dispute between Hindus and Muslims over the ownership of property around a Hindu shrine, the polling organization World Public Opinion, part of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, released some thought-provoking if not astonishing findings about opinions on Kashmir among Pakistanis and Indians.