August 2007 News

For 8 Of 10 People In Valley, 'conditions Have Improved'

12 August 2007
The Indian Express

New Delhi: As India and Pakistan mark 60 years of Independence, nothing is a more powerful symbol of the divide between the two than Kashmir, that legacy of Partition. It is, therefore, only fitting that we begin with the Kashmir issue in this first of the first-ever joint Indo-Pak poll on what people in the two nations think of each other, of the world, their future. What does 'the Valley' really want? Are opinions of the people in Kashmir shared by their counterparts in Jammu and Ladakh? Will any resolution enjoy acceptance in the rest of the country? Will hardliners in the rest of India and Pakistan veto any attempt to solve the Kashmir problem? The first-ever Indo- Pak poll sponsored by The Indian Express, Dawn News and CNN-IBN and designed by CSDS, Delhi offers us significant clues about this question and shows that public opinion offers greater room for peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute than is usually believed. The poll was carried out in the last week of July and the first week of August in the top ten cities of Pakistan (by A C Nielsen) and the top twenty cities of India (by CSDS). Besides 1010 interviews in urban Pakistan and 2030 interviews in urban India, the CSDS conducted a special straw poll by interviewing 226 persons in Srinagar and 255 persons in Jammu city. (Methodological details about the survey will be carried in the final instalment of the reports on the Indo-Pak poll) Let us begin by acknowledging something everyone knows but does not wish to talk about. People in Kashmir Valley want Azadi in the sense of becoming an independent country. As many as 87 per cent of the respondents in Kashmir chose this option over other options like maintaining status quo or merging both parts of Kashmir either with India or with Pakistan. Hardcore strategists in India will no doubt draw some consolation from the fact that Pakistan figures almost nowhere as a first preference for Kashmiris in this poll. Yet India is only marginally better placed. Even after allowing for the complexities of the sentiment for Azadi and recognising the peer pressure that operates more in Srinagar than outside, it is hard to dispute the basic finding that people in this part of our country do not display much attachment to the nation-state called India. This finding is very much in line with a much larger and more representative survey (carried out by CSDS and Jammu University) in 2002 that found a similar level of support for 'Azadi' all over the Valley. Not surprisingly, this sentiment is not shared outside the Valley. There are no takers for Kashmiri independence in Jammu town, with nearly everyone supporting an integration of Indian Kashmir and PoK into the Indian Union. The opinion in other cities in the rest of the country is not as vehement as Jammu but there is an overwhelming preference for integration with India. The opinion of urban Pakistanis are, predictably, opposed to the opinions of urban Indians. That makes it look like a perfect deadlock so familiar of national struggles in many parts of the world: a tiny minority wants freedom from nation-states that treat their land as nothing other than a piece of property. If such a conclusion needs to be resisted, it is not merely because it is dark and depressing, but also because The Indian Express-The Dawn-CNN-IBN poll provides many concrete reasons for hope. Positive signs come from both sides of the border. Urban Pakistanis do not insist on Kashmir joining Pakistan; those who desire so are matched by as many who are willing to accept an independent status for Kashmir. A majority of urban Pakistanis are also willing to let Kashmiris decide their own fate. Although a majority (higher among the Punjabis) insists that Indo-Pak relations cannot move forward till the Kashmir question is resolved, as many as 45 per cent of those who have an opinion do not see Kashmir as a pre-condition. This proportion is higher among the urban Indians. A series of national surveys conducted over the last few years by the CSDS have also shown that the Indian population endorses negotiation rather than suppression as the right approach in Kashmir. The most positive signals come from within the troubled state. The state assembly election of 2002, widely seen as one of the few free and fair elections held in the state, has changed things for the better. Respondents in both the cities, more in Srinagar than in Jammu, said that the overall situation in the state has improved in the last five years. Besides, the state government is not without popular support. The people are not very unhappy with the Ghulam Nabi Azad government, though the Valley would prefer the Mufti government over the current one. As any observer of the state would know, these are no mean achievements. Equally significantly, the two major regions of the state are not poles apart in their thinking on many key questions, despite stark differences in their population profile. Of course, their differences on the question of Azadi spill over to their assessment of the Indian security forces. While people in Jammu back the unrestricted powers to security forces and would like its misuse to be curbed, people in Srinagar are one in their rejection of the powers enjoyed by the security forces. Apart from this crucial difference, there is a lot that binds the people of Jammu and Kashmir together: Both the cities are unanimous in their rejection of the RSS-backed proposal for trifurcation of the state; The Muslims of Srinagar are as vocal in supporting the demand for bringing the Pandits back to the Valley as the Hindus in Jammu; Both the regions are overwhelmingly in support of retaining Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir; A majority of the people from Jammu also agree that the struggle of the Kashmiri people is against the government, not the people of India; and, There is much higher willingness in Jammu to endorse a dialogue with Hurriyat than used to be the case. This kind of public mood may not be the dream scenario hoped for by pacifists and democrats within and outside Kashmir Valley. But this is far from the nightmare that many had feared all along. This is much more than the minimum that a visionary statesman, or stateswoman, would need to start a historic initiative to bring lasting peace and democracy in this part of the world.


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