Senge H. Sering
At a time, when President Zardari is demonstrating a lack of political will to make peace with India and is talking about waging a 1000-year war over Kashmir, a civil society gala at New Delhi’s India International Centre kicked off the first Indo-Pak Peace Conference of 2010. The conference was expected to shape future Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) between the neighbours and promote a discourse on contested issues. Indo-Pak CBMs mainly revolve around the Kashmir issue, which is termed by Pakistan as the primary cause of enmity with India. In the post-Kargil period, the two countries have signed more than seventy Kashmir-related CBMs, but very few have actually been implemented.
At the conference, four participants were invited from Jammu & Kashmir to share their views. Both Mehbuba Mufti and Sajjad Lone emphasized on resuming Indo-Pak dialogue and opening the LoC to allow commercial activities and tourist flow, which can help bring economic empowerment to the people. They also proposed demilitarization on both sides of LoC and strengthening of local political institutions to enhance regional autonomy. Lone proposed an integration of the state at economic and humanitarian levels as a prelude to substantial talks on Kashmir in future. On the other hand, Yasin Malik talked about tripartite dialogue involving India, Pakistan and the people of Jammu & Kashmir. While prescribing a strong role for Pakistan in the Kashmir talks, he also advocated an independent Kashmir – an idea which has failed to attract audiences in both countries. The session on Kashmir concluded with the representative of the minority Pandits accusing the separatists especially JKLF for their exodus from the valley, which has led to loss of cultural identity and political and economic base for their community.
There was unanimity among the participants that all ethnic and religious groups within the state should be treated equally and with respect to ensure an amicable solution to the dispute. Lone’s proposal of involving the people of Gilgit-Baltistan in the talks and opening Kargil-Skardo road may be the starter in that direction. While India has allowed free travel and trade across the LoC benefiting the people of Kashmir valley and Muzaffarabad, the onus is now on Pakistan to undertake similar CBMs for the people of Astore, Gurez, Baltistan, Kargil and the Nubra valleys. This can also help mitigate the blame of double standards on Pakistan, which supports one particular ethnic group in Kashmir valley to advance its own strategic interests, while showing indifference towards the problems and concerns of other stakeholders. The leaders of Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh consider opening historical trade routes indispensable to bring commercial breakthrough and economic revolution for the poverty-stricken masses of their region. The same routes can also help reunite more than 10,000 divided family members of these regions.
Like the way Pakistan supports reunification of Kashmir valley and Muzaffarabad, it can also allow reunification of Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh. This can happen only if Pakistan withdraws its troops and civilian administrators unilaterally from its occupied parts of the state which also include Gilgit-Baltistan. Pakistan’s withdrawal is a precondition set by the United Nations to embark on a just Kashmir solution. In 1948, the UN gave Pakistan 90 days to vacate these areas of Jammu & Kashmir and her failure to comply with the UN resolutions has since then stalled the peace process and led to invalidation of a possible plebiscite which could have allowed the locals to express their wishes. Since Pakistan’s illegal presence in Gilgit-Baltistan allow her to generate revenues from resource exploitation, it has vested interests in stalling the peace process and prolonging the impasse on Kashmir. At the moment, Islamabad has given a free hand to the Lahore Chamber of Commerce & Industry and business groups of the People’s Republic of China to exploit the resources of Gilgit-Baltistan, which violates UN resolutions and tightens Pakistan’s grip on the region.
The conference resolution suggested several modules, which mostly focus on the needs of the people of Kashmir valley, but can be extended to benefit the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh as well. It suggests that Kashmiris should be allowed to live and work in Pakistan if they wish so but doesn’t take into consideration the fact that the same privilege is the right of the people of PoK if they wish to live and work in India. While the resolution mentions restoring Article 370, it fails to demand from Pakistan the restoration of state subject rule in Gilgit-Baltistan, and provision of genuine autonomy to the locals there. Abrogation of state subject rule in Gilgit-Baltistan in 1975 has led to the change of local demography in Pakistan’s favour that needs immediate consideration. It is the responsibility of both India and the people of Jammu & Kashmir to suggest mechanisms to counter such illegal Pakistani policies. Further, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan should have access to Jammu & Kashmir by making available to them the same travel documents currently used by the people of Mirpur-Muzaffarabad. The conference could have also included a CBM allowing the students of Gilgit-Baltistan to study in India, and the political representatives of Gilgit-Baltistan to fill their share of the seats currently sitting vacant in the Kashmir Legislative Assembly, Srinagar.
In addition, Pakistan can let the people of Gilgit-Baltistan participate in consultations on modalities of the CBMs. It can also abandon the policy of imposing proxy representatives, like the federal ministers claiming to represent the region and suppressing local voices during the discourses. Since the proxies toe the Pakistan government line on Kashmir and promote the Pakistani agenda of political impasse, their presence at the conferences will not yield any results. In this context, Kashmiri separatists can help make this distant dream come true if they abandon decades-long self-styled title of the sole representative of the Kashmiri people for themselves and address concerns of various communities through intra-state dialogues. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan should be allowed to engage with the members of different working groups that India has established. Such a policy can help establish joint working groups covering the interests of the entire state. Akin to the proposals of the Indian working groups on Kashmir, Pakistan can delegate genuine autonomy to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Since both Pakistan and India claim the state in entirety, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan should have access to carry direct talks with Delhi, which the leaders of Kashmir valley currently enjoy vis-à-vis Pakistan.
It is a dichotomy that while both Kashmiri separatists and Pakistan continuously accuse India of failing to implement the CBMs, Pakistan continues unilateral support to the separatist-militants to forward its strategic interests in the region, which also threatens India’s territorial integrity. Recent militant attacks in Srinagar strengthen certain views that Pakistani support to extremism and separatism has not died despite its claims of promoting peace in the region. Her policy of granting the Kashmiri militants the exclusive right to represent the entire state has alienated other groups from the political process. Such tendencies have forced the minorities to reject the outcomes of the peace conferences, which invites further complexity to the issue. An impasse will linger unless Pakistan realizes this problem and acknowledges the legitimate right of other stakeholders during the peace talks. Jammu & Kashmir in its entirety comprises of the Kashmir valley, Jammu province, Mirpur-Muzaffarabad districts, Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral valleys. Although the separatists come from the valley; it occupies only 11 per cent of the total landmass of Jammu & Kashmir and houses less than 30 per cent of the state’s population. Further, a significant segment of the valley-inhabitants is ethnically non-Kashmiri like the Gujjars, Bakarwals and Paharis who vehemently oppose militancy. Further, the Kashmiri speaking populace belonging to mainstream political parties also reject separatism. Owing to such tendencies, the separatists remain a small minority who resort to violence to impose their will upon the rest of the stakeholders.
In order to increase leverage of Kashmiri separatists, Pakistan claims Jammu & Kashmir to be ethnically and religiously homogenous despite its multi-cultural and religiously diverse background. Nonetheless, the residents of Jammu & Kashmir can be divided into three branches of Punjabi, Dardic and Tibetan ethnic groups. Among them, the Dogras, Paharis, Hindkowals, Gujjars and Bakarwals speak Punjabi dialects; Kashmiris, Kishtwaris, Thalichis, Shins and Chitralis speak Dardic dialects; while Baltis, Purikis, Ladakhis and Changpas speak Tibetan dialects. In addition, the state is home to Tatar-Mongols, Turgesh-Mongols, Burushus, Tajiks and Pashtuns. On religious basis, the diversity is manifested by Sunnis, Shias, Nurbaxshis, Ismailis, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. Based on such diversity, resource-rich and strategically-located tracks of Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral valleys continue to oppose militancy and promote a peaceful solution to the Kashmir dispute. These valleys cover more than 85 per cent of landmass of Jammu & Kashmir and are home to approximately two million people. Further, the importance of these valleys as transit routes to Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Tibet and China enhances their geo-political importance and further their claims during peace-discourses. Separatism which originated in the Kashmir valley finds negligible support among these groups and many among them desire reunification of the state and withdrawal of Pakistani forces.
While Pakistan’s lop-sided policy towards a specific group in a socially diverse state threatens political rights of minority stakeholders, who are treated like bystanders during the peace process, India on the other hand has adopted a consistent and holistic approach to the CBMs on Kashmir. It looks at the issue as a constitutional matter owing to the fact that the Maharaja of Kashmir sealed the fate of his state in favour of India by the virtue of the letter of accession. India believes that an amicable solution to the lingering dispute may come soon if participation of all stakeholders is ensured during the peace-talks. Even when successive Pakistani constitutions consider Jammu & Kashmir outside the territorial limits of Pakistan, it continues to claim itself as a party to the dispute and expects an instant resolution on Kashmir before embarking on other CBMs. Over the years, many of these CBMs have been used by Pakistan to win over a specific constituency of Jammu & Kashmir, like the separatists of the Kashmir valley, which compels other stakeholders to question Pakistan’s sincerity towards a peaceful solution to the chronic dispute.
Since the issue is very complex and chronic, we cannot expect an instant solution, but at the same time the proposals of economic integration presented by Sajjad Lone will remain unimplemented due to the double standard of Pakistani Establishment which has a myopic view of Jammu & Kashmir to advance its strategic interests; exploit the resources; and use against India as a bargaining tool. For the last four decades, Pakistan has maintained a policy of ethnic and religious divide in Gilgit-Baltistan which has weakened the society and tightened Islamabad’s grip on the people there. The state and its people cannot afford further division and weakening of society due to Pakistani policies. With the help of continued dialogues, a policy framework at the broader regional level has to be devised, which recognizes the right of peaceful co-existence for all the residents of the state. Such CBMs can help bring the fractured state and its people closer and enhance political understanding. Opening LoC will help create economic interdependency and advance regular interaction. This will help diffuse sectarian and ethnic differences, enhance social cohesion, and allow all stakeholders to arrive at a political consensus without any prejudice to the social diversity. This cannot happen if the issue remains hostage in the hands of a few individuals who impose themselves upon others as sole representatives.
The leadership of the Kashmir valley needs to change its attitude and speak for the interests of their own people rather than protecting Pakistani interests. In the past, they failed to condemn Pakistan for human rights violations in Gilgit-Baltistan; for awarding more than 20,000 square kilometres of Jammu & Kashmir to China in 1963; for stealing water and mineral resources of Gilgit-Baltistan and building dams for the benefit of Punjab; and also failed to reach out to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and acknowledge their right to participation during the dialogues. Again there are issues that need to be dealt with in a holistic manner but remained hostage to internal problems of the Kashmir valley thus ignoring the overall wellbeing of the people of Jammu & Kashmir. The valley leaders can also help diffuse constraints by separating valley-related micro socio-economic and political matters from the broader national and regional issues, which generally do not come under the purview of Jammu & Kashmir dispute.
The Indo-Pak peace conference concluded with a pledge to uphold democracy, but failed to demonstrate it by limiting its invitation only to representatives from the Kashmir valley and ignoring other stakeholders. This reinforces the view that certain elements from the valley will continue to direct the discourse on Kashmir and therefore the impasse will also continue. At a critical juncture of history, when Pakistan is making efforts to annex Gilgit-Baltistan, denying her natives the right of participation during such conferences will harm the political interests of Kashmir as well that of South Asian region. There are lessons to be learnt from this conference for both countries as well as conference organizers. Unnecessary focus on one ethnic group, which projects its agenda through violence, will only marginalize others who support a peaceful solution to the Kashmir dispute. A policy needs to be adopted which puts the interests of all ethnic and religious groups of Jammu & Kashmir before the vested interests of Pakistani proxies.