Kashmir: the Elephant in the room

By Ghazala Akbar:

On February 5 every year Pakistanis jointly commemorate a secular, national holiday, Kashmir Day. This is truly a momentous achievement – not just because it keeps the ‘K’ word active in our political vocabulary but notably, because it is marked by all Pakistanis, all on the same day! That alone should be a cause for a major celebration. Kashmir Day, unlike certain religious holidays is determined by the Gregorian calendar. It does not require any elaborate moon – sighting exercises by scientifically- challenged scholars perched perilously on rooftops. Even the Government of Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, fiercely autonomous in matters of lunar-sightings concurs demurely with the Federal Government on this point. The fifth of February is Kashmir Day. Period.

And so this year, Kashmir Day came and duly went. For the politically-charged it was a day to regurgitate the same well-worn phrases and platitudes that have sustained us for more than 65 years. For well-heeled, laid-back and apathetic Pakistanis it was a day to put their feet up, have a long lie-in or indulge in recreational pursuits. For those who live on the margins, surviving on daily wages, it was just another unproductive day yielding nothing. As familiar TV footage of idyllic Kashmiri villages juxtaposed against the menace of gun-toting Indian soldiers appeared on TV screens, we duly nodded our heads in silent disapproval. Then, switching channels, we resumed normal service again.

Let’s be perfectly honest. Kashmir hasn’t been on anyone’s agenda for quite some time now. We have – to put it mildly and politely – other pressing concerns. Since 2001, there have been other enemies and battles closer to home. A ‘war on terror’, an extremist insurgency in the tribal and settled areas of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA, predatory Drone attacks, resurgence of Baloch separatism, killings of Hazara and other Shia Muslims, ethnic killings, target killings, political crises, power outages, the falling Rupee, budgetary constraints, inflationary pressures, et al have all relegated the problems of Kashmir to a distant blur on the ever changing Pakistani kaleidoscope.

On February 9th, 2013 something happened to change this view. The kaleidoscope moved off its own volition. It revealed an ugly scene. The Vale of Kashmir (also known as Occupied Kashmir) came into sharp focus – alone, forlorn and abandoned. Its people were forcibly indoors, under a strict dusk to dawn curfew, their voices gagged. In sharp contrast, many Indians in the capital Delhi were in joyous revelry. Sweets were being distributed. Politicians exchanged congratulatory messages. ‘Better late than never, one tweeted.’ There was a triumphal note that seemed unsavoury and distasteful.

What was the cause of the disconnect between the two scenes, I wondered. Why was Delhi in celebratory mood when the people of Srinagar remained indoors, unable even to express their opinions as internet services and mobile phone networks were unplugged? My answer lay in the story of a 43-year-old man called Mohammed Afzal Guru. He had been executed in Tihar Jail, Delhi. Nearly eight years after he had been sentenced, the mercy petition filed by his wife was rejected by the President of India. He was hanged for aiding and abetting the perpetrators of the bloody 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. He was an Indian Kashmiri.

Perhaps it was the repeated telecasting of the image of Afzal Guru superimposed with a noose around his neck; the morbid fascination of the last few hours on earth of a condemned man or my personal abhorrence at the selective application of the death penalty but I was repeatedly drawn to this story. I had to know more about the man and his case. Was he truly guilty as charged? Why was he executed in haste and in secret? Why are other condemned men, the killers of a former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for instance, languishing on death row while Afzal Guru is pushed ahead of the queue? I had to find out. I had to also understand what motivates people like Afzal Guru to risk their necks for a political cause that seems hopeless. Far from providing closure, the hanging of Afzal Guru re-ignited my dormant interest. Kashmir was back on my agenda.

Given our own quaint justice system in Pakistan that often releases extremists for lack of evidence, or the shameful adulation that greeted the killer of the Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer or our gloomy record in protecting minorities, and the killing of Hazara Shias that continues unabated, Pakistanis are in no position to sermonize or wag fingers at anyone. However, somehow and I say this with sorrow, one expected better standards from what we are constantly reminded is – the world’s largest Secular Democracy.

Never mind my perception that that the hanging of Afzal Guru was fast-tracked for political expediency or that the inhumanity in disallowing the condemned man a farewell meeting with his wife and son was cruel and callous, or the nagging suspicion that the timing of the execution was a retaliatory measure for the alleged beheading of an Indian Soldier at the Line of Control in January — the whole tawdry episode from start to finish has been edifying on many fronts.

The biggest eye-opener for me personally and I suspect for many Pakistanis were the reactions of dismay and disgust from three secular Kashmiri leaders, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah of the National Congress, Ms. Mahbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party of Kashmir, and her father, the former Chief Minister, Mohammed Mufti. By no yardstick can they be considered ‘pro- Pakistan’. If it were Yaseen Malik of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front or Syed Shah Geelani of the Jamaat e Islam, well – known ‘separatist hawks,’ we could put it down to habitual anti-Indian bias. But when moderate, secular voices express disquiet, outrage and sorrow at Afzal Guru’s hanging, when a former Chief Minister and Congress MP says ‘Gandhi’s India has become Banana Republic’ we have to raise eyebrows and wonder why!

For years we have been led to understand that elections, representative government, democracy were the panacea for Kashmir’s ills; that ‘militancy’ amongst the youth was caused by a dearth of economic opportunities; that the troubles in Kashmir were all Pakistan-created and sponsored; that if only Pakistan were to back off and give Indian-Kashmir a bit of breathing space, things would sort themselves. That was the conventional wisdom. Elections were held in 2005. ‘Cross- border’ incursions from Pakistan, (by India’s own admission) are now a trickle. Tourists are returning and the economy is picking up. If these are indicators of progress, the big question is: why is Indian Kashmir still seething with discontent?

Why is the Valley still under occupation by over 750, 000 Indian troops, with one soldier for every four Kashmiris? Why do Kashmiri youth cry ‘Azaadi’ (freedom) and throw stones at their own troops? What does Mahbooba Mufti mean when she says Kashmiri boys prefer to kill themselves rather than risk being caught by the Security forces? Who lies buried in over 2000 unmarked graves that were discovered in 2010? Why are Kashmiri Hindus who fled the state when the insurgency began in the early 1990s, still unable to return to their homes? Why does an execution in faraway Delhi cause the State of Jammu and Kashmir to be treated like a rebellious Satrap — the hapless recipient of harsh restrictions and mass punishments that reek of repressive colonialism? These are questions that all peace-loving people both in Pakistan and India need to ask.

At 65 years strong, the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir is the longest running dispute in the world. It is simply not fair that while the rest of South Asia surges forward, enjoying the fruits of Independence from Britain, Kashmiris remain frozen in time, hostage to a hasty decision made by a panic-stricken Maharajah that has forever doomed it to be a battlefield in the competing rivalries of India and Pakistan. This beautiful valley should have been an international playground, the Switzerland of Asia, enjoying the benefits of tourism and trade. Instead it is an armed camp, a tinderbox waiting to explode.

As 2014 approaches and the Americans prepare to exit Afghanistan, it is imperative that Kashmir becomes the focus of our attentions once again. Holy Warriors and mercenaries in search of new pastures should not be given a raison d’etre to muscle their way into the fray as they did when the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union concluded in 1989. The cause of the Kashmiris must be rescued from the clutches of extremists who have hijacked and defamed it for their own ideological ends. The rug must be pulled from under their feet by bringing the issue to the forefront on a state- to-state level.

In 2001, the attack on the Indian Parliament nearly dragged India and Pakistan towards war. Non- state actors tried it again with their murderous assault on Mumbai on 26 /11. Just recently we saw how the alleged beheading of an Indian soldier Hemraj Singh at the LoC resulted in another fracas causing the peace process to de-rail. As the Greek historian, Thucydides in the “History of the Peloponnesian War” observed, that what actually starts a war is different to what causes one. Apply this maxim to the tensions at the Line of Control. It doesn’t take much to start a conflict when the root causes of the dispute are not addressed.

Now more than ever, it is imperative for Kashmir to come off the margins and take center-stage in the discourse between India and Pakistan. Our diplomats and functionaries simply cannot continue exchanging pleasantries and side – step the main subject. Let’s not delude ourselves. Kashmir is the core issue. It is the bone of contention between India and Pakistan. It is the only game in town. Indians and Pakistanis at every level must not shy away from discussing the topic as if it were taboo and off-limits.

Kashmir is a cause that is politically correct – a just and legitimate demand for freedom and self-determination. It needs resolution — not with bullets and bombs, tit-for-tat knee jerk reactions, beheadings and judicial executions but peacefully through dialogue at the negotiating table. The sons of Afzal Guru and Hemraj Singh must have other reasons to grow up rather than a desire for revenge. Kashmir is the elephant in the room we simply cannot ignore.

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