The Imperative To Talk

Kashmir and the Indo-Pak peace process

For the Indian military, the Pakistan issue is almost inseperable from that of Kashmir. DANISH ISMAIL/REUTERS
01 January, 2010

EARLY IN DECEMBER, a moderate separatist leader, Fazal Haq Qureishi was shot and gravely injured by unknown gunmen. It was reminiscent of the assassination of another moderate separatist, Abdul Ghani Lone in May 2002 by suspected militants, who was inclined towards talks with the Indian government. Those were very dangerous times, but violence in terms of militant attacks has come down a lot ever since. Even compared to 2004 when the Mirwaiz-led Hurriyat Conference was engaging with the Indian government, and when unknown gunmen shot his uncle, attacks in Kashmir by militants have become negligible.

Much has changed in Pakistan as well in the past few years, with the country bogged down in a war against the Taliban and their allies in Waziristan, facing growing militancy in small-town Punjab, and devastating attacks in bigger cities. But given preoccupations in Waziristan and beliefs held in certain sections of the Pakistani security establishment that anti-India groups can still serve as a tool on the India front—whether in Kashmir or in terms of containing Indian influence in Afghanistan—Pakistan hasn’t gone all out against India-centric groups. Even if Pakistan was to initiate a direct confrontation with these groups, it can’t directly affect the source of their recruitment and growth: Kashmir.

Every case of rights abuse in the valley becomes an advertisement for recruitment into Lashkar. Last August, soon after the CRPF fired upon protesters in Kashmir, killing around 50 and injuring hundreds, the Lashkar chief Hafiz Sayeed, made a speech at Lahore’s Qudsia mosque. Sayeed told his audience about the police firing in Kashmir, about the injured and the dead, and he also mentioned the fact that the Grand Mosque in Srinagar had been closed by the government and that Friday prayers had been forbidden there. Sayeed went on to attack the Pakistani government for talking with India. Then he paused and threw a question at the Friday congregation, asking them, “And will you remain silent? Will you do nothing?”

For India and Pakistan,  to be able to defuse what becomes a rallying cry for Pakistani militants is a major imperative to renew serious dialogue. The two countries have talked, and have achieved a modicum of success in more difficult times, as the ‘Back Channel’ established by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf—led by diplomats Satinder Lambah on the Indian side and Tariq Aziz on the Pakistani side—came the closest anyone had in a long time to establishing a framework for the settlement of the Kashmir dispute. Those negotiations were conducted away from the hysteria and jingoism of television studios and newspaper headlines. Americans were not mediating in those talks. And despite the difficult histories and disappointments of the past, with some good intentions, the Lambah-Aziz talks showed that another way of diplomatic relations between the two neighbours was possible.

A note of sobriety is needed; a moment of pause is required. What is at stake is not a prize in a college debating society. At stake is the possible creation of a political framework where millions of lives can be lived without fear, where entire cities and states don’t have to look like garrisons, where anger and despair won’t have to consume generations of young people, where billions saved on defense purchases can create work and infrastructure to provide for the hungry and the poor from Karachi to Kanpur to Kupwara, where an Asiya doesn’t have to ‘drown.’ A measure of the moral weight that falls on the shoulders of the leaders in New Delhi, Islamabad, and Srinagar would scare anyone.

For any such talks to work out, or any settlement to be agreed upon, Kashmiris would need to be included. For public opinion in Kashmir is a game changer; no solution can be implemented without popular support. The streets of Srinagar are still filled with tear gas smoke and pictures of death are very fresh in Kashmiri minds. Kashmiri leaders won’t be reluctant to participate in talks aimed at addressing the fraught and hostile relationship between New Delhi and Kashmir only because of the threat of violence. The bigger question is one of legitimacy and credibility. Mirwaiz or any other separatist is located in a context where the ideas and institutions of India have lost almost all credibility.

In moments of doubt, many New York Jewish intellectuals would ask, “What would Hannah (Arendt) say?” The author of Eichmann in Jerusalem and the Banality of Evil had become a moral touchstone. In Kashmir the decades of oppression have accorded that saintly status and legitimacy to people whose lives have been destroyed by the abuse of power. A few years ago I was interviewing a former JKLF militant who had become a wreck after barely surviving many months in interrogation centres. Towards the end of various conversations I asked him why he did not succeed in the creation of an independent Kashmir. He didn’t give me a series of political reasons but said, “Asi Tih Maerih Begunaah. Khoon-e-Nahaq Chu Barav Diwaan (We too killed many innocent people and their blood doesn’t go unnoticed).”

To enable any Kashmiri leaders to enter negotiations with India, Delhi needs to address the questions of justice in Kashmir and respond with substantial measures that those leaders could take back to their people. A new beginning could be made with repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, by moving its troops from the residential areas, by ensuring accountability of the police and paramilitary forces, by stepping back from running a police state. Unless that happens, Mirwaiz or any other separatist leader will have nothing to show for agreeing to talk with India. For every decision they make, they will be held accountable on the street and questions will be asked.  He will be asked, “What will Asiya say?”