The Chatham House poll conducted in the autumn of 2009 in Jammu, Ladakh, Kashmir and Azad Kashmir has revealed an interesting pattern of opinions held across these regions on issues ranging from the perception of major problems people face to effective solutions to the Kashmir issue and the best means to achieve them. Robert Bradnock, under whose supervision the poll was conducted, however presented the results somewhat shoddily leading to confusion over the real import of the opinion poll. This confusion has prompted media in India and Pakistan to portray the polls selectively or in a self-serving manner, largely reflecting their nationalist stances on the Kashmir question. The poll, in reality, points to some interesting developments in Kashmir and indicates a way toward an eventual, mutually agreeable solution.
Consistent with every other poll on the issue, Chatham House poll has shown again that an overwhelming number of people (74—95 percent) in Kashmir region demand independence. This figure comes as no surprise because the support for independence for Kashmir over accession to Pakistan has been steadily growing over the last 20 years. This feeling is more concretely reflected in the fact that most Kashmiris (more than 90 percent) support withdrawal of Indian troops from Kashmir, while a similar figure (around 80 percent) want Pakistan to withdraw its troops from Azad Kashmir. Along with demilitarization, there is a clear demand for de-weaponization (more than 80 percent) and an end to militant violence (around 90 percent) in the Kashmir region. The Line of Control in its present form is uniformly rejected in both Kashmir and Azad Kashmir.
Almost all Kashmiris see themselves personally invested in the political future of Kashmir. While socio-economic problems, like the lack of employment opportunities are high on Kashmiri minds, the issue of human rights abuses is regarded equally important. The sentiment is overwhelmingly against war between India and Pakistan. At the same time, India-Pakistan talks are seen as ineffective for the long-term peace in the region, and to be seen as fruitful a meaningful involvement of Kashmiris is sought. There is, however, no clear means that people endorse to achieve the goal of independence. Both elections and militant violence as a way forward find only a few takers. A clear goal but the lack of effective means highlights Kashmiri frustration with the separatist leadership for failing to chart out a potent strategy.
In contrast, Jammu region presents a more broken opinion, and the only consistent feature is that no one favors the status quo (which is equally true for all the regions). While independence finds extremely low support (close to 1 percent) there is no unified support for an alternative. Slightly more than 50 percent in Jammu, Kathua, and Udhampur would vote for India as an option, but Rajouri and Poonch seem not to care so much about India, Pakistan or independence. The overwhelming concern in these two latter districts is the permanent marking of the LoC. At the same time, however, the people in Rajouri and Poonch want LoC to remain open for free flow of goods and people (a demand that gets support across the regions). In Jammu, Udhampur and Kathua a frighteningly large number of people see war between India and Pakistan as a means to end conflict over Kashmir, but like Kashmiris, people of Rajouri and Poonch are absolutely opposed to war. Again, in Jammu, Udhampur and Kathua, most people would like to see Pakistan withdraw its troops from Azad Kashmir, but no such sentiment is expressed to support demilitarization and de-weaponization on the Indian side of LoC. Contrast it with Poonch and Rajouri, where almost the whole population equally supports withdrawal of Indian as well as Pakistani troops, and de-weaponization of the entire region.
It is clear that Jammu region has a much more fragmented opinion on most of the questions the poll asked. Jammu region, therefore, cannot be considered a unified whole as far as political opinions are concerned. For any debate on the future of the whole region one cannot club Rajouri and Poonch with Jammu, Udhampur, and Kathua because of the fact that these two blocks within the Jammu province express widely divergent opinions. It would be interesting to see how people of Doda, one of the largest districts in Jammu and Kashmir, view their own political future. But a number of other areas are missing from the poll, like Gilgit-Baltistan. An exercise like this in that region could have revealed the nature of ties people there would want with Pakistan and Kashmir.
In presenting his findings, Bradnock rightly concluded that plebiscite based on the UN resolutions, with India and Pakistan as the only options, will no longer solve the Kashmir issue. And yet, despite the fact that the results were presented with an eye on the regional and district-wise variations, when it came to analysis independence as an option heavily favored by all Kashmiris was diluted by aggregating the opinions in Kashmir and Jammu. The weighted mean for independence between almost 90 percent in Kashmir and 1 percent in Jammu (and around 30 percent in Ladakh) came down roughly to 43 percent overall in Jammu and Kashmir, while support for independence was around 44 percent in Azad Kashmir. Between Kashmir region and Azad Kashmir support for independence is clearly close to 70 percent, while the rest are almost equally divided between pro-India and pro-Pakistan positions. So, what appeared to Bradnock as a “startling” result was a consequence of him comparing his findings on the option of independence along Indian and Pakistani state lines. He took the whole of Jammu and Kashmir as one unit and compared it with Azad Kashmir, while ignoring, at least in his summary, the difference between Kashmir and Jammu, as well as the internal differences in the Jammu region. Bradnock, with these lacunae in his understanding, suggested that there are “no simple fixes” to the problem, when clearly a demilitarized, independent Kashmir, mutually recognized by both India and Pakistan is certainly not such a difficult path to take.
Taking these findings as an endorsement of their respectively nationalist positions over Kashmir, the report was published with expedient twists by the Indian and the Pakistani media. Times of India began its article by exuberantly claiming that: “Only 2 per cent of the people in Jammu & Kashmir want to be part of Pakistan” and then falsely adding, “the study…comes as a significant blow to hard-line Kashmiri separatists.” The report never mentioned that in Kashmir the best option seen is independence. Pakistan English daily Dawn headlined its report on the story as “Kashmiri majority not in support of Independence” clearly misrepresenting what its report could barely hide, “In the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, which has been at the heart of a 20-year-old struggle against Indian occupation, between 74 per cent and 95 per cent respondents favoured independent Kashmir.”
These two modes of news reporting on Kashmir indicate clearly that both India and Pakistan agree at least on one proposition: Kashmir should not be made independent. This pits both these countries directly against the most important political goal for the Kashmiri people. One of the lessons Kashmiris can draw is to, therefore, challenge the hegemonic representation of Kashmir as a territorial contest between India and Pakistan. Kashmir must be seen as a national question where Kashmiris demand the right to self-determination, with India and Pakistan not as the only two choices. Much of the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir is in reality symbolic in nature with little substantive interests involved (except for the issue of water for Pakistan, which can be legally settled). For Kashmiris, however, the future of Kashmir is a substantial question with real material consequences for their future. The prolonged India-Pakistan tussle over Kashmir has harmed Kashmiris the most. The only way India and Pakistan can solve this symbolic contest between them is to substantively give up the territories in Kashmir that don’t belong to either of them, and have been forcibly occupied. This poll is telling us as much. It is also telling us that a peaceful, demilitarized, and independent Kashmir, an equal friend of India and Pakistan, is possible. Kashmiris, the poll shows, would be the last to be any obstacle to that future.