11/30/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Open Trade Within Closed Civil Society?

Recently India and Pakistan formally reopened a trade route previously closed for over 60 years in the disputed territory of Kashmir. The media has been awash with public statements by officials in the region rightly noting the potential benefits of reopening the trade route now linking the two rival nuclear powers. But the hyped significance of this trade route in Kashmir has marginalized the unresolved issue of recent crackdowns on civil society by the Indian military in which over 35 unarmed protesters were murdered by state security forces and over 600 protesters were injured by gunfire and beatings by Indian state security forces in August this year. This is in addition to over a 1,000 mass graves discovered in just one district in the Kashmir valley in April this year. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, Pakistan continually fails to cease training militants that sneak into the Kashmir valley, thus, stifling civil society's efforts for developing justice and accountability.

As I witness the violence gripping Kashmir today I am reminded of August 2007 when Burmese monks and civil society faced a brutal crackdown by the military Junta in which several civilians were killed and beaten and arrested. There was instant media outcry as well as condemnation by the international community, and rightly so. Had the Burmese Junta and Thailand reopened a trade route similar to India and Pakistan, the media and international community would not applaud trade while remaining silent to the atrocities ongoing there. Yet, in the case of Kashmir, where rights groups estimate over 60,000 people have died and over 8,000 people have disappeared since 1989, there remains indifference by the media and international community to the plight of Kashmiris. The United States has yet to realize the significance of the 'Kashmir piece' to the puzzle of regional peace and security in South East Asia and the global war on terror.

The Kashmiri children born during the violent insurgency from 1989, children who have seen nothing but war and failed political and judicial processes, and a weakened civil society -- today are now children no more and are ever vulnerable to extremist ideologies as the only means to achieve some kind of action. Consequently, we may witness a resurgence of violence that had claimed thousands of lives in late 1980s and early 1990s. Further complicating the Kashmir issue is the conflict's increasing transformation from its political roots to more communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims. The communal fissure in Kashmir will polarize India's Muslims against non-Muslim communities in South-East Asia and will only complicate the global war on terror being waged in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Further destabilization of the region will affect the global war on terror and the process of developing lasting peace in South-East Asia. This development will manifest itself over the next few years unless India ceases its violent crackdown on civil society and reevaluates its counter-insurgency tactics involving enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Parallel to India, America's ties to both India and Pakistan threaten U.S. endeavors in the region. On the one hand, systematic abuses in Kashmir are continually perpetrated by India, which receives praise by the U.S. for being the world's largest democracy. Making matters worse, America's ally in the war terror, Pakistan, remains a provider of weapons and money to militants operating in Kashmir. All the while the situation on the ground deteriorates and extremists win ground against confused U.S sympathizers in the region.

The void created by India and Pakistan's failed judicial processes and their complicity in the ongoing rights abuses in Kashmir risks being capitalized by extremists from Afghanistan and Pakistan who may intensify their recruiting of Kashmiri youth to take up arms. The international community, and America in particular, must reevaluate their relationship with India and Pakistan and create avenues of communication with the region's civil society. Now is not the time to pat India and Pakistan on the back for opening a trade route previously closed for 60 years. In fact, as we look ahead to planned state elections in Indian Occupied Kashmir this November, reports from sources on the ground reveal that state security forces have already begun to round up Kashmiri political leaders calling for a boycott of the elections. Kashmiri political leaders such as Yasin Malik, president of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front and Nayeem Ahmad Khan, the provincial president of Hurriyat Conference, have been taken into custody in undisclosed locations.

As of Monday, October 27th, a 24-year-old unarmed youth, Irfan Amin Akhoon, was shot and killed by state security forces amidst civil protests. The shootings of unarmed protesters and mass arrests of activists are flaring up again ahead of elections in November. How will the international community respond to the current crackdowns and state sponsored abuses endured by Kashmiri civil society? To date there remain no independent monitoring services for the planned elections in Kashmir, which will take place under the guns of over 500,000 military and paramilitary forces in the region. It is time to address the atrocities and subsequent lack of justice and accountability that currently leaves Kashmiri civil society alienated and helpless.

A trade route may alleviate concerns of the international community for now; however, it will take more than a reopened trade route to erase decades of continued manipulation by India and Pakistan over Kashmiri civil society. The bruises still remain.