Kashmir – Existing Deadlocks and Emerging Challenges


Despite recent talks between India and Pakistan on Kashmir, the issue seems to have returned to the political backburner. Relations between the two countries are slowly improving, with Foreign Ministers meeting and Pakistan granting India most favored Nation status. However with regard to Kashmir the existing deadlock remains, and continues to be ignored while both countries have moved their attention back to their other political and economic priorities.


For Pakistan there are the issues on the Western border with Afghanistan and its liaison with the United States’ war , as well as increasing domestic instability with home-grown extremist groups, who terrorize civilians as well as the armed forces.

India’s government on its side is battling an ever increasing number of corruption scandals. The writ of the state is an increasing problem as well as at least 20% of India’s rural areas are under some form of Naxalite control. Both countries have problems with rising disparity and poverty levels.

In fact, Kashmir is no longer the priority it once was either in India or Pakistan. While neither side wants to move away from their principled positions, domestic politics tend to focus on other issues and the wider population no longer seems that interested in Kashmir. However this article argues that there are two very important emerging challenges as to why both India and Pakistan should sit down and work out a solution to the Kashmiri problem.

Why has peace never been achieved?

The reasons that is always held up as making an Indo-Pakistani peace over Kashmir elusive and difficult to achieve is historical legacy – who is right or wrong when it came to the ascendancy of a state with a majority Muslim population and a Hindu ruler? But actually history is not at the bottom of the impasse. The structural issues within both countries have resulted in a lack of political will and a certain comfort with the status quo.

India lacks a clearly defined long term geopolitical vision. Nehru’s vision of India as a leader of the decolonized and developing world is no longer relevant. India has left non alignment behind and has found an alliance with the United States. India still wants recognition as a power, which matters on the world stage, but there seems to be no clear path carved out on how to achieve this. Obviously strong economic growth, preferably in double digits, is an important part of power status in the new world order; however unless India’s poverty issue – affecting around 70% of the billion strong population is sorted, the claims of a 21st century economic power house will continue to ring hollow.

Domestic and foreign policy priorities are hampered by two things – the priority for parties to get re-elected, and therefore focusing on short term gain, as well as the lack of coordination between ministries, which operate largely like independent fiefdoms. There is a lack of vision and leadership as the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) sets its own priorities and cannot monitor the move of each and every ministry. One would expect that Kashmir and the peace process with Pakistan would be a PMO priority – however it is unclear what instructions are given. While the ministry of commerce has in the past expressed the view that increased trade with Pakistan would benefit both countries – this view is diametrically opposed to the home ministry concerned with security and maintaining a strong border. The re-election issue is important as well. There is little political capital to be made out of pushing a process that only really affects the Kashmiris.

India’s vision of itself in the region is still largely unclear. It seems confused between its aspiration of being a global actor and its legacy of being the regional hegemon. It is today no longer sufficient to simply be the largest and, most populous country. But no one seems to be working towards anything like what the Chinese have been doing for two decades – becoming an economic powerhouse well linked into the region through investments and good will gestures.

In Pakistan the main structural issue is the political role of the army. Today, even with a civilian government in Islamabad and an active conflict both inside the country and on Afghanistan’s border, Pakistan’s army still sees its raison d’être as defending its country against India. There is no understanding that a war is not on India’s agenda. If there were to be peace in Kashmir, the role of the army would have to change and it would lose the political (and possibly also some of the economic) power it has developed over the decades. There is disagreement across different power centers here as well, but rather than ministries, the disagreements seem to come from differences between the intelligence and security forces and the civilian leadership. And (as in India) it is good to always have someone to blame when things go wrong. Here too there is no coordinated vision about what to do about India or indeed Kashmir.

Why we need a solution to Kashmir

There are two main issues as to why peace in Kashmir is essential, and not just for the long suffering Kashmiri population, or to boost the number of tourists coming to sit on houseboats on Dal Lake. Firstly, as long as the issues in Kashmir are not settled it will remain a potential flashpoint both for the Indian and Pakistani armies. Second is the longer term issue of water and water scarcity in the region.

A geo-strategic flashpoint

While the border between Pakistan and India is long and traverses Sindh, Gujarat, both Punjabs and Kashmir, the military offensives between the two armies have generally speaking focused on Kashmir. The number of troops stationed on both sides of that part of the border makes this a vulnerable region with regard to military clashes, with the Kashmiris stuck in the middle. Despite a series of talks and confidence building measures in the past two decades, the Indo-Pakistani relationship building remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks and can easily be high-jacked by the political priorities of non-state actors operating in the region. It is imperative that Pakistan reigns in the extremist groups operating on its soil such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Another ‘Mumbai attack’ on Indian soil which can be linked back to a group in Pakistan is likely to spark a military response, and more likely than not this would result in combat somewhere in Kashmir.

From an Indian perspective, negotiating peace in Kashmir should come sooner rather than later. The Pakistani military establishment is still able to sway the activities of a number of the militant organizations, including those that were reportedly set up to send “jihadis” into Kashmir. This was demonstrated by the relative obscurity of the LeT before the Mumbai attacks. At this time if the Indian government were to engage in dialogue with the Pakistani side, there is a good chance that the Pakistani government would still be able to do something about most of the groups active in that area. Waiting too long could have seriously damaging implications for India- either because there is a chance that such non-state actors might soon spiral totally out of Pakistani military control, killing all prospect of peaceful negotiation, or if another serious attack within India’s borders is traced back to non-state actors in Pakistan with the Indian population demanding retaliation. Despite India believing that Kashmir is not a serious issue any more, it is the contention of these authors that India needs to quickly revisit its position.

For Pakistan, as well, negotiating peace now rather than later is the best available option. Given that the economic and strategic gap between India and Pakistan is widening at a rapid pace, Pakistan will soon find itself in a position where India may well have no reason to sit at the table and discuss Kashmir on equal terms. India’s status as a member of the G20, its place as the regional powerhouse in South Asia, and its significant foothold in Afghanistan through billions pumped into Afghan projects and developmental aid, have all contributed to an asymmetric negotiating dynamic. Pakistan has to recognize that the playing field is no longer level. If Pakistan does not bring India to the table now it may miss its opportunity completely.

However, a lasting peace accord between the two nations would also result in a demilitarization of that part of the border, with a lower probability of accidental clashes, lower civilian deaths amongst Kashmir’s population, and a concomitant reduction in defense expenditure in both countries.

Water, climate change and conflict

The Indus River is at the heart of the water problem. It is the only river system that supports Pakistan, a country where more than 90% of the land is arid or semi-arid. It is also one of the only two main river systems supporting the Northwest of India, generally considered to be a water deficient area. Given that over half of Pakistan’s population is employed in the agricultural sector and that Punjab produces more than 20% of India’s wheat and is considered the country’s “bread basket”, the importance of the Indus River to both country’s well-being and economy cannot be overstated.

In arbitrating the border between India and Pakistan in 1947, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was unable to decide what to do with the Indus River System. The conflict over control of Kashmir overlapped with the water troubles between the two states and by January of 1948, India had taken the Kashmir dispute to the UN Security Council.

The dispute over Kashmir and the sharing of water resources issues are intertwined and conflated. The Indus Water Treaty was signed by both states in September of 1960. It gave exclusive rights over the three Western rivers of the Indus River system – Jhelum, Chenab and Indus – to Pakistan and the three eastern rivers of Sutlej, Ravi and Beas to India. After the signing of the treaty much of Kashmir’s water importance was forgotten for the next couple of decades. However once India began sharing plans of its ambitious irrigational projects with Pakistan in the 1980s, by which time the population size in both countries had increased exponentially and water resources were coming under increased stress, it was possible to see how by the 1990s Kashmir’s hydrological importance was once again a serious issue for both countries to consider.

Pakistan’s Position

All of Pakistan is dependent upon the Indus River system. As the upstream riparian on all five of the main Indus tributaries that flow into Pakistan, India has the strategically advantageous position with regards to control and flow of water. Pakistan is all too aware of its vulnerable position vis-a-vis water and the fact that more than half of independent Pakistan’s time has been spent under military rule has not helped to “de-escalate” or “de-securitize” the water discourse in the country.

Over the years water has been raised as an issue directly linked to Kashmir. Pakistan’s political leaders and military elites have emphasized that if they are forced to let go of their claim on Kashmir than that will mean letting go of the source of Jhelum and Chenab as well and being at the mercy of India for water – the remaining three tributaries also originate in Indian territory – which it can meddle with at will. The trust deficit along with the fact that India in 1948 blocked water flows to Pakistan, has the military establishment convinced that they must hold on to their claim on Kashmir in an effort to maintain the country’s water security.

Troublingly, another Pakistani organization that has been vociferous in defending Pakistan’s rights on Kashmir and India’s “aggression” against Pakistan through reduced water flows is the ‘charity’ Jammat-ud-Dawa (JuD). The JuD is widely believed to be a front group of the militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) that has been linked to the Mumbai attacks of 2008. Though there is widespread conjecture on the organization’s close association with Pakistan’s intelligence agency the ISI, officially, such a relationship has always been denied. It is worth noting that the JuD has publicly declared India’s “occupation” of Kashmir unacceptable and has also called its policy of blocking water to Pakistan a reason to wage jihad against the enemy.

India’s Position

India has consistently and emphatically maintained that it has never meddled with Pakistan’s share of the Indus waters. However even at the time of the Indus Water treaty negotiations there were inconsistencies, with India’s finance minister cryptically saying that “Even if it were assumed that some mistakes were made at some short period, which in any case did not exceed one or two weeks”. Since there is a large amount of secrecy that surrounds the governance of the Indus waters and data is not readily shared, there is no definitive way to prove whether India was just caught up in Pakistani sensationalism or whether the seeds of resentment and securitization of water were sowed and are being maintained by the Indian side.

In negotiations and meetings with Pakistani counterparts on the wider Indo-Pak relationship and the peace process, India does not deal with water and Kashmir as the same issue. It has often been suggested by analysts that a more consolidated agreement on water might be lower lying fruit and a more tractable goal in an India-Pakistan composite dialogue as compared to Kashmir as a whole. However, the Indian press seem to have a uniform view on water issues in relation to Pakistan, never explaining Pakistan’s vulnerability to the Indian public. In certain opportune cases, India is happy to conflate the Kashmir and water issues, whereas in negotiations with Pakistan it would like to deal with them as distinct and separate.

India is in the process of building a number of dams on the Jhelum and Chenab (originating in Kashmir) Rivers, such as the Kishenganga, Dal Huste, Sawalkot etc. The Indus Water Treaty allows India to harness hydropower potential of the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers, as long as it does not reduce or delay the supply to Pakistan. India therefore maintains that its projects are in compliance with the Treaty and sees no conflict with Pakistan on these issues.

The situation today

The summer of 2011 saw devastating floods in Southern Pakistan, an unusually heavy monsoon in Northern India, and the worst drought to affect the Horn of Africa in 60 years. This makes it all but impossible to deny, first that the climate is changing and water related disasters such as floods and droughts are increasingly becoming regular occurrences; and second, that the devastation caused during these disasters reveals that neither India nor Pakistan is well prepared to deal with the effects of water related catastrophes. Set against such a backdrop it is important to recognize that both states are increasingly feeling pressured to secure their strategic water resources and ensure the water security of its populace. Given North-Western India’s and most of Pakistan’s dependence on the Indus River, shared between the two states with tributaries that pass through Kashmir – such issues around water security once again put Kashmir squarely in the middle of India and Pakistan’s historic insecurities.

The last few months have been significant with regards to Kashmir and Pakistan-India’s water vulnerabilities. The people of Kashmir have complained for decades that their state “is the hardest hit victim” of the Indus Water Treaty, for it is unable to utilize any of its well-endowed water resources for its own benefit. In July 2011 the Government of Kashmir issued Terms of Reference and hired a consultant for a project quantifying the loss to the state from the Indus Water Treaty. At the same time, Pakistan has taken India to the International Court of Justice at The Hague for violating its terms of the Indus Water Treaty through the construction of the Kishenganga Dam (in the Gurez Valley in Kashmir). The ICJ’s decision is widely seen to have gone in Pakistan’s favor as a stay order on the project has been issued, requiring India to halt construction. While politically Kashmir may been on no one’s agenda, strategic resources result in its occupying center stage again.


In the last decade the issue of India-Pakistan relations has increasingly de-linked from Kashmir. The theory seems to have been that if the two nations could ignore Kashmir, they would be able to reach solutions to other problems, start to build trust, and then tackle the Kashmir issue with mutual confidence. This might have worked a decade ago.

However given the increased role of non-state actors capable of destabilizing the region (and any peace process) through acts of terror, and a changing climate, with water becoming increasingly scarce, Kashmir needs to return to the center of Indo-Pakistan talks. Out of the two issues this article argues, water is by far the most long term and important.

Given that both Pakistan and India are dangerously starved for both water and energy, and that the impacts of climate change and population pressures are increasingly obvious on the Indus River and its tributaries, the prognosis for the Indo-Pakistani water problem involving Kashmir is anything but positive. Both countries need to see last summer’s water disasters as a wake-up call and realize that it is in both their interest to sit down and find a permanent solution to the Kashmir issue. In overcoming the current deadlocks and embracing the new challenges, they will also do the population of Kashmir a great favor, who has been caught between both countries for over six decades. It is no longer in anyone’s interest to de-link Indo-Pakistani relations from the heart of the problem – Kashmir. ■

* Ayesha Siddiqi is an AXA Doctoral Fellow at the War Studies Department at King’s College London.

† Dr. Marie Lall is a Reader in Education Policy and South Asian Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, and an honorary fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. She appears regularly on BBC News 24/ BBC World, Sky TV, Reuters TV, Aljazeera TV and BBC Radio and gives interviews on politics and international relations in South Asia