A Long Shot in Kashmir

Posted May 18, 2018 10:57 p.m. EDT

The Indian government has announced a halt in operations against militants in Kashmir for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. On its face that should be welcomed, given the steady rise in violence this year, though skeptics have said it will give Islamist separatist militants time to gather strength. In any case, it requires a strong leap of faith to expect that the break, if it holds, can achieve anything resembling a peace process.

The struggle over Kashmir is one of those territorial disputes that seem only to deepen and to assume greater symbolic importance as decades go by and the atrocities and resentments on both sides pile up. The conflict dates back to the end of British rule in 1947 and has been the cause of the three wars between India and Pakistan. Since 1989, an Islamist insurgency supported by Pakistan has further complicated the conflict and raised the death toll.

Border skirmishes along the heavily armed Line of Control dividing Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir are common. With India and Pakistan both in possession of nuclear arms, former President Bill Clinton once called the border “the most dangerous place in the world.” On Friday, despite Ramadan, a fierce exchange of fire between border posts left eight civilians dead.

The Ramadan cease-fire was sought by the chief minister of the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, who has found herself increasingly isolated since her political alliance with India’s dominant party, the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has failed to lower violence. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is due in Kashmir over the weekend to inaugurate development projects.

Another explanation for the cease-fire was evident in a new police report on militancy in south Kashmir. It said that an Indian offensive initiated against jihadis this year has doubled the number of local recruits to the Islamists. It was an age-old story: Heavy-handed tactics may hold territory, but they lose the population.

Yet as former President Barack Obama remarked in 2009, when he considered appointing Clinton to try his hand as mediator, Kashmir is also “a tar pit diplomatically.” The dispute has long ceased being purely territorial, which might be amenable to a practical solution, and has deepened into a zero-sum clash of national pride and identity, made all the more intractable by the rise of Islamist passions among young Muslim Kashmiris. Under stiff Indian opposition to American intervention, Obama abandoned his mediation effort.

A solution to a conflict that touches on so many religious and nationalist nerves must ultimately come from within, through talks among India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir. They have tried before, but contacts in 2008 collapsed when Islamist terrorists staged a series of bloody attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai. A promising meeting in December 2015 between Modi and Nawaz Sharif, who was then Pakistan’s prime minister, came to nothing when Islamist militants attacked an Indian air force base.

Yet the obvious and growing danger of the Kashmir conflict demands trying again and again, however elusive the goal. It may be too much to expect either side to surrender territorial claims on Kashmir, but India’s Ramadan olive branch, however inauspicious, could become the start of a sorely needed dialogue if Pakistan responds by at least suspending its support for Islamic terrorist groups in Kashmir. Given the magnitude of what’s at stake, Washington and other affected powers should do all they can to encourage all sides to give this opening a chance.

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