Distant Dream

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  • Publish Date: Feb 13 2018 2:14AM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 13 2018 2:14AM
Distant Dream

Will Mehbooba Mufti’s hope for Kashmir joining CPEC ever come true?

 

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor is being touted as a game changer that could reshape the economic and political landscape of South Asia. It’s a crucial piece in China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road project, an over trillion-dollar network of highways, railway lines, sea ports and telecom facilities across 60 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa intended at vastly increasing connectivity and cooperation and, most importantly, generating trade.  

CPEC spans much of Pakistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir, fed by the Gwadar port on the Persian Gulf. In PoK, the Gilgit Baltistan region is the corridor’s key node. The corridor, for which China has already committed 60 billion dollars, is likely to boost economic activity in PoK by creating infrastructure and generating jobs. It could also open up the region up to the world.

Considering that a part of CPEC is barely 100 km from the Line of Control, how will it affect this part of Kashmir occupied by India?

A report prepared for the Indian home ministry by the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s Criminal Investigation Department in 2016 argued that CPEC will usher in economic prosperity in areas of PoK close to the LoC and, as such, provoke demands for this part of Kashmir to join the corridor as well.

Such demands are already being made, in fact, including by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. 

In November 2017, the Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui said Beijing “has offered India to rename the CPEC and consider alternative routes through Jammu and Kashmir to address its concerns”.

In response, Mehbooba tweeted that New Delhi should accept the offer as it “will open up avenues for greater economic ties and cultural exchanges”, and reinforce the need to “rediscover traditional trade routes of Kashmir”. 

Since India claims all of Kashmir as its own, it has strongly protested against CPEC for violating its sovereignty, and refused to join OBOR.

This has not stopped Mehbooba from repeatedly advocating opening Kashmir’s western routes, that is, routes towards Central Asia through Pakistan. “By reopening the traditional and historic routes of the state, we shall be writing a new history,” she has said. 

Prof GN Khaki, director of the Kashmir University’s Centre for Central Asian Studies, backs the demand. “We had economic, cultural and trade links with the region prior to 1947. We used to exchange knowledge with China and Central Asian countries,” he said. “Kashmiris would often visit Samarkand and Chinese Turkistan, learning art and conducting business. Links with Central Asia and China helped a great deal in transmission of ideas that enriched the knowledge, culture and tradition of Kashmir.”

Since CPEC could potentially revive these old routes, Khaki said, it is bound to generate interest in Kashmir. “We have lost connectivity with Central Asia. This will help revive the historical links,” he said, identifying the routes linking Kashmir with China and Central Asia as “Leh-Turtuk, Leh-Chishoor, Uri-Muzaffrabad, Tangdhar, Gurez and Kanzalwan routes”.

If Jammu and Kashmir were to join CPEC, Khaki said, it would be greatly beneficial. “People can bring goods and technology and sell their wares to many countries that are part of OBOR project. It has the potential to open profitable business avenues for Kashmir. So, CPEC will have great impact on Kashmir as it unfolds. It is bound to raise aspirations in Kashmir.”

Traders agree. “All surrounding countries have become part of OBOR, only India is not joining. But it should take the benefit of OBOR by fully participating in the initiative,” argued Shakeel Qalandar, former member of the Federation Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Kashmir. “CPEC will bring prosperity to South Asia when countries pool their resources and share with each other for the collective development of the region. India has to rise above politics and ideology for regional development.”

If that isn’t motivation enough, Qalandar said, “this will also help in resolving other disputes”.

As for Kashmir, he said, “we badly need such initiatives for the forward movement of our economy”. “There are no negatives attached to CPEC,” he added.

Mubeen Shah, former president of the Kashmir Chambers of Commerce and Industry, argued the project “has the potential to break the status quo”.

In an article titled Impact of CPEC on Kashmir, he urged both pro-Indian parties and the pro-freedom leadership to impress upon India and Pakistan to declare free economic zones in Kashmir so it reaps the benefit of OBOR. “I think people of Kashmir have been waiting for an initiative which has the potential to break the status quo. By connecting J&K with CPEC, the state can become the buffer for economic relationship between the two disgruntled nuclear neighbours. It will also become the moral and spiritual hub of a new union of South Asian countries,” he wrote. 

Zahoor Ahmed Tramboo, president of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry, argued that CPEC could positively impact Kashmir. “CPEC would be a game changer for Kashmir. We would be connected to the nearest deep sea port of Gawadar. It would save costs, free us from hassles and connect us to the rest of the world.”

Not just Kashmir, much of northern India would also benefit. “But politics is at play,” he rued. “We do not have a choice.” 

The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, however, is not sold on the idea. “I don’t think that CPEC will be beneficial for Kashmir,” said its president Javaid Tenga. “There is always disturbance between the two countries, India and Pakistan. And since 1947, we have not seen any such initiative bearing any results”.

Pointing out that even the small-scale cross-LoC trade is plagued with problems, he said, “I can’t see a positive impact of CPEC on Kashmir.”

But even if Kashmir does join CPEC somehow, will it affect the Kashmir dispute? Siddiq Wahid, former vice chancellor of the Islamic University, is circumspect. “The impact on the dispute over J&K state of CPEC, in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, depends on whether its primary intent is economic/cultural or security/strategic in orientation. The jury is still out on that question. So, we will have to wait and see whether it will ‘create opportunities for Kashmir’.”

The political scientist Prof Noor Baba, however, believes that CPEC provides an “opportunity” for the region to come to a compromise on Kashmir and reap economic benefit at the same time. “Economy and politics cannot be separated,” Baba said. “There have been a number of historical happenings where the economic imperatives have pushed the political policies of the government. So, the disputed nature of Kashmir has political implications for CPEC.”

However, for now at least, “Kashmir’s interest is in economy”, Baba argued. “We want Kashmir’s isolation to be relaxed or ended. These alternative routes can prove handy in that regard,” he explained. “One dimension of the Kashmir problem is that it was isolated after 1947 due to tightening of the borders. Hence, it was placed in economically disadvantaged position.” CPEC, at the very least, could help lessen Kashmir’s isolation.

All this, of course, is contingent of India ever agreeing to let Kashmir join CPEC. And the prospect of that happening appears quite remote.