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Navigating the PoK Dilemma: India's Quest for Resolution

India's approach to PoK balances rhetoric with practical policy decisions, with far-reaching implications for territorial claims, regional stability, bilateral ties, and global standing.

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Yasin Valley in Gilgit Baltistan | Pakistan Occupied Kashmir | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

As the fabric of time weaves its intricate patterns, the resonances of historical decisions continue to shape our world, leaving indelible marks on the tapestry of nations. This phenomenon is starkly evident in the saga of Kashmir, a poignant testament to the unforgiving nature of history. The story of Kashmir, especially the enduring controversy over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), epitomises the weight of past choices on our present and future.

August 5, 2023, marked the fourth anniversary of India's decision to revoke Article 370, which had granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir. This move, seen as a rectification of a historical error, brought J&K on par with the rest of India. Yet, the unresolved issue of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir continues to echo in the collective consciousness of the people of India, sparking intense debate both domestically and internationally.

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In 2019, India's External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said: "Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is part of India, and we expect one day to have physical jurisdiction over it." This declaration signalled a strategic shift in India's stance on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, a territory long contested and currently under Pakistan's control. This policy change can be traced back to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Independence Day speech in 2016, marking the genesis of a more assertive Indian approach towards Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This has been consistently echoed by various Indian leaders, from Union Home Minister Amit Shah to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. The parliamentary resolution of 1994, which unequivocally states that PoK is an integral part of India, serves as a foundational pillar for this policy. However, the challenge remains: how does India plan to reclaim this territory? 

India's PoK Strategy - Beyond Rhetoric?

The Winter Session of the Indian Parliament reignited discussions around Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, a topic of longstanding contention and national significance. The passage of the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, once again focused attention on this complex issue. Union Home Minister Amit Shah's assertion that "Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is an integral part of India and no one can snatch it away from us" also resonated amongst many people who want to see the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir issue resolved. But this leads to an essential question: Is India's approach to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir moving beyond symbolic political posturing to tangible action?

Brigadier Vinod Dutta (Retd.), a seasoned army veteran with extensive experience in Kashmir who fought the Kargil war points out the aggressive stance of Pakistan towards Kashmir and the ongoing dispute over the territory's rightful ownership. The term "Pakistan Occupied Kashmir" itself, juxtaposed against Pakistan's reference to it as "Azad Kashmir", highlights the deep-seated disagreement between the two nations.

Despite being a matter of bilateral concern, the dispute has found its way to international platforms like the United Nations, leading to the deployment of the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan. Having been stationed in the Kashmir valley thrice, he states that while the issue is recognised as bilateral, a resolution remains elusive for decades.

“There has been a systematic alteration in the ethnic composition of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The influx of Punjabi population from Pakistan's Punjab region into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is reshaping the demographic landscape, a move that could have long-term geopolitical implications. This demographic change, coupled with the reported suppression of religious minorities like the Ahmadis – who face restrictions on their religious practices, including the construction and use of mosques – paints a picture of growing social and religious disenfranchisement,” states Brigadier Dutta. 

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The lack of developmental initiatives in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir coupled with the absence of significant educational infrastructure, such as universities, and the underutilisation of local resources for the benefit of the region's inhabitants are also other points of concern. “Even the hydroelectric resources in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir are primarily exploited for the benefit of mainland Pakistan, leaving the local populace with scant economic opportunities. This situation is reflected in the high unemployment rates, with only 33% employment in areas like Gilgit Baltistan,” adds Brigadier Dutta.

The ground realities of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have led to widespread dissatisfaction among the people and this disenchantment is exacerbated when contrasted with the treatment of their counterparts in the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, where there have been concerted efforts towards development and integration. Brigadier Dutta asserts that if a referendum were held today, the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir would likely express a desire to be part of India, driven by their observations of the relative stability and development in the Indian side of Kashmir.

India's PoK Conundrum: Time for Action?

The evolving situation in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir raises a crucial question for India: Is the nation doing enough to assert claim over the region? With the people of PoK reportedly dissatisfied and looking towards India for stable governance, the debate intensifies on the right approach and timing for India to act. 

The abrogation of Article 370 brought international attention to the Kashmir issue, even prompting offers of mediation from global powers like the United States. However, India's steadfast view that Kashmir is a bilateral issue, as emphasised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has kept external mediation at bay. This stance reflects India's long-held policy of resolving disputes through bilateral dialogues.

Despite this, the question of whether a peaceful resolution to the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir issue is feasible remains. Insiders in the army state that while India prefers peaceful resolution and aims to avoid conflict, the possibility of a military solution, if deemed necessary, cannot be entirely ruled out. If India decides to exercise a military option, it could potentially resolve the matter within a few weeks, according to defence experts.

However, the use of military force is a complex and sensitive matter, especially in a region fraught with geopolitical tensions. India's traditional approach of prioritising peaceful, diplomatic solutions aligns with its 'neighbourhood first' policy. Yet, there is a growing call for more assertive action, fueled by the sentiment that India has not done enough to reclaim Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

The timing for any decisive action is another critical aspect. With India's general elections approaching, there is a sense that the current favourable political environment could provide an opportune moment for India to formulate and execute a more assertive policy on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The impending elections might offer a unique window for the government to take bold steps, leveraging national sentiment and political will.

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The Gilgit Baltistan Predicament: A Call for Decisive Action

The escalating discontent in Gilgit Baltistan presents a critical juncture for India, highlighting a humanitarian crisis that demands immediate attention. The pervasive feeling of disenchantment among the people in this region underscores the urgency for a resolution. It raises an essential question: Does India possess the necessary political will to take decisive action that could potentially bring liberation and peace to the people of Gilgit Baltistan?

For decades, the Kashmir valley has been a hotspot of conflict, resulting in the loss of lives of civilians, defence personnel, and other government officials. This unending strife is a reminder of the high cost of inaction and the dire need for a sustainable solution. The conflict, rooted in historical and geopolitical complexities, has taken a significant toll on the region, both in terms of human lives and socio-economic development.

Pakistan's role in this prolonged conflict is a point of concern, especially considering its involvement in state-sponsored terrorism. This has been a major destabilising factor in the region, exacerbating the security situation and hindering efforts towards peace. Furthermore, Pakistan's relationship with China adds another layer of complexity to the issue. China's perceived strategy of engaging in proxy warfare through Pakistan poses a significant challenge for India, especially in its efforts to curb terrorism in Kashmir.

The solution, as suggested by some, including army veterans like Brigadier Dutta involves a bold move by India to annex and sanitise the disputed areas, including Gilgit Baltistan. Proponents of this view argue that such an action is necessary to eradicate terrorism and establish lasting peace in the region. This approach, however, is not without its risks and complexities. It involves geopolitical considerations, potential international repercussions, and the challenge of integrating these areas into the Indian framework while ensuring the welfare of the local people.

Political Rhetoric or Genuine Intent?

The ongoing discourse regarding India's policy on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir raises a pivotal question: Are India's declarations and postures mere political rhetoric, or do they signify a deep-seated intention to act?

India's persistent assertion that Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is an integral part of its territory raises a critical question: Is this claim merely a component of political rhetoric, or does it reflect a genuine intent and policy direction? This distinction is vital, for if it's merely a rhetorical stance, such proclamations are likely to fade away after key political events and milestones. However, if the claim is rooted in earnest policy objectives, then it necessitates a more concrete and action-oriented approach from the government.

The rhetoric surrounding Pakistan-occupied Kashmir has been a recurrent theme in Indian political discourse, often gaining momentum during significant political or national events. If this narrative is driven primarily by political expediency, it risks being transient, losing momentum and significance once the immediate political imperatives are met. This scenario would leave the issue of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir unresolved, perpetuating the status quo and possibly worsening the uncertainties and complexities of the region.

On the other hand, if India's claim over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is a sincere expression of its policy and intent, it calls for a well-defined strategy and a clear timeframe for action. This approach would mean moving beyond the realm of public statements and diplomatic posturing to implement tangible steps towards addressing the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir issue. In deciding its course of action, India faces several challenges. India's stance on PoK stands at a crossroads between rhetorical emphasis and practical policy-making. The path India chooses will have significant implications not just for its territorial claims but also for regional stability, bilateral relations, and its standing on the global stage. 

With special inputs from Srishti Mukherjee.