This government has so far made a distinct shift in policy to deal with Pakistan, but mending the chronic nature of Kashmir imbroglio needs steps other than accosting Pakistan. An equally radical step is now needed to reset the internal parameters of Jammu and Kashmir.
Mistakes in J&K, thus far, stemmed from failure to grasp its territorial complexities. Initial flawed decisions on Kashmir, essentially crafted by Nehru, who had wistful familial links with the Valley, undercut India’s interests in several poignant ways. His fallacious statecraft failed to check both China and Pakistan from eating into the state’s territory. Over 55% of the state’s 222,236 sq. km is currently under the occupation of either China or Pakistan. Also, India’s tagging of Ladakh to J&K underscores its lack of strategy clarity. Further, the constitutional arrangement sought for J&K essentially contained the seeds needed for India’s own destruction. The cumulative impact of those missteps is getting clearer by the day.
The nation ought to rethink its J&K policy realistically and in tune with the changed circumstances.
One territorial reality is that 82% of J&K is neither Jammu nor Kashmir; it is Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan. The Ladakh region is critical for India’s national security. Imagine, without Ladakh, the Chinese PLA would be sitting on the southern foothills of the Himalayas. It has been self-harming to have ignored Ladakh thus far, the political profile of which was once compared to other Himalayan kingdoms like Nepal, Mustang, Bhutan, Sikkim and Monyul (Arunachal). The country has also failed to underpin Ladakh’s strategic value for gaining direct access to the Tarim Basin and the Tibetan Plateau.
Ladakh actually had no bonding with either Jammu or Kashmir, except through a brief subjugational link with the Maharaja whose rule lapsed on 26 October 1947. It was Nehru who spurned Ladakh’s resistance to a unitary J&K state and left the fate of this strategic region in Sheikh Abdullah’s hands. Abdullah had no links with Ladakh. Ladakh suffered on demographic deficiency (low weight in electoral politics), often used as an alibi for the neglect. At the same time, New Delhi chose to turn a blind eye to the Kashmiri practice of sabre-rattling. Despite Kashmir’s dire record of tricks and mischief, the Indian leadership was hell bent on appeasing the Valley. The results of that policy are now for all to see.
New Delhi has ignored the Ladakhi demand for Union Territory (UT) status for too long. The demand predated even the Telangana movement. The case of UT status for Ladakh got a shot in the arm when BJP promised to fulfil the agenda in 2014. But is the Narendra Modi government serious?
While the country is bogged down in the Valley, Ladakh may be sliding into disarray amidst simmering anger palpable among the people. The Burhan Wani events have had an impact on Ladakh. Apart from demographic migration, the trend of pro-azaadi protests, hartals and shutdowns are spreading to other parts of the state. It is certainly no good statecraft if demographic scarcity becomes a liability, making the country’s vast borderland vulnerable to encroachment by the enemy.
Ladakh’s economic potentials are not even thought of. Its colossal Indus water resources of Zanskar, Suru, Dras, Shayok tributaries only benefit Pakistani farmers in Punjab and Sind. India did nothing to harness the water flow. Only 5% of Ladakh’s arid land is irrigated. If Article 370 impedes outside investments, the only economic source of tourism remains hostage to peace along the LOC, LAC, and most of all, peace in the Valley. Poor connectivity, in any case, limits the flow of tourists to Ladakh.
Clearly, Kashmir cannot remain a pretext forever for not doing anything about Ladakh. Robust defence preparedness alone cannot ensure durable peace. In fact, further policy duplicities could cause a string of political electrons in the sensitive Himalaya region. Therefore, reordering of J&K is not a choice, but a necessity, for there are far bigger imperatives on the strategic front for India.
The Chinese forays into Gilgit-Baltistan, albeit under the CPEC pretext, may not be without its historical claim over the region since the Tang Dynasty. China’s eventual control over PoK would have direct consequences for Ladakh. Why should we allow J&K to become a trilateral problem?
India can do little to obstruct the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Remaining a bystander is also not a solution. Here, Ladakh’s unique geographical location should offer India a huge potential in terms of leveraging connectivity to the Eurasian region and China. Although, the CPEC initiative posits a complex problem, India needs to join the project in a skilful manner, while also suggesting that parts of the CPEC go through the Indian territory of Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan. This way India can work on those components of CPEC which foster its connectivity with major markets and resource centres. The best way to blunt the CPEC is to think about India’s own “Belt and Road” idea. Modi should offer Xi Jinping an alternative energy corridor originating from an Indian port running across Ladakh to China. Why not use the Aksai Chin highway jointly? The proposal could spring multiple advantages, ranging from attracting Chinese investments, earning transits fees, to nudging Beijing to depend on India, thereby buying guarantee against any Chinese misadventure across the LAC. China stands to gain from a more reliable economic corridor through India than risking investments in terrorism-plagued Pakistan.
A fresh thinking should also draw on the growing opportunities for joining connectivity projects in High Asia and the Eurasia. But for that to happen, the resetting of J&K should form the first step. The people of Ladakh stood united in demanding UT status when they met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh recently. The separation of Ladakh from J&K could become the kernel in India’s long-term domestic and foreign policies. It would be a coup de maître to deal with multiple challenges.
P. Stobdan is an expert on strategic affairs