Why it's so hard to solve the Indo-Pakistan dispute in Kashmir

A masked demonstrator hurls stones at the police during an anti-India protest in Srinagar, Kashmir, on October 4. Danish Ismail/reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

A 12-year-old boy died on Saturday in the Kashmir state capital of Srinagar after being hit in the head by pellets fired by paramilitary forces at crowds of youngsters protesting against the Indian government.

Junaid Ahmad's death sparked clashes during his funeral later in the day, with thousands of protesters chanting "Go, India. Go back" and "We want freedom" as they marched to the city's "martyrs' graveyard" with the boy's body.

The security forces claim Junaid was playing an active part in the protests and threw stones, but his parents and friends said he was hit in the garden outside his home.

The boy's death sparked little apparent interest or concern in New Delhi, where politicians are engrossed in point-scoring following the government's September 29 annoucement that it had conducted "surgical strikes" against alleged terrorist "launching pads" in Pakistan across Kashmir's disputed Line of Control (LOC) border.

That was the first time in many years that India has publicly announced such strikes, and it presented them as evidence of the strong approach of Narendra Modi, India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime minister, against alleged Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

BJP politicians have been boasting politically about the strikes (even though Modi has said they shouldn't), and Indian National Congress politicians have tried to recover ground by revealing that their government conducted similar strikes secretly in earlier years.

Meanwhile, in Islamabad, a Pakistan government spokesman described Junaid's death as the "worst example of state terrorism" and said the incident was part of "continued Indian atrocities" in Kashmir.

And in Washington, Pakistan government emissaries continued to lobby the U.S. government and other politicians about India's alleged human rights abuses in Kashmir and the rightness of the Pakistan cause, but were reportedly given little time and were told to stop encouraging violent activities in India.

Such is the seemingly never-ending and often deadly international conflict over Kashmir that basically stems from the Pakistan army and government failing to accept the inevitability of the LOC being recognized one day as the permanent border.

Instead, Pakistan encourages and facilitates militants' attacks in Kashmir and sometimes India. That leads to heightened tensions in Kashmir, which it also encourages.

For most of the time, the political leaders and military involved are content to let the overall situation simmer, providing that Pakistan's attacks are not too outrageous and successful, and that unrest in the Kashmir Valley does not get out of hand.

Since early summer, however, the situation has become more volatile than New Delhi wants. There was unrest earlier in the year, and Junaid's death was the latest tragedy in three months of large-scale violent protests and clashes that began on July 8 after a prominent Kashmiri militant, Burhan Wani, was killed by Indian forces.

Life in Srinagar and the surrounding Kashmir Valley has been crippled with curfews, bandhs (political strikes) and confrontations between demonstrators and the police and paramilitary forces.

At least 90 people, most of them young protesters, have been killed and more than 12,000 injured in the clashes. Reports suggest that as many as 7,000 people have been arrested, nearly 450 in a crackdown during the past week.

Indian governments rarely take a proactive interest in Kashmir, even when their own party is also in power in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, as is the case now, with the BJP a partner in the state administration.

On this occasion, however, it reacted and sent Rajnath Singh, the home minister, and other politicians to Srinagar a month ago to try to talk to local leaders, including separatist groups, and calm the protests. That failed, so New Delhi now sees the situation as one that needs to be quelled by force.

While the domestic situation has gotten out of hand in Kashmir, so have cross-border attacks. Pakistan-based militants have capitalized on India's appallingly poor defense security by attacking a military air base last January near the border at Pathankot, south of Kashmir in Punjab, and then last month entering an army camp at Uri in Kashmir and killing 18 soldiers.

Embarrassed by India's not defending its bases, Modi ordered the publicly declared army paratrooper strikes against the attacks' "launching pads." He has also effectively isolated Pakistan internationally, even getting all neighboring South Asian countries to condemn the attacks for the first time.

Although this is never formally admitted, there is virtually no chance of a permanent solution in the foreseeable future. As Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign secretary, put it during an NDTV television discussion Sunday night, "We have to recognize that India/Pakistan relations are essentially adversarial relations and are likely to remain adversarial for a considerable period of time."

Although Saran did not spell it out, an Indian government cannot come to a settlement with disgruntled Kashmiris without Pakistan making peace over the disputed border, and that will not happen for two reasons.

First, Pakistan's army, which dominates the country's politics, needs a disputed border to keep itself in business. Secondly, its main ally, China, wants India's western border to be destabilized, as long as that does not get out of hand and lead to war between the two nuclear neighbors. Nothing can be permanently settled without China's agreement, and there is no sign of that happening.

Saran added that India's policy objective therefore has to be to "manage the adversarial relationship in a manner that it does not lead to the escalation of conflict." Significantly, he also said that India could not become a global power unless it learned to manage relationships in its own region.

For India, that means strengthening its military bases' notoriously weak defenses so that militants who come from Pakistan are not successful. There were reports last week that one such attack had been thwarted. But it also means guarding against a major attack.

It also means spotting attack "launch pads" across the LOC and dealing with them as necessary, plus maintaining Pakistan's diplomatic isolation until relations improve.

India also needs for the first time to take a proactive role in the economic development of Kashmir, hard though that may be to achieve, given the present mood. Modi said on August 9 that Kashmir's young people, who should have laptops, cricket bats or books in their hands, "were being given stones" (to throw).

Two months have now elapsed. I wonder what has been done since then to deliver the economic and educational development symbolized by those laptops, bats and books. Probably nothing, and that is the tragedy of India's rule in Kashmir.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India).