For Peace in Kashmir, Look to Dublin

11/11/2011 12:43 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

The decision by the government of Pakistan to grant Most Favoured Nation status to India is a significant step towards improving not only economic opportunity in the region, but bilateral relations between the two South Asian powers. While economists agree the decision will be mutually beneficial in terms of economics, this diplomatic improvement also provides an opportunity to chart a new path towards resolution of the age-old conflict over Kashmir.

The conflict over Kashmir dates back to the time of independence. In October 1947, militia fighters launched attacks in order to convince the Maharaja that the Muslim population would not accept a decision to cede Jammu and Kashmir to India. The plot backfired, and on 25 October, the Mahajara signed the Instrument of Accession setting off the First Kashmir War. In 1949, the Line of Control diving Azad Kashmir from Jammu and Kashmir was established as a temporary end to the fighting.

For over sixty years since that fateful day, fighting over control of Kashmir has continued, and the issue has remained at a point of stalemate. India, of course, claims that the princely state was legally ceded to them by the Maharaja, while Pakistan insists that allowing a monarch to make such a decision without consulting the people makes a mockery of the very democracy that India claims to represent.

As a result of this impasse, Pakistan and India have fought three wars and engaged in countless armed conflicts. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in the fighting, yet the issue remains unresolved and, many fear, unresolvable. Despite the lack of progress over generations, some continue to look to view favourably the same old strategy of using militant fighters to convince the India that maintaining control of Jammu and Kashmir is a prize not worth the cost. But the militant strategy has been no more successful today than it was six decades ago. Only now, the militant strategy risks much more than Kashmir.

In 1999, under the direction of Chief of Army Staff Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistani paramilitaries occupied positions on the Indian side of the Line of Control in an attempt to gain an element of surprise and, thereby, a strategic advantage over the Indians. The strategy not only failed, it sparked fears of escalation to nuclear war. In an attempt to broker peace, Nawaz Sharif, then-Prime Minister, was rebuffed by Beijing and traveled to Washington to ask the White House to negotiate a solution. This latest failed attempt at changing the status quo by military means proved not only that the Kashmir issue cannot be solved by force, but that with the advent of nuclear weapons in the region, the stakes for such attempts had become much higher.

Unfortunately, there are some who continue to view Kashmir as an issue that will be decided by martial and not political means. Following Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar's announcement that the government of Pakistan plans to grant India Most Favoured Nation status, objections were raised by leaders of religious parties such as the Jamiat Uleme-e-Islam (Fazl) and Jamaat-e-Islami. Imran Khan, leader of the Tehreek-i-Insaf political party, reignited the issue at a rally on 30 October in Lahore when he declared that, "India will fail [in Kashmir] just like US forces failed in Afghanistan". Such rejections of diplomacy as a solution to international disagreements are counterproductive and unnecessary.

A different model of change is being carried out in another nation left divided by the British empire. That nation is, of course, Ireland. Northern Ireland has been beset by communal and anti-colonial violence since before its legal creation by the British in 1920. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Irish Volunteers - soon to be known as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a militia that waged a decades-long guerilla campaign against British rule - was formed.

But after decades of fighting and killing over Irish re-unification, little changed. Rather than moving either side towards a resolution, violence tended to push each side further away from the other, resulting in escalating violence and little hope for peace. But then, something changed. In 1994, the IRA declared a unilateral ceasefire. In 1998, the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, accepted a negotiated end to the conflict. In 2002, the IRA apologised for the killing of over 1,800 innocent civilians by car bombs and other indiscriminate acts of terrorism. And in 2005, the IRA voluntarily de-weaponised under international supervision.

Some in the Irish resistance movement saw this as a sign of weakness, and feared that it would be taken as capitulation to the British occupiers. But over the past few years, as IRA militants traded their bombs for ballots and engaged in the political process instead of militant violence, what for decades seemed like an impossible outcome became not only possible, but seemingly inevitable.

Martin McGuinness is a former IRA commander who has turned his back on violence and embraced the political process as the only realistic way to bring about progress for his people. Today, he is a candidate for president of the Irish Republic and, though he is considered unlikely to win in the present election, his campaign is a sign that Ireland is moving towards a future in which old divisions are relegated to the past. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. McGuinness said he has "no doubt that we can bring about the reunification of Ireland by purely peaceful and democratic means if we're smart about it, and if we work in ways that makes the partition of Ireland irrelevant."

There is still work to be done in the healing the deep wounds left by years of fighting in Ireland, but for the first time in almost a century, a way forward has been found - using the democratic political process to make the partition "irrelevant". Religious parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and ambitious politicians like Imran Khan may find that chest-thumping on the issue of Kashmir is an easy applause line, but the policies they continue to support are proven to be not only a failure, but counterproductive to the goal of a free Kashmir.

After six decades, it's time to admit that militias and violence are a failed strategy that can do no more than prolong an existing stalemate. Real solutions can only come from diplomacy and the democratic political process. In Ireland, former militia fighters traded their bullet boxes for ballot boxes, and they are seeing the old divisions in their homeland slowly being erased. Pakistan has the opportunity to do the same.

By reaching across the Line of Control to grant Most Favoured Nation status to India, the present government has shown not only deep courage, but diplomatic wisdom as well. It may seem a small step today, but if it can open a new path to peace and resolution in Kashmir, it will be the most important step of all. We owe it to the people of Kashmir to try.