The Sad face of Kashmir

Dawn, Karachi
May 24, 2002

By Victoria Schofield

Gulzar s a tailor in Srinagar who specializes in making British style 'Prince of Wales' suits in fine cashmere wool. But his shop has no customers and he spends most of the day standing on the street corner, dressed in a tweed jacket, to advertise his skills.

His plight is symbolic of the thousands of Kashmiris who depend on a steady influx of tourists for their livelihood. For thirteen years since the insurgency against the Indian government's control of the state began in 1989, their trade has been reduced to a fraction of what it was in the heyday of Kashmir's popularity as a tourist retreat for locals and foreigners wanting to escape the heat of the plains.

Handing me a bundle of letters from his previous satisfied customers, Gulzar says that he now relies on the journalists who come to the city to report sporadically on the insurgency. "I thank God I have some bread and butter," he says, "but now I would like some jam." In the next breath he asks me if I would like 'a nice ladies suit' which he could make me at once. "No need to pay me now," he says hopefully, "you can pay me after Christmas."

The valley of Kashmir is still a sad place. The normality promised as a consequence of the Indian government's clampdown on militancy has proved a mirage. As Governor Saxena admits, even the injection of funds into the state has not always reached those to whom it was destined. And, following the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in December last year, Kashmiris have again been made to pay the price.

The excited recipient of e-mail and STD facilities three years ago, the entire state is now cut off from electronic contact with the outside world. Only those in hotels and offices who can get a connection through New Delhi can use e-mail but this is slower and more expensive. Until the decision is reviewed, numerous cyber and STD booths remain vacant; the resentment of the young men who stand idle is plain to see.

Because of intensive security operations by the authorities, Srinagar city is, however, calmer than in previous years; children walk openly to school, with their satchels on their backs; the curfew is no longer enforced and there is less obvious military presence. Not all business is suffering: carpet manufacturers, who have outlets in India's major cities, have made a profit and the fruits of Kashmir's orchards continue to be harvested.

But life, especially for the villagers, can still be traumatic. They are constantly subjected to cordon and search operations in which civilians are invariably among the casualties. 'Every day,' says a teacher 'we hear of yet another house burnt, more Kashmiris killed, more humiliation and heartache.' Surprisingly the price of property in Srinagar has recently risen. But this does not mean that there is a boom in the state's summer capital. Rather it reflects the desire of villagers to escape from the country and lead a more peaceful life in the city.

Kashmiris are still waiting for a miracle which will free them both from the occupying forces of the Indian army as well as the fear of militant attacks which can occur anywhere at any time. And in an international climate which is decidedly opposed to encouraging terrorist activity, they know that the only way forward is breaking the political deadlock.

On the one side of the political divide stands Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and his National Conference party whose adherents support the state's status as part of the Indian Union. On the other, the 23-member Hurriyat Conference, whose respective 'constitutions' call either for the state of Jammu and Kashmir's accession to Pakistan or for its independence.

In between these viewpoints, independent voices propose a variety of solutions, some involving international mediation to bring about tripartite dialogue between India, Pakistan and the inhabitants of the state, others merely requesting India to 'vacate' the valley and surrounding Muslim majority areas in Jammu so that it can become a self-governing semi-sovereign state with international guarantees and safeguards.

With elections due to be held for the state assembly in September, there is now a chance to see which voice predominates but only if all protagonists agree to participate. When elections were last held in 1996, the Hurriyat boycotted them, leaving Farooq Abdullah with a clear playing field to gain a majority vote. Employing a similar tactic this time is likely to backfire. As both Farooq Abdullah and the Indian government point out, until the Hurriyat parties participate, it is impossible to assess their popular support.

In addition, not participating looks like obstructionism which is not well received by international onlookers. But the problem of participating requires not only confidence that the elections will be 'free and fair' but also acceptance that the state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the Indian Union. Such an admission would incur both the wrath of political hardliners for whom no compromise is possible and also that of the militants, who might resort to reprisals.

And yet, unless the Hurriyat takes part, Farooq Abdullah will once more be elected virtually unchallenged, something which those who are tired of the virtual monopoly he has had on the political scene for the past twenty years wish to avert. Abdullah himself also appears weary of the fight. His demands for autonomy status for the state have so far not been given serious consideration by New Delhi and it seems likely that he will try and introduce his son Omar as a new face with an untarnished political track record to boost the popularity of the National Conference. "This will be a mixed blessing," says a Srinagar-based Kashmiri journalist. "It will mean that the National Conference may have more appeal. And so it is even more important for the Hurriyat to take part."

In order to get out of the impasse, it is likely that those who would like to participate but, for the sake of their political reputation and their lives, dare not , will field proxy candidates. The Hurriyat is also attempting to demonstrate its strength by instituting its own election commission which will supervise an election amongst its supporters.

This initiative has not received any support from the Indian government and was given a setback in March by the arrest of one of the prime movers, Yasin Malik, leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), accused of being the alleged recipient of $100,000 in contravention to India's foreign exchange regulations.

Meanwhile, there is nervousness about the extent to which Pakistan can continue to support the movement in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Successive governments in Pakistan have consistently stated that their support is only moral and diplomatic and denied involvement in any "cross-border" terrorism.

But this statement is contradicted both by the Indian government and by evidence on the ground. And although political activists realize that the gun cannot be an answer to their problems, they are reluctant to say it serves no purpose because of the feeling that militant activity brought the issue out of 'cold storage' and gave it international recognition.

However, President Musharraf is now under increasing international pressure not to distinguish between condemning terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan and condoning it in the name of 'freedom fighting' in Jammu and Kashmir. He is also facing his own challenges at home as he seeks to maintain his authority in Pakistan and, at the same time, overseeing 'free and fair' elections in order to return the country to civilian rule in October, 2002.

There is no doubt that Kashmiris are tired of the protracted insurgency and its consequences. But, todate those, whose political manifestos demand more than a return to the status quo before 1989, have not been prepared to renounce their objectives in order to bring about peace. 'This would be like admitting that 13 years of the struggle, in which so many lives have been lost, has achieved nothing. Then what have we been fighting for?'


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