Tensions have been rising between India and Pakistan over Kashmir again. Both India and Pakistan lay claim to the Kashmir, seeing it as an existential issue. India believes it needs Kashmir because it cannot claim to be a properly secular state if it does not have at least one Muslim-majority state. On the other hand, even though it no longer controls Bangladesh, Pakistan believes it needs Kashmir because it believes its legitimacy as a state established for South Asian Muslims is undermined if it does not have the territory. There is another third option to ending this conflict – letting Kashmir become independent. Considering how both India and Pakistan see the loss of Kashmir as an existential threat, this possibility is highly unlikely to happen unless there is a major policy shift in both countries. Even so, what an independent Kashmir could offer is worth thinking about.
After the end of the 1948 Indo-Pakistani War, the UN made sure that India and Pakistan would promise a plebiscite to determine Kashmir’s status in the future; however, Pakistan was expected to withdraw its troops while India was supposed to wind down its involvement in the region. Both sides claim that the other has violated that agreement, which is why there has been no plebiscite. Moreover, China claimed territory from Kashmir in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, which further complicates the situation in Kashmir. While India and China agreed in 1996 to recognize the Line of Actual Control, border tensions are still prevalent.
In the off-chance that there is a massive policy shift in both countries, should a plebiscite be held (preferably overseen by the UN across both occupied areas), each territory within Kashmir should be given a separate Plebiscite. This is important because each territory has different demographics, and there is a large amount of polarization in favor of and against independence. If different parts of Kashmir voted differently and got an outcome they did not like, that might cause instability. For instance, the Jammu Division only had 1% of its population favor independence. But, almost half of the Kashmiris surveyed in the areas of Pakistani and Indian occupation mentioned that they wanted full independence. That report did not include the opinions of those in the Chinese-occupied areas, however.
From a geopolitical perspective, an independent Kashmir would actually decrease the chances of war between India and Pakistan by acting as a buffer state. Because of its mountainous terrain, it is difficult to have military forces cross through quickly from either side. This terrain certainly helps when forming a buffer state, but both India and Pakistan have devoted a lot of resources to speed up military deployments in the region. Similarly, since both India and Pakistan are nuclear states, the fact that their militaries are so close in proximity and are currently launching regular skirmishes against each other means that a territorial conflict could escalate into total nuclear war. Lastly, the rivers of the Indus basin flow through Kashmir, ensuring the continued flow of water is vital to both India and Pakistan (Pakistan much more so). With the recent flare in tensions though, even the Indus Waters Treaty, which eased some tensions between India and Pakistan over control over water resources, has come under threat. An independent, demilitarized Kashmir would ensure that both states would have continued access to their water resources.
Still, India and Pakistan have invested a great deal in terms of military resources and lives into keeping Kashmir, so letting it go might be seen as an act of weakness. Nevertheless, Kashmir is a massive money sink for India and Pakistan, and leaving Kashmir prevents future generations of soldiers from fighting and dying for it. Additionally, the legitimacy of India or Pakistan ruling Kashmir has been tarnished by human rights abuses conducted by both powers in Kashmir. It is hard to call India a liberal democracy when it mistreats the very people it claims to be sovereign over; likewise, Pakistan cannot really be seen as a defender of South Asian Muslims when it oppresses the Kashmiris.
It is worth pointing out that there are definitely going to be issues with an independent Kashmir even without the Indian and Pakistani claims to its territory. What about the Chinese occupied territories in Kashmir? Even with the Line of Actual Control, an independent Kashmir might try to change that and reclaim those territories (although without military force, as an independent Kashmir will probably have to be demilitarized). Can an independent Kashmir remain stable? If it cannot, it is highly likely that it will be occupied again by India and Pakistan. How will the Kashmiri economy grow when it is landlocked and snowbound during winter? An independent Kashmir’s economy will have to heavily rely on trade with its neighbors during the winter. And lastly, what if some territories deep within Kashmir vote to remain a part of India or Pakistan while the outer territories vote to become independent? Would those territories become exclaves of India or Pakistan, or would an independent Kashmir attempt to annex those territories?