How we can help the Kashmiris

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AS the war clouds on the South Asian horizon thicken and thin out in a cyclical pattern, the peacemakers on the political front have stepped up their efforts to bring about a modicum of normalization between India and Pakistan.

True, incidents, such as the recent skirmishes in the Gultari sector on the LoC, come as a rude reminder that the armies on the two sides continue to be in an eyeball-to-eyeball state of mobilization. War cannot be ruled out. But mercifully the focus has shifted to the political/diplomatic dimension of Kashmir.

Three developments in the region could have far-reaching impact on the South Asian crisis. First, there is the intensified American move to play the honest broker between the two countries, neither of which the Bush administration can afford to alienate at the moment. India as a major political and economic power on the global stage is a much sought-after partner. Pakistan is the indispensable ally in the United States’ war against terror. Hence the American dilemma.

It is difficult to assess how effective the American good offices can prove to be because Washington is wary of playing a forceful role in the region at a time when India has been resisting what it terms outside interference.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has stuck to his country’s stand, adopted in the wake of Tashkent in 1966, that the two states must sort out their differences bilaterally. He has, of course, been pleased with America’s stance on “cross-border terrorism” and got the emissaries from Washington to exert pressure on Islamabad to withdraw its backing to the jihadi groups fighting in the disputed valley.

The second major development is taking place in Kashmir itself. While New Delhi has proceeded with its plans for elections to the state assembly from September 16 to October 8, the government backed Jethmalani committee has opened a dialogue with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party leader, Shabir Shah.

It is too early to say what direction these talks will take. While New Delhi has refused to postpone elections, the Hurriyat has refused to participate in them on the present terms. But the mere fact that the two sides are talking is in itself a significant development.

This week the APHC leader, Abdul Gani Bhat, and Shabir Shah are expected to meet the Indian government leaders in New Delhi.

Concomitantly, there has been a lowering of militancy in the occupied state since the American deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, first visited the region in June. From approximately 250 casualties a month before the visit, the killings have come down to 150 (though violence has escalated again as the elections draw near).

It is now admitted that President Musharraf has taken measures to rein in the militants. India itself has conceded that cross-border infiltration has declined by 30 per cent.

The third major development has been the preoccupation of the military regime in Islamabad with the October elections, especially its attempts to manipulate the Constitution to ensure that the military remains entrenched in power.

This may seem to have no bearing on the Kashmir issue. But it does. Governments in Pakistan, like their counterparts in India, are known for their propensity to use foreign policy issues to divert domestic attention from the immediate and more urgent issues at hand. With the region in such a volatile state, would a government in Islamabad, up to its neck in trouble, be able to resist the temptation of keeping the Kashmir pot boiling?

One only hopes that President Musharraf realizes the grave implications of his Kashmir policy for Pakistan. There is quite a substantial section of public opinion — maybe even a majority — which feels it is time the government modified its stance on Kashmir. Since we do not have scientifically-conducted public opinion polls, one cannot cite absolute figures to establish this point. But on numerous occasions it has clearly emerged that the greatest champions of peace in this country are our own people.

It is reassuring to find that most men and women, who clearly fall in the class termed the common man, are pretty level-headed about how they perceive many contentious issues, such as Kashmir. They know where their priorities lie. They strongly believe that the country should not be held hostage to the Kashmir dispute. It is now being openly said that the time has come to focus on the multitude of our economic, social and, of course, political/constitutional problems. Without a strong — not so much militarily as economically — and unified Pakistan, it is foolish for the government to try to take on India on behalf of the Kashmiris.

What is equally important for the government to make an honest attempt to determine the thinking of the Kashmiris themselves. The real Kashmiris to be addressed are those who live in the areas we refer to as the Indian-occupied territory. They are the people who have borne the brunt of the tyranny inflicted on them by the Indian security forces.

The problem is that Pakistan has pre-empted their political role in the peace process by projecting Kashmir as an India-Pakistan dispute.

The paradox in this is patent. Although we speak about the right of self-determination of the people of Kashmir we do not allow them a say in how this right is to be exercised.

With the exception of the present government — which has chosen to be ambiguous — all those who have been in power in Islamabad have firmly and definitively rejected the third option — that is, independence of Kashmir. All governments before Musharraf’s have parrot-like reiterated their demand for a plebiscite in Kashmir in keeping with the UNCIP resolutions of 1948 and 1949, even though it is fully realized that the plebiscite plan as formulated 50 years ago can no longer be implemented.

That is why successive government have chosen to rely on those Kashmiri groups which have been vocal in proclaiming their allegiance to Pakistan. Being dependent on Islamabad for their survival and their armed struggle, they act as the mouthpiece of Pakistan. But do they really speak for the Kashmiris?

Take the case of the current developments in Kashmir. The APHC and Shabir Shah have been talking to Ram Jethmalani. We do not yet know what will be the outcome of this dialogue. But the Pakistan-based Muttahida Jihad Council has already denounced the whole process. This is an attempt to exert pressure on Abdul Gani Bhat and Shabir Shah. Similarly, President Musharraf fell in line to “reject” the polls in Kashmir weeks before the APHC formally refused to participate in the exercise.

All this has an air of deja vu about it. In 2000, when the APHC and the Indian government had announced a ceasefire in Kashmir and a dialogue had been attempted between the two sides, Pakistan and the militants on this side of the LoC, such as Syed Salahuddin, had pre-empted the process by demanding that Islamabad be included in the talks.

In this context, a piece by Lawrence Lifschultz in Mumbai’s Economic and Political Weekly (August 3, 2002) should be compulsory reading for every Pakistani leader and citizen who feels concerned about Kashmir. In an interview (given in June 2001), Abdul Ghani Lone, the leader of the People’s Conference who was assassinated three months ago, expressed his resentment at the “colonial” role of Pakistan vis-a-vis Kashmir.

He felt that Pakistan and the militants it supported had made out Kashmir to be basically a dispute between India and Pakistan. He said, “Our movement has been hijacked…. Pakistan has let down the Kashmiris.”

He wanted to know if Pakistan also had a hidden agenda — like the Indians who had come to the valley in 1947 to save the people from the tribesmen who raided the state and stayed on to occupy the state — and would Pakistan also like to take over and occupy Kashmir?

Lone specifically pointed out that when Vajpayee had made a proposal for a ceasefire and a dialogue in 2000, “it was our view that it was the people of Kashmir that must have come up with their own response.” But before they could do so, Pakistan had rejected them. “Who are those people to reject proposals on our behalf?” he asked.

Is history repeating itself?