If you ask Alamudin, an octogenarian from Humandar village, what
he wants, he responds with a simple one-word answer: "Azadi."
After living through 54 years of Indian rule, two wars between India
and Pakistan and the past 12 years of terrorism, azadi, or
"freedom," is the only thing on his mind.
Situated between two giant mountain ranges that make up the Himalayas,
the Valley of Kashmir, which is home to about half of the state
of Jammu and Kashmir's estimated 9.5 million people, was once known
as paradise. Surrounded by arid, high-altitude deserts and huge
snow-capped peaks, the valley itself is a wide plain with fertile
land and other natural resources. Its green fields, surrounded by
the alpine-covered slopes, offer unparalleled scenery. Humandar
is one small village out of hundreds in the violence-torn territory,
where tens of thousands have been killed since India and Pakistan
gained independence in 1947.
The village lies along a common route for militants crossing the
Line of Control, the
de facto border between the two countries. People here know that with
Kashmiris caught between India, Pakistan and a host of foreign-born,
foreign-trained militants, azadi is not likely to come anytime
soon. For now, they would just like to end the violence. "We are scared
of anyone with a gun," says Saiffudin, the village chief who lost
one of his legs and his 13-year-old daughter in an attack on his house
two years ago. "Everyday, we must think about our safety."
Arun Bhat, 11, has lived
refugee camp his entire life.
Many in Humandar had pinned their hopes on the Indo-Pak summit
held in Agra, India in mid-July. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari
Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf were meeting to
try to iron out their differences on a variety of issues, most importantly
the lingering dispute over Kashmir. However, the summit failed even
to bring about a joint statement that both sides could agree upon.
Since 1947, Kashmir has been not only the subject of a military
conflict, but also a political, verbal and psychological one. Kashmir
is the feather in India's cap of secularism: the only majority-Muslim
state within India's boundaries. At the same time, Kashmir is used
to stoke Hindu nationalism by posturing about Pakistani aggression
in the state. Before the Indo-Pak summit, Indian politicians, left
and right, proclaimed that all of Jammu
and Kashmir was an integral part of India. Yet the people of
the region have never been allowed the plebiscite required under
a 1949 U.N. resolution.
On the other side of the border, Pakistani leaders too use Kashmir
to fuel hatred and resentment, claiming discriminatory treatment
against Muslims by the Indian army. Musharraf, who came to power
in an October 1999 coup, became a national hero earlier that year
for his role in orchestrating the invasion of Kargil, when militants
backed by the Pakistani army and supported with Pakistani artillery
crossed the Line of Control to occupy some mountain tops in Indian
territory. To the hard-line clerics and military officers who back
Musharraf, he is a symbol of pride and strength for a country with
a perennial inferiority complex. The military is also no stranger
to power in Pakistan, having ruled for more than half of the time
Islamists in Pakistan have declared the fight for Kashmir a jihad,
a holy war. When
the current insurgency began in 1989, the militants were mostly locals
led by the Jammu
and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). But over the years, these
separatists have been supplanted by mujahideen from not just
Pakistan but Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. While these outfits
are certainly supported by Pakistan, it is unclear how much authority
the Pakistani army or government have over their actions.
India, Pakistan and China, many fear that
Kashmir could be the flashpoint for a nuclear war.
In the West, people generally view Kashmir as the site of a conflict
between Hindus and Muslims. But Balraj Puri, a freedom fighter from
independence times and a long-time campaigner for human rights in
Jammu and Kashmir, says this analysis is too simplistic. "That is
just one aspect of it," he says. "The people of the state are fragmented,
confused and disillusioned. All of their leaders have failed them."
Since 1989, Indian security forces estimate that 35,000 people
have been killed, including soldiers; human rights activists put
the number at closer to 70,000 civilian lives lost. In addition,
according to Zahir Rudin of the Association of the Parents of Disappeared
Persons, more than 4,000 people in Jammu and Kashmir, mostly male
youths, have been taken into custody by the security forces and
never seen again. In 500 such cases there are specifics on file
of who was taken into custody, by whom and when. In some cases,
it has been 10 years since the arrest and still there is no word
on the whereabouts of the detained. In a startling 50 cases, the
High Court of Jammu and Kashmir has actually ordered prosecution
of specific officers who have been identified as the culprits, but
New Delhi has resolutely refused to grant the required sanction
for prosecution. Furthermore, attorney Shahwar Gauhar, of the South
Asian Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR), accuses the army of widespread
harassment, torture, arson and rape.
But the military is not the only culprit in the mayhem that has
engulfed this beautiful
mountain region. Though their recent tactics have shifted to suicide
bombings and attacks on military targets, Islamist militants in the
past have undertaken mass terror campaigns. And the militants also
contribute to the daily harassment of civilians, just as the army
does. When something is "banned" in Srinagar, it not the government
but the militants who have forbidden it.
A heavily armed soldier
on patrol in Srinagar.
Adding to the mess is the murkiness of who is to blame for recent
attacks on civilians. The army blames the militants; human rights
activists blame the army. The mujahideen blame the renegades,
a group of former militants who have surrendered and now aid the
army. Declaration and counter-declaration do little for the Kashmiris.
But whom should the Indians and Pakistanis--let alone the United
Nations--listen to? With such diversity among its people, who can
really claim to represent Kashmir?
The most strident claim comes from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference
(APHC), an agglomeration of political groups in the Kashmir Valley
who are mostly pro-Pakistan and all anti-India. The more than 20
parties that make up the APHC vary from stridently pro-independence
to absolutely pro-Pakistan. During the Indo-Pak summit the APHC
literally created a tempest in a teapot. Musharraf wanted to meet
with the APHC leaders, but the Indian government refused. The sides
went back and forth over whether there would be a meeting, and the
APHC eventually had a 30-minute, one-on-one chat with the general
during a tea party at the Pakistani high commissioner's residence,
much to the chagrin of the Indian side.
At best, the APHC could be said to represent the 37 percent of
the population of Jammu and Kashmir who are Kashmiri. What about
the remaining 63 percent? The next most vocal group is the elected
state government of Indian-held Kashmir, which is ardently pro-India.
But most Kashmiris say the elections are rigged, and it's hard to
believe otherwise, seeing the overwhelming public sentiment against
India. There are a whole slew of other people living in Jammu and
Kashmir who have no mechanism for their wishes to be heard. The
Ladakhi people, who are mostly Buddhist and have strong links to
Tibet, demand territory status within India; the Jammu Dogri, mostly
Hindu, want separate statehood; and the Hindu Pandits seek a separate
homeland within the Valley. No one heeds their calls.
But even the Pandits, 250,000 of whom fled from the Valley of Kashmir
in 1990, feel
exploited. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is getting mileage
out of the sympathy from the Hindu majority in India. But this has
not translated into improvement in the lives of the Pandits. Speaking
with the Bhat family, living in the Muthi relief camp in the city
of Jammu since they left their homes, one can sense the anger toward
the government. "The BJP is popularizing the situation," Badrinath
Bhat says, "but still they don't give us employment or land."
Parents and family members
rally at a memorial
ceremony for the 4,000 people who have disappeared
since the insurgency began in 1989.
The other side of the Line of Control is no stranger to this problem.
Recent elections for state government in Azad Kashmir (otherwise
known as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, or PoK) were rigged. In this
case, the Pakistani administration simply banned parties that did
not support the accession of all of Jammu and Kashmir. Demonstrations
for independence in the PoK have met with violent repression.
So can a representative be found to speak for the people? "The
leaders have no right to impose a solution," says N.A. Baba, head
of the political science department at the University of Kashmir.
"Kashmir is a heterogeneous place. Plurality is important to any
solution. Thus, it has to be an imaginative one."
Imagination was definitely not in the cards for the Agra summit.
But the stalemate was
not over a solution to Kashmir, or even on the inclusion of Kashmiris
in the talks. The two leaders could not even agree on whether to work
on Kashmir first and then other bilateral issues, or to work on Kashmir
and other issues simultaneously. Immediately after the summit, the
two leaders claimed that it was not a failure, merely a beginning
to a process to resolve all the outstanding issues. Yet within a week
the blame-game began. With the hard-liners scoring a victory in Agra,
it is unlikely that the next round of talks will get the two leaders
any closer to a solution.
The grave of Ashiq Hussain
Srinagar, located at Shaheed
Mazar, commonly known
as "Martyr's Graveyard."
Vajpayee must keep the Hindu nationalists happy if he wants his
coalition government to remain together. He is walking a tightrope,
and any movement from the broad consensus will upset the balance
of power in a coalition that has already been rocked by scandals.
Musharraf also must navigate a web of political intrigue. While
he has tried to consolidate power, the militant outfits and religious
leaders are still beyond his grasp. And he must please the army
brass or risk being toppled by another coup.
The Agra summit was the first sign since the Kargil battles of
1999 that Kashmir might see some relief. But since independence,
the heads of India and Pakistan have met each other no less that
48 times, with more than 20 summit-level meetings. None of those
talks have led to peace, and there was little chance that this one
would be any different. Everyone in Kashmir expects things to get
worse, not better.
Alamudin's dream of azadi again has been deferred.
Peter Chowla is a freelance journalist who lives in New