November 2004 News

Manmohan's Kashmir Dreams

18 November 2004
Asia Times Online
Sultan Shahin

New Delhi: In his historic first visit to the Valley of Kashmir on Wednesday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought to share his dream of a peaceful Kashmir with the people of this beleaguered region that has been embroiled in militancy for about 15 years. While firmly rejecting a new map or the 'division of our country on the basis of religion', or redrawing international borders for Kashmir, he made an emotional appeal to the people to refocus their attention on peace and development and shun the path of violence. Within these clear boundaries, the prime minister said, he would be prepared to discuss any proposals to resolve the issue amicably. 'I've made it quite clear that any redrawing of international borders is something which is not going to be acceptable to us. I also make it quite clear to [Pakistani President] General [Pervez] Musharraf and everybody else that any proposals that seek the division of our country on the basis of religion are not going to be acceptable to us. Within these two limits, we are willing to look at whatever proposals are made on the table,' he said. These remarks were made as a direct response to a question on whether Musharraf's recent proposals for the resolution of the Kashmir issue could be considered or even discussed. As Indian External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh had pointed out earlier, the prime minister also said the government of India was still waiting for these proposals to be presented to them by the Pakistani government formally. If they are presented during Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz's forthcoming visit to India (next Tuesday), for instance, as is expected, they would be discussed thoroughly. Manmohan's visit to Kashmir, and not by coincidence, was on the same day the Indian army had began implementing the prime minister's earlier order to withdraw from the Valley of Kashmir. The first batch of 3,000 troops were pulled out from the militant-infested Anantnag area of South Kashmir. India is believed to have about half a million troops in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Withdrawal from this area shows that New Delhi now feels confident that it can handle militancy with less troops, particularly in view of a considerable drop in the infiltration of militants from across the Line of Control (LoC) that divides the Indian- and Pakistani-administered parts of Kashmir. Gradual demilitarization of Kashmir is one of the proposals made by Musharraf recently. Dispelling notions that the troop withdrawal was just meant to create a good atmosphere for his visit, the prime minister made another significant commitment: 'I've issued instructions for the reduction in the number of troops and if the situation improves further, if the infiltration stops and the level of violence comes down as well, there could be further de- induction.' Further clarifying the situation, Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee has ruled out withdrawing troops from the Siachen Glacier, the world's highest and stupidest war zone. Troops were being withdrawn, he said, not thanks to any Pakistani effort at stopping infiltration from across the border, but despite Pakistan's continued intransigence and promotion of cross-border terrorism. Rather, troops are being gradually withdrawn, according to Mukherjee, because the armed forces have been able to reduce infiltration. The same, however, could not be done in Siachen because 'the situation in Siachen was different from the one in Jammu and Kashmir'. The issue in Siachen is, he said, about demarcation of the actual ground positions held. Mukherjee said the problem has been discussed by the two sides and the next round of talks will be held at the army level. The minister, however, did not divulge any more details of the talks. 'We have told them to delineate first. Some positions we hold are very advantageous, which if we vacate, they might take over,' Mukherjee said, adding, 'We are asking them [Pakistan] to delineate so that if there is another Kargil we will have proof.' Manmohan's offer of an economic package worth Rp240 billion (US$5.3 billion), however, failed to win the hearts and minds of Kashmiris as it was intended to do. Half a century of democratic process, no matter how flawed it may have been in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, has made the people wiser. As was the case in the states of India's troubled northeast, economic packages now fail to impress people. Two reasons are cited. One, such packages represent more statistical jugglery of funds earmarked earlier and those that would have been announced in the future than the real thing. Two, in any case, most of these funds would reach the pockets of Delhi's favorite politicians in Kashmir rather than the people. Even in other and more stable parts of India that are not beset with militancy, according to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, no more than 15% of the funds allocated for the people reach them, the remaining 85% being pocketed by politicians and bureaucrats. Perhaps aware of such apprehensions, the prime minister presented the package as being earmarked for the long-term economic revival of the state. He, however, said it was not a package as such, but a long-term plan aimed at setting the state on the road to peace, prosperity and development. He said it was a special reconstruction plan to be implemented over four years. He clarified further: 'It will be monitored tightly and I have said that we will set up a high-power national advisory committee to advise both the central and state governments on the implementation of this plan, and also about longer-term issues of the accelerated development of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh.' More important and more desirable for the Kashmiri people, however, is Manmohan's promise of creating 24,000 new employment opportunities for the state's youth. The link between the swelling ranks of the educated unemployed and the rising level of militancy has long been talked about. Jobs for the educated are so scarce, a member of the Indian parliament from the National Conference, the main opposition party of Kashmir, Abdul Rashid Shaheen told Asia Times Online, that many Kashmiris have stopped allowing their children to study beyond primary school. If uneducated, a youth may be able to eke out a living by doing odd jobs; but once educated, he said, they start looking for white- collar jobs and since this search proves futile, they either spend their lives loitering around or become prey to the recruiting militants who ensure that their families will be looked after if they get killed. Kashmiris are also appreciative of the prime minister's commitment to help organize closer interaction between the families divided by the LoC. As the LoC is in essence a ceasefire line drawn arbitrarily and temporarily, many families, villages and even homes lie divided between the two countries. Many people can see onw another's close relatives across the LoC, but cannot meet. A rationalization of the LoC has been often talked about but never implemented, largely because Pakistan doesn't want it to mean an end to the dispute. Most of all the sincerity of Manmohan's voice has touched the hearts of common Kashmiris and raised their expectations. The chief of the ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, too, enjoys a good reputation in the valley and many people, particularly Kashmiri women, attach high hopes to her. It is clear that the drift in India's foreign policy noticed in the first few months of the new government coming to the helm of affairs in May has now come to an end. The coalition United Progressive Alliance government - led by Congress - has been able to take hold of the situation and the process of normalization of India-Pakistan relations and the permanent resolution of the Kashmir issue has now started picking up momentum of its own. Sultan Shahin is a New Delhi- based writer.


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