The contours of the tussle have changed in a fundamental manner over the years, but both the conflict ‘in’ Kashmir and the conflict ‘over’ Kashmir continue.

December 2009 marks 20 years of the insurgency in Kashmir. During this period, Kashmir has metamorphosed -- in terms of its politics, discourse, the nature of the militancy, the level of external intervention and perceptions of the potential solutions. Yet, much of India’s understanding of Kashmir remains ensnared in the limited confines of history, and thus India fails to understand the changes, declines to advance from age-old positions, and refuses to look for fresh ways to address the conflict.

What has changed since 1989? Let us compare the big picture, then and now. In 1989, India found itself on the losing side of the Cold War with hardly a friend in the international community. More so, the international community was negatively disposed towards India vis-À-vis the Kashmir issue. Pakistan was optimistic after having been part of the alliance that had defeated the Soviet Union in the Afghan war and was confident of its ability and standing in the region. The Kashmiri dissidents, Pakistan and the militants in Kashmir had managed to ‘internationalise’ their cause and garnered significant levels of sympathy for it. India was being pushed into a corner.

This is no more the case. India is increasingly referred to as an emerging power and is considered a key stabilising player in the South Asian subcontinent. The international community is no longer keen to discuss Kashmir or force a solution; it knows India will not be pushed. The stress is now on India and Pakistan finding their own answers, and not much attention is being given to the wishes of the Kashmiris themselves. Furthermore, unlike in the late-1980s, Pakistan is a much-weakened power now without many reliable strategic partners. The state is widely feared to be heading for failure due to its ingrained promotion of terrorism. Kashmir is no more a pet issue for the international community. There are more pressing issues at hand.

Pakistan has clearly foundered over Kashmir. In fact, its strategy vis-À-vis India in general has gone wrong and has backfired terribly. Many of the elements Pakistan supported in an effort to “liberate” Kashmir from India have turned against it. More significantly, Pakistan has seemingly lost the direction of its foreign policy. Contradictory statements on Kashmir abound, rendering the country’s position confusing and ambiguous. Such ambiguity points to a realisation among some people in Pakistan that it needs to think beyond Kashmir, and that it is self-defeating to continue the fight. This has important implications for the conflict.

In India, too, the discourse on Kashmir has changed drastically. The country’s mainstream discourse traditionally considered the issue as one driven and created purely by Pakistani interference. Everyone seemed oblivious to the fact that Pakistan had been given the space for this interference due to India’s traditional mishandling of Kashmir. This mainstream thinking was infused in the media discourse. Bollywood films and popular writing portrayed Kashmir as a terrorism-infested region that needs to be cleansed of Pakistani agents. It tended to draw a picture of Kashmiris as supporters of terrorism and Pakistan. This thinking is undergoing a positive transformation. Today there is a growing awareness about the nuances of the Kashmir problem, and about the follies the Indian state has committed there. There is an understanding of the pervasive sense of alienation among Kashmiris and a growing realisation that anti-India protests are not necessarily pro-Pakistan. There is the realisation that there is a real problem in Kashmir that needs a political resolution.

Over the years, Kashmiri views on Pakistan have changed. Although many people in Kashmir never wanted it to become part of Pakistan, there were some who thought they would be better off there. Moreover, given the negative light in which many Kashmiris often saw India, there was a tendency, even if not so widespread, to view Pakistan with sympathy and admiration. This is changing, thanks to the existential problems that Pakistan is facing, the atrocities that Pakistan-sponsored terrorists have committed in Kashmir, and the general perception that joining Pakistan may not be the best option for Kashmir. As a result, there are fewer Pakistan supporters in the Valley today, and even fewer of them for militants coming from Pakistan to “liberate Kashmir from Indian tyranny.”

Kashmiri politics today is multi-faceted and more vibrant than ever. Analysts and observers tend to get confused while writing about the State primarily because they struggle to appreciate the often contradictory nature of today’s political environment. The people of Kashmir are learning to speak two contrasting languages at once: one of dissidence, and the other of mainstream issues. Many analysts argued that India lost Kashmir during the protests against the Amarnath land transfer. Likewise, many argued after last year’s elections in Jammu and Kashmir (when more than 62 per cent of the people voted as compared to around 43 per cent in 2002) that the historic referendum was the last nail in the coffin of separatist politics and ‘azadi’ sentiments in the Valley. Both arguments failed to understand the complexity of the politics in Kashmir or appreciate that political affairs there have changed fundamentally.

The ‘mainstreaming of dissent’ is another phenomenon in contemporary Kashmir. Gone are the days when the separatists were an untouchable lot. Today, separatist politics and ‘azadi’ sentiments are more nuanced, more complex than before and take many forms, ranging from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP would object to being called ‘pro-azadi,’ ‘separatist’ or even ‘soft-separatist,’ yet the fact remains that it walks a very fine line. On the one hand, the self-rule proposal put forward by it asks for more than what the Constitution of India promises the State and is closer to the platform proposed by separatist leaders (such as Sajjad Lone). On the other, the PDP has a political constituency that speaks the language of both separatism and ‘azadi.’ Yet, having ruled the State for three years, the PDP is a mainstream Kashmiri political party with clear links to the Indian state. On the other side of the divide, the dissident APHC often raises governance-related issues. This crossing of traditional political boundaries by the hitherto opposed political groups indicates the complexity of Kashmir’s new politics.

The meaning of ‘azadi’ has also grown in complexity over the last 20 years, becoming more nuanced and developing more shades of meaning, which many analysts fail to recognise. It would not be wrong to say that the aspirations for freedom — the ‘azadi’ sentiment — were strong in Kashmir when the insurgency began. However, 20 years on, this sentiment is more refined today; ‘azadi’ does not always mean self-determination in popular parlance now. ‘Azadi’ today means freedom from the fear of militants and security forces, as well as dignity and self-respect, self-governance, and the absence of New Delhi’s perceived political high-handedness.

Many and multifarious pathways aimed at reconciliation have emerged. Although the India-Pakistan peace process is currently on ice, the Srinagar-New Delhi conversation is very much alive. There are dialogues taking place between Jammu and Srinagar as well as among Muzaffarabad and Srinagar and Jammu. Traders from both sides of the State have established a joint J&K Chamber of Commerce and Industries. While many of these ‘peace tracks’ need to be revived, their very existence shows the fundamental manner in which the conflict has been transformed from the time violence permeated the State.

While it is true that its contours have changed in a fundamental manner, it is also true that both the conflict in Kashmir and the conflict over Kashmir continue to exist. The stakeholders must show more determination and enthusiasm to engage each other and discover a solution. However, to do so they must first acknowledge Kashmir’s metamorphosis.

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