Relief And Anger In Kashmir Over Pakistan Move
19 December 2003
The Washington Post
Srinagar: Pakistan's surprise offer to set aside demands for a U.N.-mandated referendum on the future of disputed Kashmir has spurred quiet hopes for peace in the region as well as angry charges of betrayal. On both sides of the divided Himalayan region, the trigger for two of three wars between the nuclear-armed rivals, ordinary people are desperate for peace. In the heart of Kashmir, in the ancient Indian- controlled city of Srinagar, people urged India to respond positively to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's apparent concession. 'India has to reciprocate...only then a solution is possible. Only then our sufferings, miseries and hardships will end,' Mohammad Maqbool said on Friday. Maqbool owns one of the famous houseboats on Srinagar's Dal Lake, fringed by snow-capped mountains. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in a 14-year insurgency on the Indian side of Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority state, while tourists have been driven away and the economy devastated. India has not yet responded to Musharraf's offer, made in an interview with Reuters, to set aside Pakistan's 50-year-old demand to implement U.N. resolutions calling for both sides to withdraw troops and for Kashmiris to decide in a vote on whether to be part of India or Pakistan. A close aide to Musharraf said in Islamabad the offer was consistent with the president's previous policy statements. 'It is his consistent statement that for resolution of an issue, we have to move away from our stated positions,' the aide said, dismissing talk of any U-turn in policy. The aide explained that moving away from Pakistan's 'stated position' clearly meant dropping the demand for a referendum, so Musharraf was merely spelling out an offer he had made before. 'He is consistent in what he is saying, probably the public memory is short,' he said. Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said Pakistan still supported the idea of a plebiscite but would discuss alternative proposals at any talks with India on Kashmir. Foreign Minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri told the official APP news agency that Pakistan's demands to work on the basis of U.N. resolutions had not been dropped. 'It does not mean that Pakistan has unilaterally dropped its demand based on UN resolutions,' he said. India blames the violence in Kashmir on militants based in Pakistan. Pakistan denies backing the rebels except for moral support, and accuses India in turn of human rights violations. As soldiers and police in Srinagar stopped vehicles and ordered people out for searches and identity checks, Irfan Majid, 35, lifted his woolen pheran, a Kashmiri poncho, to reveal scars across his stomach and chest. 'I was interrogated by the army for two days - I am not a militant,' he said. 'But let us live in peace now.' MANY IN PAKISTAN UNHAPPY But many Kashmiris on the Pakistani side of the region voiced anger at what they saw as a betrayal by Musharraf of their right, under the referendum, to decide their own fate. Raheel Ahmad, a 32-year- old grocery shop owner said the sacrifices made by Kashmiris should not 'go to waste.' 'Who is Pervez Musharraf to say that he is ready to abandon U.N. resolutions on Kashmir's plebiscite? This is our issue,' he said in Chakothi, a picturesque town often shelled by Indian forces before a recent truce along the heavily militarized Line of Control dividing the two sides in Kashmir. Others were more conciliatory, putting peace ahead of the principle of a U.N.- mandated referendum. The plebiscite does not give Kashmiris the option of independence, however, which is what many of them aspire to. On Friday, India and Pakistan agreed to resume train services from next month in a further move to normalize relations. The decision to resume the service from the Pakistani city of Lahore to Attari in India from January 15 came a few weeks after the two sides agreed to restore air links. Travel and diplomatic ties were cut after an attack on the Indian parliament blamed on Pakistan-based guerrillas in December 2001. Pakistan denied involvement. One of about a dozen Muslim separatist groups fighting for Kashmir's independence or merger with Pakistan said Musharraf had no right to make his offer. 'The president should respect the aspirations of the people of Kashmir...and in future should stress the implementation of self-determination only,' said Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen, a hardline pro-Pakistan group. But Syed Salahuddin, leader of the largest Kashmiri militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, said: 'Pakistan's offer to set aside U.N. resolutions for the sake of settlement of the Kashmir issue according to the wishes of the Kashmiri people is major progress provided India shows flexibility and gives up its intransigence.' But he questioned India's commitment to a peaceful settlement of the 56-year-old dispute. Housewife Amina Bano, 50, said she just wanted peace. 'I will pray and I am sure God will give success to Musharraf and the bloodshed, the ruthless killings, will end in our Kashmir,' she said. 'Peace with dignity - we deserve it now.'