The long-standing conflict in and around the regions of Jammu and Kashmir is rooted in the 1947 division of the sub-continent following colonialism. India and Pakistan continue to assert claims over its entire territory, and China also holds a large portion of the contested territories. Tensions and unresolved grievances around these historic disputes continue to feed wider regional instability and undermine efforts for demilitarisation and improved relations between India and Pakistan.
Despite progress in recent years, there is continued deadlock in the peace talks and periods of heightened tensions between the two countries. This often leads to increased violence across the Line of Control (LoC). Conflict in Afghanistan also has the potential to incite violence in Kashmir.
Home to over one fifth of the world’s population, the human and developmental consequences of protracted conflict in South Asia are immense. The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and left many more displaced. A large number of families have also been divided as a result of the unresolved conflict and unable to visit each other across the LoC due to travel and communication barriers. The Kashmir conflict also impedes prospects for greater regional cooperation in South Asia through forums such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Re-establishing connections across the Line of Control
In 2004, a bilateral dialogue took place between India and Pakistan. Despite its slow pace, this so-called ‘composite dialogue’ presented the most recent prospect for peace. However, the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 brought this process to a halt – leaving an accusatory rhetoric that still permeates public discourse. Despite the challenges, practical advances made while the composite dialogue was active have not been reversed. These include an agreed ceasefire and confidence-building measures to allow travel and trade across the LoC.
Consequently, cross-LoC trade as well as a bus service enabling people-to-people contact endure, with strong public support across Kashmir in retaining these connections. These were historic measures and allowed some divided families to reunite with their loved ones across the LoC. The links created through these channels have been sustained despite fluctuating formal relations between the governments of India and Pakistan.
Deepening the peace process
Despite a highly militarised standoff persisting between India and Pakistan and an erratic bilateral dialogue process at the official level, civil society in India, Pakistan and on either side of the LoC in Kashmir has continued to actively promote engagement across divides. By eliciting widespread public support for the peace process, these efforts hope to create an added impetus for formal dialogue. They also aim to ensure that official dialogue processes are responsive to the needs and aspirations of communities that bear the primary impact of the conflict.
Challenges to peace
In the 1990s, the conflict took a more violent form within Kashmir and subsequently threatened regional security with the potential of nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Since 2003, levels of violence have reduced. However relations between the two countries remain fragile and sporadically flare up at the LoC. The evolving situation in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Forces, and the expansion of extreme jihadist militant groups in the region (and globally), poses a threat of increased violence and extremism within Kashmir.
There is a need to address a sense of frustration and alienation among the youth in the region by creating avenues for their active participation in peacebuilding processes, economic and public life. A failure to do so will risk a return to violence and unrest. Large scale floods that recently hit both sides of Kashmir could also present both opportunities and threats to building better relations and overcoming divides.