Road to Peace Is Still Long in Kashmir

NEW DELHI – When it comes to Kashmir there can be no pleasing of anyone, as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must surely have discovered during a two-day visit, this week, to the state troubled by 15 years of separatist insurgency and half-a-century-old territorial claims by neighboring Pakistan.

During his whirlwind tour on Wednesday and Thursday, Singh tried hard (harder than any of his predecessors) to please Kashmiris by distributing funds and job opportunities. He also promised to rein in troops accused of gross human rights abuses when dealing with internal and external security threats.

Singh offered something to benefit every group.

A reduction of troops in the Muslim-dominated Srinagar valley, better public housing for Hindu refugees who fled to Jammu, and a $5 billion development package to be spread across the Indian state – which includes the largely Buddhist Ladakh region, over the next four years.

The Indian premier said his aim was to bring “peace with honor” to all in Kashmir, a composite state with distinct geographical regions and ethnic groups including Dogras, Pandits, Gujjars, Ladakhis, Shias, Sunnis, and on the Pakistan side, the Mirpuris and others.

As he landed in the Kashmiri capital Srinagar on Wednesday morning, Singh was greeted by volleys of gunfire from militant groups. But being an adroit politician, he skillfully tried to co-opt various divergent groups – from moderates to hardliners – to come to the roundtable for talks.

But there was a letdown. Singh was unable to get the All-Party Hurriyat Committee (APHC) to sit across him for talks while militant groups in safe sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan such as Hizbul Mujahedin demanded a complete withdrawal of all Indian troops.

The APHC consists of “moderate” groups that favor an independent Kashmir, while the “hardline” constituents want to see the state merged with Muslim-majority Pakistan. Its chairman Mirwaiz Omer Farooq said it was pointless meeting the prime minister until they could first meet up with militant wings located in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir.

Singh also was also criticized by Yasin Malik, chief of the pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). He pooh-poohed the premier’s economic package and said what worried him was that Pakistan and India were in fact moving toward a settlement of the Kashmir issue without taking Kashmiris into their confidence.

“They want us around for the photo opportunities,” Malik, the best-known face among the moderates in the 15-year-old separatist movement, told the large entourage of news channels that accompanied Singh on the two-day tour.

Singh, though, was firm that there could be no redrawing of Kashmir’s present boundary, which is divided into the Pakistan and Indian administered parts by the Line of Control (LoC).

The LoC is a ceasefire line that has remained largely unchanged through more than half-a-century of alternating peace and warfare to gain full control of the territory.

The prime minister also ruled out any further division of the Indian sub-continent on the basis of religion as what happened in 1947 when Pakistan was carved out as a homeland for Muslims when Indian gained independence from the British.

That partition was traumatic, involving as it did the uprooting and transfers of millions of people to new homes resulting in mass murders and mayhem. Till today, the wounds have not healed and there is still animosity between the two South Asian giants.

Also religion did not prove to be enough of a glue to keep East Pakistan from breaking away in 1971 and becoming Bangladesh, following a bloody civil war in which India intervened decisively on behalf of the new country.

Singh, a Sikh who was born in what became Pakistan, reminded his audiences in Kashmir that he was himself a victim of the partition with his family having arrived as refugees in the country that he now heads.

But Pervez Hoodbhoy, the well-known peace activist and nuclear physicist at Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam University who is currently in the Indian capital, told IPS there is much more at stake than just borders.

“We need to understand that both Pakistan and India are to blame with the Kashmiris caught between them,” he pointed out.

Hoodbhoy who is in the Indian capital for the screenings of his documentary film Crossing the Lines: Kashmir, Pakistan, India said the Kashmir issue was complex and one which could only be resolved by ” first creating a peaceful atmosphere.”

Hoodbhoy endorsed the Indian plan of restoring cultural, trade, and travel links first before tackling the Kashmir issue. “There is little doubt that rationality needs to be restored before we liberate ourselves from being prisoners of the past,” he said..

In Jammu city, the Hindu-dominated winter capital of Kashmir, Singh visited one-room homes set up for the bulk of some 250,000 members of the Hindu Pandit community which fled the Srinagar valley after 1989 when they became targets of the pro-Pakistan Mujahedin, who took over from moderate groups like the JKLF.

Singh announced that the one-room tenements they now live in will be converted, at government cost, to two-room dwellings and also promised them more jobs.

However, Shakti Bhan the Delhi-based leader of Panun Kashmir an organization of Hindu Pandits exiled from Kashmir had a poignant message.

She said what her group wanted was to return safely, with peace and dignity, to the homes they were forced to abandon in Srinagar.

Bhan pointed out that if Singh himself was fired at during his visit to Kashmir and had to speak at rallies from behind bulletproof enclosures, there was little chance that ordinary Hindus could return to the homeland they left just 15 years ago.

That in itself speaks volumes. It indicates that the long road to peace still needs to be traveled before a solution can be found to the disputed territory.