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Young Kashmiris think India and Pakistan can resolve their differences over Kashmir

Our recent survey suggests they also welcome U.S. diplomatic intervention.

- March 4, 2020

President Trump visited India last week — and it was a trip marked by both spectacle and violence. More than 100,000 people wearing “Namaste, Trump” caps greeted the U.S. president at the world’s largest cricket stadium. But violence erupted in New Delhi over a restrictive new citizenship law, and anti-Trump demonstrations took place in several cities.

So what did Trump say about the situation in Kashmir, which remains largely under lockdown after the Indian government rescinded Kashmir’s autonomous status last August? Trump again offered to help mediate — but described Kashmir as a “thorn in lot of people’s sides” and “a big problem between India and Pakistan.”

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India insists that the Kashmir conflict is a bilateral dispute, rejecting third-party intervention. Pakistan’s foreign office spokeswoman, on the other hand, expressed hope that Trump’s recent trip to India would yield “some concrete practical steps” toward U.S. mediation of the conflict.

If President Trump had met with young Kashmiris during his visit, what might he have learned about what they want? Our research suggests that people in Kashmir would have welcomed his efforts to mediate the Kashmir crisis, but also would have pushed to include the Kashmiri people in the process.

How we conducted our research

Between October and December 2019, while Kashmir was in lockdown mode, we surveyed 593 college and university students to study the effects of militarization on political attitudes. We conducted our surveys in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital and most populous city, and surveyed students using the time-space sampling technique at randomly selected locations on university and college campuses and surrounding areas.

Why study the opinions of university students? We wanted to focus on the “generation of rage” and the new activism that played a leading role in the 2016-2017 uprisings. At the time, widespread student protests in the Kashmir Valley left hundreds of students injured in clashes with India’s armed forces, and there were many student arrests.

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Kashmir’s students remain optimistic

Articles 370 and 35-A of India’s constitution gave Kashmir special protections against Indian immigration and property ownership. The August 2019 revocation of these measures bifurcated Kashmir, which India will now administer as a “Union Territory.” This means the central government could veto local government decisions. The move to end Kashmir’s autonomy also effectively cut 7 million people in Kashmir off from the outside world — India restored partial Internet access only a few weeks ago.

We conducted our survey at a time when the vast majority of Kashmiris likely felt disaffected and angry toward India. Yet when we asked what it would take to bring long-lasting peace to Kashmir, our survey respondents expressed hope, rather than rage.

Most of the students we surveyed were optimistic about a number of different options. Two-thirds of the respondents believed that peace negotiations between India and Pakistan could be effective. The number skyrocketed to 83 percent when our survey question included the participation of Kashmiri representatives in these negotiations.

Is it worth requesting help from Pakistan? On this question, there was some disagreement. Roughly 64 percent of respondents considered this move potentially effective. A greater share (79 percent) believed that the conflict could be resolved if Western countries considered the Kashmiri people as a legitimate party in the conflict, with a right to have a say in the outcome.

At India’s behest, U.S. policymakers tend to treat the Kashmir conflict as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. This narrative deems Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, not Kashmir’s political situation, to be the real cause of unrest in the region.

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What will resolve the tensions in Kashmir?

Among our survey respondents, the preferred route to resolving the Kashmir conflict was a plebiscite in which Kashmiri people vote to determine the future of their region. Fully 91 percent of our survey respondents were optimistic about this option — with 81 percent deeming this approach very effective.

The plebiscite option has deep historical roots. When India and Pakistan first fought over Kashmir in 1947-1948, after the two countries became independent from the United Kingdom, the United Nations imposed an immediate cease-fire. A subsequent U.N. resolution called on Pakistan to withdraw its troops and India to reduce its forces to a minimum, and asked both countries to “reaffirm their wish that the future status of the State of Jammu and Kashmir shall be determined in accordance with the will of the people.”

Our survey respondents also favored nonviolent resistance to Indian rule. An overwhelming majority (92 percent) considered nonviolent methods effective — but 64 percent considered the continuation of militancy and violence as useful for bringing about long-lasting peace in the region.

Most of our survey respondents want to see a complete withdrawal (91 percent) of Indian troops, or at least a decrease in India’s military presence (92 percent). Kashmir is perhaps the most densely militarized zone in the world. Before the August crackdown, it had roughly one soldier for every 10 civilians.

Is there a way forward?

We asked respondents about three proposals for peace: the “four-point formula,” the National Conference’s “regional autonomy” proposal, and the People’s Democratic Party’s “self-rule” proposal. All three call for the Line of Control, which separates Pakistani- and Indian-controlled territories, to become a porous international border. Where they differ is in the degree to which Kashmir is to gain autonomy and become demilitarized. The four-point plan calls for maximum autonomy and demilitarization, while the self-rule proposal also emphasizes economic integration.

The majority of our survey respondents were optimistic about all three proposals, though the four-point formula was slightly more popular. Under this scenario, the Line of Control would have transit points for people-to-people exchanges, free trade and other economic opportunities. Kashmiris would have special rights to move and trade freely on both sides of the border.

What did we learn from our study of the political views of Kashmir’s younger generation? First, young Kashmiris are open to a variety of approaches to resolving the conflict, from India-Pakistan bilateral negotiations to foreign diplomatic intervention. And a second key takeaway is that despite the crackdown and communications blockade, Kashmir’s young people remain optimistic about the efficacy of peaceful solutions.

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Samir Ahmad is an assistant professor of governance and politics at the Central University of Kashmir. His research focuses on human rights, militarization and India-Pakistan relations.

Yelena Biberman is an assistant professor of political science at Skidmore College, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “Gambling with Violence: State Outsourcing of War in Pakistan and India” (Oxford University Press, 2019). This research was funded by a Skidmore College Faculty Development Grant.