Over the past few years, first China and then India quietly celebrated the success of their efforts to improve the socio-political environment of their restive Islamic regions, namely Xinjiang and Kashmir. Neither country can feel proud about the record of human rights on this count, but it is possible that credit for the success will be assigned to the wrong sources.

Demographic solution to Xinjiang

Confronting a potentially dangerous situation in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, China increased the presence of its armed forces across the main centers of Xinjiang in the early 1980s. Previously, the main reason for armed presence had been to keep Indian forces in neighboring Jammu and Kashmir under check, and also monitor the progress of any military buildup adjoining Tibet.

The boom in armed-forces presence, as well as the steady flow of information from the Central Asian republics, was to bolster the cause for Uighur independence. The strategic importance of  Xinjiang, particularly given its geographic status as the largest province-level region in China, accounting for a sixth of the total area, as well as the likely reserves of precious natural resources, including oil, meant that the Chinese state had to take decisive steps.

As with Tibet, the main platform for the central government was to increase the presence of Han Chinese in the province, with a view to building the business areas, including agricultural and mining, as well as manufactured products. From around 5% in the early 1960s, the proportion of Han in Xinjiang shot up rapidly and now stands at more than 40%.

Alongside this, the Chinese government focused its attention on Maoist principles of re-education, particularly in terms of dealing with Islamic schools of thought. The flow of reactionary material from other Turkic peoples was proscribed, even as the government enhanced the facilities for education in sciences. Positive discrimination in favor of Uighur who could assimilate, ie, speak and read Putonghua (Mandarin), also played a big part in dividing support among the peoples for any broad movement against the central government.

Increased economic presence was the last piece of the puzzle, and one that became easily apparent in the latter part of the 1980s and into the 1990s. While some suspicion with respect to the actions of the Uighurs remains – for example, Beijing police blamed them for bomb blasts that killed seven people in 2001 [1] – overall the settlement process has proceeded smoothly and successfully.

As people realized that economic growth would accelerate under peaceful conditions, the sting was removed from support of warlike activities. Unofficial estimates put the number of active Uighur separatists in the few hundreds, showing how much the population has moved from general support of these militants.

Strategically, the strong support for Pakistan shown by China helped to ensure that many of its actions against Muslim citizens did not get a voice, nor did militants have much success in bypassing Pakistani armed forces to supply materials to the Uighur separatists.

Democratic solution to Kashmir

Success, in the case of Kashmir, is purely a relative term, as it refers almost entirely to the reduction in the killings of innocent bystanders. This is because the problem confronting India in Kashmir was many times worse than the one confronting China in Xinjiang. Terrorist attacks on army bases and reprisals remain fairly common, but they appear now to be focused away from the main city centers.

The history and geography of the Kashmir problem before the 1980s have been extensively documented. The unwinding of the Afghan campaign in the late 1980s was to set off the chain of terrorist attacks on Indian soil, as militant Islamic factions attempted to overthrow both local moderate elements in Kashmiri politics and also elements of the Indian government.

Still, timing was most fortuitous for the terrorists as the increased volatility of the Indian government between 1988 and 1993 allowed militancy to increase unchecked as federal ministers bickered over their reelection campaigns. The Indian military presence was sharply increased in the early 1990s, but was often subject to budget cuts and mission creep as various ministries attempted to increase their own jurisdictions.

Interestingly, India was fighting two wars at this time, one against terrorists who demanded accession of Kashmir to Pakistan, and the second group of more moderate militants calling for an independent Kashmir. It was a matter of some luck for India that the first group in effect destroyed the second, eliminating the moderate wing of Kashmiri politicians by the end of the 1990s.

The first group was buoyed by the success of the Afghan mission, and therefore focused much on the Wahhabi stream of Islam. However, this was not necessarily a wise choice in this terrain, as the population in Kashmir had a proud Sufi heritage. The incompatibility of militant Sunni visions of Islam with the more catholic Sufi heritage in effect rendered these militants as foreign to Kashmiris as the Hindus, indeed arguably more so given the co-existence of Sufi Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir for the previous few hundred years. Given this reduction of popular support for the extremist view of Islam, draconian action by Indian armed forces on militants evoked less reaction among Kashmiris as the years passed by.

Within the mountainous toll of casualties in Kashmir since the early 1990s, it is impossible to identify a peak, but one imagines that the seeds of the turnaround were sown in the same period when the Indian economy embarked on painful structural reforms. Faster growth makes a vast difference to available disposable income, which in the case of a tourism-dependent economy like Kashmir’s was important indeed. Relative freedom of movement within India also afforded increased opportunities for professionals from Kashmir fleeing the insurgency in search of a better quality of life. All of this has allowed a return of democracy to the state, itself the best indicator of a popular dismissal of terrorist causes.

A word from our sponsor

Even with all the impressive economic arguments of China and India thrown into the picture, it stands to reason that the success of Pakistan’s economy has made a tremendous difference to the populating of militant causes around the region. Simply put, by giving people without too much to lose something actually to care about, recent economic progress in Pakistan has played a strong role in establishing peace for both India and China in their restive regions.

During the periods of democratic rule in the 1980s and 1990s, the Pakistani governments of both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were plagued with corruption and incompetence, which increased the need for shrill rhetoric. Causes such as Kashmir provided the rallying call for a divided nation, and therefore forced the government into supporting a series of militant causes, including the Taliban.

Sponsorship from elements of the Saudi royal family for the militants created a state within a state, as the government found itself dictated to on foreign policy issues by these outfits. These groups have been recognized as strategic threats by the current government of President General Pervez Musharraf, given various attempts on his life.

I have often enough [2] fretted about the sustainability of a government that appears not to represent any of the popular viewpoints, but it stands to reason that Musharraf continues to stand only because of the success being enjoyed by the Pakistani economy, shepherded by the very capable Prime Minister/Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown in Pakistan. More important, this unease should pervade the governments of India and, less so, China. They have every reason to worry about what lies in store if a popular revolt disrupts the status quo in Pakistan.

1. Beijing links separatists to Bin Laden, AsiaTimes Online, January 23, 2002.
2. China and India in World War III, ATol, July 26, 2006.