Reflections On A Visit To Srinagar
30 April 2005
Karachi: SRINAGAR was a city under siege. There were two soldiers in battle readiness every hundred yards or so on either side of the main artery - Maulana Azad Road - on all the major roads within the city, and an armoured vehicle (an ugly Indian-designed juggernaut on wheels) at each road crossing. The Indian prime minister was in town to inaugurate the bus service to Muzaffarabad. Someone remarked that there was one soldier to every five to six residents of Srinagar. Notwithstanding this siege of the city, the so-called 'terrorists' set ablaze on the previous night the central tourist office situated in the heavily secured area, where the bus travellers were lodged. I asked a taxi driver what he thought of the situation. Replied he, 'It is no longer Kashmir, but 'cash more'. Asked to explain, he said, 'The Indians wink at mega corruption around here, thinking it will buy them Kashmir.' Srinagar is a dusty, traffic-polluted, ramshackle town of broken roads - and broken people - nestling in a fabulous countryside. No picture postcard does justice to this land. Grassy meadows of wild flowers lie at the feet of verdant mountains; the two main lakes - Dal and Nagin - offer a laidback serenity; forests of willows and flowering trees in semi-flooded lowlands appear to be the very picture of primeval peace. The metalled road ugliness stares you in the face. Utter the word 'Pakistan' and there are broad smiles, hugs, greetings and the sullen faces suddenly light up. Pakistan was like 'open Sesame'. The bonding is stronger than I had imagined. I was told that when the Pakistan cricket team faced defeat in the two earlier ODIs, much of the population switched off their TV sets before the debacle culminated. Likewise, a few years ago when the West Indies cricket team played against India in Srinagar, it was the West Indies that was cheered throughout the match. In conversation with a high-ranking minister, it was never 'we', that is, Delhi and themselves, but 'India this' or 'Indian that' or 'Indian goods'. Whereas in most parts of the world the appearance of the green Pakistan passport is a matter of some concern at any checkpoint, I had simply to wave my green passport to get past roadblocks. The road leading to the famous Nishat Gardens was blocked as it passed by the Grand Hotel where we were staying with the Indian leadership. My driver simply said, 'Guest from Pakistan' and at the wave of my passport, hands stretched out with Assalam-o-Alaikum. At one roadblock a policeman said, 'My uncle Mohammad Yousuf has a shop in Sabzi Mandi, Rawalpindi, give him my regards.' Even Indian soldiers succumbed to the pressure of the Kashmiri policemen in letting me pass the roadblocks to Nishat Gardens without a permit. I met several political leaders in and out of government, including the APHC; two of them - both young - were outstanding for their candour and directness, free of verbosity and ideological luggage. Mehbooba Mufti, daughter of the chief minister and president of the People's Democratic Party, has her office in the chief minister's house. I asked her about 'disappearances', in reference to young men being taken into custody by the security agencies and who disappear thereafter. Very often, those taken in have nothing to do with politics; a blood linkage to a known dissident (in Indian officialese any weapon-holding dissident is a 'terrorist') is sufficient to be incarcerated in communicado under the TADA laws. In such cases the only person who can be reached for some sympathy and help is Mehbooba. She admitted to about 20 proven disappearances last year, which, she said, is a fraction of the number in previous years. Mehbooba would welcome the participation of the APHC members in the political process. She agreed that a Gandhian-style non- violent protest would have been more effective than a resort to arms, but too much water had passed under the bridge since 1989. Mir Waiz Umar Farooq, the hereditary custodian of the Hazrat Bal mosque, is a highly respected figure. Were he to enter the political mainstream, Srinagar would be his for the asking in any fair election. This young lean man is blessed with a maturity far beyond his years. He has the parlance of an academic. In addition to his duties as a religious and political leader, he is working on his PhD, his subject being the cultural, literary and linguistic linkages between Iran and Kashmir in history. Mir Waiz Umar Farooq admitted that the APHC parties were being marginalized by opting out of the political process. He was in favour of joining the process, provided the election was free, fair and transparent. The APHC is a divided house. I asked Mir Waiz as to how he would overcome the problem of taking an oath under the Indian constitution, an election requirement if one decided to take part in the process. He replied that if there was an APHC agreement to participate, a way out would have to be found. Both he and Mehbooba Mufti were critical of not being allowed to travel to Pakistan to meet Kashmiris on our side. Both, in their different ways, were of the opinion that a process of peace would lead to a solution of the Kashmir problem and that the solution was embedded in the process. However, being a moderate in this volatile situation draws flak from the extremists. Mir Waiz lost his father and more recently his uncle to assassins' bullets. The madressah attached to the Hazrat Bal founded by his forbear in 1899, which has schooled generations of Kashmiri leaders, was burnt to ashes. Omar Abdullah, a dapper young man, well heeled in the corridors of power, is the grandson of Sheikh Abdullah. He is more strident in his views on Pakistan and terrorism. I asked him if the fences being built by India along the LoC were as impenetrable as the Berlin wall and would the so-called terrorism come to an end? His answer echoed the Indian line. All terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir has its origin in Pakistan. This standard Indian answer needs a little scrutiny. The concentration of troops in the disaffected parts of Kashmir as a ratio to the population is probably one of the highest in any conflict situation, anywhere. In addition, the potential points of infiltration are heavily mined and wired. An individual wanting to move across such a line of divide, presumably fully equipped, would have to be an athlete of Olympian standards with the mental grit of an Everest climber. Would it not be easier for disaffected groups to buy or steal weapons in the arsenal-rich valley? Prima facie the Indians have been their own worst enemies in Kashmir. Neither brute force, torture nor corruption can win the hearts of a people. Each occupation army creates its own Al-Ghraib. The Pakistan army was no exception during the Bangladesh war. Without doubt the Indian occupation army has alienated the common people in the valley of Kashmir. A senior Kashmiri minister conceded in a private conversation that Pakistan should come to the rescue of India in its Kashmir predicament. But how? The answer hung in the air. The Indian predicament is real enough. The geography of the Indian Union has been frozen by its constitution which includes Kashmir. To overcome the constitutional bar may sound easy to Pakistanis but not so to Indians. To retain Kashmir at all costs is the sine qua non of all political parties. A point seldom appreciated in Pakistan is that any sudden change in Kashmir's status is likely to hit Muslims in India, besides toppling any government in New Delhi which is a party to this. Hindu-Muslim relations continue to be prickly in many parts of India. Any major concession to Pakistan or the Kashmiris without a process is likely to trigger an emotional and political reaction. Oddly enough, none of the politicians that I met in Kashmir were aware of the Tyrol settlement, which resolved a similar problem between Austria and Italy in Tyrol south of the Brenner Pass. The bottom line of the settlement was that Italy would grant full autonomy to south Tyrol (similar to autonomy granted to Kashmir by Article 370 of the Indian constitution way back in the 1950s) but it was subject to the binding jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, if a difference of opinion arose on the interpretation of the agreement. In the case of Kashmir, autonomy must include the right to raise para-military forces, free trade and movement across the LoC and to open trade and tourism offices anywhere in the world, including Pakistan. This is the sort of autonomy that Quebec enjoys in Canada or the Wallon regions in Belgium. In other words, the autonomy must be non-retractable and justifiable internationally. My interlocutors in Kashmir showed much interest in the Tyrol settlement. They inquired if Pakistan would be prepared to grant a similar autonomy to Azad Kashmir and the Northern regions. Well, what's good for the goose is also good for the gander. The writer is a member of the National Assembly.