Why Kashmir is at the heart of Indus Waters Treaty dispute

Kashmir and the Indus Waters Treaty

Water remained, however, a tendentious issue in relation to Kashmir. When Nehru visited Karachi in September 1960 to sign the Indus Waters Treaty with Ayub Khan, the two leaders also held lengthy discussions about other questions. According to Indian diplomatic reports, the atmosphere of the talks was “informal and friendly”. Discussions ranged over travel facilities, agreements on outstanding issues to do with moveable property left behind in each country by departing Partition migrants, the exploitation of gas reserves at Sui in Balochistan, and cooperation on scientific and technical matters.

On Kashmir, however, they achieved little.

By June 1961, Ayub told American diplomats that he was unlikely to get a settlement of the Kashmir dispute through direct negotiation with Nehru. Meanwhile, the Indian press blamed inflammatory speeches by Ayub himself for destroying the goodwill that the treaty had produced. Either way the treaty, which the scholar PR Chari has referred to as a confidence-building measure, did not build much confidence. Instead, it became a new source of contention.

 A closer look at the relationship between the negotiations, the treaty and Kashmir’s geography is necessary to understand why. Both Indian and Pakistani negotiators had been concerned throughout the 1950s to protect their respective claims on Kashmir. The Indian team agreed to Pakistani water control works in Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir, as part of the Indus Basin works programme, only so long as the treaty wording safeguarded India’s legal position — its claim to sovereignty over the whole of Kashmir.

 The Pakistan government similarly asked the World Bank to ensure that “the water treaty should not be so worded as to prejudice Pakistan[’s] stand regarding Jammu & Kashmir territory”. The result was a treaty that deliberately avoided addressing the problem of competing approaches to Kashmiri sovereignty This was essential to getting the treaty signed, but did nothing to resolve the Kashmir conflict.

 The treaty assigned the water flows of the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas to India — something for which Indian negotiators had pressed since 1948. Pakistan acquired sole use of the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, which it could use to make up the water deficits in land previously irrigated by the eastern rivers.

 Pakistan agreed to the division in return for $850 million (more than $6.8 billion in 2016 terms) in international assistance to construct replacement canals and new dams at Mangla and Tarbela. But the fact that the Jhelum and Chenab both flowed through Jammu & Kashmir before reaching Pakistani territory proved a block to improving relations. Despite the many arguments that Indian and Pakistani policymakers made that linked water rights to ownership of territory, article IV(15) of the treaty hinted at both sides’ eventual determination to separate the water settlement from territorial sovereignty.

“Nothing in this Treaty”, it read, “shall be construed as affecting existing territorial rights over the waters of any of the Rivers or the beds or banks thereof.” Article XI(1) restated the matter: “nothing contained in this Treaty, and nothing arising out of the execution thereof, shall be construed as constituting a recognition or waiver (whether tacit, by implication or otherwise) of any rights or claims whatsoever of either of the Parties other than those rights or claims which are expressly recognised or waived in this Treaty.”

 In other words, the treaty governed only the allocation of the flows of the six rivers and their tributaries. No other rights accrued. India had agreed to allow water to flow into Pakistan; it had not relinquished its claim to sovereignty over the Indus Basin’s rivers. The passage of so many rivers through Kashmir, and the suitability of its topography for dam-building and hydropower generation, nevertheless put the region at the centre of several provisions.

 Neither the treaty nor its annexures directly acknowledged Jammu & Kashmir or Pakistan Administered Kashmir by name. They certainly did not mention the state’s disputed status. But references abounded to works, watercourses and places there. Annexure C, which provided for limited Indian “agricultural uses” on the western rivers, specified the Ranbir and Pratap canals, which both took off from the Chenab in Jammu & Kashmir.

 India could continue existing irrigation uses. Annexure D provided for India to build hydroelectric power works on the western rivers, again in Jammu & Kashmir. It named existing and potential generation plants, without noting the political implications of their location.

 The treaty’s evasion of the Kashmir issue was pragmatic, but did not address the fundamental cause of Pakistan’s water insecurity. It left “Pakistani” rivers, the Jhelum and Chenab, flowing through Indian Kashmir. With no prospect of water from the eastern rivers, Pakistani discourses on the western rivers acquired an even stronger possessive tone, which intensified Pakistan’s claims on Kashmir, the land through which those rivers ran. In March 1960 foreign minister Manzur Qadir, speaking in Karachi, asserted that Pakistan’s coming dependence on the western rivers heightened the importance of gaining control over them. The Indian high commissioner in Karachi, who reported on the speech to New Delhi, interpreted Qadir as hinting that Pakistan might accept a partition along the Chenab watershed as an alternative to a full plebiscite in Kashmir. If so, this would have been a rare instance of a Pakistani leader publicly emphasising watershed control over Kashmiri self-determination.

 There were many other examples of the same attitude. Around the same time, President Ayub Khan stated publicly that India’s agreement that the water of three rivers passing through Kashmir belonged to Pakistan meant that the territory through which these rivers flowed should belong to Pakistan too. Nehru told the Lok Sabha that Ayub had raised the same point during talks between the two leaders that accompanied the signing of the treaty in September 1960. During the same month, Pakistan’s Civil and Military Gazette argued that Pakistan now had “the weightiest reason for having physical control over their [the western rivers’] upper reaches […] There can be no escape from the reality that Kashmir and canal water are not two problems but one.” The Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt stated that without a Kashmir settlement, “India will continue to have our life in her hands”, according to the public relations office in India’s Karachi consulate.

 Even in 1962 Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s minister of information, told an audience in Hyderabad, Sindh, that the struggle for Pakistan could never be complete without a Kashmir solution because the state was the source of Pakistan’s water. India’s position on Kashmir also survived the Indus Waters Treaty unscathed. Indian leaders had always insisted that Pakistan’s presence in Pakistan Administered Kashmir was a breach of Indian sovereignty. A 1961 briefing instructed Indian diplomats to counter the Ayub administration’s claim that Pakistan needed Kashmir all the more as a result of the treaty. The official Indian line was that the treaty’s guarantee of flows in the western rivers ought to be enough to satisfy Pakistan. The ministry of external affairs repeated the point that if lower riparians could legitimately claim physical control of the upper reaches of rivers, national maps would need redrawing across the world.

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