An irrelevant model

Print edition : June 20, 2003

A Kashmiri shikara owner prays in his shikara on the Dal Lake in Srinagar. It would be a fatal simplification to treat the Jammu and Kashmir problem as one of Hindu-Muslim relations, as Bill Clinton described it. - MUKHTAR KHAN/AP

The Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland cannot be replicated in the Jammu and Kashmir context as the relationships among the parties involved in the two situations and the very nature of the disputes are vastly different.

FORMER United States President Bill Clinton's formula for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute kindled hopes in the major separatist conglomeration, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). According to former APHC chief Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Clinton's stand vindicated their position as "he has put the focus right back on the Kashmir issue".

In his keynote address at the India Today conclave on March 2, Clinton suggested that the "Kashmir problem be resolved along the lines the problem of Northern Ireland was sorted out".

I was provided an opportunity and the facilities to visit Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, to study the similarities and dissimilarities between the situations in Kashmir and Northern Ireland. The British Foreign Office arranged meetings for me with the widest possible spectrum of views, including government officials, the head of the Political Affairs Division, the Director of Prisons Policy, the chief of the police, political leaders (Democratic and Labour Party) and independent peace-makers like university professors, Quakers and the Community Relations Council. As this is not for the first time that the suggestion to apply the Northern Ireland formula to Kashmir has been made, I present here the broad facts and my impressions about the Northern Ireland problem, the multi-party agreement on ceasefire (also called the Good Friday Agreement as it was signed on Good Friday, on April 10, 1998), and the post-agreement situation.

Out of a total population of 1,675,000 in Belfast, Catholics comprising 38.4 per cent have been agitating, violently since 1966 for union with the Republic of Ireland. Protestants, who are more than half the population, are equally determined to remain part of the union of Great Britain.

The two Christian communities are even today almost completely polarised in their views and even their habitation. Belfast city is divided on communal lines. The walls that separate them are often fenced. Members of the community avoid visiting areas inhabited by the other community even for shopping and recreational purposes. There are a few mixed colonies of upper and professional classes on the outskirts of the city. Mixed marriages are extremely rare. There was an instance of children of a mixed couple being killed when they were returning from a Protestant area.

The Unionist Party of the Protestants have always been in power since the Northern Ireland Parliament was set up in 1921. Parliament was abolished in 1973 after continued violence and terrorism by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) of the Catholics. The British government offered to concede the demand for secession, provided it was supported by the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The Catholic secessionists always lacked majority support.

A stage came when both the communities realised that continued hostility and violence would not lead them anywhere. Another helpful factor in the situation was that the relations between the Irish Republic and the British government always remained cordial. The former never supported the terrorist acts of the IRA, nor supplied arms to it. Thirdly, the academic community and Quakers did not take sides, and they facilitated the peace process. Lastly, Clinton, as the President of the U.S., played a positive mediatory role. After a series of negotiations between the British government and the Irish Republic as well as different factions of Protestants and Catholics, the Belfast Agreement was signed. In a referendum held on May 22, 1998, it was endorsed by 71.21 per cent of the voters and opposed by 28.8 per cent. All parties to the agreement and the two governments recognised the fact that the wish of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland was to remain in the Union, and, accordingly, Northern Ireland's status as a part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish. At the same time, the traditions, the cultures and the allegiances of both the communities are recognised and protected.

A key aspect of the agreement is the new 108-seat Assembly for Northern Ireland, which has full executive and legislative responsibility for subjects like finance and personnel, education, environment, health and social services, economic development and agriculture. Elections to the Assembly took place on June 25, 1998, under the system of proportional representation so that the rights of the minority are secure. Care has been taken to ensure that all communities are represented in the decision-making process of the Assembly. Decisions on sensitive issues will be subject to approval on a cross-community basis and requires a majority of both Nationalists (Catholics) and Unionists (Protestants) voting or a total of 60 per cent with at least 40 per cent of both communities in favour of the proposal.

In recognition of legitimate Nationalist aspirations, a North-South ministerial council (of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic) will be set up for mutual consultations in areas such as tourism promotion, inland fisheries and strategic planning.

In addition, a new body consisting of representatives of the British and Irish governments, developed institutions of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and representatives of the Channel Islands will be set up for consultation and cooperation on issues such as environment, transport and matters relating to the European Union (E.U.).

Further, the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission, reflecting the communal balance, will protect the interests of both communities by ensuring that they get equitable opportunities in all fields.

The agreement stipulates the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years. (In practice it means the surrender of arms by the IRA.) It has introduced a mechanism for an accelerated programme for the release of political prisoners irrespective of the nature of their crime, within a fixed time-frame. It also provides for making the composition of the police, which at present is about 90 per cent Protestant, more balanced.

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, largest party in the Assembly, was elected the First Minister while Seamus Mallon, leader of the Social Democratic Labour Party (with a Catholic support, it is committed to the eventual reunification of Ireland), was elected Deputy First Minister. According to the agreement, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister must belong to two different communities.

The agreement ensures safeguards for the two communities in political, cultural and administrative fields. It is a complex response to a very complex problem.

THERE are still formidable difficulties in the implementation of the agreement. Differences on its implementation led to the suspension of the Assembly and the resignation of the government. Despite many setbacks, the agreement has a redeeming feature: it brought peace after 32 years of violence.

It is being realised that more confidence-building measures are needed before the provisions of the agreement can be implemented. The main lessons of the entire exercise of restoring peace in Northern Ireland and its possible relevance for Kashmir may be summarised as under:

All sides realise the limitation of violence in solving any dispute. A diverse society must first work out a mechanism for reconciling and accommodating the interests and aspirations of each community. The mere principle of majoritarianism is neither democratic nor workable.

British sovereignty over Northern Ireland is categorically recognised; the cultural allegiance of the Catholics to the Republic of Ireland, too, has been accommodated. Will Pakistan and the APHC concede Indian sovereignty over Kashmir and will India recognise the religious affinities of Kashmiris with Pakistan?

The involvement of the autonomous regional governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales along with the Irish and British Councils was an important part of the peace agreement. Can autonomous regional governments of Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and Gilgit be formed and included in peace talks and a joint India-Pakistan council?

Independent institutions, intellectuals and conflict-resolution experts must be respected by all concerned and their physical safety must be guaranteed by the militants and the security forces so that they can work out confidence-building measures among the different regions and communities of the State and between a composite State and the Governments of India and Pakistan, which must precede a discussion on concrete solutions.

Ireland's total non-involvement in and disassociation with terrorist acts of the IRA and its cordial relations with the British government were helpful in reaching the Belfast Agreement. Pakistan's active involvement and support to militant movements in Kashmir must end and its relations with India should further improve to a level of harmony that existed between Britain and Ireland.

Finally, a vital difference between Northern Ireland and Jammu and Kashmir must be realised: unlike the former, which is totally polarised on communal lines (Protestants and Catholics), the latter has a number of ethnic diversities which cut across communal identities. It would be a fatal simplification to treat the Jammu and Kashmir problem as one of Hindu-Muslim relations, as Clinton described it. Kashmiri Pandits, for instance, have closer historic, ethnic and cultural relations with Kashmiri Muslims than with Dogra Hindus. Likewise, Gujjars, all of whom are Muslims in the State, have at least as close emotional and ethnic ties with Hindu Gujjars in the neighbouring States as with their co-religionist Kashmiris. Buddhists and Muslims of Ladakh, too, share a common heritage and racial background.

A literal application of the Northern Ireland formula - based on reconciliation of communal identities - would introduce an additional and dangerous dose of communalism into the State and destroy whatever inter-communal bridges that exist in the form of secular ethnic identities.

Balraj Puri was chairman of the Regional Autonomy Committee appointed by the Jammu and Kashmir Government.

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