South Asia's Uneasy Neighbors

Munir Akram at the Asia Society in New York on Jan. 21, 2009.

NEW YORK, January 21, 2009 – The seemingly intractable issue of Kashmir became a focal point of the Asia Society's second public panel discussion on the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai and its implications for Indian-Pakistani relations. In a discussion moderated by ABC News anchor Dan Harris, panelists from the fields of diplomacy and political science were able to agree that the 60-year dispute over the contested territory underlies the two countries' fraught relationship today.

Ashutosh Varshney, professor of political science at Brown University, proposed that India and Pakistan attempt to move towards a relationship more like the one enjoyed by the bordering states of the United States and Canada. The key for the two South Asian neighbors, Varshney continued, is to channel their tensions into competition for economic growth.

"We have to see what we can do to defuse Kashmir," charged Pakistan's former Permanent Representative to the United Nations Munir Akram, emphasizing that Pakistan's government is unlikely to use decisive force against militant organizations as long as there is no progress on Kashmir. Akram stressed that until the general populace commits to a sustainable solution based on progress they see in Kashmir, Pakistan's government won't do so either.

Nicholas Platt, president emeritus of Asia Society and the former US Ambassador to Pakistan, suggested that while the solution to Kashmir needs to come from India and Pakistan, the US could play a valuable role, as it has in past crises, in behind-the-scenes communication. Platt noted that currently neither country's government is secure enough domestically to work towards such a solution, but expressed the hope that as both sides improve their domestic governance over time, both a consensus and a solution might come within reach.

In addition to the search for long-term solutions, Harris asked the panelists what can be done now by India, Pakistan, and the United States to stop the current wave of terrorism that threatens to derail relations between the two nuclear powers and potentially even send them to war. In a spirited discussion Varshney stressed the need, on Pakistan's side, for more governmental resolve to shut down terrorist organizations, while Akram underlined again that until signs come from India on progress in Kashmir, the Pakistani government cannot and will not act against militants.

Despite disagreement over the short-term steps, all parties agreed that progress on Kashmir is necessary in order for the India-Pakistan relationship to move on other tracks, and that the long-term resolution there has to be "autonomy plus, independence minus."

Reported by Danika Swanson