Prospects of Peace in Kashmir
Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra
The bitter past experiences have made the parties to Kashmir conflict realise that in peace, not war, lies the future of the Indian subcontinent. Needless to say, it is the people of Kashmir who have suffered most in this violent conflict. The main argument of the paper is that the ongoing peace process in the region involving two national actors, e.g. India and Pakistan and the people of the region appears ‘irreversible’ and may lead to an amicable solution of the Kashmir issue. One cardinal factor in this process that needs emphasis is: it is the people of Kashmir from both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) who have played the key role in pressurising both India and Pakistan to find ways for a win-win people centric resolution of the conflict.
Developments such as the start of bus service in 1999 from Amritsar to Lahore, and the opening of the cooperation in the earthquake relief measures, all indicated that the peace process is on the right track. In October 2003, India proposed ten confidence-building measures for improving people-to-people contact and communication by road, rail and sea between the two countries. It was followed by another positive development wherein a cease-fire came into effect on 26 November 2003 in the state along the India-Pakistan international border, the LoC and the Actual Ground Positioning Line. It is historic for two reasons. Firstly, it is the first formal truce between the two countries since the outbreak of militancy in the state two decades ago. Secondly, it is for first time that firing on the border stopped almost completely, thus bringing a sigh of relief to the people living near the LoC. The culmination of these developments was the agreement between the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to initiate a peace process on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit meeting in January 2004. In a joint statement, they proclaimed willingness to start a composite dialogue for peaceful settlement of all bilateral issues including Kashmir. In the context of an evolving scenario, the speech of Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh at Strategic Studies Institute in Islamabad in 7 February 2007, deserves to be quoted at length:
“When minds open, old vistas expand, new ones appear and then things start moving. Searching minds go near the goal of understanding. Understanding itself is a destination. Unless one reaches it, one cannot win a victory. In diversity lie the gems of universality. Unresolved issues have an in-built explosive potential. It is everywhere in the world. The land of Kashmir is no exception to this norm. Therefore 1 would like to conclude that South Asian peace remains in the lockers of Kashmir. Only honest resolve can unlock the sixty years old stiffened lockers to usher in an era of peace.”
In 2004, both the countries resumed talks that had been stalled after the attack on Indian Parliament in 2001; in April 2005 the first bus rolled out from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad, in October 2005 both the countries opened the LoC to facilitate relief operations and later for movement of the people. The earthquake in October 2005 in a way showed the necessity of joint cooperation to tackle many issues of common concern. It was a tragedy for both, but it was tragedy with lessons. Both the countries seemed to realise the necessity of peace than to indulge in political bickering. Pakistan giving up its insistence on the UN resolutions and India’s softening stand towards making the LoC ‘irrelevant’ are among the remarkable developments that could have been hardly imagined possible a decade earlier. Though various formulas have been floated seeming to resolve bilateral issues, the single most important achievement was the seeming ‘irreversibility’ of the peace process. Both India and Pakistan came to realise the value of living in peace, because the peace-dividends are more valuable than the results of war and violence. The meeting of divided families after opening of the LoC, the organization of ‘heart-to-heart’ talks in Indian and Pakistani cities in which the civil society members from both sides played active role. Playing of cricket matches on each other’s play grounds are among the big achievements indeed. The recently concluded fourth round of composite dialogue between India and Pakistan on 14 March 2008 in Islamabad ended with signs of optimism. Pakistan’s suggestions for conducting more sporting events at bilateral level and the starting of a helicopter service and postal service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad can further boost people to people interaction. After the end of the meeting, both sides agreed not to set up new defence posts on their side of the LoC and to launch the Kargil-Skardu bus service and an early meeting on the Siachen issue.
The involvement of people in the peace process gained momentum in the years 2005 and 2006, which witnessed not only bonhomie between India and Pakistan but also enhanced level of people-to-people interactions.1 Besides the bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, termed ‘mother of all confidence building measures,’2 the year 2005 also witnessed visits of many delegations from both sides of Kashmir. The bridge connecting both the sides of Kashmir over river Neelum, known as Aman Sethu (peace bridge), not merely symbolised the peace process but also sent a resonant message that ‘the way forward is peace and democracy and not armed conflict.’3 Easing of the visa process, exchanges through the bus, train and air services between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, Lahore and Delhi facilitated the ever growing people-to-people interaction. Besides the meeting of the Hurriyat Conference (M) leaders with Indian Prime Minister, their visit to Kashmir across the LoC and to Pakistan in June 2005 and in January 2007 are some of the developments that indicate forward movement of peace process in the region. This is important despite the fact that doubts raised in many quarters from both sides of the LoC regarding the representative character of the Hurriyat Conference (M).
The people-to-people talks have given a tremendous boost to optimism regarding the peace process which in itself is grand achievement of the ongoing peace process and comprises more than one positive implication. First, it provides opportunity to people from both sides of the LoC to know each other and to see the realities on the other side. Generally, people follow leaders and form their opinions accordingly. But these interactions, though limited in scale, bring into the picture the divergence of opinions and plethora of views on the issues which were earlier regarded as closed. These interactions revived old sentiments of belongingness and fraternity among the people from both the sides and help shed years of hatred and animosity against each other. During a trip to the twin districts of Rajouri-Poonch in J&K to study the impact of Poonch-Rawalakote bus service in April 2007, the author came across many interesting revelations. The local people stated that the visitors from the other side were surprised to see freedom enjoyed by the people in the Indian side of LoC. The guests from across the LoC stated, on the condition of anonymity that they were fed on the propaganda that there is least freedom in J&K for the people, especially for the Muslims and they are not even allowed to perform their religious rites. All such misperceptions and premonitions get neutralised and even vanish when from across the artificial border they come and see themselves that their brethren were enjoying freedoms and rights, which rival any other democracy in the world.
There are demands to open more routes of travel. In this context the Kargil-Skardu road, the feasibility of opening of which was studied by the author during a trip to Kargil in July 2006 and May 2007, needs special mention. The Kargil-Skardu route, about 179 km from Kargil (169 km from the last Indian border check post) passes into the area of Gilgit-Baltistan along the side of Shingo River. After the partition of the Indian Subcontinent the route has been closed. This route came to the limelight recently due to the ongoing peace process in which both India and Pakistan agreed to open new routes as a part of confidence building measures. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Kargil in June 2005, after assessing the popular sentiments, observed, ‘I have been told that the people of Kargil are keen on having the links restored with Gilgit-Baltistan and opening of the Kargil-Skardu road is under consideration.’ Despite official talks the route has not yet been opened.
The crucial importance the Kargil-Skardu route can be gauged from the following points. First, the utility of the road lies in its durability in winter months. During winter the whole Ladakh region (including Kargil) gets cut off from the main land due to heavy snowfall on the Srinagar-Leh national highway. As a result, the Zojila pass remains intractable for about six months (October-March). The Kargil-Skardu route that lies in cold but arid region in the Himalayas remains pliable even in these harsh months. The local people favour the opening of this route as it can be used in winter to go to Skardu and other areas for marketing and for other necessary purposes. As it is clearly demarcated, the reconstruction of the route may not incur heavy expenditure on part of the governments. Second, the route can facilitate the meeting of the members of divided families on both sides of the LoC.
Third, the route can be used for trade across the divide. The local people expressed firm belief that the route would not only help divided families to meet but also bring economic benefits to governments and local business. From Skardu, apricot (it is said that the Skardu variety of apricot is the best), raisin, and herbs can be imported, while from Kargil sugar, tea, garments and vegetables can be sent to the other side. Tourist resorts and stalls can be built on the road side in which local products can be displayed. This would not only provide employment to local people but also bring economic development to the region. Unfortunately, some of the apricot fields on the LoC have gradually become barren, ostensibly due to planting of mines, non-cultivation and neglect due to fear of recurrent wars and military intervention. The artificial border has, therefore, not only kept people in a suffocated atmosphere but also hampered their economic growth.4 The root question arises: why then the route has not been opened yet? The Vice President of Islamia School, Sheikh Ahmed Mohammadi, a highly venerated Shia leader in the region, confided to the author that Pakistan seems to be reluctant to open the route. In his words, “The people in Gilgit-Baltistan live in a much poorer condition than their fellow beings in Kargil. Also the kind of freedom being enjoyed by the people in Indian side is never granted to them…. Pakistan fears that the opening of the route might open Pandora’s Box in the occupied Kashmir, leading to an explosion of years long pent up popular dissatisfaction and anger.”5
The people-to-people contact also provided opportunity to the members of civil society to think ‘out of box,’ independent of the stances of their respective governments. Interactions with the civil rights activists and leaders from both the sides gives the impression that the people of region are fed up with violence and want to live in peace. K. D. Sethi, the veteran octogenarian journalist and one time general secretary in Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference (resident of Jammu city though originally belongs to Kashmir across the LoC) told the author that the people of whole Kashmir want restoration of peace and brotherhood among themselves.6 For this to happen, Sethi suggested opening of all routes across the LoC. His opinion is shared by almost all the people that the author interacted during his visits to all three regions of J&K- Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Besides, the people who came from across the LoC and interacted with the author too argued in favour of more and more contacts. Justice Abdul Majeed Mallik, former Chief Justice of Azad Kashmir High Court, who led a delegation from across the LoC to J&K in August 2005, expressed optimism that the current wave of people to people interaction would help resolve the Kashmir issue as it is the people of the region who can better steer the peace process than the ‘vested interests.’7
The interactions amongst people in the form of ‘heart-to-heart’ talks in Jammu and New Delhi in September 2005 and New Delhi in April 2007 provided the occasion for the leaders and activists of different shades from both sides of the L0C to open their hearts and minds on a single platform. At the end of the talks in New Delhi in September 2005, the participants issued a 16-point document calling for opening up of all traditional routes across the border to facilitate more interactions among people, promoting trade and tourism, establishing an inter-parliamentary forum, developing mechanism for rehabilitation of displaced people, etc. Though the participants converged on some issues and diverged on others, the most successful outcome of the talks was that the participants across the region agreed that violence cannot bring a solution to the vexed issue of Kashmir and it is peace that must be cultivated sincerely and vigorously.
The Hurriyat Conference (M) visit to AJK and Pakistan in June 2-16, 20058 and January 18-27, 2007 can be described as steps in the right direction for peace in the region and for reaching at an ‘honourable and durable solution’ to the Kashmir issue. The Hurriyat delegation led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq during their second visit met with important leaders including the President of Pakistan and President and Prime Minister of AJK. Mirwaiz and AJK President Raja Zulqarnain Khan and Prime Minister Attique Ahmed Khan decided to form two working groups to unite the moderates on both sides of the LoC to drum up support for the peace process. However, Mirwaiz’s desire to play a kind of bridge between moderates and hardliners including terrorists can become successful depending on his ability to persuade the hardliners to give up arms.
Any Kashmir-centric peace process must require the participation of all sections of the people from all the regions of the state on either side of the LoC. Whether it is people from J&K or AJK or Gilgit-Baltistan, all of them must have the freedom to take part in the dialogue process; and also enjoy their due space and share in power. Though the steps taken by India in this matter appear perceptible, it is Pakistan which appears hesitant to listen to the voices of the people of Kashmir under its control. Though it is true that in Kashmir, and in Indo-Pak relations, the expected lines may be blurred with unexpected developments, the peace process never lasted so long. It is true that in spite myriad hurdles the popular sentiment for peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue has never been more evident as of now. While the peace process may go back and forth, the involvement of the Kashmiri people themselves in the peace process is certainly irreversible. There lies the opportunity and the challenge. The popular demand for peace would likely pressure the two governments to work for a peaceful and amicable win-win solution of the Kashmir issue.
1. Debidatta A. Mahapatra, "Involve People for Peace," Kashmir Images (Jammu), 29 July 2006, p.6.
2. For details on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus see Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra, "Bus Running for Reconciliation?," Mainstream (New Delhi), vol. 63, no. 20, (7 May 2005), pp. 27-29.
3. Ghazi Salahuddin, "Crossing a Bridge of Peace." https://www.countercurrents.org/ipk-salahuddin100405.htm. Accessed 7 Jan 2007.
4. Debidatta A. Mahapatra, "Connecting Kargil-Skardu," Kashmir Images (Jammu), 12 August 2006, p. 6.
5. Personal Interview, 25 July 2006.
6. Personal Interview, 10 August 2005.
7. Personal Interview, 6 August 2005.
8. For a detailed account see, Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra, "Reflections on the Hurriyat Visit," Mainstream (New Delhi), vol. 63, no. 33, 6 August 2005, pp. 6-8.
Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is associated with the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, Mumbai (India). He has co-authored two books related to Kashmir: Conflict in Kashmir and Chechnya: Political and Humanitarian Dimensions (New Delhi: Lancer’s Books, 2007); Kashmir Across LOC (New Delhi: Gyan