While the clouds gather over the Line of Control, the United Nations General Assembly has become another theatre of conflict for the Kashmir issue. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressed the 71st session of the General Assembly last week, raising hackles as he spoke of self-determination for Kashmir, charged India with human rights violations in the Valley, and called Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, killed in an encounter in July, a "young leader".

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is expected to give a “befitting reply” on Monday.

The UN has been a spectral presence in Kashmir conflict from the start, watching over the battlefields of 1948 and brokering a fragile peace. In the last few decades, it has retreated steadily into the background, as its own relevance as a peacekeeping body began to fade.

For years, the UN military observers’ office lay forgotten in Srinagar’s posh political district, a relic from another era. But in the last two months, after protests broke out in the Valley, it has suddenly become an object of interest.

The separatist leadership, under SAS Geelani, issued “UN chalo” calls, asking people to march to the office. Kashmiri mainstream politicians like the Awami Ittehad Party’s Engineer Rashid were not to be left behind. Rashid was detained recently as he tried to hold a rally headed towards the office, demanding redress for human rights violations and the plebiscite promised in Resolution 47 of the UN.

In the last few months, the plebiscite resolution has been invoked by a number of parties, ranging from legislators like Rashid to the Hurriyat leadership to Sharif. Kashmir's mainstream parties that participate in electoral politics do not invoke the UN. Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami rejects the UN as a relevant forum for solving the issue. And so far as the national leadership is concerned, Kashmir is none of the UN’s business – cross-border terrorism is.

Going to the UN

The UN Security Council adopted the first of its resolutions in January 1948. Fighting had broken out months ago. Furious negotiations between Jawaharlal Nehru, Pakistan Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and their British mediators had failed to yield an agreement on a plebiscite or a ceasefire. In his book, War and Peace in Modern India, Srinath Raghavan describes how Nehru, who had initially resisted the idea of taking the issue to the UN, decided to approach the international body.

It was referred under Article 35 of the UN charter, which allows any member to bring a dispute or situation that is likely to cause international friction to the notice of the Security Council. India complained that “Pakistani nationals and tribesmen” had attacked the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Raghavan says. Pakistan denied the charges. Instead, it alleged that India had brought about the accession of Kashmir through “fraud and violence”, engineered a “genocide” of Muslims and was guilty of aggressions in Junagadh.

Resolution 38 of January 17 decided that the president of the Security Council should invite representatives of India and Pakistan to take part in direct talks.

Resolution 39, adopted on January 20, 1948, set up the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan, which was to carry out investigations in the conflict zone and mediate between the two warring powers.

The plebiscite resolution

The Security Council's attitude towards Kashmir was largely shaped by the British delegation led by the Commonwealth secretary Philip Noel-Baker, Raghavan points out.

Noel-Baker believed that Britain had already alienated the Arabs on the question of Palestine and Israel and the latter might be further inflamed if Britain wobbled on Kashmir. "[I]t was important to avoid the danger of antagonising the whole of Islam by appearing to side with India against Pakistan," as he stated on record.

Besides, Noel-Baker also believed that, because it contained a majority of Muslims, Kashmir quite properly belonged to Pakistan. Consequently the British delegation brushed aside India's complaint and asserted that fighting could only stop if arrangements for a fair plebiscite were reached.

Nehru concluded that the UK and the US had “played a dirty role”. The Security Council passed Resolution 47 on April 21, 1948, “noting with satisfaction that both India and Pakistan desire that the question of the accession of Jammu and Kashmir should be decided through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite.”

In the months leading up to the resolution, Raghavan says, Sheikh Abdullah, then heading the emergency administration in the state, had floated the idea of an independent Kashmir. Abdullah had always been against the idea of a plebiscite which would only allow the state of Jammu and Kashmir to choose between India and Pakistan.

Canada, as a member state of the UN, had even suggested that the plebiscite include a third option, and Nehru had gingerly agreed to put it across to his government. "The plan was quashed by the British,” Raghavan says. They worried that it could become the cause of new wrangles between India and Pakistan, not to mention fertile territory for Russian intrigue.

Resolution 47 expanded the UNCIP from three member states to five. Second, it gave instructions for the restoration of peace. Pakistan was to withdraw “from the State of Jammu and Kashmir tribesmen and Pakistani nationals not normally resident therein and who had entered the State for the purpose of fighting”. Once that process was underway, India was to scale back its military presence to the “minimum strength required for the support of civil power in the maintenance of law and order”, and to deploy these troops without intimidating the local population.

Third, it provided for the creation of a Plebiscite Administration which would preside over an impartial referendum. Fourth, it instructed both countries to release political prisoners, ensure the rehabilitation of displaced populations, and protect minorities.

But Resolution 47, passed under Chapter VI of the UN charter, was not binding or enforceable, unlike those passed under Chapter VII.

More resolutions followed that year, in June, August and November. The resolution UN commission of August 13, 1948, laid out the terms of a truce and a ceasefire. By then, according to Raghavan, the Pakistan foreign minister had revealed that Pakistani troops were actually fighting in Kashmir. And an indignant Indian leadership was in no mood for concessions.

So the resolution dictated that Pakistan would be the first to clear out, and the evacuated area would be administered for the time being by “local authorities under the surveillance of the commission”. Once India was notified that Pakistan had withdrawn, it would scale back its own military deployment in phases. After the truce, both parties would consult the commission for a resolution of the issue according to the will of the Kashmiri people.

It tacitly acknowledged Pakistani “aggression”, says Raghavan, and did not recognise Azad Kashmir, the part controlled by Pakistan. Pakistan’s response to it was “tantamount to a rejection”. But two of its recommendations did fly: the appointment of unarmed military observers and a ceasefire.

Patrolling the ceasefire

The ceasefire came into effect in January 1949, though the ceasefire line was was not drawn up until the Karachi Agreement six months later. It divided Kashmir between India and Pakistan, with military observers stationed at the frontier to supervise the ceasefire line. The next decade would be spent trying to work out a durable formula for demilitarisation and a plebiscite.

In 1950, the Security Council appointed Sir Owen Dixon, a judge in the Australian high court, as UN representative to India and Pakistan. His report, submitted to the Security Council that September, laid out the “Dixon Plan”, which assigned Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and the Northern Areas to Pakistan, Ladakh to India, split Jammu between the two and recommended a plebiscite for the Valley. But it also noted that India and Pakistan could not agree on the conditions necessary for a plebiscite or the process of demilitarisation.

The report was compiled during months of escalating tensions as Pakistan grew restive about the slow progress on a resolution for Kashmir. As talk of a “holy war” to liberate Kashmir grew louder in Pakistan and a rash of violence broke out in the Valley, India decided to mobilise troops along its frontiers with Pakistan. As war seemed imminent, diplomatic efforts grew more intense.

Resolution 91, adopted by the Security Council in March 1951, called for arbitration in case demilitarisation did not happen within three months. Second, the Commission was phased out to give way to the UN Military Observers Group for India and Pakistan. But the UNMOGIP could merely investigate complaints of ceasefire violations and submit its report to either party or to the UN secretary general. Third, the resolution took note of the new constituent assembly for Jammu and Kashmir, elected earlier that year. But these elections were not considered a substitute for plebiscite. India rejected the resolution.

Nevertheless, Frank Graham was appointed as the new mediator as Dixon had resigned in despair. AG Noorani, writing in 2002, notes that the Dixon Plan was the only formula which met with Nehru’s approval. The six reports compiled by Graham, he says, “reflect incompetence and a passion for survival”. His successor, Gunnar Jarring, appointed in 1957, was plain “escapist”.

Meanwhile, the Jammu and Kashmir assembly voted to accede to India in 1956. As the 1950s wore on, Pakistan emerged as the chief advocate of a plebiscite while India grew cold to the idea. Attempts to settle the issue began to peter out.

Between Tashkent and Simla

By the time fresh hostilities broke out in 1965, UN resolutions on the “India-Pakistan Question” had grown much less detailed and much more plaintive. In September that year, the Security Council passed three resolutions calling for an end to the conflict and pleading with the two governments to cooperate with the UN military observers.

Resolution 211 called for an unconditional ceasefire that came into effect from September 22. Both countries agreed, Pakistan more reluctantly than India. The Tashkent Agreement, signed in 1966 under the joint auspices of the UN, the United States and Soviet Union, said that both countries would give up conquered regions and retreat to the ceasefire line of 1949.

That lasted until the Bangladesh war of 1971, when Indian and Pakistani forces were locked in combat on both the eastern and western fronts. By the time the Security Council passed Resolution 307 on December 21, 1971, the Pakistani Army had already surrendered in the east and India had declared a unilateral ceasefire in the west. The UN resolution directed both armies to retreat to the old ceasefire line in Jammu and Kashmir.

On July 2, 1972, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto signed the Simla Agreement, which was meant to be a roadmap to solving the Kashmir dispute. The ceasefire line became the Line of Control. Apart from a few minor deviations, it traced the same course charted out by the Karachi Agreement. The agreement also stated that “the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations shall govern the relations between the two countries”. It went on to say that “the two countries are resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them”.

That is where fresh trouble began.

After Simla

India took the agreement to mean that the dispute would be settled bilaterally, without any third party involvement. Pakistan felt it did not preclude the involvement of the UN. India felt the UNMOGIP was no longer valid, since it had existed under the Karachi Agreement, which had now been succeeded by Simla. Pakistan did not agree.

The mandate of the UNMOGIP was restricted to observing whether the ceasefire of 1971 was maintained. Pakistani military authorities continue to register complaints about ceasefire violations. Indian authorities, on the other hand, have not made a complaint since 1972.