Who Really Represents Kashmiris?
5 September 2005
New Delhi: The first ever peace talks between an Indian prime minister and a moderate faction of the main Kashmiri separatist alliance has again raised a fundamental question. Who should be recognised as the representatives of the Kashmiri people? Currently, there is no united voice, no group which commands a majority and no single ideology to bring all of Kashmir into its fold. The rising fear of radical Islam, including in Kashmir, has led the international community to initiate a covert process of bringing Kashmiri militants and moderates together in order to discuss ways of resolving the conflict peacefully, using Northern Ireland and other troubled regions as examples. Many of these initiatives have involved Kashmiri politicians of all hues, even though the two parties to the Kashmir dispute, India and Pakistan, have not really involved Kashmiris in the peace talks. But although the international community has tried to bring Kashmiris together, many feel they have failed to choose genuine representatives of the people. Rivalry These critics say they appear to have been led in their efforts by the Indian and Pakistan governments to decide on whom to approach. There is no united Kashmiri voice India and Pakistan have both tried their best to outsmart each other in setting up their own loyal 'Kashmiri representatives'. The roots of this go back to 1947 when India relied on Sheikh Abdullah's National Conference and claimed it was the legitimate successor regime to the former Kashmir ruler. Pakistan, for its part, propped up Chaudhary Gulam Abbas's Muslim Conference. The situation has since changed completely and the mushrooming of parties and factions has made the Kashmiri scene even more complicated than it was in the winter of 1947. Some have even accused India and Pakistan of actively courting some representatives while trying their best to 'splinter' rival groups. Political wilderness In all this, the Kashmiri people are neither consulted or taken into account. Kashmiris have been lost in a political wilderness for the past six decades. The massive splintering of political groups in Kashmir has left the Kashmiris confused The current government of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has fewer seats than the previous National Conference government, but the combined voter base of these parties would pale by comparison to the 1.5 million signatures garnered by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, one of the leading separatist groups led by Yasin Malik. Another separatist leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, is very popular in the state's summer capital, Srinagar. Hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani is popular in the town of Sopore, while others have supporters in north or south Kashmir. Many of these leaders, of course, have constituencies outside their strongholds but ultimately the political map of Kashmir looks increasingly divided along geographical lines. One historian has even suggested that this might lead to the same situation as seen in Afghanistan after the Soviets. Factions The separatists have little or no base in Jammu or Ladakh but they never leave these areas outside the purview of their political claims. Many Kashmiris are disillusioned with their leaders This is despite the fact that these regions are majority Hindu or Buddhist and have often demonstrated that they would prefer to remain a part of India. Within these regions there are many political factions that have little in common with the separatists of the Kashmir Valley. And in 2003, the Hurriyat Conference - the main separatist alliance in Kashmir - split into two. 'Deal-making' The massive splintering of political groups in Kashmir has left the Kashmiris confused. Commentators say many of them felt betrayed when their first leader, Sheikh Abdullah, was given absolute authority to decide the fate of his nation and decided to throw his lot in with India. But he failed to win his people's confidence or openly articulate his position in public. He also did not shy away from striking secret deals with the powers in Delhi. This disconnection between what the 'Kashmiri representative' discusses with the powers in Delhi or Islamabad and what he tells his own people is what has disillusioned many Kashmiris. India has often asked the Hurriyat and other Kashmiri separatists to contest elections in order to demonstrate the level of their popular support. But the separatists have thus far refused to contest elections which are held under the Indian constitution. Many Kashmiris also say their experience with elections over the past six decades has also not been a happy one. In these circumstances, it is hard for anyone to predict peace for the region and a way out of the conflict.