The pulse in Kashmir

Hope in the Valley

Print edition : June 14, 2013

A Pakistani saying goodbye to his sister leaving for India on the Samjhauta Express, at Lahore railway station on December 24, 2001. The peace initiatives came as a great relief to families separated by the border. Photo: MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS

February 5, 1999: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with Army chief General Pervez Musharraf on his way to address troops at Keil, close to the Line of Control. Photo: ZULFIQAR BALTI/AFP

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, hard-line separatist leader, cautioned Sharif not to fall into the "trap of India". Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

The Delhi-Lahore bus service was a key element in improving India-Pakistan relations. A 2003 picture. Photo: Anu Pushkarna

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of the Hurriyat's moderate faction. He is for Musharraf's four-point formula. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Kashmiris are enthusiastic about Nawaz Sharif’s call to restart the peace initiative from where it was left off in 1999 but see Musharraf’s four-point formula as the stepping stone to peace.

PAKISTAN Muslim League (N) leader Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif’s victory in the general elections has given Kashmiris some cause for optimism. Not that he would deliver “Azadi” to them, but that the democratic transition of power in Pakistan means political stability and thus reduced security concerns in the immediate neighbourhood. Such an atmosphere, most Kashmiris believe, will pave the way for a greater sense of reconciliation between India and Pakistan on the contentious issue of Kashmir.

Sharif, along with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, is credited with the landmark peace initiative of 1999. Hence, his call to pick up the threads of the initiative, which he made soon after his electoral victory, has been welcomed not only in the rest of the country but also in Kashmir. A promising ingredient of the Lahore Declaration signed in 1999 was the agreement by both countries to address the issue of Kashmir, among others.

The reaction in the Valley to Sharif’s victory was on expected lines. Except for the hard-line separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani, who cautioned Sharif not to fall into the “trap of India”, political leaders cutting across the separatist-mainstream divide welcomed his intended moves to restart peace negotiations with India. Rejecting the four-point formula mooted by President General Pervez Musharraf, Geelani said no dilution of the “right of self-determination” to Kashmiris would be allowed. “In your recent statement while announcing that your regime will pick [up] the threads where it were left in past but do consider that India won’t miss any opportunity and would harp its tune that Kashmir is their integral part,” he wrote in his congratulatory message to Sharif.

Musharraf’s four-point formula envisages that (1) Kashmir should have the same borders but people be allowed to move freely across the region; (2) the region should have self-governance; (3) troops should be withdrawn from the region in a phased manner; and (4) a joint mechanism comprising representatives from India, Pakistan and Kashmir be set up to supervise the implementation of such a road map for Kashmir.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who heads the moderate faction of the Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of separatist parties, reiterated his support to the Musharraf formula, which he rated as the best step forward in resolving the Kashmir issue, and asked Sharif to evolve “a mechanism through which everybody was taken along” in order to find “an amicable and dignified solution”. He said: “Making peace with India is [a] must to resolve the issue but it has to be reciprocal.” Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and People’s Democratic Party founder Mufti Mohammad Sayeed were on the same page with him.

Notwithstanding the fact that Sharif was the architect of the peace process with India, which was deflated by the Pakistani misadventure in Kargil, there has been overwhelming support to Musharraf’s initiatives in Kashmir. The real progress on Kashmir was witnessed during Musharraf’s regime, beginning with the ceasefire along the Line of Control on November 23, 2003, which was followed by confidence-building measures (CBMs) such as cross-LoC bus service on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and the Poonch-Rawalakot routes and cross-border trade. Though caught up in bureaucratic wrangle, these initiatives worked wonders in improving the relations between the two sides and came as a great relief to families divided by the border.

Peace of mind to tens of thousands of people living along the border was another achievement of this initiative jointly anchored by Vajpayee and Musharraf. The people of Kashmir have duly acknowledged this; popular support to the “fallen hero” Musharraf has not dwindled in the Valley. On social media networks, “likes” for Musharraf are high in Kashmir, as assertion of the belief that he was the real agent of change on the issue of Kashmir.

While reopening the “closed chapter” of the Lahore Declaration, Sharif can hardly undo the progress made on Kashmir from 2003 to 2008. It will be difficult to foresee the contours of a renewed dialogue process between the two sides, but Kashmiris see the four-point formula as the stepping stone to peace.

Changed position

Pakistan’s position today on Kashmir is different from what it was when Sharif held the office of Prime Minister from 1997 to 1999. It is a known fact that successive Pakistani governments have harped on going for the jugular and even supported the idea of “wresting” Kashmir militarily from India. However, that has not worked. Further, the dynamics of the security as well as political situation in South Asia have changed after the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. And with Pakistan grappling with internal instability, the issue of Kashmir has surely taken a back seat. The Pakistan People’s Party-led government, which followed Musharraf’s regime, also put the issue on the back burner and did everything to “buy” peace with India as the relations between the two countries had reached a point of no return after the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

The media, civil society and even a section of the security establishment moved to “stocktaking” mode in order to ascertain what the Pakistanis had gained or lost in continuing with their “national pledge to liberate Kashmir”. The result, as this writer was given to understand during a visit to Pakistan in November last year, was that all the “stakeholders” were rethinking on how to deal with the Kashmir issue. This changed thinking possibly came because of the heavy price Pakistan had had to pay on account of terrorism in the recent years.

Engagement with Kashmir leaders

Pakistan’s engagement with the leadership in Kashmir has also seen many ups and downs. In September 2003, when the Hurriyat Conference split, the Pakistani government immediately recognised the faction headed by Geelani and ignored the one headed by the Mirwaiz since the former had alleged that the People’s Conference, a constituent of the Hurriyat, had fielded proxy candidates in the 2002 Assembly elections. However, this “bonhomie” did not last long because of Geelani’s opposition to Musharraf’s peace overtures to India and his four-point formula and the CBMs.

The Mirwaiz was the natural choice for Musharraf to lend credibility to his process. He took the Mirwaiz and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yasin Malik on board. He also took Omar Abdullah (who was then in the opposition) into confidence. The Mirwaiz still supports the idea mooted by Musharraf.

Since the peace process has been received well in Kashmir in the past and is duly supported by people, Sharif will have no choice but to move forward on those lines.

Soon after his victory, he reneged on the promise of supporting the right of self-determination to Kashmiris, something his party had made in the election manifesto. He maintained that he was ready to put the United Nation’s Resolutions on Kashmir on the back burner in case India accepted Kashmir as a dispute. He also vowed to work for trade relations between the two countries, which in other words would mean hastening the process of giving the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India.

While Kashmiris favour good relations between the two neighbours, they are for a just resolution of the problem. Delinking the issue of Kashmir in spite of discernible changes on the ground may not be accepted as the “permanent feature” of this new paradigm in the relations.

Influx of militants

One more concern which Sharif is expected to address is the impact of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan in 2014. With a lot of speculation around a possible influx of militants into Kashmir, his government will have a tough time deciding where to draw the line between extremist voices (which, interestingly, supported him in his election) and voices yearning for peace.

Sharif, who connects himself proudly with the Kashmir lineage, may not have disappointed Kashmiris in the past, but the way the Pakistani government has “ditched” them on and off puts him to the test.

For instance, in 1994, Pakistan moved a resolution in the U.N. on the human rights abuses in Kashmir. With strong lobbying by India, the resolution was withdrawn at the last moment at the behest of Iran. Without walking the extra mile to endanger its sovereignty, Pakistan has accepted it will play a positive role in peace-building in Kashmir, which eventually would pave the way for an acceptable settlement.

Since Sharif’s party has a parliamentary majority and the current conditions could favour Sharif in keeping the hardliners in the establishment at bay, he could play a vital role in giving an impetus to peace. But New Delhi, too, needs to respond to his gestures and trust him. When Musharraf could be trusted and the results are obvious, a democratically elected leader deserves a better deal. But for that Sharif also needs to work hard. The next couple of years will be crucial for Kashmir, and Sharif’s re-emergence is a critical element in carrying forward the peace process.

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