Panel discussion highlights the many complications of Kashmir conflict

Students, faculty and Williamstown residents had the opportunity to hear different perspectives on the highly-contested Kashmir conflict, last Friday evening.

Professor Robert G. Wirsing of the Asia-Pacific Center in Hawaii presented the complex character of the conflict, saying “[this is] an issue pretty high on the global agenda.” He admitted that defining the problem itself constitutes perhaps a separate source of dispute. With time, Kashmir has evolved into “a surrogate, a metaphor, a cover story.”

Trying to elaborate on four distinct dimensions of the Kashmir conflict, Wirsing noted that many Pakistanis reject the current status quo, while the Kashmiri themselves would like to be independent of either side. He added that the United Nations has, rather unsuccessfully, attempted to foster some degree of stability by installing its plebiscite in Kashmir.

During 2002, there were thee elections in that part of Asia: two in India and one in Pakistan, but what followed from them only contributed to further complicate the impasse.

Wirsing stated that those elections and the dynamics they perpetuated merely “add up to the conclusion that the Kashmir conflict is not likely to be solved by the ballot.”

On the territorial question, Wirsing depicted a familiar picture of a possible resource war. With Kashmir’s territory of roughly 86,000 square miles (three times the size of Belgium) and Pakistan’s and India’s population projected to increase in the next 50 years, water will be of major importance in the region.

Wirsing concluded his talk by addressing the international strategic dimension of the Kashmir conflict.

He reminded the audience that all three neighboring counties – China, India and Pakistan, are nuclear powers.

After Sept. 11, Pakistan joined the global war on terrorism, giving its military bases for use by U.S. military troops. In return, Pakistan received a substantial amount of economic aid, which helped it restore the international prestige it had lost during the last two decades. Through this “thickening relationship” with the U.S., Pakistan has gained a powerful deterrent against India.

In light of these complexities when discussing the Kashmir conflict, dealing with it promises to be at least as intricate and as difficult.

“It cannot be washed away with elections,” said Wirsing, summing up his argument.

The second panelist, Professor Sumit Ganguly of the University of Texas, Austin, presented the Indian perspective on the conflict. He opened up his talk pointing out the importance of the two UN resolutions from 1948 and 1949 that had called for Pakistan to “vacate its aggression in Kashmir.”

Around the same time, India reduced its military troops in the region. These two resolutions had long been seen as the cornerstone of UN debates over Kashmir.

Ganguly stressed the key role of article 370 of one of the UN resolutions. Quickly leading to a highly politicized debate, article 370 became a ‘target’ that the Indians wanted to dismantle, leading to the strategy of ethnic flooding of the region with Indians. A change in the demography of Kashmir would only render the situation more precarious.

With Ganguly’s words still resounding in their ears, the audience was exposed to the Pakistani viewpoint on the Kashmir conflict put forth by former ambassador Husain Haqqani.

He made a very strong case about the “linkage between internal Pakistani evolution and external factors shaping the conflict.” Haqqani built on the perception that Pakistan is in a state of crisis.

“While Indian statehood was accepted worldwide, we had a nation of psychosis,” Haqqani said.

The insecurity that arose has drawn the whole conflict.

Since these altercations, residents of Pakistan, a Muslim state, feel that Kashmir rightly belongs to them because of the country’s high Musilim majority. For Pakistan, Kashmir embodies distrust and fear of India.

Haqqani shared his belief that the conflict could be addressed, if India finally reassured Pakistan of its statehood.

“Pakistan is there; there’s neither need nor way to undo it,” he said. Once we realize this, various options to resolve the dispute arise, although Haqqani did not go into particularities.

This was more the task on which Professor Subhash Kak from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, tried to focus his discussion of the conflict.

Kak suggested introducing quotas for colleges and work in the 1,500 square miles of the Valley of Kashmir, the place he referred to as the core of the conflict.

Such initiatives should address concerns that citizens in the Jammu province of India generally have. Yet, those internal problems should abate with time, whereas the true, external reasons for the perpetuation of the conflict – like the war on terrorism, will continue to play a central role.

After the panelists had each spoken individually, there was time for the audience to engage in a Q&A session.

A Williamstown resident pointed out some cultural similarities between Indians and Pakistanis and asked whether it would not be possible for the two countries to somehow reconcile or at least mitigate the enmity that has arisen between them.

“After all, you have Hindi and Muslims living peacefully together in other places in the world,” she said.

Ganguly was quick to warn her and the rest of the audience: “Don’t dwell too much on cultural similarities. It’s dangerous. . .Small differences on both sides have been carefully nurtured.It might be a tempting suggestion or yearning that we all hold hands and pray the word of God…While this might be acceptable in a confined community like Williams, it is not very realistic on the subcontinent.”