The Indian Analyst

Will Kashmir go the way of Aceh?



 By Eric Koo Peng Kuan

When an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale struck South Asia on October 8, 2005, killing some 79,000 people in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, it also left a staggering 3.3 million people homeless, especially in the conflict rife region of Kashmir. This humanitarian crisis affected, incidentally, in what is one of the world’s most sensitive flashpoints.[1]

The dispute over Kashmir is a long standing one since the formation of Pakistan and India as two separate nations almost six decades ago. Pakistan’s political claims to the region lie in that there is a substantial Muslim population in Kashmir that makes up the majority, with at least 3 million in Azad Kashmir, (or the area of Kashmir under Pakistani control) alone.[2]

Natural disasters have proven to be unexpected calamities that can significantly influence the course of political events and even bring about the shifting of balances of power. Last December, the tsunami arising from the seabed of the Indian Ocean so badly devastated Aceh Province in Indonesia, that the event led subsequently to the peace negotiations between the separatist, insurgent organization Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) and the Jakarta government. Talks were initiated between Jakarta and GAM even as early as February this year. By 15 August 2005, a treaty between the two parties was signed in Finland, leading to a peaceful settlement to the conflict. In return for the insurgents’ surrendering of arms and ending the armed struggle, Jakarta initiated a gradual withdrawal of the Indonesian army and also granted a general amnesty extended to the Acehnese rebels, thus effectively ending more than two years of imposed martial law in Aceh province, and nearly 30 years of insurgency and armed struggle.

With this sudden earthquake striking South Asia, will the 16-year Kashmiri armed insurgency started in 1989, which arose from the long standing dispute over this land between Pakistan and India, also similarly come to an end, much in the same fashion as Aceh?

Although the situation of refugees and earthquake victims seems grave, it has not deteriorated to the extent to which Islamabad cannot handle. It may be too early and optimistic to expect that Kashmir ceases to be the bone of contention between two traditionally hostile nations, in spite of recent improvements of interstate relations between India and Pakistan.

Firstly, Kashmir is a political issue employed by Pakistan frequently as a safety valve for its own domestic troubles. The dispute over Kashmir justified past Pakistani foreign and defence policies in the eyes of its population and helped ensure solidarity.  This was the age old argument put forth by India, even long before the onset of the South Asian earthquake. If this opinion is true, then all the more Pakistan will not abandon the struggle for Kashmir just because of a natural disaster, no matter the scale of destruction.  

Secondly, unlike the GAM in Aceh, Pakistan does not rely on local support to keep the armed struggle waged by Kashmiri militants going. The optimistic argument on the Acehnese peace was that the tragedy brought about by the December tsunami brought all disputing factions in Aceh province together. Reality on the ground is that social and economic conditions had changed so much because of the devastation brought by the tsunami waves that GAM recognized it could no longer wage an effective armed  insurgency campaign to oppose Jakarta, whereas the Indonesian government was less affected by the tsunami’s destruction.  

Currently, the South Asian earthquake is viewed by the world as almost equal in intensity as the great tsunami disaster in December last year. Foreign aid and supplies are coming in to help elevate the suffering of the refugees and the desperate situation on the ground. However, due to the scale of the disaster and other physical factors, such as distance and terrain, much of the needed aid materials have not been properly channeled to many of the quake victims.

Pakistan, therefore, will likely invoke the desperate need to help the Kashmiri refugees in Azad Kashmir to probably push for concessions and the proper political justifications for the need to maintain a permanent Pakistani presence in Kashmir.

Kashmir is a zero sum game. Both India and Pakistan perceived the Kashmiri issue as either taking everything, or nothing at all. There will not likely be compromise of recognized co-existence of both a Pakistani and an Indian Kashmir. 

For example, Pakistan has accepted material aid from India, but does not welcome the presence of additional Indian troops to aid with the rescue work in the earthquake stricken area. This illustrated that political concerns still over-rode immediate humanitarian needs.

Short of international intervention with forceful settlement of the division of the Kashmir and Jammu territories in favour of either India or Pakistan, it is unlikely that Kashmir can settle down to a ceasefire and later to a more permanent peace. As one anonymous quake victim expressed in a television interview, politics is still being played out between Pakistan and India despite the large numbers of lives lost in the earthquake.

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