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Kashmir's mighty rivers are a source of strife on the subcontinent.
Perhaps worse still, it appears that hawks on both sides are attempting to use water to create an insurmountable impasse in the dispute over Kashmir, rather than acknowledging that the sharing of rivers forms a framework for the two enemies to cooperate. This unease was underscored just last week, when India objected to a Pakistani proposal to build a new dam in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir with the help of the Chinese.
In Srinagar's Cafe Arabica, I met with two Kashmiri journalists, Parvaiz Bukhari of the Mail Today and Muzamil Jaleel of the Indian Express. In most respects, the two seasoned reporters could not be more different. Bukhari, a former TV journalist, is a handsome, bearded man with a grave voice, and an eloquent turn of phrase. “In an abnormal situation, the normal becomes news,” he told me, referring to countless New Delhi newspaper articles that featured the cafe where we were meeting as evidence that Kashmir's long-curfewed nightlife was picking up. Bukhari is also prone to grandiose statements that gives him something of the manner of the frustrated revolutionary. “You have to offer yourself to the judgment of history!” he exclaimed at some point about one politician or the other.
Jaleel, by contrast, is ebullient and manic, and gushes with gossip. He stormed into our bull session shouting out his order to the barista across the room.
Both of them, however, were united in their cynicism about the saber rattling over water in India and Pakistan. On the Indian side, Jaleel pointed out, right-wing politicians have sought to turn Kashmir into a Hindu holy land of sorts to make ceding any of its territory non-negotiable. This is the impulse behind the strong political support for the Amarnath Yatra, a new pilgrimage to a cave in the mountains above Srinagar where an ice formation resembles a lingam — a Hindu religious symbol representing the phallus of the god Shiva. The same motive lies behind a new festival called the Sindhu Darshan, which casts the Indus as a Hindu river, though it was the cradle of ancient civilizations in what is today Pakistan long before Hinduism existed. “India is trying to turn the rivers of Kashmir into religious symbols,” Jaleel said.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the opponents of detente cast the battle for Kashmir as a struggle for survival to prevent governments there from giving any ground, according to a new report by Mumbai's Strategic Foresight Group. Recalling the standoff on the border in 2002, the report's authors argue that Pakistani ideologues immediately leaped to the conclusion that India planned to use water as a weapon without any prompting from New Delhi, and predicted that such a move would ultimately lead to a Pakistani nuclear strike. At the same time, a leader from an umbrella organization of Pakistani jihadi groups told a local newspaper: “Kashmir is the source from where all of Pakistan's water resources originate. If Pakistan loses this battle against India, it will become a desert.”
Though Indians tend to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as senseless paranoia, Pakistan's fears are not completely unfounded. Almost immediately after Partition, India diverted the Ravi and Sutlej rivers, depriving the city of Lahore and Pakistan's irrigation canals of water during the spring sowing season. Now, whenever a new Indian dam comes up, Pakistani commentators see the project as another move to starve them out. One Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, for instance, lumped Baglihar in with 50 others built “in gross violation of the Indus Waters Treaty,” lamenting “India simply cut off waters flowing into Pakistan, dealing a big blow to our agriculture and economy.”
Kashmiris on both sides of the border — or Line of Control, as it is known locally — are caught in the middle. The Indus Waters Treaty, drawn up in 1960, has prevented India and Pakistan from going to war over the rivers of the Himalayas for almost 50 years by granting India exclusive use of the three eastern tributaries of the Indus, the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers, and granting Pakistan exclusive rights to the three western tributaries, the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab.
But it has also prevented development of irrigation and hydroelectric projects in Kashmir itself. The treaty caps the amount of land Kashmir can irrigate and sets strict regulations on how and where water can be stored — making hydropower projects on the Chenab, like the Baglihar dam, difficult to execute. And, increasingly, the limitations imposed on India by the treaty are becoming a motivating force in Indian-administered Kashmir's struggle for independence.