The same day Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made his speech at the United Nations General Assembly and made headlines for reiterating Pakistan’s commitment to the Kashmir cause, another headline donned Pakistani newspapers and news channels — the statement of Pakistan’s army chief, who was visiting the Line of Control (border between Pakistan and India) near Jhelum in which he stated that any provocation by India will be “effectively responded”.
This line from both the civilian and military leadership of Pakistan reflects a sudden change in attitude of the Pakistan government that many are attributing to the recent domestic political chaos in the country.
“Nawaz Sharif took up the Kashmir issue in his bid to appease the army and signalled that he is not contemplating major foreign policy changes that may annoy the military,” says Raza Rumi, a political commentator and author of the book Delhi by Heart.
The pressure Sharif is facing at home has forced him into the survival mode. And in this tricky situation, Sharif’s survival now depends on whether the military would support him in the coming months. With the opposition continuing to protest and demand his resignation, he has become more vulnerable.
“He has little choice but to accept the military’s doctrine on security and foreign relations in which India and Indian threat is central. So, the Kashmir issue has disappeared from the mainstream political discourse. It remains the worldview of civil military bureaucrats and the preserve of militant organisations that promote jihad as the only policy to ‘liberate’ Kashmir,” adds Rumi.
Before the United Nations General Assembly session, Pakistan faced a disaster at home — the monsoon floods that wreaked havoc in the northern part of the country. But instead of looking inward and finding faults with Pakistan’s water management abilities, some sections of the society attributed the loss and disaster to Indians – by releasing excessive water in Pakistani rivers without prior intimation.
Although false, this narrative was weaved in by the Pakistani media, with the help of so-called humanitarian organisations that are a front for militant activities in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Moreover, the current identity of Pakistan, reinforced in Pakistani curriculum, is as a champion of Muslim human rights, from Kashmir to Gaza. And therefore the vernacular in media and Pakistani textbooks continue to shape public opinion.
“It is no secret that the ‘dirty tricks brigade’ as I call those who aim to control the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ and the national narrative, pay retired bureaucrats and army officers handsomely for their letters to editor, op-eds, and television appearances in a bid to influence public discourse around these issues — and that includes Kashmir,” says Beena Sarwar, who runs a Pak-India peace project called Aman ki Aasha, which means Hope for Peace.
But it wasn’t so when Sharif came to power just over a year ago. Enjoying a two-third majority in the parliament, many observers had thought that he would use his huge mandate to mend ties with India and bring about a change in the overall foreign policy. But those hopes have died with the recent developments.
Also read: Prerequisite to stability by Abid Qaiyum Suleri
“Nawaz Sharif had gone out of his way to be conciliatory towards India when he attended Narendra Modi’s inauguration as prime minister in May. In particular, he promised to pick up the threads of the Lahore Declaration which was signed in 1999 between him and the Indian prime minister then,” says Myra MacDonald, author of a book on the Siachen war, working on a book about the relationship between India and Pakistan since 1998.
The Lahore Declaration, which includes a reference to the 1972 Simla Agreement, between the two countries is what may have riled up the Pakistan army. “They [the Pakistan army] for multiple reasons do not want Simla to be the basis for talks,” she adds.
However, the Indians have also added to the problem by taking a hardline to the issue, observers feel.
MacDonald feels that the unilateral cancellation by India of the foreign secretary talks in August put Nawaz Sharif in an awkward position, at a time when he was already battling with domestic protests.
But it is not just India that is shying away from resolving the matter. Experts also feel that the United Nations continues to ignore the Kashmir issue which is a mistake and the global community needs to play its part in resolving this crisis, especially now.
“With the withdrawal of most international troops from Afghanistan, the Line of Control could become very hot again in the coming months, and the world may suddenly find itself needing to pay attention to Kashmir again. And if it comes to that, the international community may regret not having given it sufficient attention earlier on,” says Michael Kugelman, a Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Read on: Kashmir cultural heritage at risk
But for the global community to find a solution, it is imperative that both Pakistan and India first give in to the aspirations of the Kashmiri public on both sides of the border, which experts say is unlikely to happen.
“Neither India nor Pakistan have shown good faith in the treatment of the people of the former Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The people of J&K were not party to Simla, and to my mind continue to have a right to self-determination in the spirit of the original UN resolutions,” says MacDonald.
For her, another issue is the balance of power between India and Pakistan, which has changed dramatically in the last 15 years.
“Not since 1971 have we seen Pakistan lose so much ground to India — the former is now a failing state and the latter a rising world power. Compare that to 1998 — when the nuclear tests gave Pakistan strategic parity with India, when it dominated Afghanistan through the Taliban and when the Kashmir insurgency was at its height — and you see how much has changed,” she adds.
While some believe in Pakistan there is an unprecedented consensus on the need for peace with India, others feel hawks backed by the Pakistan army justify its huge budget and existence on the perceived Indian threat. Observers feel that the Pakistan-India dispute will continue, especially in the light of how Nawaz Sharif has now been cornered to remain within the policy framework set by the military establishment.
“The notion that Pakistan would simply drop the issue, or move on, seems wholly unlikely. The Kashmir issue will continue to be the 800 pound elephant in the room for the foreseeable future. India and Pakistan have achieved various confidence-building measures; they may eventually formalise a bilateral trade relationship; and they will continue to have high-level talks. But even with these things, the Kashmir issue will always be lurking and tension-filled. Even if there were to be an overflowing repository of goodwill and stacks of confidence-building measures, the issue would still remain present and fraught. I simply think that Pakistan isn’t ready to let go of an issue that it has embraced so tightly for so long,” Kugelman adds.